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Zev Farber





Edomite Kings List: Is It Post-Mosaic?



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Zev Farber





Edomite Kings List: Is It Post-Mosaic?






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Edomite Kings List: Is It Post-Mosaic?

Genesis 36:31 introduces a list of kings who ruled “before a king ruled in Israel,” ostensibly a reference to Saul. Traditional commentators, committed to the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, have long struggled to reinterpret this phrase against its plain meaning, though some accepted its implications.


Edomite Kings List: Is It Post-Mosaic?

Edomite kings list, in the Almanzi Pentateuch (1450-1474), MS 27167, f.62v and f.63r. British Library

Genesis 36: Collection of Lists About Esau, Edom, and Seir

After reporting the death of Isaac and before beginning the Joseph cycle, the Torah includes a long excursus on the sons and clans of Esau and Seir. The chapter begins with an introductory statement that it will report on the generations of Esau, who is Edom (v. 1), then lists Esau’s wives (vv. 2–3) and sons (vv. 4–5). At that point, we are told why Esau moved away from Jacob and went to Seir.[1]

Giving a final description of the future of a scion of the Abrahamic family outside of the Israelite covenantal core is standard fare in Genesis; it gives the Israelite readers an account of the neighbors that they consider to be extended family, and at the same time shows the fulfillment of YHWH’s promise to Abraham that his progeny will all become nations.

Thus, we have such a section about the sons of Nahor, Abraham’s brother (Gen 22:20–24),[2] about the sons of Abraham’s other wife Keturah (Gen 25:1–4), and about the sons of Isaac’s brother Ishmael (Gen 25:12–18). In each of these cases, we have only one list, and thus, it is surprising that we encounter, after what seems like a summary verse (Gen 36:8), that the text continues for another 35 verses with various lists describing Esau’s extended family:

  • Esau’s Sons, version 2 (vv. 9–14)
  • Esau’s Clans (vv. 15–19)
  • Seir the Hurrian’s Sons (vv. 20–28)[3]
  • Seir the Hurrian’s Clans (vv. 29–30)
    • Edomite Kings List (vv. 31–39)
  • Esau’s Clans, version 2 (vv. 40–43)

Whoever added these addenda to chapter 36 made no attempt to adjust his sources, as is clear from the fact that he includes a second list of Esau’s sons and two contradictory versions of Esau’s clans. One element that stands out in this chapter as different from the other lists is that of the Edomite kings.

Before King Saul?

Not only is a list of foreign kings unique in the Bible, but the opening of the passage gives us a rare terminus post quem for the composition of the unit:

בראשית לו:לא וְאֵלֶּה הַמְּלָכִים אֲשֶׁר מָלְכוּ בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם לִפְנֵי מְלָךְ מֶלֶךְ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Gen 36:31 These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites.

By introducing the list with this verse, the editor is ostensibly telling us that he lived at a time when there was already a king in Israel. According to the book of Samuel, the first king of Israel was Saul son of Kish, who was appointed by the prophet Samuel. Thus, the earliest time such a list could have been written, or at least introduced the way it is, would be during Saul’s reign, though of course it could be later.

For critical Bible scholars, this reference to the monarchy does not pose any problem. Most scholars would date the text of Genesis to well after the time of Saul, but at the very least, nothing would necessitate dating it earlier. For traditional scholars, however, this was a serious problem, as tradition credits Moses with authorship of the Pentateuch.[4] Thus, some commentators tried to read the text against the grain.

