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Shmuel Klitsner





Literary Parallels in Bereishit 34-38 and 1 Samuel



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Shmuel Klitsner





Literary Parallels in Bereishit 34-38 and 1 Samuel






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Literary Parallels in Bereishit 34-38 and 1 Samuel


Literary Parallels in Bereishit 34-38 and 1 Samuel

A unifying theme of Bereishit 34-38 is the disqualification or disenfranchisement of specific sons of Jacob (also tribes). The theme reaches its climax with the near disqualification of the errant Judah, until he dramatically pulls back from the brink of forfeiting his moral right to leadership together with forfeiting the symbols of leadership — the signet, the cord, and the staff.  Quite appropriately, these chapters are framed by the key word “zonah” (harlot).

In chapter 34, Shimon and Levi disqualify themselves as a result of their unscrupulous deception and collective punishment wreaked upon the people of Shechem. This certainly is their father Jacob’s view as expressed at the end of Bereishit. Perhaps the hallmark of their turpitude is the phrase “Va-Yabozu ” –they plundered (Gen. 34: 27,29). This is juxtaposed with Jacob’s inaction and reticence – “ve-Hecherish” – he remained silent (Gen. 34:5).

In chapter 35 (v. 22), Jacob’s first-born, Reuven, disqualified himself by bedding his father’s concubine. This disqualification too, despite Jacob’s initial silence (a consistent mode of non-response) is borne out by the father’s curse of Reuven at the end of Genesis (49:3-4).

Chapter 36, an odd intrusion into the trajectory of the stories by all accounts, recounts the birth of the twelve “tribes” of Jacob’s brother Esau –arguably in order to remove them as a separate communal entity –not in competition for the legacy of Abraham or for the leadership of the nascent Israelite nation.

Chapter 37 records the casting off of Joseph, the first born of Rachel, after the previous chapters had written off the first three sons of Leah. Thus, the stage is set for Leah’s fourth born Judah and his near disqualification as well as his rehabilitation –in Chapter 38.

The Rise of Saul and the Rise of Judah: Parallel Accounts

A most extensive parallel to these chapters which supports the trajectory described above is found in the book of Samuel.[1]The foundations of the parallel begin with the following:

The end of 1 Samuel ch. 10 describes the exception to the adoration of the newly crowned Saul on the part of the Israelites. Some scoundrels scorn him (va’yibzuhu”) saying, “How could this one save us?” The chapter ends with the fact that these scoundrels brought Saul no offering and that nonetheless “va’yehi k’macharish” – variously translated as “he (Saul) held his peace” or “he was as one who remains silent.”[2]

The parallel juxtapositions of the verbs ch-r-sh and b—z  in Gen. 34 and in 1 Samuel 10 is striking.[3] Although this juxtaposition seems at first glance rather tenuous, as it is separated by several verses and is based on a conflation of similar verb roots, a further look at the text of Genesis 34 reveals a close and unique literary relationship with the story of 1 Samuel chapters 9-11.

Humiliation and Mutilation in Genesis and Samuel

The most glaring and idiosyncratic similarity appears in the words used by Nachash the Ammonite king in his threat against the people of Yabesh Gilead in 1Sam. 11:2 that immediately follows the verse that juxtaposes b-z and macharish:

With this I will make covenant with you, with your gouging out every right eye, and I will have placed a humiliation on all of Israel.[4]

In the Dina story of Genesis 34 verses 14 and 15, the sons of Jacob speak to the rapist Shechem and to his father Chamor with guile explaining that they cannot give their sister “to a man with a foreskin for it is a humiliation for us. Rather with this we will agree with youif you will be like us – with your circumcising every male.”[5]

The syntax and language of b’zot…lachem…lachem (with this…with your… your) is unique in the Hebrew Bible to these two passages. Combine this similarity with the shared use of the word humiliation (חרפה) in the context of a negotiation of social or political covenant wherein one side demands of the other an act of self- mutilation. The result of the comparison leaves little room to doubt that one passage is employing conscious imitation of the language of the other. The convincing nature of the exclusive literary relationship between the two passages boosts the likelihood that the further appearance of a juxtaposition of b-z vs. ch-r-sh (scorn or despoiling vs. remaining silent or holding one’s peace) in both passages is both authentic and part of the overall inter-textual link between the two.

The Story of Shekhem (Gen. 34) and that of Mi-Shikhmo Va-Ma’alah

Gen. 34 contains further instances of rare language and theme that are echoed in the story of the initiation of monarchy and Saul’s rise to kingship. In the story of Dinah, the rapist’s name is Shekhem son of Chamor (translating the names to their original meaning yields – shoulder son of ass). When we first meet Saul in 1 Samuel chapter 9 verses 1-3, he is introduced as taller than any of the people “by the shoulders and up” – mi-shikhmo va-ma’alah. Then he is immediately described as having been assigned to look for his father’s missing she-assesatonot.[6]

The Shekhem of Gen. 34 is also described as “the most respected (nikhbad mi-kol) of all his brethren. This is the only appearance of the word nikhbad in the Torah describing an individual person. In the story of Saul’s unanticipated journey toward his own coronation in 1 Samuel 9, wherein he goes out in search of she-asses for his father but comes back with kingship, Saul is about to give up the search. His assistant (the lad –na’ar) – more tenacious than Saul himself – insists they seek the help of the nearby prophet –describing him to Saul as “nikhbad – kol asher yedabber bo yavo”- “a man respected – all that he declares will come to be.”[7] As we shall see, this is part of a larger patterning of similar language and theme common to 1 Samuel 1-18 (especially 9-11) and Genesis 34-38.

