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Watch Your Antecedents!

by Doug Ward

Keeping track of possible antecedents of pronouns can shed new light on some puzzling passages from the book of Genesis.

Handbooks of English composition admonish aspiring writers to be very careful in using pronouns. In particular, a writer should make sure that there is no possibility of mistaking the identity of a pronoun's intended antecedent. As an example of what to avoid, consider this sentence:

``He told his father he would soon get a letter.''

Here it is not clear which of the two-the son or the father-will be the recipient of a letter. The sentence should be rewritten to remove this ambiguity.

Sometimes pronoun problems can have humorous consequences, as illustrated by the following examples, which originally appeared in church bulletins and can now be found in widely-circulated lists of ``bloopers'':

``For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs.''

``The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday.''

``Eight new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and the deterioration of some older ones.''

``The concert held in Fellowship Hall was a great success. Special thanks are due to the minister's daughter, who labored the whole evening at the piano, which as usual fell on her.''

Modern writers of English are not the only ones whose use of pronouns has resulted in questions and controversy. The ancient writers of the Hebrew scriptures have left us with a few ambiguities in the biblical text as well. When we encounter one of them, it is instructive to look at all the options and consider their possible interpretations in order to maximize our chances of grasping the intended meaning. In this article I will discuss three examples, all taken from the book of Genesis.

Gen. 9:27: Who Dwells in The Tents of Shem?

Our first example comes from the ninth chapter of Genesis. There we read that after the Flood, Noah plants a vineyard and produces wine from the harvest (vv. 20-21). At one point he enjoys too much of the wine, and he casts aside his clothing (like the ladies in the church basement?) while lying drunk in his tent.

As the patriarch lies sleeping, his son Ham (possibly accompanied by Ham's son Canaan) stops by the tent and sees that Noah is naked. But instead of discreetly covering Noah back up, Ham apparently rushes to tell his brothers Shem and Japheth about their father's folly (v.22). Shem and Japheth then quickly throw a garment over Noah, being careful to respect their father (v. 23).

When Noah wakes up, he finds out that Ham has made him an object of ridicule (v. 24), while Shem and Japheth have been quick to defend his honor. As a result, Noah pronounces a curse on Canaan1, at the same time blessing Shem and Japheth (vv. 25-27). I would like to focus on verse 27:

``God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant'' (KJV).

I have chosen to quote Genesis 9:27 from the King James Version because this translation preserves an ambiguity that is found in the original Hebrew text: it is not clear whether the pronoun ``he'' in the phrase ``he shall dwell in the tents of Shem'' refers to Japheth or to God. Commentators through the centuries have been divided on the question of which one is the intended antecedent. Let's consider both possibilities.

First, what might it mean for Japheth to ``dwell in the tents of Shem''? Some have attempted to answer this question by pointing out that the children of Israel, the most prominent descendants of Shem in the Bible, would sometimes have to share their land with other nations-e.g. the Philistines. 2 Such an explanation seems unlikely, however, since one would expect the fulfillment of Noah's blessing to be favorable to both Shem and Japheth.

An explanation that is favorable to both Shem and Japheth was put forward by Matthew Henry, the famous seventeenth-century commentator. Henry suggested that Japheth would ``dwell in the tents of Shem'' in the New Testament Church, where Gentiles are pictured as being ``grafted into'' the olive tree of Israel (Rom. 11) and as forming ``one new man'' with Israel (Eph. 2:15). Of course descendants of Ham are also part of the body of Christ along with descendants of Shem and Japheth.

Contemporary commentator John H. Sailhamer offers a less specific reading in [6]. Sailhamer paraphrases ``he shall dwell in the tents of Shem'' simply as ``may Japheth enjoy the blessing along with Shem,'' without going into detail about how that blessing might have been carried out in history.

Next, let's look at what it could mean for God to ``dwell in the tents of Shem.'' Here the Hebrew verb for ``dwell'' (shakan) provides a clue. This verb is closely related to the words for Israel's tabernacle in the wilderness (mishkan) and for God's glorious presence in that tabernacle (Shekinah). By means of the tabernacle, God did dwell in the tents of Shem (see Ex. 25:8; 29:45-46; 40:34; Num. 35:34).

