The Errancy and Inerrancy Problem Illustrated: The Case of Genesis 48:21-22

Posted By on June 30, 2011

I was recently received a question about inerrancy from a student in my MEMRA institute. Readers here know I’ve spent a lot of time on that subject (see the archived page). My short answer was that the difficulty in talking about inerrancy and errancy is defining what constitutes an error. That is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m no exception. Providentially, I was studying Genesis 48 for a project at work (honestly, how cool is it to be able to say that?) and came across a very good illustration of the difficulty. I thought I’d share it with you.

In Gen 48:21-22 we read (ESV):

21 Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. 22 Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.”

Gen 48:21-22 refers back to the massacre at Shechem perpetrated by Simeon and Levi in the wake of the their sister Dinah’s rape (Genesis 34). “Mountain slope” is Hebrew shekem, which is an obvious wordplay on the Hebrew place name (and personal name) shechem. Genesis 33:19 informs us that Jacob purchased a plot of land (cf. the “slope”) from Hamor of Shechem–he did not take it by force. The plot of land was likely intended as a burial site (recall Abraham had purchased a plot of land from the Hittite Ephron for that purpose; Gen 23). Hamor is described as a “Hivite” in Gen 34:2.The text of Genesis 34 is quite clear that Jacob had nothing to do with the massacre and rebuked his sons in harsh terms for what they did. It is also clear they left Shechem and did not occupy it. (Read the chapter if it is not familiar).

That summary alerts us to two basic problems in Gen 48:21-22. One is easily adressed; the other is not. Let’s take the easy one first.

1. Hamor of Shechem, the Hivite — why is he referenced with “Amorite” in Gen 48:22?

Briefly, both “Amorite” and “Hivite” are used in the Old Testament broadly, meaning that Hamor could theoretically have been called either in normal discourse. For example, the term “Amorite” shows mixed ethnicity and geography. In Josh 10:5-6 two of the five “Amorite” kings are placed in Jerusalem and Hebron. Those two places are also associated with the Jebusites and Hittites, respectively (cp. Ezek 16:3, 45). The Amorites are also placed outside Canaan in the Transjordan (Deut 1:44). That scholars take the Amorites as the ancient Amurru makes this distribution comprehensible, since the Amurru kingdom extended from parts of Lebanon into Syria and northern Canaan (the location of Shechem) and the Transjordan. The Old Testament also places the Hivites in these same areas, and so that term has the same ethnic/geographical imprecision (see Gen 36:2–3; Josh 11:3; Judg. 3:3; 2 Sam 24:1–9).

So the answer to this question is that Hamor could be called either since either works.

2. “With Sword and Bow”?

The greater problem is how to reconcile the statement of Gen 48:22, that Jacob had taken the slope (Shechem) with his “sword and bow,” when Genesis 34 has him opposing what happened there—and buying a piece of land there (Gen 33:19), something he would not have had to do if he had conquered it prior to the treachery in chapter 34. Compounding the quandary is the fact that when Joshua enters the Promised Land he does not have to conquer Shechem; he simply holds a covenant renewal ceremony there. Indeed, the only conquest of Shechem at any point in Israel’s history occurs centuries later under Abimelech in Judges 9.

There are three possible answers to the problem:

a. Gen 48:22 contains an error (or Gen 34 lies to the reader).

b. Gen 48:22 preserves a lost tradition that is true, but the final editor(s) of Genesis were careless (or indifferent), in that they didn’t bother to reconcile the passages. This would be a case of scribal carelessness that is *not* an error.  Their work just lacks clarity. (But would some call that an error?) This answer suggests there is a way to reconcile them but it is unknown.

c. Gen 48:22 preserves a lost tradition that is not actually related to Genesis 33:19 and Genesis 34. If this is the case, the editors were also careless (or indifferent), since they don’t inform the reader there is no relationship, avoiding the confusion. This answer suggests they don’t need reconciliation, but are best explained separately–but there is no data to tell us how to do that.

So, is there an error?

I think the best response to this (and “response” does not mean “solution”) is “I don’t know.” I don’t see any of the three options as compelling or more or less reasonable than any of the others. In other words, I see no reason to pick one and reject the others. So I don’t know if there is an error here or not.

Hence the problem.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

About The Author


23 Responses to “The Errancy and Inerrancy Problem Illustrated: The Case of Genesis 48:21-22”

  1. Areadymind says:

    What if Jacob was just taking responsibility for what his sons did? What if, in his mind, it was as good as him having done it?