Forced Circumcision of Locals in Genesis and Samuel

The entire eighteenth chapter of 1Samuel (describing Saul’s treachery regarding David) is patterned in language and, more remarkably, theme after the story of Dinah and Shekhem.[8] Both stories involve a plan by prospective in-laws to murder their daughter’s (or sister’s) intended by a ruse that involves a falsely contrived plan involving foreskins. Dinah’s brothers condition the marriage of Dinah to Shekhem on the removal of his foreskin (and that of his entire clan) through circumcision, only to weaken them in preparation for their murder.

Saul conditions the marriage of his daughter Michal to David on the mission of slaying one hundred Philistines and bringing their foreskins to Saul (1 Sam. 18:25). The fact that David succeeds (bringing 200 foreskins according to the MT) does not obscure the explicit verse (ibid) in which the narrator lets the reader (but not David) know that this mission is only a way of Saul ridding himself of his young rival and having the Philistines take the blame for the demise of the popular hero David. (Saul’s plan backfires.)

What is the deeper connection between the story of Saul and the story of Genesis 34 that results in the various inter-textual links between the two?

A Wider Frame of Comparison

Extending the comparison of 1 Samuel 9-11 to the next chapter in Genesis, several remarkable parallels come into view. Saul is introduced as from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Sam. 9:1). Genesis 35 tells us of the birth of the original Benjamin.[9] In Gen. 35:11, Jacob is blessed with the prediction that “kings shall issue forth from your loins.” In 1 Samuel 9-11, Saul becomes Israel’s first king. In 1 Samuel 10:2-3, Saul makes three stops on his return from his private coronation by Samuel, the burial place of Rachel, Alon Tabor, and Beth El. Not coincidentally, these correspond to the three stops Jacob makes (again, in Gen. Chapter 35- after the episode of Dinah in 34,) on his way back to Canaan from his exile with Laban –Alon Bechut (35:8), the burial place of Rachel (35:20), and Beth El (35:15).

Other language almost unique[10] to Genesis 35 and the first part of 1 Samuel includes the instruction “”הסירו את אלוהי הנכר (remove the foreign gods [from your midst]) that appears in Gen. 35:2 and in 1 Samuel 7:3. The consecration of Beth El in Genesis 35:14 involves a libation of oil “ויצק עליה שמן (and he poured oil on top of it.)”  The same act and the same words describe the consecration of Saul by Samuel in 1 Samuel 10:1 as Samuel takes oil and pours it on Saul’s head (ויקח… השמן ויצק עלראשו).

Three additional and striking parallels or inter-textual references come into view in further comparing these stories:

  1. Gen. 36:31 contains the famous anachronism of introducing a list of Edomite kings (descendants of Esau) as those who ruled “before a king reigned over Israel”. The most plain reading here would see this as a reference to Saul.[11]
  2. In Gen. 36:37, one from among this list of Edomite kings is identified as Saul[12] from Rehoboth on the river.
  3. As mentioned earlier, the story of Saul’s ascent to kingship (1Sam. 9-10) takes place on the unlikely background of Saul looking for the lost donkeys of his father. In fact, this ironic search for something small that yields an unexpectedly great find –becomes a Modern Hebrew idiom: “”went looking for donkeys and found kingship.”[13] Oddly, the dry list of the generations of Esau in Gen. 36 has one exception –the brief anecdote about an otherwise unknown character named Anah who “found yemim[14] in the desert while tending the donkeys of his father. These seem to be the only two passages in the Bible that involve sons tending or looking for their fathers’ donkeys.[15] They also share the idiosyncratic similarity of describing the act of discovering something momentous while in pursuit of the mundane.

It is also curious that Chapter 36 records the birth of Esau’s infamous grandson.  Thus, Benjamin’s birth in Chapter 35 is followed closely by the birth of the progenitor of the archenemy of Israel, Amalek, in the following chapter. This proximity may be seen to foreshadow the fateful meeting of Saul of Benjamin with Agag of Amalek in 1 Samuel 15, where Saul will prove himself unworthy of kingship.

Moving on to Genesis Chapter 37, the echoes in 1 Samuel 9-11 continue as Joseph is introduced as the one who “services” or is “apprenticed to” the sons of Bilhah. The Hebrew for this phrase reads “Yosef …[ v’hu] na’ar”. In Saul’s search for the asses that results in kingship, his persistent servant boy insists that they not give up the search. The Hebrew phrase is “va-yosefha-na’ar.[16]

The general flow of Genesis 37 and 1 Samuel 9-10 also share the basic scheme of a son sent by his father to assist in the mundane tending of flocks. In both stories the young man needs help in finding his destination and is found by unexpected parties who direct him to an unanticipated and fateful encounter. Thus, the conjectured possibility of wordplay and inter-textual reference is reasonable and contextually supported.

