Jacob’s tomb

Another extra-biblical tradition cited in the New Testament.

“And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem.” – Acts 7:16

“And the children of Israel brought forth all the bones of the children of Jacob save the bones of Joseph, and they buried them in the field in the double cave in the mountain [Machpelah – the burial place of Jacob according to Genesis 50:13].” – Book of Jubilees 46:9-10

There’s a couple of discrepancies between the accounts here. The first discrepancy is between the Biblical accounts. According to Genesis 33:19 and Joshua 24:32, Jacob bought this plot of land; St. Stephen says in his speech here, though, that Abraham bought it. Those who hold to an absolutist version of inerrancy have tried to come up with many ways to reconcile the accounts, such as positing that Abraham bought it and then Jacob rebought it again later, but none of them are satisfactory explanations. The most obvious explanation, but one which Sola Scripturists can’t abide, is that either St. Stephen made a mistake in his speech or St. Luke made a mistake in his recounting of the speech.

The second discrepancy is between Jubilees and the Biblical account. Whereas Jubilees asserts that the bones of all of the children of Jacob except Joseph were brought here to be buried, the Biblical account in Joshua 24:32 records that only Joseph’s bones were brought up to be buried. Be that as it may, what we do know is that this verse in Jubilees is the earliest written record we have of the tradition that the bones of the children of Jacob were buried at Shechem; as I said, the Biblical account mentions only Joseph’s bones and those of no one else. Whether this tradition came to St. Stephen through Jubilees or through oral tradition or some other means, we’ll probably never know; what’s important for our purposes here, though, is that he was drawing on an extra-biblical tradition of some kind.

Jewish tradition to this day attests to the fact that the children of the Prophet Jacob are buried at Machpelah beside their father. St. Jerome, living in Palestine in the late 4th century, wrote that he had seen the tombs himself.

Let’s take a look at a little wider context of this verse to see if St. Stephen recounts the fact of the burials any differently than he recounts other events which are recorded in Scripture:

“Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. And they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt till another king arose who did not know Joseph. This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months. But when he was set out, Pharaoh’s daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son.” – Acts 17:14-21

Neither St. Stephen nor St. Luke treat the recounting of this extra-biblical tradition any differently than they treat that of those events which they recount that are contained in Scripture.

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One comment

  1. Even if Abraham didn't purchase the land, it doesn't mean Acts 7 is errant. Acts could be correctly reporting on a mistake made by Stephen.

    However there seems no great difficulty in having them purchase the same ground, being nomadic peoples.

    Quite similar is the case of the well of Beersheba. Originally that well was dug by Abraham’s workmen, and he paid for the rights to that property by offering seven lambs to Abimelech, king of Gerar (Gen. 21:27-30). But later on, owing to the nomadic habits of Abraham and his family, the property rights he had legally acquired became ignored; and the tract on which the well was located fell back into the possession of the local inhabitants. It was not until many years later that Isaac, having reopened the well to care for his livestock, found it expedient to secure the ownership by paying for it once more, rather than to assert his legal title to it by means of a range war. He therefore gave an oath of friendship and nonaggression to King Abimelech (probably a son or grandson of the same name as the Abimelech with whom Abraham had dealt many years before) and held a covenant-sealing sacrifice and banquet (Gen. 26:28-31) with him. Here then was a case where both Abraham and his descendant purchased the same ground.

    In the case of Shechem, this was the very first location at which Abraham stopped after his migration from Haran, and there he erected his first altar to Yahweh in the Land of Promise (Gen. 12:6-7). There God appeared to him in a vision and confirmed His promise of the land to Abram and his descendants. Under these circumstances it was altogether logical for him to purchase the tract around the Oak of Moreh, where the altar had been erected.

    In later years, long after Abraham had moved south and Isaac had made Beersheba his headquarters, and after Jacob’s twenty-one years in Padan-Aram, the ancestral claim Jacob had to Abraham’s plot was quite forgotten by the inhabitants of Shechem. Or else they may have felt that the house of Abraham had really forfeited their rights through the long period of disuse, thereby allowing some local family to take it over and work the land as their own.

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