For most people, the 36th chapter of
Genesis is “unfamiliar
territory.” It is known more for being the chapter after Genesis 35 (in which details
are given about Jacob’s name
being changed to Israel) and before chapter 37 (where one can read about Joseph’s
brothers selling him into slavery).
Nowhere does Genesis 36 record the names of such patriarchs as Abraham, Isaac, or Joseph (and
Jacob is mentioned only once). Nor are
there any memorable stories from this portion of Genesis—of the kind that we learned in our
youth. Truly, the least-studied
chapter in the first book of the Bible seems to be Genesis 36—the genealogy of Esau.
Surprisingly, to some, this often-overlooked chapter contains one of the more controversial
phrases in the book. Genesis 36:31
states: “Now these were the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned
over the children of Israel”
(emp. added). According to skeptics and liberal theologians, the notation “before any king
reigned over the children of
Israel” points to the days of the monarchs. Dennis McKinsey declared in his book, Biblical
Errancy: “This passage
could only have been written after the first king began to reign…. It had to have been written
after Saul became king, while Moses, the
alleged author, lived long before Saul” (2000, p. 521). Paul Tobin also indicated that this
portion of the Bible “must
therefore have been written, at the very earliest, after the first Jewish King, Saul, began to
rule over the Israelites which was
around three centuries after the death of Moses” (2000). Tobin went on to ask (what he feels
certain cannot be answered): “
Now how could Moses have known that there would be kings that reigned over the Israelites?”
There actually are two logical reasons why Moses could mention future Israelite kingship.
First, Moses knew about the express
promises God had made both to Abraham and Jacob concerning the future kings of Israel. On one
occasion, God informed Abraham and Sarah
that many kings would be among their posterity. He promised Abraham saying, “I will bless her
[Sarah—EL] and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her
” (Genesis 17:16, emp. added). Years later (and just one chapter before the verse in
question), when God appeared to Jacob at
Bethel and changed his name to Israel, He said: “I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply;
a nation and a company of nations
shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body” (Genesis 35:11, emp.
added). The fact that Genesis 36:31
reads, “Now these were the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned
over the children of Israel”
(emp. added), does not mean this account must have been written by someone who lived after
the monarchy was introduced in
Israel. Rather, this statement was written with the promise in mind that kings would come
out of the loins of Abraham and Jacob,
and merely conveys the notion that Edom became a kingdom at an earlier time than Israel. Keil and
Delitzsch remarked: “Such a
thought was by no means inappropriate to the Mosaic age. For the idea, that Israel was destined to
grow into a kingdom with monarchs of
his own family, was a hope handed down to the age of Moses, which the long residence in Egypt was
well adapted to foster” (1996).
Furthermore, the placement of this parenthetical clause (“before any king reigned over the
children of Israel”) in 36:31
was exceedingly natural on the part of the sacred historian, who, having but a few
verses before (Gen 35:11) put on record
the divine promise to Jacob that “kings should come out of his loins,” was led to remark
the national prosperity and regal
establishment of the Edomites long before the organization of a similar order of things in Israel.
He could not help indulging such a
reflection, when he contrasted the posterity of Esau with those of Jacob from the standpoint of
the promise (Gen 25:23) [Jamieson, et
A second reason Moses is justified in having knowledge of Israelite kingship before it was
known experientially is because Moses was
inspired (John 5:46; Mark 12:26; cf. Exodus 20:1; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). For someone
to say that the author of Genesis
could not have been Moses, because the author spoke generally of Israelite kings prior to their
existence, totally ignores the fact
that Moses received special revelation from Heaven. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in
Deuteronomy 17:14-15. Here Moses
When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and
dwell in it, and say, “I will set
a king over me like all the nations that are around me,” you shall surely set a king over
you whom the Lord your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over
you, who is not your brother (emp.
Under normal circumstances, such foreknowledge would be impossible. One must keep in mind,
however, that “with God all things
are possible” (Matthew 19:26)—and God was with Moses (cf. Exodus 3:12; 6:2; 25:22).
Were a Christian to claim that Moses wrote Genesis without being inspired or without having
knowledge of the earlier promises made
to Abraham and Jacob about the future kingship of Israel, the critic might be correct in
concluding that Genesis 36:31 is
anachronistic. But, the truth is, a Christian’s faith is based on the fact the Bible writers
possessed supernatural revelation.
Thus, Moses’ superior knowledge is not a problem. Rather, it is to be expected.
Jamieson, Robert, et al. (1997), Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Bible Commentary
(Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1996), Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament
(Electronic Database: Biblesoft), new
McKinsey, C. Dennis (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Tobin, Paul N. (2000), “Mythological Element in the Story of Abraham and the Patriarchal
Narratives,” The Refection of
Pascal’s Wager [On-line], URL:
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