King Moses

One interpretation that was popular among medieval peshat commentators was that the king of Israel refers to Moses. Thus, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, 1085–1158) writes:

לפני מלך מלך—לפני משה שהושיע את ישראל. כל שרי עם ועם קורא מלך.
“Before a king ruled”—Before Moses who redeemed Israel. Any nation’s leader is called a king.[5]

This is also the view espoused by Rashbam’s contemporary, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167):

והאמת שפירוש לפני מלך מלך על משה מלך ישראל, וכן כתוב ויהי בישורון מלך (דבר' לג, ה).
The truth is that the meaning of “before any king reigned over the Israelites” is a reference to Moses, King of Israel. And thus [the Torah] states (Deut. 33:5): “There was a king in Jeshurun.”[6]

Ibn Ezra supports this reading with a prooftext from the opening of Moses’ final prayer:

דברים לג:ה וַיְהִי בִישֻׁרוּן מֶלֶךְ בְּהִתְאַסֵּף רָאשֵׁי עָם יַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 33:5 There became a king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people assembled, the tribes of Israel together.

Ibn Ezra’s prooftext here follows the rabbinic reading of the verse (Midrash Tannaim, ad loc.):

ד[בר] א[חר]: "ויהי ביש[ורון] מלך"—זה משה רבינו.
Another matter: “There was a king in Jeshurun”—this is our teacher Moses.[7]

This prooftext is not convincing, however, since Deuteronomy 33:5 likely refers to the kingship of God.[8]

Before Israel Ever Had a King

A slightly different explanation was suggested by the early modern peshat commentator, Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865), who cites it in the name of a number of Christian commentators:

ואלה המלכים וגו׳ – הכוונה קודם זמנו של משה, ואעפ״י שבימיו עדיין לא מָלַך מלך לבני ישראל אין זה כלום, כי הוא כאומר כל המלכים האלה מלכו באדום ועדיין לא היה מלך לישראל. כן דעת C. B. Michaelis {מיכעליס} ובנו וראז'.
“These are the kings”—the reference here is to before the time of Moses. Even though in his time no king had yet reigned in Israel, this is not a problem, because the verse is essentially saying that all these kings ruled in Edom before Israel ever had a king, and [in Moses’ time] they still didn’t have one.[9] This is the opinion of C[hristian] B[enedict] Michäelis, his son [Johann David Michäelis], and [Ernst] Rosenmüller.[10]

This also seems to be the way R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843–1921) reads the verse (ad loc.). According to this reading, the passage is not claiming knowledge that Israel had a king, only that when it was written, the Edomites had had eight kings and the Israelites had had no kings.


An alternative approach is to assume that the verse is referring to Saul as the first king, and that Moses wrote this passage based on prophetic revelation. R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.), for instance, suggests this answer as a possible alternative to the standard “King Moses” approach:

אלה המלכים—שמא משה יחסם עד לו, ואם קדם הבאים אחריו עד שאול מלך ישראל. ואיכא למימר משה כתבם בנבואה.
“These are the kings”—perhaps Moses is counting [these kings] up to his own time (i.e., that Moses is the king), but if he is introducing [kings] who ruled after him, then it means up until the time of Saul. [To defend this approach] one could suggest that Moses wrote about them with prophecy.

Ibn Ezra too, mentions this possibility:

"ואלה המלכים"—י[ש] א[ומרים] כי בדרך נבואה נכתבה זאת הפרשה.
“These are the kings”—there are those who say that this section was written with prophecy.

Joseph ben Eliezer (Tuv Elem) Bonfils (14th cent.), in his supercommentary on ibn Ezra called Tzafnat Paʿaneach, explains ibn Ezra’s intent:

פירוש: בעבור כי כתוב בה "לפני מלך מלך לבני ישראל," והם סוברים כי הראשון שמלך על ישראל הוא שאול, ולא יכול משה לדעת מה שהיה עתיד להיות עד ימי שאול כי אם בנבואה.
The meaning: Since it says “before any king reigned over the Israelites,” and these [commentators] believe the first person to reign as king of Israel was Saul, and Moses could only have known what would occur (i.e. who would rule over Edom) until the reign of Saul by way of prophecy.[11]

Edomite Kings in the Time of the Judges (Genesis Rabbah)

Although never explaining how the text would have known about these kings, the mid-first millennium C.E. midrash collection, Genesis Rabbah (83:10), assumes that the list discusses kings who ruled before Saul (not before Moses) in the time of the judges:

