The Story of Ezer and Elead (and What It Means for the Exodus)

Tucked away amidst the genealogies of Chronicles almost no one reads, the tale of two cattle-rustling brothers from Ephraim might just be the most obscure story in the Bible. Like many such tales in the Old Testament, this one is brief and contains only the most essential details:

The sons of Ephraim…Ezer and Elead. Now the men of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him. He went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son; and he named him Beriah, because evil (beraah) had befallen his house. His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. (1 Chr. 7:20-24)

In its larger context, the Chronicler is describing the family trees of the tribes and clans of Israel. Here, after listing the descendants of Ephraim’s first son Shuthelah, he relates a folktale about Ephraim’s second and third sons¹, named Ezer and Elead, who “go down” to Gath one day — that is, they descend from the hill country of Ephraim to the coastal plain of Gath — in order to steal the Gittites’ cattle. Some locals catch them in the act, and they are executed for their crimes. Ephraim, their father, mourns them for many days, and when his wife bears him another son sometime later, the child is given the name “Beriah” (which resembles the Hebrew word for “evil”) to remind the family of their loss. Such folk etymologies are common in Bible stories, though rarely (if ever) true. Beriah’s daughter Sheerah must have been a remarkable woman, for she founds three Ephraimite cities. Even more significantly, the national hero Joshua is born nine generations later, Beriah’s direct descendant (v. 27).

Perhaps you have already spotted the problem. Whatever the Chronicler’s sources, he is giving a version of Ephraim’s history in which the sojourn in Egypt and the exodus never took place! This is not the Ephraim who was born to Joseph in Egypt (Gen 41:52), and whose descendants spent 400 years in Egypt and another 40 in the wilderness before conquering the land of Ephraim². Although Chronicles is usually seen as a late work, this tradition seems to pre-date the canonical Pentateuch, portraying Ephraim and his immediate family as indigenous settlers of the land named after him³. In her commentary on Chronicles, Sara Japhet writes:

…the story as a literary work deals with the individual Ephraim, the son of Joseph – an approach emphasized by ‘their father’, ‘his brothers’, ‘his wife’, etc. The events described transpired in the land; this is where the historical emphasis of the narrative lies. The depiction of Ephraim as a real individual, settled in the land, is not a passing remark here but a fundamental element, and this is true also of ‘his brothers’, whose coming to comfort Ephraim in his grief reminds the reader of the story of Job’s friends…. Furthermore Ephraim’s daughter Sheerah is the builder of three cities, two of which are well-known Ephraimite localities. … The individual Ephraim, his sons, brothers, wife and daughter, are all here in the land, and as a person he could not have lived in both Egypt and Israel. The close bond established between Joseph and the land should be regarded as the Chronicler’s alternative to the Hexateuch tradition. (pp. 181-182)

Locations mentioned in the story of Ezer and Elead

Geography of Ephraim and the story of Ezer and Elead

The Aramean Heritage of Manasseh

The tale of Ezer and Elead isn’t the only biblical text oblivious to the exodus. When we look at the genealogy of Manasseh in the same chapter of 1 Chronicles (7:14-19), we see the same paradigm in effect. The Chronicler presents the tribe of Manasseh as having a strong Aramean character, for both of Manasseh’s sons are born to his Aramean concubine, Gilead’s wife⁴ has the Aramean name Maacah, and Manasseh’s daughter has the Aramean name Hammolecheth. In other words, the Chronicler describes a family whose women are all Aramean, implying the tribe itself is half Aramean — which makes sense, given its location in northeast Israel near the Aramean kingdoms, but only if we ignore the Pentateuchal story, in which Manasseh and many generations of his offspring live their entire lives in Egypt. As Japhet notes:

The Chronicler, by contrast, conceives of the bond between the Manassites and the Aramaeans as going back to the person of Manasseh himself. …ignoring the intermediate phase of sojourn in Egypt, it presents a continuity of territorial occupation. (p. 178)

It is, in fact, the same with all the Chronicler’s genealogies. At every step of the way, from the tribal patriarch down the line, these names, ostensibly presented as individuals, actually represent ethnic groups and place-names in Palestine; the Chronicler structures his genealogies according to his understanding of real-world geographic and ethnic relationships. It is impossible to conceive that these complex relations, including ties with non-Israelite neighbors, originated during a four-century period of slavery in Egypt.

