Mourning for Jacob at Goren ha-Atad
In the biblical description of Jacob’s funeral cortege to the Land of Canaan, the sons stop in Goren (= the threshing floor of) Ha-Atad. Gen. 50:10-11 describes these events:
נ:י וַיָּבֹ֜אוּ עַד גֹּ֣רֶן הָאָטָ֗ד אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וַיִּ֨סְפְּדוּ שָׁ֔ם מִסְפֵּ֛ד גָּד֥וֹל וְכָבֵ֖ד מְאֹ֑ד וַיַּ֧עַשׂ לְאָבִ֛יו אֵ֖בֶל שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים: נ:יא וַיַּ֡רְא יוֹשֵׁב֩ הָאָ֨רֶץ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֜י אֶת הָאֵ֗בֶל בְּגֹ֙רֶן֙ הָֽאָטָ֔ד וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵֽבֶל כָּבֵ֥ד זֶ֖ה לְמִצְרָ֑יִם עַל כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ אָבֵ֣ל מִצְרַ֔יִם אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֥בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּֽן:
10 When they came to Goren ha-Atad which is beyond the Jordan they held there a very great and solemn lamentation; and he (=Joseph) observed a mourning period of seven days for his father. 11 And when the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning at Goren ha-Atad, they said, “This is a solemn mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” That is why it was named Abel-Mitzraim (= the mourning of the Egyptians) which is beyond the Jordan.
The Torah specifies that each of these two toponyms is located beyond the Jordan. But where exactly is Goren Ha-Atad/Abel-Mitzraim?
Moreover, looking at the story from a geographical perspective, this route makes no sense. Why would someone go to the Transjordan in order to get to Canaan? There was a main route, called The Way of Horus, and referred to as The Way of the Land of the Philistines in the Torah (Exod 13:17), which went directly up the coast of the Mediterranean and would have been the direct route from Egypt to Canaan.
An Alternative Burial Tradition for Jacob: Noth and de Vaux
Two major twentieth biblical scholars dealt with this issue. The German biblical scholar Martin Noth (1902-1968) and the French Roland de Vaux (1903-1971) suggest that this text in Genesis preserves a tradition locating Jacob’s tomb in Goren Ha-Atad/Avel-Mitzraim, in the Transjordan. Thus, the cortege was going to Transjordan because this is where Jacob was to be buried.
Although my own solution will overlap with that of Noth and De Vaux on some points, nevertheless, their hypothesis regarding a Transjordanian burial tradition is problematic. It contradicts Jacob’s instructions to Joseph (Gen 47:30) and to his sons (49:29) to bury him with his fathers in Canaan. Furthermore, v. 11 refers to Canaanites in the vicinity of Goren ha-Atad (50:11)—but Canaanites resided in the Cisjordan (west of the Jordan), not the Transjordan (east of the Jordan).
Demky’s Suggestion: The Brothers and their Egyptian Entourage Separate at the Egyptian Border City called “Jordan”
In order to avoid these above-referenced difficulties, Aaron Demsky, professor (emeritus) of biblical history at Bar-Ilan University, proposed that the mourning at Goren ha-Atad / Abel Mitzraim occurred at the border between Canaan and Egypt. The reason for the stop, in Demsky’s model, was for the Egyptian entourage to say goodbye and return to Egypt, whereas the brothers would continue on to Hebron. To demonstrate this point, Demsky notes that the narrative of Jacob’s funeral cortege begins with a very large troop that included the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries (Gen. 50:7), while at the end of the narrative, only Jacob’s sons are presented.
Why is this place referred to as “בעבר הירדן”? Demsky suggests that the toponym “Jordan/Yarden” in our verses (50:10–11) refers to a city named Yarden rather than to the river.  We know of the city y-w-r-w-d-n in the 10th cent. B.C.E. from Shoshenq I’s topographical list at Karnak, where it appears amongst the Negev entries; later, it is mentioned by Josephus in the first century C.E.; variations of that name may be found in Christian sources of the six century and in a Syrian chronicle list of the seventh century.
Next, Demsky further developed Berend Gemser’s proposal to interpret עבר, usually translated as “beyond,” as “a ford of a river,” and accordingly renders עבר הירדן as a ford of the Brook of Egypt next to the city Jordan. 
Thus, in Demsky’s model, the funeral cortege travels from Egypt to the Land of Canaan through the northern Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian contingent accompanies the funeral cortege only up to the Brook of Egypt that was known in the Bible as the border between Egypt and the Land of Canaan/Israel. They stop at a place called Goren Ha-Atad, which was at the crossing of the Brook of Egypt near the city of Yardan, where they lament Jacob for seven days. Afterwards, the Egyptians return to Egypt and only Jacob’s sons continued into the land of Canaan to bury their father.
