The Book of Chronicles and the Ephraimites that Never Went to Egypt
A conception of Israel’s beginnings that diverges radically from the exodus narrative is reflected in a striking passage in the book of Chronicles (דברי הימים). The bulk of the book of Chronicles narrates Israel’s history from the death of Saul until the edict of Cyrus, allowing the Jews to return to the land. As a preface to this historical narrative, the book of Chronicles presents us with various genealogical lists. Among these are the genealogies of most of Jacob’s sons. Several short anecdotes are interspersed with these lists. While it is true that the book of Chronicles as a whole is very late, it apparently preserves some ancient traditions.
The Death of Ephraim’s Sons in the Land
The passage that I would like to discuss recounts the family history of Joseph’s son, Ephraim (I Chron. 7:20—24).
ז:כ וּבְנֵי אֶפְרַיִם שׁוּתָלַח וּבֶרֶד בְּנוֹ וְתַחַת בְּנוֹ וְאֶלְעָדָה בְנוֹ וְתַחַת בְּנוֹ. ז:כא וְזָבָד בְּנוֹ וְשׁוּתֶלַח בְּנוֹ וְעֵזֶר וְאֶלְעָד וַהֲרָגוּם אַנְשֵׁי גַת הַנּוֹלָדִים בָּאָרֶץ כִּי יָרְדוּ לָקַחַת אֶת מִקְנֵיהֶם. ז:כב וַיִּתְאַבֵּל אֶפְרַיִם אֲבִיהֶם יָמִים רַבִּים וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶחָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ. ז:כג וַיָּבֹא אֶל אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ בְּרִיעָה כִּי בְרָעָה הָיְתָה בְּבֵיתוֹ. ז:כד וּבִתּוֹ שֶׁאֱרָה וַתִּבֶן אֶת בֵּית חוֹרוֹן הַתַּחְתּוֹן וְאֶת הָעֶלְיוֹן וְאֵת אֻזֵּן שֶׁאֱרָה.
7:20 And the sons of Ephraim; Shuthelah, and Bered his son, and Tahath his son, and Eladah his son, and Tahath his son, 7:21 And Zabad his son, and Shuthelah his son, and Ezer, and Elead. Now the men of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, for they (=the sons of Ephraim) came down to raid their cattle. 7:22 Their father Ephraim mourned for them for many days, and his brothers came to comfort him. 7:23 He (Ephraim) came unto his wife and she conceived and had a son. And he named him Beriah, because disaster (ברעה) had befallen his house. 7:24 His daughter was Sheera. She built Lower and Upper Beit Horon and Uzzen-Sheera.
The passage begins with a list of Ephraim’s offspring. In Numbers 26:35 we also find a list of Ephraim’s offspring.
אֵלֶּה בְנֵי אֶפְרַיִם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְשׁוּתֶלַח מִשְׁפַּחַת הַשֻּׁתַלְחִי לְבֶכֶר מִשְׁפַּחַת הַבַּכְרִי לְתַחַן מִשְׁפַּחַת הַתַּחֲנִי.
These are the descendants of Ephraim after their families: of Shuthelah, the family of the Shuthalhites: of Becher, the family of the Bachrites: of Tahan, the family of the Tahanites.
Note that the name Shutelah is common to both lists, Tahat and Tahan are very similar to one another and Bered and Becher are also somewhat similar. Clearly, the passage in Chronicles speaks of no other Ephraim than the son of Joseph, brother of Manasseh (see also I Chron 7:29: “In these dwelt the children of Joseph the son of Israel.”)
The Attack of the Gathites on Ephraim’s Sons
The text related the following anecdote after the name list: Ephraim’s sons “come down” to raid the cattle of the men of Gath and are killed in the process. Ephraim’s brethren, Manasseh and the others, come, presumably from the nearby vicinity, to comfort him. Where is all this assumed to be taking place?
The context virtually mandates that this is happening in the land of Israel. This is indicated, first of all, by the fact that the sons of Ephraim “came down” to Gath. The fact that they came down to Gath, which is on the coastal plane, probably indicates that they were coming from the hill country of Ephraim. If they were coming from Egypt, we would expect the text to state that they “came up” to Gath. We may also wonder whether it would at all be feasible for people to come from Egypt to Gath in order to steal cattle.
Furthermore, Ephraim’s daughter, Sheera is said to have built Upper and Lower Beit Horon. Beit Horon is one of the Levitical cities within the territory of Mount Ephraim in Joshua 21:20-22 (cf. also Josh. 16:3, 5). The entire family is thus living and building new settlements in the land.
Ephraim in Egypt
This, however, flatly contradicts what we are told in the Torah where, according to the Torah narrative, Ephraim and his brothers were born in Egypt (Gen. 46:20; 48:5) and the same goes for Ephraim’s sons. Genesis 50:22-23 states:
בראשית נ:כב וַיֵּשֶׁב יוֹסֵף בְּמִצְרַיִם הוּא וּבֵית אָבִיו וַיְחִי יוֹסֵף מֵאָה וָעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים. נ:כג וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף לְאֶפְרַיִם בְּנֵי שִׁלֵּשִׁים גַּם בְּנֵי מָכִיר בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁה יֻלְּדוּ עַל בִּרְכֵּי יוֹסֵף.
Gen 50:22 Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father’s family. He lived a hundred and ten years 50:23 and saw the third generation of Ephraim’s children. Also the children of Makir son of Manasseh were placed at birth on Joseph’s knees.
From this text we learn that Joseph, who lived in Egypt with his brothers and children until the age of one hundred and ten, witnessed the birth of his great grandchildren, the grandchildren of Ephraim and Manasseh. If so, Ephraim’s children were born and living in Egypt, not Israel. What is more, it must be assumed that Ephraim and Manasseh and their children died in Egypt, as did Joseph.