Excursus on Asriel, son of Manasseh

There’s something else of interest in Manasseh’s genealogy. The Chronicler gives the patriarch Asriel a prominent place as Manasseh’s first-born son. In the Pentateuchal version (Num 26:31), by contrast, he is merely a fourth-generation descendant.

Who is Asriel? There are no stories about him, and no towns or regions by that name. According to André Lemaire (see references), who conducted a linguistic study of the spellings found in the Hebrew and Greek versions as well as two Samarian ostraca and several ancient stelae, Asriel is simply a spelling variant of Israel. He survives as a cultural memory of the original tribe of Israel first mentioned by the Merneptah Stele as Ysrir. The tribe’s territory lay on the border between Manasseh and Ephraim and probably included the religious sanctuary at Shiloh. In time, its name became synonymous with the kingdom of Israel, whose core territory consisted of Ephraim and Manasseh. These origins are lost in the exodus story, which makes Israel the ancestor of all twelve patriarchs in Egypt.

Arent de Gelder, Judah and Tamar (1681)

Arent de Gelder, Judah and Tamar (1681)

Judah Settles in Canaan

More examples of biblical traditions that preclude the Egyptian sojourn can be found, and not just in Chronicles. We have a strange story about Judah in Genesis 38 that disrupts the story of Joseph’s abduction and rise to power in Egypt. Abandoning his brothers, Judah settles in Canaan, finds a wife, and has several sons. His two oldest sons are killed by Yahweh in adulthood — Er for unspecified wickedness, and Onan for failing to fulfill sexual obligations toward his brother’s widow Tamar⁵. When Judah withholds his third son from Tamar, she poses as a prostitute and seduces Judah, producing twin sons. These events take place in various Judahite towns and clearly tie Judah and his descendants to that land. The chronology is irreconcilable with the exodus story. Egyptologist Donald Redford (see references) writes:

There is no time span between the end of chapter 37 and the beginning of chapter 39…to justify the presence of a digression. And yet the only reasonable explanation of the present order of the chapters must be chronological: chapter 38 could not follow the Joseph Story, since Judah is then in Egypt for the rest of his life, while the setting of 38 is in Palestine. It could not precede the Joseph Story, for Judah is an old grandfather at the close of 38, while at the outset of the Joseph Story he is still a young man. It should here be noted that no matter where chapter 38 be placed an insurmountable difficulty remains. Judah is there pictured as himself an aged patriarch, peacefully settled in Palestine. In the Joseph Story, however, he remains among the brothers and is apparently without wife or children, i.e. is still a young man. (p. 17)

The Exodus and Archaeology

One of the most significant developments in biblical archaeology over the past several decades is the near-universal conclusion, based on physical evidence, that the biblical exodus story never actually took place. Despite a few conservative holdouts, nearly all experts agree that the evidence from Palestine shows Israel developing in full cultural, material, and linguistic continuity with its Canaanite forebears; on the other side of the coin, there is zero evidence for Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, a large-scale migration through Sinai, or a violent conquest of Canaan. As archaeologist William Dever recently wrote:

To make a long story short, today not a single mainstream biblical scholar or archaeologist any longer upholds “biblical archaeology’s” conquest model. Various theories of indigenous origins prevail, in which case there is neither room nor need for an exodus of significant proportions. To put it succinctly, if there was no invasion of Canaan by an “Exodus group,” then there was no Exodus. …the ancestors of the majority of ancient Israelites and Judeans had never been in Egypt. They were essentially Canaanites, displaced both geographically and ideologically. (Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, p. 404)

It is, perhaps, surprising how long it took for archaeologists and biblical scholars to arrive at this conclusion, when diverse and irreconcilable versions of Israel’s origins have been present in the Bible all along. For the majority of the Bible’s existence, however, interpretation has been entrusted to those who assumed there had to be a harmonized reading that made sense of it all. Rabbinical commentators had a variety of creative (if implausible) explanations for most discrepancies they found, and “Bible answer books” that propose solutions to the most obvious difficulties continue to find audiences today — particularly in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. But for those who take the Bible seriously, the findings of archaeology and other scientific fields can no longer be ignored; and the findings, though startling for many Christians, have freed us at last to read the text with a renewed open mind.

