I will soon post a document in Occasional Writings on this website that examines the period of Egyptian residence including the time of slavery. That analysis is fairly technical and not suitable for the focused nature of a blog. The name of that document is “Four Hundred Years or So.” Any analysis of ancient written materials requires the analyst to make clearly articulated assumptions when the written record is incomplete or compromised. The pertinent passages of scripture for this analysis are found in: Genesis 15, Exodus 12 and Galatians 3, with supplementation from several other places.
In performing the analysis, it was necessary to deal with two problems in the textus receptus (the received biblical text). The two problems confound any superficial attempts at interpreting the two Old Testament passages. Even more to the point, they make it impossible to stand the passages side-by-side. Hence, “interpreters” have to work through those problems to find a solution that, in this case, harmonizes the three key passages. That work is the subject of the aforementioned paper.
After all that work was done, it became possible to provide a feasible explanation of all the events into a single timeline. The timeline begins with Abram’s arrival in Canaan and ends with the Israelites standing at the foot of Mount Sinai figuring out how to avoid dealing with God, just as most people in all eras of time do.
Two mostly unnoticed facts emerge in Genesis 21:8. First, the text states “the child grew and was weaned.” The other states that “Abraham held a great feast.” The first statement implies that Isaac was more than a few months old when the time came for him to be weaned. He “grew up” to some degree before that happened. He might have been several years old in fact. The second statement implies two things. First, there was to be some sort observance of weaning. Second, the observance was to be a big deal. It is to these matters that the current blog is directed.
Jewish tradition, it turns out, holds that Isaac would have been weaned at three years of age. This guides modern Jewish observance, and in some families weaning ceremonies are still conducted. Scripture does not state explicitly at what age the weaning of Isaac occurred, but the idea that he was multiple years old is compatible with the language in Genesis 21:8 that “he grew.” In any event, it appears the weaning was not at an early age of less than one year although that is common in modern times. It is also conceivable that the actual event of the last session of nursing was not at the same time as the ceremony. There were undoubtedly expectations regarding the age of a child at weaning, but the ceremony was more the marking of a rite of passage than of the actual event of weaning. In fact, it appears a lot was going on besides the mere change in method of feeding – if that was involved at all. We may infer that the celebration of weaning was more about the future than the past. The fact of nursing was a given for a new child. The end of the time of nursing could be viewed as a declaration that the child had matured to a point that such intense nurturance was no longer needed – the child could now be trusted to feed himself. This was an important mark because the earliest evidences of personal competence are included in it. It was more than gaining a skill. It was gaining the right to exercise responsibility.
We do not know why Abraham made so much of the event. About fifteen years earlier Ishmael had reached the same point in his life. It may be there was a weaning ceremony for him as well, but there is no mention in scripture of the event if it occurred. We just don’t know about Ishmael in this regard.
We have another problem. The Jewish tradition is based on the fact that Abraham conducted such a ceremony for Isaac. In other words, when the Jewish family of today holds a weaning ceremony, it does so in recognition of the ceremony Abraham held for Isaac. Its place in the culture of Judaism, then, is rooted in the event we are examining. Therefore, the modern ceremony is determined by an understanding of the ancient event. We cannot extrapolate that to some prevailing cultural norm of the time of Abraham. He might well have decided to do such a thing because he wanted to mark that time in some way.
Jewish tradition holds that the weaning ceremony for Isaac was held when he was three years old. For that reason, the modern observance occurs in conjunction with the third birthday. There is nothing in scripture, however, that states or implies Isaac was three at the time of his weaning. This is a tradition, rather than a scriptural fact. In fact, the ceremony might have been either earlier or later than the third birthday. Whichever might be the case, the event was apparently quite important then, and its modern observance celebrates that importance.
The importance of the event, in itself, implies that Abraham would have arranged the event well in advance of its actual observance so that matters could be carried out with great pomp and in proper order. The entire camp was, of course, invited. In addition, it is likely that Abraham invited rulers and friends from the region to come and take part in the festivities. These kings and leaders from among the Canaanites would be honored by such an invitation and most would certainly attend the event. It is likely that even so great a personage as Melchizedek himself would have been present to observe and participate in the goings-on.
We don’t know the time of year in which the formalities took place, but we can be fairly sure that comfort was a consideration in the planning. Probably, the ceremony would be held in the spring if it was not tied to the actual “final nursing” event. That way travel would be comfortable and the guests would not be subjected to harsh weather during the stay, which probably lasted for several days. Shearing and crop gathering would be over for a while and all parties could relax a bit from regular routines.
Any number of persons might well have been asked to participate in some manner in the ceremonial aspects of this holiday. Certainly, important personages would be accommodated if they wished for the opportunity. Some might well have been asked to make speeches which featured the continuance of close relations between the parties. Some potentates would comment that the bonds they had with Abraham would remain and only grow stronger in the times of Isaac. These events were wonderful opportunities to ratify existing relationships and renew public awareness of them. Would it not be wonderful if Melchizedek was involved and provided some blessing for the child? We know of no such thing, but it is tantalizing to consider the possibility.
The assertion of scripture makes a strong case for the inference that Abraham strongly emphasized the fact that Isaac was his heir. He would not make negative reference to Ishmael, but he made it clear, in the presence of Hagar and Ishmael, that Isaac was not just his presumed heir: Isaac was his publicly announced heir. If there were any residual hopes for pre-eminence in their minds, those hopes were now permanently ended. This is likely to have been the cause of Ishmael’s disdain during the ceremony. His expulsion was the result.
Because we cannot know for sure how old Isaac was at the time of the weaning ceremony, I propose it was at about five years of age. (The three-year tradition is difficult in light of the dedication of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:19-28). We cannot speak for Eli, of course, but taking on a three-year old for tabernacle service is quite unlikely.) This provides for a harmony of the three key passages I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. While the three-year tradition is strongly held, it may well be that this new suggested age is accurate. If that be so, then the weaning ceremony for Isaac, Isaac’s Day, could mark the beginning of the four-hundred-year period spoken of in Genesis 15:13.
Join us in “Birth of The Holy Nation” (volume 1) for an examination of the relationship of Abraham and his son Isaac.