Problems with Demsky’s Proposal
Demsky’s proposal presents several problems:
- עבר versus מעבר: The term עֵבֶר in such contexts always means “beyond” and is not used in the same sense as מַעֲבַר, “a ford.” 
- The name of a ford: following the biblical evidence, fords were named based on the name of the specific river and never the name of a nearby city. 
- Only necessary crossing points were given names: Only two rivers were important enough for their fords were mentioned in the Bible: the ford of Jabbok (Gen 32:23) and the fords of the Jordan (Judg 3:28, 12:5–6). These rivers could be crossed only in a few specific spots either because of their strong flow or because of their high banks and sharp cliffs. In contrast, the streams of the northern Sinai Peninsula are low and they ran as a result of flashfloods only for few hours a year. They could be crossed at any point and there are no specific fords on the Egyptian-Canaanite border, wherever it was.
- The Disappearance of the Egyptian Entourage: Demsky was correct in identifying the problems in the narrative of Jacob’s funeral cortege, but his solution that Goren ha-Atad is the place where the Egyptians turned back is problematic. In v. 14, there is a reference to “all who had gone up with him,” presumably referring to the Egyptian entourage returning with Joseph and the brothers to Egypt.
A Source Critical Solution: Two Funeral Traditions
Instead, the shift in the narrative may be explained through source criticism, as delineated in the following chart (NJPS translation with modifications):
47:29 And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. 47:30 When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” He replied, “I will do as you have spoken.” 47:31 And he said, “Swear to me.” And he swore to him. Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed. //
50:1 Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. 50:2 Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel. 50:3 It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days; 50:4 and when the wailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court, saying, “Do me this favor, and lay this appeal before Pharaoh: 50:5 ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die. Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now, therefore, let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.’” 50:6 And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath.” 50:7 So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries, 50:8 together with all of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household; only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the region of Goshen. 50:9 Chariots, too, and horsemen went up with him; it was a very large troop. 50:10 When they came to Goren ha-Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they held there a very great and solemn lamentation; and he observed a mourning period of seven days for his father. 50:11 And when the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning at Goren ha-Atad, they said, “This is a solemn mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” That is why it was named Abel-Mitzraim, which is beyond the Jordan. //
50:14 After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.
47:28 Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the sum of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. //
49:1 And Jacob called his sons //
49:28 and bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him. 49:29 Then he instructed them, saying to them, “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 49:30 the cave which is in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site—49:31 there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah—49:32 the field and the cave in it, bought from the Hittites.” 49:33 When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. //
50:12 Thus his sons did for him as he had instructed them. 50:13 His sons carried him to the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, the field near Mamre, which Abraham had bought for a burial site from Ephron the Hittite.
