A Note on the Oracle of Rebecca (Gen 25.23)*

by Robert A. Kraft (University of Pennsylvania)

* First appeared in the Journal of Theological Studies, New Series 13 (1962) 318-320 ["Notes and Studies"]; revised Sept 1993 [updated for republication, August 2009].

As it stands in the MT, the poetic structure of 'The Oracle of Rebecca' in Gen 25.23 is bicolon 3:4-3:3:

Two nations are in your womb
And two peoples from your loins
shall be separated:
And a people shall be stronger than a people
And the greater shall serve the lesser.

In an attempt to achieve the more satisfactory metric structure of 3:3-3:3, H. Gunkel suggested that the second reference to 'two' (<hb>W$NY</hb>) is a secondary development and should be dropped.1 Alternatively, R. Kittel thought that the verb, 'shall be separated' (<hb>YPRDW</hb>), should be deleted.2

1 Go%ttinger Handkommentar zum alten Testament I:I, Genesis (1917), p. 295. See also the 19212 ed. (Die Urgeschichte und die Pariarchen), p. 196.

2 Biblia Hebraica (1906\1/ and subsequent editions), where the note reads 'hoc vb frt add' ('perhaps this word is an addition").

Neither of these suggestions finds any support in the manuscripts or versions of the Jewish scriptures noted by the best modern critical editions. The LXX manuscripts have numerous variations in this passage, but the words καὶ δύο and διασταλήσονται are nowhere lacking.3 The Targums (Onkelos and Ps.-Jonathan), Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Old Latin, and Vulgate also support the MT and the LXX in these instances. The antiquity of the LXX reading is demonstrated by Philo, who bases an argument on the fact that the 'two peoples' of Gen 25.23 are 'separated'.4

3 See the 'Larger Cambridge LXX', ed. by A. E. Brooke and N. McLean (Genesis, 1906), and the older 'Oxford LXX', ed. by Holmes and Parsons. The Berlin Genesis MS (= 911) and one of the Chester Beatty MSS of Genesis (961) also are preserved for Gen 25.23, but do not vary from the other LXX MSS on the readings in question. Holmes-Parsons MS 16 reads διαναστήσονται in place of διασταλήσονται, and Brooke-McLean MS c2 (=135 in Holmes-Parsons) lacks the final three-quarters of the Oracle.

4 See esp. Sacr Abel et Caini 4 (cp. Ambrose, Cain et Abel, 1.1.3 f.) and Qu Gen 4.157. Cp. Leg Alleg 3.89 and Congr Erud Gratia 129-130.

Nevertheless, both the Epistle of Barnabas and Irenaeus' work Against Heresies provide some evidence that a text of the Greek Jewish scriptures once may have existed in which the desired parallelism (i.e.3:3-3:3. without διασταλήσονται) was found: [[319]]

LXX-A, Gen 25.235

Barn 13.2

Iren, AH 4.21.27

Δύο ἔθνη
  ἐν τῇ γαστρί σού

Δύο ἔθνη 
  ἐν τῇ γαστρί σού
Duo populi
in utero tuo
καὶ δύο λαοὶ
  ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας σου

καὶ δύο λαοὶ 
ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ σου
et duae gentes
in ventre tuo
καὶ λαὸς λαοῦ

καὶ ὑπερέξει6
λαὸς λαοῦ
et populus populum
καὶ ὁ μείζων
  δουλεύσει τῷ ἐλάσσονι.

καὶ ὁ μείζων
  δουλεύσει τῷ ἐλάσ

et maior
serviet minori.

5 The most significant MSS variants noted by Brooke-McLean are: ἰδοὺ δύο ἔθνη (dpt fi -- found nowhere in TLG), ἐστι(ν) (dep n ir acmoxc2 [and 961], also Philo Leg Alleg and Sacr, Chrysostom In Gen [and ps-Chrys, Eclogae], Dissertatio Contra Judaeos 11, Cyril Alex Glaphyra, and Eustathius Inscript Titul frg 8 -- i.e. all other patristic references found in TLG except the first occurrence in Chrysostom In Gen, which has περιέχεις), ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ (v; so also Chrysostom, Hom 50 (in Gen 25) -- this is a frequent phrase in ancient Greek literature and occurs in LXX Gen 25.24!); see also above,  n. 3. LXX MS B is not preserved here (but agrees most closely with MS i where the two are preserved).

6 So MSS  S and C (= H). Family G (= V) follows the LXX word order (καὶ λαὸς λαοῦ ὑπερέξει).

7 Ed. Stieren; in Harvey's ed. 4.35.2. We must assume, in the absence of contrary evidence, that the Latin version of Iren here is faithful to its Greek Vorlage. The Armenian translation of Iren supports the Latin in the points at issue in this note (including n. 8 below).

