"Before Any King Reigned in Israel"
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 al., 1997].
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 prophetically stated:
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. added).
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 updated edition.
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: http://www.geocities.com/paulntobin/abraham.html.