TBibliotheca Sacra 135 (July-Sept. 1977) 228-37
Copyright © 1977 by
History and Tradition
Part II: Abraham the Prince
Donald J. Wiseman
In the previous article in this series it was suggested that Abra-
ham's designation as "the Hebrew" marked him not as a semi-
nomad, but as a resident-alien (rG) newly arrived in the land, who
took active and public steps to take possession of land granted him
by divine covenant-promise.1 He was in effect taking over "by faith"
the area known later as Judah.2
ABRAHAM AS A POLITICAL LEADER
This leads to a study of his ascription as "Abraham the prince"
(Gen. 23: 5, AV) or the xyWn, a title given by a group of foreigners
living among the Canaanites who also held land rights in the same
region de facto.3 This was after Abraham had lived in the area for
sixty-two years (cf. Gen. 12:4; ; 23:1) when the "sons of
Heth" (Hittites) under Ephron who owned the field and cave of
Macpelah in a district of Canaan treated Abraham with respect as
the head of a clan residing as their neighbors.
"We look on you as a mighty leader (Myhlx xyWn) among us"
(Gen. 23:6), they said, and there is no hint that Abraham's dealings
with them were unexpected, insincere, or contrary to accepted local
1 Donald J. Wiseman, "Abraham the Hebrew," Bibliotheca Sacra 134
2 With the
defeat of the coalition of kings near
be regarded as succeeding them "as far as Dan" (Gen. 14:14), thus taking
over the rest of the Promised Land.
3 Cf. Genesis 25:16 and Numbers 7. The title was later extended to the
chief representatives of the Israelite tribes in state and religious groupings
(Gen. 17:20; Num. 1:16; 1 Kings 8:1).
Abraham the Prince / 229
custom. Whether this phrase is taken as a superlative4 or as an
acknowledgement of his affiliation to God ("a xyWn of God") by
men of another religion,5 the use of the term xyWn clearly denotes a
position of dignity and leadership.6 It is similarly used in early texts
of the chiefs of the Midianites (Josh. ; Num. 25:18) and
(Gen. 34:2), which, with
in the promise made to Abraham (17:4-8). The title is later applied
to David7 and Solomon (1 Kings ) as to the chief political
authority, comparable to the later "king" (j`lm) (Exod. ).
Moreover, the suggestion that the term may well include the
idea of official selection by the people8 would be appropriate in a
situation where ten named ethnic groups all lay claim to adjacent
territory in the same area as that promised to Abraham (Gen.
-21).9 Such groups would normally make local alliances for
defence as did Abraham during the time of the
covenant-association with Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner specified as
part of the local "Amorites" (, 21).10 By such an agreement
the parties rendered themselves liable to provide forces to assist an
injured colleague.1l That Abraham was the acknowledged leader on
this occasion may also be shown by reference to them as dependent
on Abraham's division of the spoil (), and to him is attributed
both the reception of the intelligence information and the military
leadership in which his initiative and stratagem culminated in a
surprise night attack resulting in, complete victory.12 He was
4 D. W. Thomas, "A Consideration of Some Unusual Ways of Expressing
the Superlative in Hebrew," Vetus Testamentum 3 (1953):210-19.
5 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (
1942), p. 644.
6 E. A. Speiser, "Background and Function of the Biblical Nasi" Catholic
Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963): 111-19.
applying the title to
as commonly suggested, because the kingship of
tradition of the title applied to persons in a subordinate position under a
8 Speiser, "Background and Function of the Biblical Nasi," p. 115.
9 The "
1:4; Judges 4:13; 1 Kings 4:21).
10 M. Liverani, "The Amorites" in Peoples of Old Testament Times, ed.
D. J. Wiseman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 124.
11 D. J.
Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon (
12 A. Malamat, "Conquest of Canaan: Israelite Conduct of War according
to the Biblical Tradition," in Encyclopedia Judaica Year Book 1975/6 (1977),
230 / Bibliotheca Sacra -- July-September 1977
acknowledged as leader of the group both by the king of
solely from his affinity to Lot whose cause he was espousing.
It was, however, not only those living within the bounds of the
land promised to Abraham by the covenant land-grant who reacted
to Abraham as the leader of the group occupying defined territory.
Abraham is portrayed as the head of a substantial family group who
acquired possessions and dependents before entering
(Gen. 12:5). He was a person of independent means, well able to
provide for his family (cf. 24:22). His wealth was increased by
given by the king of
called "a very rich man" (13:2). The Hebrew dbK here also de-
notes the honor and respect due to a man of high position, thus
demonstrating that he was not simply a poor wanderer.