    • MSH says:

      He rejected what his sons did – and later (Gen 49) in his deathbed speeches, he still condemns both Simeon and Levi for the incident. He never owned it.

  2. Benjamin Smith says:

    Don’t you think you can give this one a ‘pass’ based on how you deal with scientific inerrancy? In a similar vein to that, can we expect the compiler of Genesis to be able to look up the details on wikipedia of an event which happened hundreds of years before and had time to develop differing details in different accounts?

    • MSH says:

      I’m just saying I don’t know which option is best. It’s fine with me if the author just wasn’t interested in correlating the two items. I just don’t know if that’s what’s going on. Hence I can’t consider it an error, but I don’t know the best way to talk about it.

  3. blop2008 says:

    Very good illustration and lucid as usual.

  4. Patrick says:


    Could Israel/Jacob be speaking there as the representative man for the family? As a representative for his entire family and their fortunes and misfortunes?

    The reason I wonder is the alternative views (a)&(b) of scribal indifference/error just seem out of place knowing ancient Jewish culture.

    They took the Torah awfully seriously, imagining they missed things like this w/o some group oversight is difficult. A screwup like this would need to be one lazy scribe w/o oversight or checks and balances.

    I picture them as very much like rural Arabic culture today. Kenneth Bailey has written some nice things after spending ~ 40 years in Arab lands.

    They have oral traditions and a strong ethic of “control to prevent mis transmission”.

    Elderly over seers listen and correct if the transmission is erroneous, it is hard to imagine the ancient Jews being less careful.

    The representative man idea is part of the Hebrew cultural milleu, i.e. Adam for mankind, Noah and Abraham and Jacob as the “new Adams”, Jesus as the “final/2cd Adam”, etc.

    Option (c) may be more likely, I’m just asking here.

    The apparent contradiction is so obvious and Jacob is so significant in the narrative of the Bible and ancient Jews were so dedicated to Torah that I believe options (a)&(b) are the least likely answers.

    • MSH says:

      Jacob never owned this event in any way – even on his deathbed he still (again) condemns it (Gen 49).

      I’m just saying I don’t know which option is best. It’s fine with me if the author just wasn’t interested in correlating the two items. I just don’t know if that’s what’s going on. Hence I can’t consider it an error, but I don’t know the best way to talk about it.

  5. Matthew says:


    Two questions:

    (1) Couldn’t it be possible that old man Israel was wrong? I mean, the concept of inerrancy doesn’t at all suggest that fallible men (as quoted in the bible) are correct in their statements.

    (2) Under option (C), why shouldn’t the editors be indifferent, since the lost tradition has very little to do with the purpose of the Scriptures or perhaps the statement by Israel is just another way of establishing a historical fact, another avenue of communication if you will?



    • MSH says:

      I’m a little leery of the “inerrantly recorded error” view. I’m more comfortable with the author just not being interested in correlating the two items. I just don’t know if that’s what’s going on. Hence I can’t consider it an error, but I don’t know the best way to talk about it.

  6. DT says:


    This may or may not be the time to ask this, but at least there’s a mention of Shechem in here to keep it mildly related and this is probably the best shot I’ll get. As an editor and writer (albeit one who reads only one language), certain things stick out to me in a narrative as being incongruous with the story that is actually being told. When it happens in English, it often serves a higher purpose in the narrative such as allusion or foreshadowing. When I see it happen in the Old Testament, my red flag goes up that there may something more going on than I understand.

    This one (verses 15-17) hit me the other night when I was reading Genesis 37, and I’m curious as to whether or not there’s something (an allusion, foreshadowing, anything) in this section or if it is simply the author adding what appears to be fluff for fluff’s sake:

    Gen 37:14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

    To my limited mind, 15-17 seem entirely irrelevant and, if this were a narrative written in English that I was editing professionally, it is something I would suggest strongly that the author remove. Is there something more going on here than meets my eye?



    • MSH says:

      There’s naturally a lot of speculation in rabbinic material about this “man” – particularly since the “man” of Gen 32:22-31 turns out to be a divine being, most likely the Angel of YHWH, and so YHWH in that form. However, there’s nothing here to suggest the man was anything unusual. Anything said is speculation. It simply gets Joseph to Dothan, and so in that sense, it isn’t intrusive.