Further Zooming Out: 1 Samuel 1 and Genesis 38

Before turning to the possible overarching meaning behind the above literary parallels, we turn to the extensive and idiosyncratic parallels between the first chapter of the book of Samuel and Genesis 38 – the story of Judah and Tamar.

Without reproducing the two chapters in their entirety here, readers may place the two chapters opposite one another in a search for similar words and themes. What will immediately emerge will highlight most strikingly two stories in which a righteous woman is suspected unjustly of immodest behaviour (Tamar of promiscuity and Hannah of drunkenness in the Tabernacle precinct). The patriarchs guilty of misjudging the women (Judah and Eli the High Priest respectively), are each blind to their own two sons’ (Er and Onan- sons of Judah, and Hofni and Pinchas -sons of Eli) evil behaviour and project their sins onto a righteous woman. In both cases, God kills the evil sons and rewards the righteous woman with much desired offspring.

Some of the specific language shows intertextual resonance as well. For example, the language describing the misguided suspicion in the two stories is identical –ויחשבה  (va-yachsheveha)meaning, “and he took her for a (harlot/drunk)” – a phrase that appears in this form in these two chapters (and only once again, in Gen. 15).[17] Further literary parallels, which readers will readily discover, indicate a strong relationship between these chapters.

What is the Meaning of the Parallels?

What purpose is served by these commonalities in language and theme between Genesis 34-38 and the story of the beginnings of Israelite monarchy in 1 Samuel?[18]

The Rise of Benjamin/ Judah and the Rise of Saul/David

One way to understand the relationship between these two corpora is to see them as parallel narrative trajectories. In Genesis 34-38, we witness the disqualification of heirs to the Abrahamic line until the nearly eliminated Judah rises over his brothers to the position of leadership. In Samuel, as well, we read of the disqualification of the first would-be candidate for dynastic leadership (Saul from the tribe of Benjamin) that paves the way to the nearly disqualified David (from the tribe of Judah) in a scene (2 Samuel 11-12 – David and Bathsheba) starkly reminiscent of the Judah and Tamar story.

In the book of Samuel, Judah’s descendant David arrives on the scene only after the disqualification of the first king of Israel – Saul from Rachel’s tribe of Benjamin. David, too, nearly disqualifies himself in a story of lust and detachment from primary loyalties. He too saves himself only at the last moment with his timely words “I have sinned to the Lord (חטאתי לה’).”

The similar trajectory of these tales alone suggests conscious imitation of language and style; anyone writing a book about the beginning of monarchy would naturally look at the earlier story that presages the origins of monarchy and traces a similar line of development with similar language. Some readers might suggest that conversely, an account of the partriarchal origins of monarchy (Jacob and Judah) might use the stories of the development of monarchy (Saul and David) as a template.[19]Irrespective of the historical/critical or traditional assumption, from a literary perspective the Samuel story helps shed light on the trajectory of Genesis chapters 34-38. 

Summary and Coming Attractions

Without the literary parallel, it would have been easy to overlook the theme of disqualifications and near disqualifications leading to Israelite leadership and later to dynastic monarchy that these chapters share. Both shared key terms and shared themes suggest that these chapters must be connected.

Moreover, the key words of disparaging or plundering vs. remaining silent or passive (ch-r-sh vs. b-z) may well encapsulate both the stories in Genesis as well as the story of 1 Samuel. Both biblical books that trace the ascent toward or disqualification from leadership express polar extremes that must be avoided. Neither inaction in the face of danger (or evil) – ch-r-sh– nor unethical abuse of power – b-z- can provide the recipe for moral leadership.

Looking beyond Bereisheit and Shmuel, this line of interpretation may be expanded. For example, the book of Esther, (with its own intertextual allusions to both Genesis and Samuel) clearly delineates the requirements for moral political leadership, by again deploying these two key terms. Esther will be warned against inaction in the face of danger with the words: “im hacharesh tacharishi…! (if you keep silent)”, but later there will be a repeatedly emphasized moral accolade stating: “ba-biza lo shalchu et yadam (yet they did not take any spoils)!” In the moral space between appeasement and abusive power that serves self-interest lie the criteria for responsible moral leadership. Moreover, in the extensive thematic and language parallels between Genesis 34-38 and the book of Samuel we may find not only the parameters of qualification and disqualification for family rank and national kingship, but also a nuanced moral philosophy concerning the politics of power.


November 3, 2013


Last Updated

December 4, 2020


View Footnotes

Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner has taught Bible and Talmud for many years at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is presently the director of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s groundbreaking Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership. Klitsner was involved in the award winning Hanukah animation Lights, and served as Rav of the School for Torah and Arts. Klitsner is the author of Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis and co-author of the educational novel, The Lost Children of Tarshish.