ABRAHAM'S STATUS BEFORE PHARAOH
Difficult though the episode in
Abraham was still held in awe by the royal household there even
after the so-called "deception of an innocent pharaoh" was known
(Gen. 12:10-20). A major Egyptian ruler would have dismissed
an insignificant foreigner without recompense. This accords with the
evidence of the attitude of other external rulers to him, and it may
be questioned whether this really was the "low moral point" in
his life or that the story was invented to show the "climax of God's
intervention and deliverance in the face of Abraham's failure which
accounts for its popularity."13 The act of going to
corn to save life is not of itself classed as a sign of lack of faith.14
It would appear to have been a deliberate and regular practice of
Abraham while abroad to refer to Sarai as his "sister" (Gen. 12: 14 )
could be related to his description of
(), as his "brother" (vyHx; ; cf. 13:8), which in the
context could be "ally" -- a person in association with Abraham on
a covenant basis15 who had been given, in effect, a preferential
13 Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. "Abraham," by L. Hicks, .
14 Cf. Genesis
15 Genesis 29:12 is probably to be interpreted in a similar way rather than
as "person of the same class" or status. Thomas L. Thompson, in The His-
toricity of the Patriarchal Narratives (
298), argues that the phrase in Genesis 14:4 is probably a priestly addition
to make the story fit the "priestly" view of the relationship of Abraham and
I. Andersen, "Israelite Kinship Terminology and Social Structure," Bible
Translator 20 (1969): 29-39.
Abraham the Prince / 231
choice in the inheritance of the land as if he were a true eldest son
(13:9-11, 15). Similarly, the use of "sister" for Sarai might have
been intended to denote a special covenant relationship, as if she
had independent rights and responsibilities which might be expected
to be exercised in revenge if the life of the allied party was at risk,
though being a woman, and a beauty, Abraham was well aware
whose life was most at risk (-14)! It is also possible that
Abraham could have called Sarai his (half-)sister legally ()
on the parallel of the marriage of Abraham's brother Nahor to
Any supposed parallel with Hurrian wife-sister marriages17
is to be rejected.18 Also any relationship with the ancient Egyptian
practice of royal weddings between brother and sister is unlikely
since this was confined to the Egyptians and there is no evidence
a marriage between a king of
ruler from south
ment.19 However, in view of the strong later tradition that Sarai was
faithful to both her husband and his God (Isa. 51:2)20 it may be
questioned whether this episode is yet adequately interpreted.21 For
the present purpose it is sufficient to note that Abraham's status in
the eyes of a powerful foreign king was such that he had to be
adequately compensated and not simply expelled. Both Sarai and
(Gen. 12:17) rightly rejected any association with
16 E. A. Speiser, Genesis, The
Anchor Bible (
the granddaughter of Abraham's brother, Nahor (Gen. 24:15), the difference
in generation being accounted for by the advanced age of Abraham and
Sarah at Isaac's birth. Such meticulous description would be unexpected if
the composition of this chapter were as late as some suppose.
17 E. A. Speiser, "The Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives," in
Biblical and Other Studies, Studies and Texts, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Altmann
(Waltham, MA: Advanced Judaic Studies, Brandeis University, 1963), pp.
15-28 (esp. p. 25).
18 C. J. Mullo-Weir, "The Alleged Hurrian Wife-Sister Motif in Genesis,"
and Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, pp. 233-34.
Cf. S. Greengus, "Sisterhood Adoption at Nuzi and the 'Wife-Sister' in
19 This was always between members of the same Egyptian royal family.
Also treaty marriages involve the daughter of one party.
20 Cf. also Hebrews 11:11 and 1 Peter 3:6.
21 If taken as an example of a sin of Abraham this would be further
evidence of an early rather than a late source for the tradition. In the latter
it would have been explained in such a way as not to impugn the character
of Abraham as a man of courage.
232 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1977
ABRAHAM'S STATUS BEFORE ABIMELECH
There is evidence too that another foreign ruler, Abimelech,
king of Gerar "in the land of the Philistines," was prepared to deal
with Abraham as one of equal status and to enter with him into a
covenant-treaty which included provision of territorial rights (Gen.