David Roberts, Departure of the Israelites, between 1827 and 1829

David Roberts, Departure of the Israelites, between 1827 and 1829


Special thanks to regular commenter John Kesler for inspiring this article!

Footnotes

  1. Possibly Ephraim’s eldest son Shuthelah is included, but this seems unlikely, since an important line of descendants goes through him, and his name is separated from Ezer and Elead in the text.
  2. The names of the sons of Ephraim listed by the Chronicler don’t even match those given in the Pentateuch (Num 26:35-36). The Chronicler’s version may be older, since Ephraim’s son Becher in Num 26:35 seems to originate as a son of Benjamin (Gen 46:21, 1 Chr 7:6).
  3. The reality, of course, is that eponymous ancestors are fictional characters named after the territories or tribes they represent.

  4. Here, I’m going by Japhet’s interpretation of the somewhat corrupted text.

  5. Er died childless, and a tribal tradition similar to  levirate marriage required the next brother to have sex with the widow and impregnate her (actual marriage was apparently not required; see Westermann, Genesis, p. 269). 1 Chronicles 4:21–22 has another version of the Judah tradition that makes Er the grandson of Judah with offspring of his own. Nevertheless, the Chronicler’s version still places Judah’s immediate family in the region of Judah; Er, for example, is the founder (“father”) of Lecah, his brother is the founder of Mareshah, and other family members establish the linen industry at Beth-ashbea.

References

Sara Japhet, I and II Chronicles (Old Testament Library), 1993.

André Lemaire, “Asriel, Sr’1, Israel et l’origine de la confédération israélite”, VT 23, 1973.

Donald B. Redford, A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph (Genesis 37–50), 1970.

William G. Dever, “The Exodus and the Bible: What Was Known; What Was Remembered; What Was Forgotten?”, Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, 2015.

Additional Reading

Dr. Rabbi David Frankel, “The Book of Chronicles and the Ephraimites that Never Went to Egypt

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26 thoughts on “The Story of Ezer and Elead (and What It Means for the Exodus)

  1. “diverse and irreconcilable versions of Israel’s origins have been present in the Bible all along. ”

    Yes, but as the bible is inerrant that just means that all contradictory accounts are still equally true if you compartmentalize enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Peter, one of the regular readers here, pointed my attention to a post that shows a discrepancy in what the Bible claims about Jacob’s descendants spending 400+ years in Egypt. I won’t try to summarize it here — I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Just check it out for yourself: https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/the-story-of-ezer-and-elead-and-what-it-means-for-… […]

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  3. Paul wrote: Special thanks to regular commenter John Kesler for inspiring this article!

    You are welcome. Thanks for all the thought-provoking articles you produce. The only thing is, Paul, you showed how fast you can write one, so we’ll expect them to appear more frequently now. 😉

    …Asriel a prominent place as Manasseh’s first-born son. In the Pentateuchal version (Num 26:34)…

    Do you mean verse 31?

    The chronology [of Genesis 38] is irreconcilable with the exodus story.

    It’s even worse than Redford states, because we learn that Perez, one of Judah’s sons by Tamar, had sons named Hezron and Hamul (Numbers 26:21; 1 Chronicles 2:5; Genesis 46:12). The last passage is the most damaging to Bible inerrancy, because Genesis 46 lists Hezron and Hamul as part of the 70/75 members of the house of Jacob who entered Egypt (vv:8, 27). The problem is that there is no way to squeeze in enough time between Genesis 38 and Judah’s grandsons’ entry into Egypt, since only 22 years elapsed in the life of Joseph (cf, Genesis 37:2f, 41:46f, 45:6).

    As somewhat of an aside, the Chronicler mentions that some Israelites came out of Egypt (1 Chron. 17:21; 2 Chron. 5:10, 6:5, and 7:22), but he gives no numbers or states when this occurred, and he omits the chronological marker in 1 Kings 6:1a (cf. 2 Chron 3:1-2).

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    • Do you mean verse 31?