God's desire to be in a close relationship with His people is one of the major themes of the Bible, as exemplified by the recurring three-part refrain, ``I will be their God, they will be my people, and I will dwell in the midst of them'' (e.g., Ezekiel 37:27; 2 Cor. 6:16; Rev. 21:3) 3 This theme finds its ultimate expression in the Incarnation, a connection implied by the apostle John's description of Christ's coming in John 1:14: ``And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us....'' According to New Testament scholar Gary M. Burge, John chose a Greek word for ``dwelt'' (skenoo) that ``would evoke strong memories of the Old Testament.'' Burge goes on to explain,

``Jesus did not simply `live' with us in the world; he `dwelt' with us. This Greek verb and its noun actually refer to a tent, and when used in a theological context like this, generally refer to the tabernacle in the wilderness (see Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:2). This fits John's understanding of Jesus' incarnation. Jesus is the locus of God's dwelling on Earth and as such can not only speak for God but likewise supply many of the functions offered at the tabernacle (which later became the temple). Therefore John wants to say more than simply that Jesus `dwelt' among us. He is making an unmistakable allusion to the holy dwelling of God.''4

In summary, if Noah is saying in Gen. 9:27 that God would dwell in the tents of Shem, then he is uttering a significant early Messianic prophecy that expresses a key aspect of God's purpose in sending the Messiah.

Which antecedent for ``he'' in Genesis 9:27 is the right one? Sailhamer [6] argues for ``Japheth,'' pointing out that the name for God in this verse is Elohim, whereas Yahweh is the divine name used in every other scripture in which God is the subject of the verb shakan.

On the other hand, Walter C. Kaiser [3,4] advances several points in favor of ``God'' as the intended antecedent. Two of his points are grammatical and stylistic: The pronoun ``he'' is the subject of the clause ``he shall dwell in the tents of Shem'', while ``God'' is the subject of the preceding clause. It is possible for an object in one clause to be connected with a pronoun that is the subject of the following clause (Gen. 4:17; 16:6b; 40:4), but a parallel structure is more usual. Moreover, if God is the one who will dwell in Shem's tents, then Gen. 9:25-27 has a very pleasing structure, with a curse on Canaan in verse 25, a blessing for Shem and a curse on Canaan in verse 26, and blessings for Shem and Japheth with a curse on Canaan in verse 27.

A third point, related to the second, is contextual: God is called ``the Lord God of Shem'' in verse 26, the first time in the Bible that God is mentioned as the God of a particular person. This designation seems to imply a special relationship between God and Shem, making it reasonable that Shem would receive the greater blessing of having God dwell in his tents.

All in all, I find the case for God as the occupant of the tents of Shem to be more convincing. It is difficult to find an adequate explanation of the meaning of Japheth's dwelling in Shem's tents, while with ``God'' as the antecedent of ``he,'' Genesis 9:27 becomes a wonderful prophecy of a coming Messiah.

Gen. 35:4: Whose Earrings?

Our next example comes from Genesis 35. At this point in the narrative, the cruel and deceitful treatment of the Shechemites by Levi and Simeon (see Chapter 34) has placed Jacob's family in danger of reprisal from the local populace. God then commands Jacob to move his family to Bethel (Gen. 35:1).

Bethel is a location of special significance to Jacob. Years before, when Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau, God had appeared to him in a dream at Bethel. In the dream, God repeated to Jacob the promises He had earlier made to Abraham and Isaac. The following morning, Jacob had vowed to return one day to Bethel and worship God there (Gen. 28:10-22).

Now God reminds Jacob of that earlier incident and calls upon him to fully carry out his vow. In preparation for a new encounter with God at Bethel, Jacob directs the members of his household to get rid of their idols, purify themselves, and change their clothes. Their response is described in verse 4:

``And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.''

There has been much speculation about why the members of Jacob's household would give up their earrings along with their idols. A typical explanation is that the earrings were themselves small idols or were associated somehow with the worship of idols. (Jewelry is brought up in connection with idolatry, for example, in Hosea 2:13.) Perhaps the earrings are mentioned in Gen. 35:4 in order to convey the thoroughness with which the people in Jacob's entourage purge themselves of anything smacking of idolatry.

There is also a lesser-known reading of this passage that has recently been revived by Israeli scholar Victor A. Hurowitz [1,2]. Hurowitz, following the lead of the medieval Jewish commentator Hizzequni, suggests that the earrings ``which were in their ears'' were actually in the ears of the idols rather than the people.