It might be objected that the agreement between Barn and Iren in lacking an explicit verb in the first bicolon8 is not particularly significant since Iren may simply be quoting from Barn, which dropped the verb διασταλήσονται (thus encouraging the change of ἐκ to ἐν) by accident or by design. An examination of the respective contexts in Barn and Iren, however, shows the improbability of such an explanation. On the one hand, Iren is quoting consciously from Rom 9.10-12 (later in the context, Rom 9.13 also is cited):

8 The rather strange form in which this quotation is found in the ancient Latin version of Barn ('due nationes in utero tuo SUNT et duo populi EX UTERO tuo NASCENTUR, et maior serviet minori') is interesting but cannot be considered as strong evidence that the Greek text of Barn originally contained a verb which Barn Lat. rendered as 'nascentur' ("were born"). Probably here, as is often true in Barn Lat., the translator has attempted to bring the quotation into closer accord with the more familiar Old Latin (= LXX) form(s) of the verse, although no extant Latin witness gives an exact parallel; see B. Fischer (ed.), Vetus Latina II, Genesis (1951-1954), and J. M. Heer, Die Versio Latina des Barnabasbriefes und ihr Verhaltniss zu dem altlateiniichen Bibel (1908).

Iren, loc cit

Rom 9.10-12

In ea enim epistola,
quae est ad Romanos,
ait apostolus:

Sed et Rebecca
ex uno concubitu habens
Isaac patris nostri,
ἀλλὰ καὶ Ῥεβέκκα
  ἐξ ἑνὸς κοίτην ἔχουσα,
    Ἰσαὰκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν·

a verbo responsum accepit;9

ut secundum electionem
propositum Die permaneat,
non ex operibus,
sed ex vocante
ἵνα ἡ κατ’ ἐκλογὴν 
πρόθεσις τοῦ θεοῦ μένῃ,

οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων
ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ καλοῦντος,

dictum est ei:
ἐρρέθη αὐτῇ ὅτι
Duo populo ... [as above]
et maior serviet minori ...

ὁ μείζων δουλεύσει τῷ ἐλάσσονι.

9 Iren has no equivalent to the words of Rom 9.11a, μήπω γὰρ γεννηθέντων μηδὲ πραξάντων τι ἀγαθὸν ἢ φαῦλον
[var /KAKO/N</Gr>], and instead has this strange phrase, 'a verbo responsum accepit', which Stieren thinks to be a later scribal insertion, 'nescio quo casu.' It would be interesting to know whether Iren's text of Romans actually lacked 9.11a and included the full form of the Oracle of Rebecca (and what relationship this strange phrase has to the larger problem). At least Iren gives no indication that he consciously altered the words of the 'apostle.' Some possible light on the words in Irenaeus, "she received a response from the Word," may be shed by several of Chrysostom's uses of the passage, where he makes the point that "the Lord" (KURIOS) is the source of the Oracle -- thus in his Christian hermeneutic, Christ the Word predicted that, by election, "the greater shall be subservient to the lesser," a text widely used in Christian disputes with Jews.

Barn, on the other hand, gives an abridged quotation from Gen 25.21-23 to support the claim that the 'lesser people' (typified by Jacob and Ephraim) is true heir of the covenant.10 Thus, there is no reason to suppose that Iren is making direct, or even indirect, use of Barn. It is much more reasonable to assume that both quotations derive from a common Greek source11 in which Gen 25.23 was found in this ideal poetic form. That an actual Greek manuscript of Genesis ever contained this form is dificult to say -- perhaps it circulated by means of a scriptural anthology or a targumic Greek reworking of Pentateuchal materials such as elsewhere seems to have been familiar to the author of Barn.12 In any case, Kittel's conjecture in Gen 25.23 is not without support, no matter how that support is evaluated.

10 Note that both Paul and Iren also are discussing the 'two people' in the context. For a fuller treatment of the argument of Barn 13 and its traditional background, see the present writer's PhD Thesis (available in microfilm and now online), The Epistle of Barnabas: its Quotations and their Sources (Harvard, 1961), ch. 9.

11 For other striking evidence that Barn and Iren used a common 'testimony' source, see L.-M. Froidevaux, 'Sur trois textes cite/s par saint Ire/ne/e' in Recherches de Science Religieuse 44 (1956), pp. 408-421 (although F. prefers to think that Iren borrowed from Barn); R. A. Kraft, 'Barnabas' Isaiah Text and the "Testimony Book" Hypothesis' in Journal of Biblical Literature 79 (1960), p. 346; and most recently, P. Prigent, Les Tesimonia dans le Christianisme Primitif: L"E/pi^tre de Barnabe/ I-XVI et ses Sources (1961), pp. 43f., 167, 170, 183 ff. Prigent also gives an excellent survey of 'testimonia' hypotheses on pp. 16-28.

12 See Kraft, The Epistle of Barnabas (above, n. 1), ch. 4 and pp. 283 ff., on the possible sources available to the author of Barn. A Jewish (anti-cultic?) tractate dealing with the true people of God may have carried the material of Barn 13 at an earlier stage. Prigent, Les Testimonia, does not discuss Barn 13, although he (following Windisch) finds evidence of a 'midrashic tradition' in the Epistle, and assigns ch. 13 to that category (p. 218). [add ref to the Prigent-Kraft sources chret ed?]