ר' יוסי בר חנינא בשעה שזה מעמיד מלכים זה מעמיד שופטים, ובשעה שזה מעמיד אלופים זה מעמיד נשיאים,
Yossi bar Ḥanina [said]: “When this one (Edom) has kings this one (Israel) has judges, and when this one has generals this one has leaders.”
ר' יהושע בן לוי אמר זה העמיד שמונה וזה העמיד שמונה, זה העמיד ח', בלע יובב חשם הדד שמלה שאול בעל חנן הדר, וזה העמיד ח', שאול ואיש בושת דוד שלמה רחבעם אביה אסא יהושפט...
Joshua ben Levi said: “This one had eight [kings] and this one had eight. This one had eight: Bela, Yobab, Husham, Hadad, Simlah, Saul, Ba’al Hanan, Hadar. This one had eight: Saul, Ish-Boshet, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abiyah, Asa, Jehoshaphat…”

According to this, the first eight kings of Israel/Judah follow on the heels of these Edomite kings, who ruled Edom during the time of the judges. Moreover, these eight Israelite/Judahite kings also rule over Edom. While the Bible never says that Saul conquered Edom, only that he fought them (1 Sam 14:47), the claim is made about David:

שמואל ב ח:יד וַיָּשֶׂם בֶּאֱדוֹם נְצִבִים בְּכָל אֱדוֹם שָׂם נְצִבִים וַיְהִי כָל אֱדוֹם עֲבָדִים לְדָוִד.
2 Sam 8:14 He stationed garrisons in Edom—he stationed garrisons in all of Edom—and all the Edomites became vassals of David.

The Bible also states explicitly that during Jehoshaphat’s reign:

מלכים ב כב:מח וּמֶלֶךְ אֵין בֶּאֱדוֹם נִצָּב מֶלֶךְ.
2 Kings 22:48 There was no king in Edom; a viceroy acted as king.

Judahite rule over Edom ends in the time of Jehoshaphat’s successor Joram:

מלכים ב ח:כ בְּיָמָיו פָּשַׁע אֱדוֹם מִתַּחַת יַד יְהוּדָה וַיַּמְלִכוּ עֲלֵיהֶם מֶלֶךְ.
2 Kings 8:20 During his [Joram’s] reign, the Edomites rebelled against Judah’s rule and set up a king of their own.

Thus, these rabbis are comfortable suggesting that the passage is aware of events which occurred as late as the rule of Jehoshaphat and his successor Joram. Perhaps these rabbis would have agreed with ibn Ezra’s suggestion about the passage being a result of Moses’ prophetic ability, though they do not make this explicit, leaving the door open to other possible interpretations.

While all of the approaches surveyed thus far argue for Mosaic authorship of the Edomite Kings List—except, perhaps, Genesis Rabbah, which is ambiguous on the question—some traditional scholars were willing to accept the simple implication of the text, that it was written during or after the time of Saul.

Written in the Time of King Jehoshaphat (Yitzḥaqi)

One little-known medieval sage who made a splash by suggesting late authorship of this passage is someone known to us from ibn Ezra’s commentary as Yitzḥaqi. It is unclear whether Yitzḥaqi is the person’s name, the name of the commentary, or perhaps just an unfriendly nickname coined by ibn Ezra himself.

No scholarly consensus exists as to whom ibn Ezra refers here; some scholars suggest he means the grammarian, R. Isaac ibn Yashush (982–1056)[12] while others have suggested that he means the philosopher, R. Isaac Israeli (ca. 855–955).[13] As no work from either sage is extant that expresses the viewpoint ibn Ezra quotes in Yitzḥaqi’s name, these are just educated guesses.