Hurowitz's explanation is backed by a wealth of archaeological evidence. Several ancient texts list earrings as part of the regalia of Ishtar and other goddesses [1, page 30], and small idols with earrings or pierced ears have been found by archaeologists in Israel and neighboring areas.

The fact that a number of these idols have missing earrings points to a probable reason why Jacob would have wanted to bury the earrings. The earrings, composed of gold or silver, were often more valuable than the idols, which were usually made of wood or stone. Earrings removed from one idol could be recycled for future use with another one. An apparent warning against such practices is recorded in Deut. 7:25:

``The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God.''

So whose earrings were buried-those of the people or those of the idols? I lean toward Hurowitz's view that the earrings came from the idols. Either way, in our investigation of this question, we are reminded of an important spiritual principle that is brought out in Deut. 7:25 and taught throughout the Bible: Greed and materialism are a trap leading to idolatry and all kinds of evil (see Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5; I Tim. 6:9-10). We should be sure to bury any ``gold earrings'' that hinder our relationship with the true God.

Gen. 37:28: Who Sold Joseph?

Our final example appears two chapters later, in Genesis 37. Here we read that the obvious favoritism shown by Jacob toward his seventeen-year-old son Joseph has aroused jealousy among Jacob's other sons (vv. 1-4). After Joseph describes some grandiose-sounding dreams that he has had, the jealousy of his brothers grows even greater (vv. 5-11).

Later, when the brothers are grazing the family flocks miles away from home, they find an opportunity to act upon their jealousy. Looking down from the heights of Dothan, they spot Joseph, easily recognizable in his ``coat of many colors,'' approaching from the south. (Jacob has sent Joseph to find out how they are doing.) Some of the brothers advocate killing Joseph and tossing his body into a pit (vv. 18-20), but Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them to put Joseph into a pit alive instead. Reuben hopes to rescue Joseph and return him safely to Jacob (vv. 21-22).

After throwing Joseph into the pit, the brothers sit down to eat a meal. While they are eating, they notice a caravan of Ishmaelite traders coming from the east. Judah proposes that they sell Joseph to the traders, and the brothers agree (vv. 25-27). We now come to verse 28:

``Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.''

Genesis 37:28 raises several questions. In particular, where do the Midianites come into the picture? Are they a group distinct from the Ishmaelites? And who pulls Joseph up from the pit and sells him-Joseph's brothers, or the Midianites? Commentators have pondered these questions for generations.

During the past century, some text-critical scholars have explained this verse by claiming that Genesis 37 contains an inconsistent blending of two different versions of the story of Joseph. In one version, Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery; in the other, Joseph is found and sold by the Midianites. 5 However, the text does not contain any irreconcilable inconsistencies. As we will see, both versions more than adequately account for the available information.

The more familiar scenario has Joseph's brothers pulling him out of the pit and selling him to the traders. 6 According to this model, the names ``Ishmaelites'' and ``Midianites'' are used interchangeably for the same group of traders, as seems to be indicated by the text in Gen. 37:36 and Gen. 39:1. (Another instance where these same two names are apparently synonymous occurs in Judges 8:22-24.) Perhaps the caravan included members of both groups.

This scenario fits well with Gen. 45:4, where Joseph describes himself to his brothers as ``your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.'' On the other hand, it leaves at least one major question unanswered: Where is Reuben when Joseph is sold? We read in Gen. 37:29-30 that Reuben goes to the pit and is distressed to find out that Joseph is no longer there. Apparently, then, Reuben has had to leave the meal for some reason and returns too late to stop the sale. But since Reuben wants to rescue Joseph, one would expect him to have stayed close to his brothers in order to prevent further harm from coming to Joseph.

Reuben's behavior is better explained by a second model, in which the place where the brothers are eating is some distance away from the pit containing Joseph. In this scenario, Reuben leaves his brothers during the meal and returns to the pit, hoping to set Joseph free before the brothers have a chance to sell him to the traders. Unfortunately, when Reuben arrives at the pit, Joseph has already been taken by a passing band of Midianites.