). It is more likely that this was conceived as an inter-state
relationship rather than an inter-individual relationship since, when
the terms were considered to have been broken by Abimelech's
unwitting action over Sarah, the divine curses which guarded such
agreements were thought to fall not merely on Abimelech as an
individual but on his city-state (20:7, 9) and the penalties to be
paid publicly are duly prescribed ().22 The solemn agree-
ment made by Abimelech and his army commander with Abraham
bears the hallmarks of an ancient parity treaty which included
provisions whereby the parties had to keep each other informed of
transgression of border or well rights (-27). Once again Abi-
melech's fear of Abraham is brought out by the clauses prohibiting
the latter's interference with his dynasty or his kingdom which he
must have envisaged as in Abraham's power to do (-23). This
may be further evidence of Abraham being already thought of as
representing a group of "state-equivalents." It is unlikely that Abra-
ham is here treated as of "vassal" status and he would therefore have
demanded at least equivalent terms.23 The treaty-covenant, custom-
arily envisaged as enduring for the forseeable future,24 remained in
force at least until its ratification in the time of Isaac (26:28-29)
and possibly until the time of Samson (Judg. 13:1).
Exception has been taken by some to the mention of "Phili-
stines" in the patriarchal period (Gen. 21:32, 34; 26:1, 8, 14-18).
These references are classed as anachronisms since, it is argued,
sea-peoples did not settle in southwest
1200 B.C. when they resided in a pentapolis led by lords (Mynrs).25
should be noted that contacts between the
22 The omission of the weight in "a thousand pieces [shekels] of silver"
(Gen. 20: 16) was common in sources earlier than the late Middle Babylonian
period, as was the qualification "of the merchants" (Bab. sa damqarim) of
23 E.g., D.
J. Wiseman, The Alalakh
24 Further study is needed on the time-duration envisaged by all covenant-
transactions. Note the "forever" in divine covenants (Gen. 3:22, Adam; ,
Abraham; Deut. 11:1, Moses; 2 Sam. 7:13, David; etc.).
25 John van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (
Abraham the Prince / 233
(Kaptar, Heb. rvTpK), which was their place of origin or transit,
mentioned in Egyptian and
nium,26 and Middle Minoan II pottery is found at Hazor,
texts ca. 1200 B.C., together with other sea-peoples (Kreti = Chere-
thites) and the Genesis references could well be to "Philistines" used
in a confederate sense.27 It is by no means unlikely that in the
prevailing situation of mixed ethnic groups some Philistines should
have been there already long enough to bear a mixture of Semitic
(Abi-melek, Ahuzzat) and non-Semitic (Phicol, possibly Anatolian)
personal names28 and to conclude treaties according to formulae
and procedures long attested throughout the ancient Near East.29
ABRAHAM AS A GOVERNOR
The status of Abraham can be examined further, for it may not
be without significance that Abraham as a leader (xyWn) undertook
the responsibilities normally associated with the ruler of a small
state or with that of a provincial governor appointed by a great
king. The role of the latter in the second millennium B.C. is reason-
ably well known from the Mari correspondence.30 His title sapitum
(Heb. Fpw) denotes "the one who governs" on behalf of the
supreme ruler who has given him the office. Such a person was
customarily addressed as "lord," being a superior person of dignity
(as Abraham was addressed by the Hittites, Gen. 23: 6, 11, 15)
who worked through a chief steward who had wide administrative
powers (as did Abraham through Eliezer, Gen. 15:2 ). The office
title of sapitum occurs in the
be the form perpetuated in
regional "governors" (a better translation than "judges," Judg.
2: 16-18). The latter, like Abraham, were held to be sub-governors
26 K. A. Kitchen, "The Philistines," in Peoples of Old Testament Times, ed.
D. J. Wiseman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 56-57.
27 T. C.
ed. D. Winton Thomas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), pp. 406-13. A
similar situation arises with references to early Ahlamu-Ar(a)maya-Arameans.
28 Kitchen, "The Philistines," p. 72, footnote 24.
29 Compare the treaty between Ebrum of Ebla with Duddiya of Assur ca.
30 A. Marzal, "The Provincial Governor at Mari: His Title and Appoint-
ment," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 30 (1971):186-217.