As we know of Yitzḥaqi’s view only through ibn Ezra’s polemical presentation, it is difficult to reconstruct his reasoning or argument exactly, but we can infer the gist of his approach from ibn Ezra’s response:

ויצחקי אמר בספרו, כי בימי יהושפט נכתבה זאת הפרשה, ופירש הדורות כרצונו.
Yitzḥaqi said in his book that this section was written during the time of Jehoshaphat, and he proceeded to interpret the generations as he saw fit.

Ibn Ezra then playfully invokes Gen 21:6—in which Sarah, reflecting on the miraculous birth of Isaac in her old age, says כָּל הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצְחַק לִי, “everyone who hears will laugh with me”—to mock Yitzḥaqi’s view:

הכי קרא שמו יצחק, כל השומע יצחק לו, כי אמר כי הדד הוא הדד האדומי, ואמר כי מהיטבאל אחות תחפנ(ח)ס. וחלילה חלילה שהדבר כמו שדבר על ימי יהושפט, וספרו ראוי להשרף.
This is why his name is Yitzḥaq (Isaac), for anyone who hears him will laugh at him. For he said that Hadad (v. 35) is Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:14), and that Mehetabel is the sister of Tahpenes[14] (1 Kings 11:19–20). God forbid that the matter would be as he suggested about the time of Jehoshaphat. His book is fit for burning.

From ibn Ezra’s paraphrase and critique, we can deduce that Yitzḥaqi believed the text was written in the 9th century B.C.E., during the reign of the Judahite King Jehoshaphat.

At first, it would seem strange for him to pick Jehoshaphat’s reign instead of Saul’s or David’s. Yitzḥaqi’s choice to move past the time of Saul is motivated by some names in the Edomite King’s List that overlap with names in biblical texts from the period of the early monarchy, as Bonfils explains (ad loc.):

"כי אמר הדד הוא הדד האדומי"—פירוש: שהיה שטן לשלמה, כדכתיב במלכים (א יא,יד)….
“For he said that Hadad is Hadad the Edomite”—the meaning: The one who was the enemy of Solomon, as is written in Kings (1 Kings 11:14)….[15]
"ואמר כי מהיטבאל אחות תחפנ(ח)ס"—פירוש: כן היתה נקראת אשת הדד האדומי, ותחפנ(ח)ס אשת פרעה מלך מצרים שהיה חותנו של שלמה, ומהיטבאל היתה אחותה, והוא סובר כי אותה הכתובה בזאת הפרשה, כי בימי יהושפט נכתבה בכאן.
“And he said that Mehetabel is the sister of Tahpenes”—the meaning: That (=Mehetabel) was the name of Hadad the Edomite’s wife. Tahpenes was the wife of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who was Solomon’s father-in-law, and Mehetabel was her sister. [Yitzḥaqi] believes that this is the person referred to in this parashah. Thus, that which was written here must have been written in the time of Jehoshaphat.

Bonfils’ last point doesn’t really work, since the characters he refers to are from the time of Solomon, not his descendent Jehoshaphat, and it remains unclear why Yitzḥaqi pushed the dating of the text that much later. It seems likely that Yitzḥaqi was influenced by the text in Genesis Rabbah, even if the point and dating there are a bit different, as it is too coincidental that both Yitzḥaqi and Genesis Rabbah would invoke the time of Jehoshaphat of all people.[16]

In any event, once Yitzḥaqi was convinced that the text was post-Mosaic, he felt no need to have it authored during the time of Saul—the earliest possible time it could have been written. Instead, he looked for evidence about the kings mentioned in Genesis 36 in other biblical texts and used these to deduce when the text must have been written.