      Yes, thanks. Corrected. Good point about Hezron and Hamul as well!

      The Chronicler clearly knows the Pentateuch and exodus story in some form, but he doesn’t treat them as authoritatively as some of his other sources.

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  4. Even I picked up on the Judah thing long ago; he can’t live out his life both in Canaan and in Egypt. This other stuff was new to me, though.

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  5. Very insightful post.

    This highlights why the bible is so interesting!! Not because it is the inerrant dictation of a god but because it is a tapestry of legends, fables, truths, lies and at times the whispers of a long forgotten people who’s stories snuck past the scribes.

    Forget overated Sherlock on bbc – the bible is where the real mysteries are at!

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      • By coincidence, I just wrote another article for consideration by my local newspaper in which I make the argument that the Bible is much more than people realize. If anyone is interesting in reading a published article–keep in mind I’m writing for the general public–go to tinyurl.com/keslergazette1.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. You know, this article reminds me of something I noticed a while back–but I am not an anthropologist or a scholar.

    The “children of Eber” took possession of the Promised Land no fewer than three times!

    1. When Abraham moved in from Ur of the Chaldeans.

    2. When Jacob (Israel) and his sons moved in from Paddan-Aram.

    3. When Joshua led the Israelites there from their massive trek in the desert.

    What does this mean? Aramaic (Syrian) was spoken more consistently by the “Hebrews” than Hebrew was; does the legend of Israel deriving from Paddam-Aram reflect some tradition of the Israelites deriving from Syria?

    Similarly, Abraham coming from the land of the Chaldeans seems ironic (just as his alliance with the king of the Philistines is). Is there a historical reason he comes from there?

    And, of course, the massive, mighty nation of Israel pouring out from Egypt in a nearly-perfectly formed manner…surely this must mean that SOMEBODY came from Egypt. Is there a tradition that there had been some sort of migration from there?

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    • The main reason Abraham is said to come from somewhere other than Canaan is to “historically” establish that the Israelites were not Canaanites, even though, As Paul has mentioned, evidence suggests that they were. Why is Abraham specifically to by from Ur of Chaldeans? I’ll quote from Steven DiMattei at http://contradictionsinthebible.com/where-is-abrahams-birthplace.

      So P has radically shaped the narrative so that it now speaks to its exilic community, and has in short set Abraham up as a mirror and example for them to follow in their own present circumstance. They too are second generation Israelites in captivity in Babylon, who are returning to Canaan, with hopefully wives from their own people. The reference to Ur of Chaldeans is another give-away. The term Chaldeans as a synonym for Babylonia did not come into vogue until the 6th century BC. Thus the Priestly writer has painted Abraham in the same plight as his exilic audience. The main storyline of Abraham leaving upper Mesopotamia and migrating to the land promised by Yahweh to his descendants would have resonated with exilic Jews in Babylon as a narrative of hope and comfort.

      As far as the Exodus is concerned, I think that there was an exodus of Levites to Egypt, and this gave rise to the later notion that they and the native Canaanites/Israelites shared a common experience in Egypt. This is discussed at Peter Kirby’s BCH forum: http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=1533&start=20#p41160

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      • So my guess was on the right track. Abraham coming from “the Chaldeans” is related to the conquering and exile of Jerusalem by the Chaldean Empire. I imagine Abraham’s dealings with Abimelech, King of the Philistines, was specifically to have the Philistines acknowledge that Abraham (and by extension, the tribes) are the true inheritors of the Philistine land (despite the lack of archaeological evidence that the Hebrews ever controlled Gaza).

        As far as the Levites being the only tribe to enter Canaan from Egypt…this presupposes that the Levites were a “tribe” rather than a “profession.” I learned ON THIS WEBSITE that the ancient Levites were not actually a tribe. (They didn’t even get a piece of real estate in Joshua.) Still…the story had to come from somewhere.

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    • Several OT scholars have developed the theory that Samaria/Israel had two competing origin stories: the Aramean story (Jacob) and the Egyptian story. Abram was a folktale hero/patriarch in Judah. The compilers of Genesis and the hexateuch basically stitched all these patriarchal legends into one story, adding the Babylonian component to Abraham (as John describes above) and making everyone related to each other. I’ll try to write more on this eventually.