31 Giovanni Pettinato to Donald J. Wiseman,
234 / Bibliotheca Sacra -July-September 1977
acknowledging the Lord God as "the supreme Governor of all the
earth" (Gen. 18:25; cf. Judg. ). The extent of the governor-
ship varies according to local requirements and conditions, though
it was always geographically defined.32 In exercising their responsi-
bilities some governors worked through local chiefs (abu bitim =
"father of the house" [clan]), who could administer territories in.
the name of the local king or deity.33 Provincial governors were
usually granted lands by the overlord for their maintenance in lieu
of salary. This may have significance for understanding the full pur-
pose of the divine land-grant made to Abraham and his successors.
The responsibilities and duties of the governors differed little
from those of the local city-state rulers, who were occasionally em-
ployed in a similar role.34 These included the following:
Using limited local forces, including mercenaries, the governor
had to maintain law and order within his designated area. Similar
reflected in Abraham's action with the men of
13:7), and at
(). As at Mari, he also had to deal with cases of involuntary
deportation. Abraham's employment of his 318 MykynH together with
supplied by his allies to recover
The governor as "judge" would act on behalf of the great king
in local decisions, especially matters of land disputes (cf. Gen.
13:7). As judge he would sit alone or in the gate with the local
elders (cf. ). This role is clearly seen in the express responsi-
bility laid on Abraham to order his family and "clan-group" to fol-
low him in "keeping the way of the LORD" by "exercising justice and
law" (). Righteousness (hqdc) and judgment (Fpwm) mark
both the ideal (divine) role of God as the supreme Ruler as also
it should those to whom He gives such responsibilities as His
subgovernors. They themselves will be judged according to their
fulfillment of the revealed divine standard. Here "the way of the
32 J. R. Kupper, "Un gouvernement provincal dans le royaume de Mari,"
Revue d'Assyriologie 41 (1947):161.
33 A. Marzal,"The Provincial Governor at Mari," p. 213.
34 Ibid., p. 202 (piqittum).
35 The "trained retainers" (Gen. 14:14) were probably of Egyptian origin.
If so, this would also illustrate the use of "mercenaries" for guard duties as
attested in texts of all periods.
Abraham the Prince / 235
LORD" (, a rare singular; cf. Judg. 2:22; 2 Kings 21:22;
Prov. ; Isa. 40:3; Ezek. ) may stand for the unified
concept of law later indicated by Torah. The implementation of
righteousness calls for its application in every aspect of life, indi-
vidually and collectively in both legal, economic, and religious affairs
which were considered indivisible.36 The emphasis here is on the
administration of the law including customary law (Fpwm). The
maintenance of justice, distinguishing between right and wrong, was
an aspect of governorship as it is of every man's life which is con-
tinually being assessed by God.37
COLLECTING TAXES AND TRIBUTE
The collection of dues and the forwarding of them to a higher
authority was a time-consuming work for any governor. This in-
cluded any payments made to the local cult-center whose mainte-
nance was also his concern. There he would be present when an
oath before the god was taken when a new official was appointed or
a local covenant or agreement was ratified. Both these aspects may
be seen in the incident of Melchizedek. If the words, "he gave him
a tithe of everything" (Gen. 14:20), are interpreted as Abraham
tenth of the spoil to the priest-king of
of the identity of El Elyon with Yahweh (as traditionally interpreted
according to Heb. 7:4, 10), it requires that emphasis be placed on
Abraham dedicating something that was not his alone. Otherwise,
it would seem to contradict Genesis 14:22-24. Elsewhere references
to Melchizedek refer to the eternal nature of his royal priesthood.38
Also the tenth (rWfm) is often, but not invariably, used of a
sacred payment39 and compared with the skm used of a levy on war
spoils (Num. 31:28) .40 It is unlikely, though grammatically possi-
ble, that Genesis 14:20 could refer to the
Abraham a tithe as to his acknowledged superior. It is to be noted
that in Babylonian texts the tithe (esirtu, esretu) is used of a levy
36 D. J. Wiseman, "Law and Order in Old Testament Times," Vox
Evangelica 8 (1973):5-21.
37 Ibid., pp. 5-6.
38 Psa110:4; Hebrews 5:6, 10; ; -21.
39 J. A, Emerton, "The Riddle of Genesis XIV," Vetus Testamentum 21
Orienta1ia 43 (1974):3-65.