Yitzḥaqi’s approach, however, generates a problem of its own: How can the text claim to be about kings that ruled before any king ruled in Israel and still include names of kings who ruled after Saul? Perhaps Yitzḥaqi understood the phrase to mean a list of kings who ruled in Edom beginning with Edomite kings who ruled before any king ruled in Israel but continuing even after this, to include Edomite kings who ruled at the same time as Israelite and Judahite kings.[17]

Ibn Ezra makes it clear that this interpretation is so problematic that Yitzḥaqi’s book should be burned. Why ibn Ezra was so bothered by this, considering the fact that he elsewhere suggests that certain passages are post-Mosaic, is hard to know.[18]

Bonfils suggests that ibn Ezra was bothered by the idea that an entire passage was added to the Torah:

"וספרו ראוי להשרף"—פירוש, לפי דעתי אמר ככה בעבור כי אם נכתבה בימי יהושפט הנה הוספו על התורה פרשה שלימה, והתורה אמרה "לא תוסיף עליו (דברים ד,ב).
“His book is fit for burning” —the meaning: In my opinion, he said this because if it had been written in the days of Jehoshaphat, that means that an entire parashah was added to the Torah. But the Torah warns not to add to it (Deut 4:2).
ואם יטעון טוען, "הלא ר' אברהם בעצמו רמז בתחלת ספר אלה הדברים (א,ב) שהוסיפו הנביאים האחרונים מלות גם פסוקים בתורה!" התשובה: כי המוסיף מלה או פסוק לפרש מה שכתב משה, להוסיף בו ביאור, אין זה דומה למוסיף פרשה שלימה, כי מלה או פסוק הוא פירוש, אבל פרשה שלמה היא תוספת.
Now if someone were to argue, “But did Rabbi Abraham [ibn Ezra] himself hint towards the beginning of Deuteronomy (1:2) that later prophets added phrases, even verses into the Torah?!” The answer: Adding a phrase or a verse to explain that which Moses said, or to add a clarification is not the same as adding an entire parashah. A phrase or a verse is an explanation, but an entire parashah is an addition.[19]

In other words, even though he (ibn Ezra) felt that small glosses, such as וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי אָז בָּאָרֶץ “the Canaanites were then in the land” (Gen 12:6), were added, the addition of an entire passage would be problematic.[20]

Another, admittedly cynical, possibility is that ibn Ezra was not bothered by the suggestion per se but by the fact that Yitzḥaqi made it explicitly, whereas ibn Ezra made his suggestions about additions to the Torah text using coded language.

After Solomon (R. Yehudah HeChasid)

Yehudah HeChasid (Judah the Pious, d. 1217) also suggested that this passage was written after the time of Moses; his opinion is noted in the commentary on Torah that his son, R. Moshe Zaltman, wrote down on his behalf. The suggestion appears not in his gloss on this chapter but in Deuteronomy, on a verse describing how the Israelites left the Edomite territory:

דברים ב:ח וַנַּעֲבֹר מֵאֵת אַחֵינוּ בְנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר מִדֶּרֶךְ הָעֲרָבָה מֵאֵילַת וּמֵעֶצְיֹן גָּבֶר וַנֵּפֶן וַנַּעֲבֹר דֶּרֶךְ מִדְבַּר מוֹאָב.
Deut 2:8 We then moved on, away from our kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, away from the road of the Arabah, away from Elath and Ezion-geber; and we marched on in the direction of the wilderness of Moab.

Yehudah HeChasid is bothered by the implication that the Israelites had been in Edomite territory:

מאילת ומעציון גבר – וא[ם] ת[אמר] היאך באו לעציון גבר כמו שאומ' באלה מסעי ויסעו מעציון גבר, והלא של אדום היה כדאמ' בדברי הימים, ואז הלך שלמה לעציון גבר על שפת הים בארץ אדום.
“From Eilat and Etzion-geber” – If you should ask, how could they have gone into Etzion-geber, as it says in [Parashat] Massai, “And they went from Etzion-geber”—for was this not Edomite territory, as it says in Chronicles, “And then Solomon went to Etzion-geber on the sea shore in the land of Edom”?!

Though he does not say it explicitly, the motivation for his gloss is Numbers 21:14–21, which says that the Israelites did not pass through Edomite territory since the Edomites refused them entry. From a source-critical perspective, this is not a problem, since Deuteronomy and Numbers disagree on this point,[21] as is explicit in this entire passage (Deuteronomy 2:3–9). In fact, it is surprising that R. Yehudah HeChasid makes no mention of this.

