Jacob the Conqueror of Shechem
Jacob’s Gift to Joseph
Realizing that he is on the verge of death, Jacob offers some final words to Joseph:
בראשית מח:כב וַאֲנִ֞י נָתַ֧תִּֽי לְךָ֛ שְׁכֶ֥ם אַחַ֖ד עַל־אַחֶ֑יךָ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לָקַ֙חְתִּי֙ מִיַּ֣ד הָֽאֱמֹרִ֔י בְּחַרְבִּ֖י וּבְקַשְׁתִּֽי:
Gen 48:22 And now, I assign to you one shechem more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow.
Two main problems riddle this text: What does the phrase “one shechem” mean, and to what does Jacob refer when he says he took it with his sword and bow? Ephraim Speiser believed the problems to be “insurmountable,” but commentators, traditional and modern, have tried various approaches to explain the text.
“One Shechem (שכם אחד)”
The word “shechem” typically means “shoulder,” but can be used more broadly to mean “portion.” Is this what Jacob means? If so, why does he use such an unusual word? Alternatively, could he mean the city of Shechem, located approximately forty miles north of Jerusalem? If so, then the phrasing is awkward and not grammatical. Why not just say, “I am giving you the city of Shechem (נתתי לך עיר שכם)”?
Here are some solutions commentators have offered:
Birthright – Jacob is declaring Joseph to be his official בכור (firstborn) and thus, he will inherit a double portion as a firstborn should (Deut 21:18). Jacob accomplishes this by adopting Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons (Gen 48:5), effectively giving Joseph two times the inheritance of his brothers through his sons (b. Bava Batra 123a, Midrash Aggada [Buber ed.], Rashbam, Ramban, Baal HaTurim).This verse may even be the inspiration for the explicit claim in 1 Chronicles 5:1 that Joseph was given the birthright in place of Reuven.
Piece of Land – Jacob is granting Joseph an extra portion of land. This is similar to the previous interpretation, but it understands the word shechem to refer to the “portion” of land and not the “portion” of inheritance (Onkelos, ibn Ezra, Radak, Bechor Shor, Shadal, Claus Westermann).
The Coat – One particularly surprising interpretation is that Jacob is referring to the coat he gave Joseph. This seems to come from a play off of the Aramaic root ח-ל-ק, which can mean “portion” (חֲלוּקָה) but also “coat” (חָלוּק). This coat, which according to the midrash, was originally sown by God for Adam, was then worn by Nimrod, and then Esau and finally taken by Jacob (Targum Yerushalmi, R. Chaim Paltiel).
The City of Shechem – Jacob was offering Joseph the city of Shechem itself. Admittedly, the syntax of the verse is difficult—what is “one Shechem”? Was there more than one city of that name? Nevertheless, the tradition recorded at the end of Joshua (24:32) that Joseph is buried in Shechem may support this interpretation (Midrash Lekach Tov, Midrash Sekhel Tov,Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Rashi).
The most likely explanation combines the second and the fourth, with Jacob offering a kind of pun or play on words. Jacob will give Joseph a second “portion (שכם)” of land beyond that of his brothers, which turns out to be Shechem itself. Perhaps the desire to use the word-play is responsible for the awkwardness of the verse. This tradition, however, conflicts with the Dinah story in Genesis 34.
“My Sword and Bow”
Jacob claims to have taken this land by force of arms. But when did Jacob do this? In fact, Genesis 34 implies the opposite; Jacob states explicitly to his sons that he is afraid that their provocation—not his—will cause the locals (Canaanites and Perizites, not Amorites) to slaughter him and his family entirely!
Here too, a number of solutions have been offered.
Jacob is referring to his descendants and predicting the future – The claim here is that the verb לקחתי, although in the perfect form (“I have taken”), really expresses a future meaning, “I will take.” Moreover, the “I” is not Jacob but his descendants, the generation of Joshua and the conquest (ibn Ezra, Radak, Chizkuni, Shadal).
Jacob’s prayers conquered the land – This approach interprets the words בחרבי ובקשתי metaphorically, as “with my prayers and supplications.” The midrash treats the enclitic particle ב, meaning “with,” as part of the root, yielding the word בקשה, entreaty (b. Bava Batra 123a, Onkelos [some versions], R. Chaim Paltiel).