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  7. Andy Poe wroteAs far as the Levites being the only tribe to enter Canaan from Egypt…this presupposes that the Levites were a “tribe” rather than a “profession.” I learned ON THIS WEBSITE that the ancient Levites were not actually a tribe. (They didn’t even get a piece of real estate in Joshua.) Still…the story had to come from somewhere.

    You are referring to Paul’s article here: https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/the-twelve-or-so-tribes-of-israel at which he writes the following:

    There are reasons to think that “Levite” originally designated a member of a cultic profession rather than a clan or tribe member. For one thing, the name itself may mean “a person pledged for a debt or vow” (i.e. to a deity).³ In Judges 17:7, we have a Levite who is clearly said to be of the tribe of Judah, and his professional skills as a Levite priest are a focus of the story.⁴ In Exodus 4:14, Yahweh speaking to Moses calls his brother “Aaron the Levite”—an appellation that only makes sense if Levite is to be equated with a priestly caste or group rather than an ethnic group. Under this reasoning, we can assume that the idea of Levites being a tribe was a later innovation.

    If you follow the link to the BCH forum that I posted, you will see that I agree. See http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=1533&sid=9948838ca62ed65b41161199510c2da7&start=30#p41812

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    • Oh, I think I should have focused on clarity rather than on cheekiness.

      It would be easier for me to imagine an exodus of Levites from Egypt if the Levites were actually a tribe or a clan or some sort of cohesive sociocultural body. But the Levites weren’t this; they were a cultic profession. It’s more difficult for me to imagine a bunch of religious leaders hanging out with each other and all deciding to travel together than it is for me to imagine a nomadic or semi-nomadic nation deciding to seek their fortune elsewhere.

      For example, I am more likely to believe a history involving, say, the Navajo, relocating and bringing with them their language and legends than I am to believe, say, the just the “medicine men” making this relocation. This is what I am not understanding.

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  8. John wrote:It’s even worse than Redford states, because we learn that Perez, one of Judah’s sons by Tamar, had sons named Hezron and Hamul (Numbers 26:21; 1 Chronicles 2:5; Genesis 46:12). The last passage is the most damaging to Bible inerrancy, because Genesis 46 lists Hezron and Hamul as part of the 70/75 members of the house of Jacob who entered Egypt (vv:8, 27). The problem is that there is no way to squeeze in enough time between Genesis 38 and Judah’s grandsons’ entry into Egypt, since only 22 years elapsed in the life of Joseph (cf, Genesis 37:2f, 41:46f, 45:6).

    Paul replied …Good point about Hezron and Hamul as well!

    It get better: Look at 1 Chronicles 2:21-22:

    21 Afterward Hezron went in to the daughter of Machir father of Gilead, whom he married when he was sixty years old; and she bore him Segub; 22 and Segub became the father of Jair, who had twenty-three towns in the land of Gilead.

    How could Hezron have gone into Egypt with Jacob’s family (see above), yet have a grandson who received 23 cities after the conquest of Canaan! Plus note that Hezron is listed as only 60 when he married the daughter of Machir, and this was not his first wife or grandchildren–see v:9f.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Amazing. It’s remarkable to me how it is that preconceived notions can prevent literally *everyone* for hundreds or thousands of years from reading what it is that a text actually says.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Is William Dever a reliable scholar? I’ve seen several people I respect cite him, but the only thing of his was a video where he repeated the long-discredited canard that the word “Easter” derives from “Ishtar”, which made me write him off as a charlatan… Was I mistaken about him? Was that just a gaffe in an otherwise-respectable oeuvre?

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  11. Is William Dever a reliable scholar? I’ve seen several people I respect cite him, but the only thing of his I’ve seen was a video where he repeated the long-discredited canard that the word “Easter” derives from “Ishtar”, which made me write him off as a charlatan… Was I mistaken about him? Was that just a gaffe in an otherwise-respectable oeuvre?

    Like

    • William Dever is one of the most famous and respected biblical archaeologists in the world, and is known for being quite conservative. (That’s one reason why it was significant when even he abandoned the idea of an exodus and Canaanite conquest.)

      Like

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