This second model, which was proposed by the medieval Jewish commentators Hizzequni and Rashbam7, is discussed in detail by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag in [5]. Leibtag advances three points in support of the contention that Joseph's brothers did not eat their meal right next to the pit. First, they would have had a much more pleasant meal if they did not have to listen to Joseph's persistent cries for help (see Gen. 42:21). Second, Gen. 37:30 records that after Reuben visited the pit, he ``returned unto his brethren.'' The wording of verse 30 suggests that Reuben had to walk some distance from the pit in order to get back to his brothers.

The third point is geographical. Leibtag points out that the usual trade route between Gilead and Egypt passed about ten kilometers (six miles) north of the hills of the Dothan region. For the brothers to have seen the Ishmaelite caravan in the distance, they would have to have been high up in the hills. In addition, with the caravan still several miles away, they would have had plenty of time to finish their meal before fetching Joseph from the pit and taking him to the traders.

All of these points are consistent with a scenario in which Reuben left the meal early and climbed down to a pit below, only to find that Joseph was no longer there. This scenario can also be reconciled with Joseph's statement that his brothers sold him into slavery. Whoever sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites, the brothers were responsible for his enslavement. If the Midianites pulled Joseph from the pit, he may have still suspected that his brothers had cut a deal with the Midianites.

Other slight variations on these models are also possible. For example, in the wonderful recent movie Joseph: King of Dreams, the Midianites haul Joseph out of the pit after paying the brothers. In any case, there is no cause to doubt the integrity of the text. Alleged contradictions in Genesis 37 disappear upon closer examination.

Concluding Thoughts

We have learned much in our study of these three examples. In Gen. 9:27, the identity of a pronoun's antecedent has important theological ramifications. Our consideration of the earrings in Gen. 35:4 reminds us that greed and materialism have always been closely connected with idolatry. Finally, we see that the account of Joseph's enslavement in Gen. 37 can readily be explained without recourse to any claim that this chapter contains internal contradictions.

These examples give us a fascinating glimpse at the centuries-old dialogue that surrounds the meaning of every passage in the Holy Scriptures. The study of such examples helps us to discover more about the background, meaning and historical validity of the Bible.

Our discussion has been aided by a Bible translation (the King James Version) that faithfully preserves the ambiguities present in the original Hebrew text. Many modern translations, in their desire to make the text easier to understand, attempt to remove these ambiguities. (The New International Version, for instance, explicitly chooses an antecedent for us in Gen. 9:27 and Gen. 37:28.) Both types of translations are valuable, as has recently been argued by Bible scholar and translator Raymond C. Van Leeuwen [7]. On one hand, it is important for evangelism that the Bible be accessible to people in every time and culture. At the same time, it is also worthwhile for us to grapple with the mysteries of the text as it was originally delivered to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It may be that God has deliberately placed some challenges in the text in order to encourage us to immerse ourselves in the study of His Word.


1. Victor A. Hurowitz, ``Who Lost an Earring? Genesis 35:4 Reconsidered,'' Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 62 (2000), pp. 28-32.

2. Victor A. Hurowitz, ``Whose Earrings Did Jacob Bury?'', Bible Review, August 2001, pp. 31-33, 54

3. Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1978.

4. Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.

5. Menachem Leibtag, ``Who Really Sold Yosef?'', commentary on Parshat Vayeshev available online at http://www.tanach.org/vayesh.htm.

6. John H. Sailhamer, ``Genesis'' in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1992.

7. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, ``We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,'' Christianity Today, October 22, 2001, pp. 28-35.


1There has been much conjecture about why Noah singles out Canaan. Walter C. Kaiser points out that Ham had been blessed by God (Gen. 9:1) and so could not subsequently be cursed. Kaiser also speculates that Noah may have observed in Canaan the proclivity to sexual sin that would later cause Canaan's descendants to be expelled from the Promised Land (Hard Sayings of the Bible, InterVarsity Press, 1996, p. 117).

2See for example Terence E. Fretheim's commentary on Genesis in The New Interpreter's Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994, Vol. 1, p. 404.

3For further discussion of this theme, see the articles ``The Gospel in Genesis'' and ``The Incarnation and the Feast of Tabernacles'' in Issue 2 of Grace and Knowledge.

4from the article ``Word Power'' in Christianity Today, October 22, 2001, p. 73.

5See for example The Twentieth Century Bible Commentary, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1955, p. 122.

6This explanation is chosen, for example, by the translators of the New International Version.

7Rabbi Schmuel ben Meir (c. 1085 A.D.-c. 1174 A.D.).




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