מז:כט וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א׀ לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִֽׂים־נָ֥א יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם: מז:ל וְשָֽׁכַבְתִּי֙ עִם־אֲבֹתַ֔י וּנְשָׂאתַ֙נִי֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם וּקְבַרְתַּ֖נִי בִּקְבֻרָתָ֑ם וַיֹּאמַ֕ר אָנֹכִ֖י אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֥ה כִדְבָרֶֽךָ: מז:לא וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִשָּֽׁבְעָה֙ לִ֔י וַיִּשָּׁבַ֖ע ל֑וֹ וַיִּשְׁתַּ֥חוּ יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַל־רֹ֥אשׁ הַמִּטָּֽה: //
נ:א וַיִּפֹּ֥ל יוֹסֵ֖ף עַל־פְּנֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ עָלָ֖יו וַיִּשַּׁק־לֽוֹ: נ:ב וַיְצַ֨ו יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶת־עֲבָדָיו֙ אֶת־הָרֹ֣פְאִ֔ים לַחֲנֹ֖ט אֶת־אָבִ֑יו וַיַּחַנְט֥וּ הָרֹפְאִ֖ים אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: נ:ג וַיִּמְלְאוּ־לוֹ֙ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם כִּ֛י כֵּ֥ן יִמְלְא֖וּ יְמֵ֣י הַחֲנֻטִ֑ים וַיִּבְכּ֥וּ אֹת֛וֹ מִצְרַ֖יִם שִׁבְעִ֥ים יֽוֹם: נ:ד וַיַּֽעַבְרוּ֙ יְמֵ֣י בְכִית֔וֹ וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יוֹסֵ֔ף אֶל־בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם דַּבְּרוּ־נָ֕א בְּאָזְנֵ֥י פַרְעֹ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר: נ:ה אָבִ֞י הִשְׁבִּיעַ֣נִי לֵאמֹ֗ר הִנֵּ֣ה אָנֹכִי֘ מֵת֒ בְּקִבְרִ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר כָּרִ֤יתִי לִי֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן שָׁ֖מָּה תִּקְבְּרֵ֑נִי וְעַתָּ֗ה אֶֽעֱלֶה־נָּ֛א וְאֶקְבְּרָ֥ה אֶת־אָבִ֖י וְאָשֽׁוּבָה: נ:ו וַיֹּ֖אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֑ה עֲלֵ֛ה וּקְבֹ֥ר אֶת־אָבִ֖יךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִשְׁבִּיעֶֽךָ: נ:ז וַיַּ֥עַל יוֹסֵ֖ף לִקְבֹּ֣ר אֶת־אָבִ֑יו וַיַּֽעֲל֨וּ אִתּ֜וֹ כָּל־עַבְדֵ֤י פַרְעֹה֙ זִקְנֵ֣י בֵית֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל זִקְנֵ֥י אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרָֽיִם: נ:ח וְכֹל֙ בֵּ֣ית יוֹסֵ֔ף וְאֶחָ֖יו וּבֵ֣ית אָבִ֑יו רַ֗ק טַפָּם֙ וְצֹאנָ֣ם וּבְקָרָ֔ם עָזְב֖וּ בְּאֶ֥רֶץ גֹּֽשֶׁן: נ:ט וַיַּ֣עַל עִמּ֔וֹ גַּם־רֶ֖כֶב גַּם־פָּרָשִׁ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה כָּבֵ֥ד מְאֹֽד: נ:י וַיָּבֹ֜אוּ עַד־גֹּ֣רֶן הָאָטָ֗ד אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וַיִּ֨סְפְּדוּ־שָׁ֔ם מִסְפֵּ֛ד גָּד֥וֹל וְכָבֵ֖ד מְאֹ֑ד וַיַּ֧עַשׂ לְאָבִ֛יו אֵ֖בֶל שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים: נ:יא וַיַּ֡רְא יוֹשֵׁב֩ הָאָ֨רֶץ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֜י אֶת־הָאֵ֗בֶל בְּגֹ֙רֶן֙ הָֽאָטָ֔ד וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵֽבֶל־כָּבֵ֥ד זֶ֖ה לְמִצְרָ֑יִם עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ אָבֵ֣ל מִצְרַ֔יִם אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֥בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּֽן: //
נ:יד וַיָּ֨שָׁב יוֹסֵ֤ף מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ ה֣וּא וְאֶחָ֔יו וְכָל־הָעֹלִ֥ים אִתּ֖וֹ לִקְבֹּ֣ר אֶת־אָבִ֑יו אַחֲרֵ֖י קָבְר֥וֹ אֶת־אָבִֽיו:
מז:כח וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֤י יְמֵֽי־יַעֲקֹב֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה: //
מט:א וַיִּקְרָ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶל־בָּנָ֑יו //
מט:כח וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אוֹתָ֔ם אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כְּבִרְכָת֖וֹ בֵּרַ֥ךְ אֹתָֽם: מט:כט וַיְצַ֣ו אוֹתָ֗ם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אֲנִי֙ נֶאֱסָ֣ף אֶל־עַמִּ֔י קִבְר֥וּ אֹתִ֖י אֶל־אֲבֹתָ֑י אֶל־הַ֨מְּעָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בִּשְׂדֵ֖ה עֶפְר֥וֹן הַֽחִתִּֽי: מט:ל בַּמְּעָרָ֞ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר בִּשְׂדֵ֧ה הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֛ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־פְּנֵי־מַמְרֵ֖א בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן אֲשֶׁר֩ קָנָ֨ה אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־ הַשָּׂדֶ֗ה מֵאֵ֛ת עֶפְרֹ֥ן הַחִתִּ֖י לַאֲחֻזַּת־קָֽבֶר: מט:לא שָׁ֣מָּה קָֽבְר֞וּ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֗ם וְאֵת֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ שָׁ֚מָּה קָבְר֣וּ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְאֵ֖ת רִבְקָ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וְשָׁ֥מָּה קָבַ֖רְתִּי אֶת־לֵאָֽה: מט:לב מִקְנֵ֧ה הַשָּׂדֶ֛ה וְהַמְּעָרָ֥ה אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ מֵאֵ֥ת בְּנֵי־חֵֽת: מט:לג וַיְכַ֤ל יַעֲקֹב֙ לְצַוֹּ֣ת אֶת־בָּנָ֔יו וַיֶּאֱסֹ֥ף רַגְלָ֖יו אֶל־הַמִּטָּ֑ה וַיִּגְוַ֖ע וַיֵּאָ֥סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו: //