The Ephraimites who entered the land with Joshua were the descendants of Ephraim, hardly Ephraim himself with his children. This is clear, first of all, because Joshua son of Nun, who led the conquest, was a distant descendant of Ephraim (cf. 1 Chron. 7:25—27). Second, the notice in Numbers 26:35 cited above concerning the Ephraimites who entered the land speaks of the families of the Shuthalhites, Bachrites and Tahanites. The reference is to fully developed clans, not individuals.
A Midrashic Solution: Ephraim Left Early
The Midrash (Midrash Hagadol on Exod. 13:17) was sensitive to this problem and offered this creative interpretation:
כי קרוב הוא (שמות יג, יז)– קרובה מלחמת פלשתים עם בני אפרים, שנאמר “ובני אפרים שותלח, ברד…” (דהי”א ז), ועליהם אמר דוד “בני אפרים נושקי רומי קשת, הפכו ביום קרב” (תהלים עח, ט). ולמה? שטעו בחשבון ויצאו קודם לקץ בשלושים שנה, וברחו ממצרים, ונפלו.
“Though it is close (קרוב)” (Exod 13:17) – The war of the Philistines with the sons of Ephraim was recent (קרוב), for it says (1 Chron 7:20), “And the sons of Ephraim, Shutelach and Bered…” And regarding them, David says (Psalms 78:9): “Like the Ephraimite bowmen who played false in the day of battle.” Why [were they destroyed in battle with the Philistines]? They made a mistake in their calculations and they left thirty years before what was supposed to be the end of their slavery. They fled Egypt and fell [in the raid on Gath.]
This Midrash reads our story in Chronicles about the death of Ephraim’s sons in Gath in correlation with Psalm 78, which refers to an Ephramite defeat in battle. Both of these texts are then read in dialogue with Exodus 13:17, which states,
וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country because it was close. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.
In the Midrashic reading, the Ephraimites of both Chronicles and Psalm 78 are the sons of Ephraim who fled Egypt on their own initiative before the appropriate time. They calculated the time of the redemption through various means, but were off by thirty years. They sought to enter the land via the coastal plane and encountered the Philistines of Gath and fell in battle. The reason that they died at the hands of the Philistines was because they trusted in their human calculations and refused to wait in Egypt for Moses’ instruction.
All of this is reflected in the Midrashic interpretation of Exodus 13:17. The reason that God did not want to lead the Israelites from Egypt into the land via the land of the Philistines was “כי קרוב הוא.” The simple meaning of the Hebrew phrase is geographical, “although it is was close.” However, the Rabbis read the word כי as “because” and “close” as temporal, that is, the fall of the Ephraimites at the hands of the Philistines was still fresh in people’s minds, having occurred only thirty years earlier.
This is the war that the Israelites would “face,” that is, recall, if they proceeded on that path, and it is that memory that would dishearten them and encourage them to return to Egypt. The Midrash seeks to inculcate the lesson that one must not seek to determine when the redemption will come and act upon that determination; instead one must simply wait until it arrives.
The Midrash could not but assume that the sons of Ephraim of Chronicles arrived in Gath from Egypt. It thus had to explain why they separated from the rest of the Israelites in Egypt, and it came up with the idea that the Ephraimites had their own calculation of the time of redemption. This explanation, however, is not really very successful. The text in Chronicles speaks of Ephraim himself and his sons, not “the Ephraimites,” that is, his great grandchildren. In reality, there is no reason to assume that Ephraim and his sons were coming from Egypt in the Chronicles story, and every reason to assume they were not.
Academic Solution: A Tribal and Pre-national Tradition
The assumption of this story in Chronicles is that the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, presumably like most of the other tribes, grew and expanded from within the land. They did not come to Gath from Egypt because they were autochthonous, namely, natives of the land. If so, there is no need to come up with a reason for the separation of the Ephramites from the rest of the Israelites. They weren’t together to begin with!
The story in Chronicles appears to reflect an early stage of tradition which is tribal and pre-national. In other words, in traditions of this sort, each clan or tribe by and large conquered its own territory for itself. The cohesion between the tribes was much looser than in later times. It was thus only natural to have a story of Ephraim’s independent fortunes in the land.
It is likely that other stories, like the one about the fortunes of Judah’s family in the land in Genesis 38, originally shared a similar conception. Note that the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 is slightly similar to the story of Ephraim in Chronicles. In both stories a tribal patriarch loses sons and the tribe comes close to extinction. Continuity is then secured with the birth of new offspring. Of course, once these stories were placed in the book of Genesis and made to precede the descent to Egypt, the original implication of these texts—that Jacob’s sons set up their families and their lives in Canaan and never left—was obscured.
An Ancient Tradition in a Late Book
How are we to explain the presence of the story about Ephraim and his sons in the book of Chronicles? This book, as mentioned above, is late. Its authors were certainly well aware of the exodus tradition, which, by then, was fully entrenched in Israelite society. They could hardly have sought to present the alternative conception of Israel’s origins implicit in the story as their own. What is more, the exodus is sometimes mentioned in the book of Chronicles.
It seems to me that the explanation for the incorporation of this story is simply oversight. The editors of Chronicles incorporated various sources into their work without always examining them too closely, and included them even with these traditions disagreed with the author’s main thrust. This may have been particularly true regarding ancient genealogical lists with their attendant anecdotes.
What was important for the editors of Chronicles was the lists in general, not the specific names and places that were of central concern for the original authors. Thus, the editors of Chronicles have inadvertently preserved some ancient materials reflecting early conceptions that they did not intend to promote.
We can only express our sense of gratitude for the preservation of these materials. Sometimes the greatest gems are buried in the most obscure and neglected places.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
April 8, 2015
November 6, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
Essays on Related Topics: