Monday, November 13, 2006

The Cannaanite Connection

Henry W. Aldis

The Cannaanite Connection is a theology school essay by Henry W. Aldis (June 26 1945 — November 13, 1985) written in 1984. Today being his 21st anniversary his death, I decided to save his essay from the fading ink by transcribing it into this blog.


The story of Tamar and Judah in Gen. 38 at first glance may appear to be almost an intrusion into the Yahwist’s narrative strain in the Old Testament. Yet an examination of the [text] in Leben when the J Document was written (955–25 B.C.) (1) may well suggest that the Tamar story is crucial to the understanding of why the J Document was written and may aid in the understanding of the significance of motifs found elsewhere in the narrative.

The J Document is thought to have been composed during the reign of Solomon (2). Considering the material wealth, the emphasis on knowledge and the internationalism of the time, this seems entirely possible. The history of David’s rise to power (3), the history of the succession after David (4), and the Yahwist’s history all seemed to have followed upon one another at relatively short intervals in this period (5).

As with the two other documents, the Document seems to be answering a political need. While the Davidic History illustrated David’s accession and claim to the throne, the Succession Document justified the choice of Solomon and sanctioned his actions in consolidating his power (6).

Although the justification of the immediate claim to power could be demonstrated, a much larger problem remained. This problem was one of the people’s intrinsic doubt of the authenticity of this claim to power when set against the questions of bloodline and tradition. Not only did the Davidic line seem extremely Canaanite (7) but David’s choice of Solomon flew in the face of the desert tradition of primogeniture (8). Neither of these questions could be solved by relating a tale of kingly or prophetic decisions. The authenticity of Solomon’s rule had to be found in the very raison d’être of Israel.

The accusation of Canaanite origin was apparently grounded in fact and obvious to the common people of the time. The Interpreter’s Bible mentions “… the possibly recent incorporation into the tribe of Judah of three clans which had hitherto been regarded as of alien stock, and whose presence in the land had long antedated the Israelite conquest.” (9) The eponym of one of these tribes, Perez, is the Davidic connection to Judah (10).

Such a dubious lineage could be largely overlooked under David who was a charismatic leader and performed military wonders much in the manner of the ancient judges of Israel. But with Solomon there were no heroic battles and he was not chosen by God but by his father. His style of living proved to be of a very different tradition than that of the Israelite people thoughened by the desert. Not only did he have foreign wives, alien artchitects and non-Israelite scholars but even his worship of Yahweh was extremely Canaanite (11). The temple, its artifacts and ceremony must have appeared very pagan to strict Yahwists of the time.

The closest that we can come to what the common man felt about this problem of Canaanite origin might be seen in the words of Sheba, the son of Birchri, who is described as a worthless fellow: “We have no portion in David, and we have no inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel.” (12) This song rejecting the Davidic line and suggesting a return to Israelite tents was first chanted during David’s time. The song is repeated again during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam (13). The first time it is quoted by a “worthless fellow” and to generations later it is repeated by “the people”. Thus it must have been a well-known chant to the average Israeli during Solomon’s era.

As the problem of Canaanite lineage was on the mind of the common man, the problem of primogeniture was clearly on the mind of King Solomon. Adonijah who had previously declared himself king, withdrew his claim to the throne upon David’s choice of Solomon (14). Solomon knew that Adonijah had not abandoned hope of regaining power when he forwarded his request for David’s concubine Abishag. Solomon clearly understood the situation when he said to his mother, “And why do you ask for Abishag the Shunammaite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom also, for he is my elder brother, and on his side are Abathar the priest and Joab the son of Zeruiah.” (15) Recognizing the strength of Adonijah’s claim to the throne, he immediately had Adonijah put to death. (16) His rival was gone but the question remained: Had he killed one who should have been king? (Indeed, was the choice of Solomon merely the result of a deceit practiced on King David by Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, and Nathan?) (17) Could Solomon who violated the ancient rule of primogeniture show that by Israelite tradition he was the legitimate choice of king? ­– This would apparently be impossible.

Overcoming the impossible was a task the Yahwist delighted in. Gathering Mesopotamian, Israeli and Canaanite legends, songs and poetry he formed a saga encompassing all history. Within the immense story of how God makes his historical presence felt in overcoming difficulties, the Yahwist neatly inserts the tale of the Davidic ancestress Tamar.

The story has a strong Canaanite flavor mentioning not only the originally Canaanite custom of levirate marriage but also Canaanite cult prostitution. This very un-Israelite story is neatly tried into the Joseph legend by having Judah plead for Joseph in the previous chapter, Genesis 37. The blood relationship between the two is clearly expressed: “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” (18)

After chapter 38 with the sexual liason of Judah and Tamar, the story line is tied back into the Joseph story with the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife. (19) In both stories a personal object belonging to the male is presented to prove the sexual union (Judah’s staff and Joseph’s robe). Also in both stories immediate disaster threatens the hero-heroine. In each story an apparently hopeless situation becomes a means of accomplishing God’s will. The line of Judah is continued and Joseph comes to the attention of the pharaoh.

The tale of Tamar follows a clear pattern established by the Yahwist called the barren ancestress story. The series begins with the first patriarch’s wife Sarah (20) and is repeated with Rebekah21 and Rachel. (22) By the time the story gets to Tamar not only did she not get pregnant by her first husband and was rejected by his brother, but was refused the right to even attempt sexual union with the last and youngest brother. (23) Surely this was the climax to the barren ancestress stories. Is was such an impossible situation that if Sarah laughed in the first story surely the audience was laughing in the final story.

The hopeless situation of the ultimate barren ancestress was overcome not despite the fact that Tamar was Canaanite but because Tamar was Canaanite and used the Canaanite custom of cult prostitution to have her legal sexual union with Judah. She thus heroically continued the line of Judah and became the famed ancestress of the Davidic line. Her memory was honored by David who named his daughter and granddaughter Tamar. (The Yahwist well-aware of the respect due the lady, twice repeats “No harlot has been here” and even at the lowest point in the story has Judah recommend burning rather than stoning. Burning was reserved for a princess.)

The second major problem, that of primogeniture, is handled by the Yahwist in much the same way as the barren ancestress story. He repeatedly presents the problem in patriarchal legends: Isaac and Ishmael (24) , Jacob and Esau (25), Ephraim and Manasseh (26). In every case a younger brother is chosen over the eldest. Tamar’s delivery of Perez and Zerah is perhaps the ultimate story in the series in [that] the younger is chosen over the older in the very act of birth: The political implications must have been so obvious to the audience that the Yahwist had no need to prolong the story. The baby reaching from the womb to claim primogeniture, withdraws his hand and is born second. This would obviously be a reference to Adonijah’s reckless attempt to secure kingship and his subsequent withdrawl of the claim due to his fear of Solomon. Not only does the Yahwist’s saga show a repeated choice of the younger over the older brother but he tops his series with a joke pointed at Adonijah.

(As to the hint of deception practiced on King David by Bethsheba, was not her efforts to secure the throne for her son firmly within tradition? If one looks to either of the founding matriarchs of the Israelite or Davidic lines one sees a woman practicing deception on the patriarch: Rebekah put skins on Jacob’s hands to fool Isaac (27) and Tamar disguised herself to seduce Judah. (28)

Having dealt with the Solomonic problems of bloodline and primogeniture neatly within the immense saga of history and theology, the Yahwist takes one final look at the Tamar story in Genesis chapter 49. Although commonly called “Jacob’s blessing”, von Rad notes “… the aphorisms have no generally common feature at all. Some are prophecies of the future, some contain censure or curse regarding what has happened, some describe current affairs.” (29) To the author of the present paper the verses concerning Judah seem to be unusually light–hearted and could almost be a drinking song. (30) Judah is compared to a brash young lion cub, reference is made to foolishly tying a foal and colt to a vine (which they would eat) and there is reference to luxury and drunkenness.