40 Cf. the Akkadian miksu ("transit-tax") usually exacted by provinces
and primarily from merchants (J. N. Postgate, Taxation and Conscription in
Assyrian Empire [
236 / Bibliotheca Sacra --July-September 1977
paid on goods in transit (miksu) (and by the later first millennium
it was used of a tax on field produce, which cannot apply here).41
Genesis 14 has been the subject of much discussion, with the
Melchizedek incident (-20) regarded as secondary and inter-
rupting the narrative.42 Subjective analysis of the literary style has
resulted in varying attributions and dating of the sources.43 Yet to
conclude as some do that "consideration of Genesis 14 has generally
been given up as historical"44 or that the chapter "appears as an
erratic block and is more a hindrance than a help to the historian"45
is to overlook the inadequacies of any attempt to blend the so-
called "heroic" elements with "historiographic" passages.46 For the
present it needs to be stressed that Genesis 14 does not demand a
symbolic interpretation whereby Abraham is shown as confronting
"a world empire."47 Abraham is described in terms which accord
with the early second millennium and do not fit in with our present
knowledge of the later periods as sometimes proposed for the
chapter. For example, the Genesis 14 incident would hardly have
been meaningful or feasible after 1000 B.C. and certainly not after
reformation of the provincial system in
carried out by Tiglath-pileser III in 740-734 B.C.48 It is possible that
the role of Melchizedek was primarily that of mediator between
the king of
settlement and division of the spoils, the bread and wine being
symbols commemorating the conclusion of treaty-covenants.49 Abra-
ham publicly declared that he would not take anything of the spoils
himself but assured the recovery of
and the share of the spoils for Abraham's allies, with the women
children returned to
42 Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition, pp. 121-22; J. A. Emerton,
"Some False Clues in the Study of Genesis XIV," Vetus Testamentum 21
(1971):24-47; cf. p. 412.
43 From an early historical source to P, JE, or D to a late Jewish Midrash
(Emerton, Abraham in History and Tradition, pp. 407-25).
44 Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, p. 186.
45 Roland de
Vaux, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (
Longman, and Todd, 1972), p. 117.
46 Emerton, Abraham in History and Tradition, pp. 431-32.
47 M. C. Astour, "Political and Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis 14 and Its
Babylonian Sources," in Biblical Motifs: Origins and Transformations, ed.
Alexander Altmann (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), pp.
65-112; but for an opposing view see Emerton, Abraham in History and
Tradition, pp. 38-46.
A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (
Press, 1966), p. 45; H. W. F. Saggs, "The
Relations with the West,"
49 D. Wiseman, "The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon," p. 39, lines 153-54.
Abraham the Prince / 237
The governor was also involved through agents in commercial
activity, and such may be reflected in a few of the indications from
which it was once argued that Abraham was a merchant-prince.50
In this activity a governor would acquire knowledge of activities in
bordering territories, especially of events which might effect internal
security. He had to keep his superior power informed of these, as of
the passage of foreigners and messengers through his area. It was
on this basis that Abraham intervened on behalf of oppressed loyal
("righteous") subjects. In his plea before the great "Governor of all
lands" (Gen. 18:22-33) Abraham is likewise concerned not only
impending action to be taken against
justified on the grounds of rebellion against the great King and the
justice He requires) but also with the fate of the members of his
own family-group for which he was responsible.
In furthering his responsibilities as a whole, a governor had to
provide accommodations for (and to welcome the" escorts of) his
visiting king, foreigners of note, and any important dignitaries who
might pass through his territory.51 This lies behind Abraham's
entertainment of the three men at his principal base at Mamre
(18: 1-21 ). The aged patriarch treated his visitors with the respect
due to those he would recognize as his superiors ("my lord," Gen.
18:3, 27, 30-31), especially to their leader. He provided the two
messengers with information, an escort, and probably provisions
when he "went with them to set them on their way" ().
This outline study has sought to suggest that Abraham, while
ruling his own family and house, acted as a princely ruler and leader
exercising the equivalent functions of a respected governor owing
allegiance in all matters to the great King. In this he stands in
direct succession to the kingly role of Adam and as a true prede-
cessor to Moses and David. There is nothing inconsistent in the
Abrahamic narratives which demands, as some would suggest, that
this is a late interpretation of the patriarch's role.
50 Cyrus H. Gordon, "Abraham and the Merchants of Ura," Journal of
Near Eastern Studies 17 (1958):28-31; but for an opposing view see H. W. F.
51 M. Birot, Lettres de Yaqqim-Addu, gouverneur de Sagaratum, Archives
Royales de Mari XIV (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1974), nos. 19, 31, 97-120.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Dr. Roy Zuck
Please report any errors to Ted