In any event, R. Yehudah HeChasid was not a source critic, and he, therefore, looks for an argument that makes the two texts cohere. Thus, he argues that during the time of Moses, Etzion-geber was not yet Edomite territory:

ואומר אבי שעציון גבר לא היה של אדום כ[י] א[ם] מלך אד[ו]ם נשא מהטבאל בת מטרד והיא הכניסה לו את עציון גבר, שמתוכ[ה] היו מביאין הזהב מן מלכות {אופיר} שהוא נמצא כמו מרשיילא או פנדייא שעוברים דרך שם לעכבו, כך לא היו יכולין לילך אחר הזהב אם לא היו באין לעציון גבר מתחילה, זהו בת מי זהב, שהכניסה לו עיר שממנה הולכין בים עד הזהב.
My father (=R. Yehudah HeChasid) says that Etzion-geber was not Edomite [in this period], but rather the king of Edom married Mahetbael daughter of Matred, and she brought with her the territory of Etzion-geber, from which gold would be brought from the kingdom {of Ophir}, for it is situated like Marseilles or Pandaya[22] such that people must pass through there to stop in, so that they could not get to the gold if they did not stop first in Etzion-geber. This is why she is called “the daughter of Golden Waters” for she brought with her a city from which people sail in the water for gold.

This answer is based on R. Yehudah HeChasid’s homiletic reading of the problematic final verse of the Edomite king list in Genesis 36:

בראשית לו:לט וַיָּמָת בַּעַל חָנָן בֶּן עַכְבּוֹר וַיִּמְלֹךְ תַּחְתָּיו הֲדַר וְשֵׁם עִירוֹ פָּעוּ וְשֵׁם אִשְׁתּוֹ מְהֵיטַבְאֵל בַּת מַטְרֵד בַּת מֵי זָהָב.
Gen 36:39 And when Baal-hanan son of Achbor died, Hadar succeeded him as king; the name of his city was Pau, and his wife’s name was Mehetabel daughter of Matred daughter of Me-zahab (“the golden waters”).

Yehudah HeChasid’s interpretation of Mehetabel’s marriage to Hadar as the time when Edom took control over Etzion-geber requires him to explain how it is that a text in the Torah can reference the Edomite acquisition of Etzion-geber, which occurred after the time of Moses:

וזהו לא נעשה עדיין בימי משה כי אם לפני מלוך מלך לבני ישר[אל]—פי[רוש] קודם שמלך שאול אחריכן, אבל בימי שלמה כבר נעשה. לכן כתבו בימי כנסת הגדולה בחומש שלא תתמה איך בא עציון גבר לאדום כמו שכתוב בדברי הימים.
But this had not yet happened in the days of Moses, but “before a king ruled in Israel”—meaning before King Saul ruled afterwards. But it had already happened during the days of Solomon. This is the reason the Men of the Great Assembly wrote this passage into the Pentateuch, so that you will not wonder how Etzion-geber became part of Edom, as recorded in Chronicles.

The “Men of the Great Assembly” refers to a group of sages that the rabbis describe as having been active in the Second Temple period and whom they credit with many important religious reforms. This group is likely not historical but is a way of explaining how changes from biblical practices came about. In this case, R. Yehudah HeChasid is crediting them with making adjustments to the biblical text itself.[23]

When Tradition and Critical Scholarship Meet

Thus, in a roundabout way, R. Yehudah HeChasid comes to the same overall conclusion as historical-critical scholarship. The kings list in Genesis 36 must have been written during the monarchic period or later, since it refers to matters from this period. For R. Yehudah HeChasid, the problematic reference is Edom’s acquisition of Etzion-geber between the time of Moses and Solomon, but for most critical scholars, the give-away is the reference to the first king of Israel, which is almost certainly an allusion to King Saul.


December 12, 2019


Last Updated

April 3, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).