In the middle of this levity is the following much debated section: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs:” (31) Rather than grave prophecy the original lines may have been a double riddle relating to the story of the Davidic ancestress Tamar. If one is allowed the liberty of assuming the possibility of mistranslation of the original text (which as it stands, no one claims to understand), the riddle may be: How can Judah’s scepter be returned to him if it has not departed from him?

Tamar took Judah’s staff at the same time she took Judah’s seed. The staff did not depart from the Judaic line but was nevertheless later returned to Judah.

“… the ruler’s staff from between his feet” may be a sexual reference in that it came to “where it belonged” in Tamar. Such a ribald interpretation could only be considered within the context of the surrounding verses.

If the story of Tamar is central to understanding certain motifs in the Yahwist’s history, it would imply that the Yahwist was no abstract theologian mumbling in the wilderness. Rather he would be seen as a cultivated man, in and of his time, who though captivated by the profound truth of the Israelite’s God, refused to deny that part of him which was Canaanite.

Photo: Judah and Tamar, Museum Residenz Galerie Salzburg (
1 Meter Ellis, The Yahwist – The Bibles First Theologian (Notre Dame, Indiana : Fides Publishers, Inc., 1968), p. 25.
2 Ibid., p. 25.
3 1 Sam. 16 :14 – 2 Sam. 5: 12 (RSV).
4 2 Sam. 6:12–1 Kin. 2 (RSV)
5 Gerhand von Rad., Old Testament Theology, trans. David Stalker (New York : Harper & Row, 1962), p. 49.
6 Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, p. 308­18.
7 Ellis, The Yahwist – The Bible’s First Theologian, p. 31.
8 Ibid., p. 55.
9 The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. George Arthur [Buttrick] (New York: Abingdon Press) vol. 1, p. 757.
10 Ibid., p. 55.
11 Bernhard Word Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), p. 190­­–91.
12 2 Sam. 20:1. (RSV)
13 1. Kin. 12:16. (RS)
14 1 Kin. 1:11–31.
15 1 Kin. 2:22 (RSV).
16 1 Kin. 2:25.
17 1 Kin. 1:11–31.
18 Gen. 37:26–27 (RSV).
19 Gen. 39:7–13.
20 Gen. 17:17.
21 Gen. 25:21.
22 Gen. 30:1.
23 Gen. 38:7–11.
24 Gen. 16–17.
25 Gen. 27.
26 Gen. 48:17–19.
27 Gen. 27:16.
28 Gen. 38:14–15.
29 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: a Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), p. 421.
30 Gen. 49:8–12.
31 Gen: 49:10.


Anderson, Bernhard Word. The Beginning of History: Genesis. New York: Abingdon Press. 1963.
Anderson, Bernhard Word. The Old Testament and Christian Faith. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
Anderson, Bernhard Word. Understanding the Old Testament. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice–Hall, Inc., 1975.
Bright, John. A history of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981.
Eisseldt, Otto. The Old Testament: An Introduction. Trans. Peter R. Ackroyd. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Ellis, Peter. The Yahwist – The Bible’s First Tehologian. Notre Dame, Indiana: Fides Publishers, Inc., 1968.
Fohrer, Georg. Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968.
Hahn, Herbert Ferdinand. The Old Testament in Modern Research. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.
The Interpreter’s Bible, Commentary Editor George Arthur Buttrick, New York: Abingdon Press.
Newman, Murray Lee. The People of the Covenant. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962.
Noth, Marin. A History of Pentateuchal Traditions. Trans. Bernhard W. Anderson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice–Hall, Inc., 1972.
Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis A Commentary. Trans. John H. Marks. London: SCM Press, 1961.
Rad, Gehard von. Old Testament Theology. Trans. David Stalker. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Rad, Gerhard von. The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays. Rev. E. W. Trueman Dicken. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1966.


Photo: Judah and Tamar, Museum Residenz Galerie Salzburg (
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