Jacob was ultimately responsible for the future conquest – This interpretation is similar to the prayer interpretation in that it gives Jacob an active role, though one short of actual conquest. It differs in that it still interprets the words “with my sword and bow” in their literal sense. This interpretation takes two forms:
- Jacob’s merit is why his descendants are given the land (Ramban, 1st answer).
- Jacob performed a ritual act in which he threw arrows towards the land in order to possess it by magic, which eventually comes true when the Israelites conquer the land hundreds of years later (Ramban 2nd answer).
Jacob conquered land – Jacob means what he says; he refers here to a time when he conquered land militarily, but that story is not recorded in the Torah (Bechor Shor).
If we ignore Genesis 34, this is the most satisfactory answer.
אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו – Jacob Conquered Shechem
In his interpretation of this passage, R. Joseph Bechor Shor states:
אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, כי בודאי במלחמה לקחו, אבל לא נודע היכן.
A verse cannot be interpreted outside its simple meaning, for certainly he took [the land] in a war, but we don’t know the circumstances.
Following Bechor Shor’s lead, at face value Jacob is saying that he is giving Joseph the city of Shechem as an extra portion (shechem) beyond what his brothers are getting, and that Jacob himself conquered this area with his own weapons/army. He thus suggests that the narrative of the conquest of Shechem no longer exists in the Torah. But, as noted, the Bechor Shor avoids the conflict with Genesis 34: How can Jacob make this claim when, in fact, he was entirely against the conquest of Shechem and told off his sons, Simeon and Levi, in no uncertain terms, that what they did was wrong-headed and dangerous?!
Midrashic Version – Jacob Participated Passively in the Conquest
One rabbinic interpretation, taking the אין מקרא יוצא ידי פשוטו principle seriously, creates a midrashic retelling of the conquest of Shechem story (Genesis Rabbah, ed. Theodor-Albeck, va-Yishlach, 90):
ויבאו על העיר בטח – שמואל שאל ללוי בן סיסי, אמר ליה: “מהו ‘ויבאו על העיר בטח’?” אמר לו: “בטוחים על כוח הזקן.” ולא היה אבינו יעקב רוצה שיעשו בניו כך, וכיון שעשוהו אמר מה אניח בניי ליפול ביד אומות העולם, מה עשה, נטל חרבו וקשתו ועמד על פתח שכם, אמר: ‘אם יבואו אומות העולם להזדווג להם אני נלחם כנגדן.’ הוא דהוא אמר ליוסף: “אשר לקחתי מיד האמרי בחרבי ובקשתי.” [ואיכן מצינו שנטל אבינו יעקב חרבו וקשתו בשכם?]
“And they came to the city securely” (Gen 34:25) – Samuel asked Levi ben Sisi [about this verse]. He said to him: “What does it mean ‘they came to the city securely’?” He said to him: “Secure in the power of the old man. Our father Jacob did not want them to do this (i.e. massacre Shechem), but once they did it, he said: ‘Can I let my sons fall to the nations of the world?’ What did he do? He took his sword and his bow and stood by the entrance of Shechem. He said: ‘If the nations come to join the [Shechemites] I will fight against them.’ This is what he meant when he said to Joseph: ‘Which I took from the Amorite with my sword and my bow.’ For where have we seen that our father Jacob took a sword and a bow against Shechem?”
The midrash harmonizes the claim of Jacob to Joseph with the Dinah story recorded in Gen. 34 by claiming that he functioned as a kind of rear-guard during the battle. Certainly, this midrashic tradition is fanciful, but might it be in line with an earlier tradition that Jacob was a warrior?
Modern Interpretation: A Reference to a Lost Conquest Tradition
Modern scholarship has struggled with the interpretation of Gen 48:22. Along the lines of Bechor Shor, Erhard Blum and Nahum Sarna both suggested that the verse reflects a tradition not preserved in the biblical corpus about Jacob making war on Shechem.
Years earlier, John Skinner offered a more radical hypothesis:
“The verse… seems to carry us back to a phase of the national tradition which ignored the sojourn in Egypt, and represented Jacob as a warlike hero who had effected permanent conquests in Palestine, and died there after dividing the land amongst his children.”
Skinner’s hypothesis was bold for his day, but it finds resonance in current, mostly European, models of Pentateuchal studies that reckon with a fundamental distinction between the Patriarchal and the Exodus traditions.