  7. Nobunaga says:

    What if Jacob bought the land and then he had to fight for it at some later point ? He can still hold fast his disagreement with the actions of the others, I mean it’s not a detailed comprehensive history thats given it can be both events happened, misunderstandings and cloudy history dont count for errors with me. I dont see why it has to be a “either or” ,why not “a both and” ?

    • MSH says:

      right – and the “later point” is never noted or explained (this is in the list of possibilities). If this is the case, the author / editor(s) have no interest in explaining it — one can speculate they assumed readers would know of such a tradition from some other source. My point was that I don’t know this is the case, and neither does anyone else.

      • Nobunaga says:

        Fair point. I guess i dont agree with the policy of giving “Error” as an option for a text that has possible explanations. Granted these possibilities may never be realized due to some some oral history being lost… still the conclusion is not a necessary inference to “error” though it may always remain possible conclusion. Kudos to you for being honest and upfront, i’m just weary that detractors may think they have gained ground by immediately crying “Error” when logic dictates otherwise, leaps of logic are not unknown among scholars Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulout spring to mind here. Good blog !

        • Nobunaga says:

          Would you agree with this statement by J.A Alexander ?

          “It is best, however, as in all such cases, to leave the discrepancy unsolved rather than to solve it by unnatural and forced constructions. Although we may not be able to explain it, and the multitude of cases in which riddles once esteemed insoluble have since been satisfactorily settled, should encourage us to hope for like results in other cases”

          • MSH says:

            I could agree with it, but it doesn’t strike me as something to be agreed to so much as it is a policy of simple honesty.

        • MSH says:

          right – I can’t say it’s an error either since that option isn’t compelling (i.e., it cannot overturn the others).

  8. Cognus says:

    I just love this.
    It is timely to my recent personal study,and it is vintage MSH.
    I dunno either, but I do know that our God is not a pre-wired machine

  9. Areadymind says:

    OK, Since you have corrected me on my thinking – thank you by the way, and if (c) is the correct way to think about it (which was my line of reasoning before I even read that option.) How is it that a scribe (if you think it is a scribal error) is careless in doing this? Don’t we generally leave out information in stories all the time that we do not think are pertinent in the long run? I guess I just am never really bothered by absence of information. My line of reasoning would just be to say that we don’t know what exactly Jacob was referring too. Now if you want to wrangle with what appears to be a clear contradiction, and is either scribal error, or something else is afoot, look at this:

    Matthew 12:3 –> compare with 1 Samuel 21:1.

    I have tried to unravel this for a long time to no avail.

    • MSH says:

      it could be characterized as careless, but that assumes there was an intent to explain — which itself we don’t know. It could be simply a lack of interest, which isn’t uncommon elsewhere (e.g., the biblical writers don’t bother to tell us why their genealogies are selective — that has to be figured out — they may assume the reader fully capable of doing that).

  10. Patrick says:

    “they may assume the reader fully capable of doing that”.

    Negative and positive readers it seems.

    I can’t find evidence of any ancient non Christian Jewish or pagan writings that seek to make textual comparative dialectic against Jesus’ claims.

    That tells me this wasn’t such an issue back then.

    The writings we can access are sometimes Christian responses to them, such as Tertullian’s & Origen’s early ones.

    There and in the Talmud the negativity is directed at Jesus and Mary pretty much saying they are the opposite of the Gospel narratives.

    Origen’s retort to Celsus, that was a philosophical debate between Celsus’ position that Plato’s logic exceeded the Biblical logic or not.

    However, I can’t find any evidence of a dialectic style disputing the Matthean references to the OT prophecies linking them to Jesus for example ( like the current Isaiah 7:14 debate or claims Nazareth didn’t exist in the OT era so “He shall be called a Nazarene” is a fraud) or examples of what we today are reading about, textual deviations/discrepancies, etc.

    All the surface contradictions today would have been great stuff to counter the Jesus movement in the first say 10 centuries. Especially by Jews among Jews.

    It’s mystifying we have these cases today and not until near the reformation era can we find these type attacks.

    Did the non Christian activists ignore this avenue, did the ancients not have scroll access ( surely the rabbinical leaders did?), were the post 70 AD rabbis lazy or did the apparent problems not exist?

    • MSH says:

      I tend to think they didn’t care as much. The Jewish tolerance of contradiction within their oral (later codified) traditions may give us some insight here, but I don’t know how much.

Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.