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)
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.
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.
Special thanks to regular commenter John Kesler for inspiring this article!
- 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.
- 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).
The reality, of course, is that eponymous ancestors are fictional characters named after the territories or tribes they represent.
Here, I’m going by Japhet’s interpretation of the somewhat corrupted text.
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.
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.
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel, “The Book of Chronicles and the Ephraimites that Never Went to Egypt”