נ:יב וַיַּעֲשׂ֥וּ בָנָ֖יו ל֑וֹ כֵּ֖ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּֽם: נ:יג וַיִּשְׂא֨וּ אֹת֤וֹ בָנָיו֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיִּקְבְּר֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ בִּמְעָרַ֖ת שְׂדֵ֣ה הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר קָנָה֩ אַבְרָהָ֨ם אֶת־ הַשָּׂדֶ֜ה לַאֲחֻזַּת־קֶ֗בֶר מֵאֵ֛ת עֶפְרֹ֥ן הַחִתִּ֖י עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא:
J Version – Goren ha-Atad
In J, Jacob instructs Joseph to bury him with his fathers (47:29–31). After Jacob’s death, Joseph orders the physicians to embalm him and the large funeral cortege leaves for the land of Canaan. There, at Goren ha-Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they hold a great lamentation (50:1–11). Following the burial, Joseph and his brothers and all who had gone up with him return to Egypt (50:14). J never states where Jacob is buried. 
P’s Version – Me’arat ha-Machpela
In P, however, Jacob’s instruction was not given to Joseph alone but to all of Jacob’s sons (49:29–33). After his death (49:33) his sons did for him as he had instructed them, carried him to Canaan and buried him in the cave of Machpelah (50:12–13), which is mentioned as the ancestral burial ground only in the P source.
A Speculation about the Chronology of the Burial Traditions
As noted, J doesn’t supply a burial place for Jacob, but great scholars like Noth and de Vaux, as well as G. I. Davies, think that the lamentation at Goren Ha-Atad indicates a burial ceremony. If they are correct, I would argue that that we can determine which tradition is older. Both sites are in Judah’s territory. It seems more likely that Priests, who served at the important holy site in Hebron, would invent a tradition to make their site more desirable, than it does for a Judahite writer to invent a tradition for an obscure place like Goren Ha-Atad. This would suggest that the Goren Ha-Atad tradition is older.
A Transjordanian Story of Goren Ha-Atad in Canaan
As noted above, עבר הירדן cannot refer to a ford of the Brook of Egypt, and instead means, as it does elsewhere, “beyond the Jordan.”  It must be located in the Northern Negev on the route going from Egypt to the Land of Canaan, but then how can it be called “beyond the Jordan?” For someone staying in Cisjordan, the term “beyond the Jordan” refers to Transjordan. In the same manner, someone staying in Transjordan might use that term for Cisjordan (Deut. 11:30).
This point was noted by the 13th century commentator, Rabbi Hezekiah bar Manoach, in his Chizkuni (Gen 50:11).
“Which is beyond the Jordan” – this refers to the land of Canaan, meaning, the inhabitants of the land of Sihon and Og (=Transjordan) saw the mourning at Goren Ha-Atad in the Land of Canaan, which they would call “the other side of the Jordan,” for just as those who dwelt in the Land of Canaan inherited by Joshua would call the land of Sihon and Og “the other side of the Jordan” so too did those who dwelt in the land of Sihon and Og call the land of Canaan, “the other side of the Jordan.”
In my piece for Parashat Toledot, “Locating Beer Lachai Roi,” I argued that the author of J learned the stories of Isaac and Beer-Lachai-Roi indirectly, from story tellers that started telling them in the area of Kadesh, modern Wadi Musa, which is at the entrance to Petra. J’s references to Goren ha-Atad and Abel-Mitzraim as situated “beyond the Jordan” similarly make sense if the J narrative of Jacob’s funeral originated at Kadesh.
We cannot determine the exact location of Goren ha-Atad / Abel-mizraim other than knowing that it was in the Northern Negev on the road coming from Egypt. The J narrative of Jacob’s funeral cortege originated among storytellers in Kadesh/Petra, and tells the story from the Transjordanian view-point, referring to the Negev sites as situating “beyond,” namely west of the Jordan. Only when this story was combined with the P account which which speaks from a Cisjordanian perspective, do a variety of problems arise. Demsky’s solutions are clever, but problematic, and it is best to read each source separately rather than attempting to combine the different traditions concerning Jacob’s funeral procession.
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December 28, 2014
June 30, 2020
Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.
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