An Independent Patriarch Tradition
Scholars have recognized that the patriarchal tradition and the exodus tradition are connected secondarily, and that they probably reflect independent accounts of the origins of Israel. In one version, God chooses a particular person or family, brings them to Canaan and promises that their descendants will eventually inherit the land. In the other version, God chooses a people in bondage, frees them, and brings them to the land.
For a long time it was assumed—and is still assumed by defenders of the traditional Documentary Hypothesis—that these two traditions were connected early in Israel’s history, before any of the Pentateuchal sources were written down. In recent years, however, a number of European scholars have argued that, in fact, the two traditions coalesced separately even in writing, and that the combination of the proto-book of Genesis with the (proto-)Exodus-Deuteronomy occurred very late, even after the Priestly redaction, making incorporation of the Genesis stories into the Pentateuch one of the last steps towards creating the overall structure of the Torah as it is known today. In other words, these scholars believe that the Patriarchal accounts circulated separately as an independent written work (a proto-Genesis), not just as oral traditions. They further posit that the Joseph story was reworked in order to create a bridge between the otherwise unrelated books of Genesis and Exodus.
Peaceful Patriarchs Versus Tribal Leaders
Skinner’s insights about a Jacob conquest tradition imply that the process of coalescing the patriarchal tradition and combining it with the exodus and conquest traditions has an added layer of complexity. As we have it, most of Genesis is peaceful. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob wander the land of Canaan, speak with the locals, and make treaties. They very rarely fight. This makes sense since, as they are now presented, the Patriarchs are “family men,” with slaves and other holdings to be sure, but essentially, they are on their own with their wives and children. Such people cannot go to war with other polities since they don’t have armies or a large enough following.
Nevertheless, we do see some hints in the biblical text, like our story, which imply that behind the account of friendly semi-nomad family guys once stood accounts of ancient leaders of Israel, akin to the heroes in the book of Judges. One such story is the account in Genesis 14 of Abraham going to war with four powerful kings and marshaling an army of 314 soldiers.This sounds more like a tribal leader than a lone man with some slaves and sheep. Moreover, the persistent theme through the Genesis stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob making treaties with the local powers, whether it be about the use of wells or just peace and trade, sounds strange when imagining a nuclear family, but makes good sense when imagining a tribal unit.
Noting these dissonances, it seems reasonable to suggest that the authors of Genesis worked hard to recast these ancient tribal leaders into patriarchs, and to erase most traces of military spirit from its account, creating the relatively passive and peaceful character of that book.
Jacob the Leader of the Israelites in the Dinah Story
Skinner’s suggestion leads to a further intriguing possibility. Perhaps the passage in question is not merely an alternative story of the conquest of Shechem but may reflect an older version of the Dinah story, which has been heavily reworked and revised to form Genesis 34. We may even be able to see elements of the older Jacob tradition in the Dinah story–elements which were not fully reworked. For example, the claim of the brothers in Gen 34:7:
וַיִּתְעַצְּבוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים וַיִּחַר לָהֶם מְאֹד כִּי נְבָלָה עָשָׂה בְיִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁכַּב אֶת בַּת יַעֲקֹב וְכֵן לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה.
And the men were perturbed, and became full of wrath, for a horror had been committed in Israel to sleep with the daughter of Jacob – and such is not done!
The reference to “in Israel” would fit a context of an Israelite people led by Jacob, as opposed to a family unit.
Similarly, in their speech to Hamor in Gen 34:16, the sons of Jacob claim that through marriage they and the Shechemites will become “one nation.” Hamor, in his speech, reiterates this to his own people. This claim would make much more sense if the party negotiating with Hamor were a larger group than just one family unit.
These examples bear witness to the existence of an older version of the conquest of Shechem story that portrayed Jacob as the conqueror. In this tradition, Jacob would have been the leader of a people as opposed to the father of a single family unit.
Conclusion: Suppressing Jacob the Conqueror
Why was the Jacob as conqueror tradition suppressed? Skinner’s insight may be decisive: As the patriarch cycle began to merge with the exodus tradition, it did not make sense to depict one of the patriarchs as conquering Canaanite territory before the return from Egypt. Wasn’t Abraham told during the covenant of the parts (Gen 15:13-16) that his descendants would take control of the land only in another 400 years? If Jacob were a conqueror then he would be acting too early and ignoring the explicit word of Yhwh to Abraham.
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December 22, 2015
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds 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).
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