The Naming of Levi in the Book of Jubilees

Betsy Halpern-Amaru

Vassar College

In the Genesis narrative neither the character Levi nor his name is associated with the priesthood. In the Book of Jubilees, on the other hand, not only is the third son of Jacob and Leah designated a priest, but the designation is associated with his name. The tradition of tracing priestly leadership back to the founding father of the tribe is not unique to Jubilees. It also appears in the Testament of Levi and in the Aramaic Levi Document. However, only in Jubilees is Levi's appointment connected to his naming. It is that connection that I wish to explore here.

The naming of Levi is problematic in both Genesis and Jubilees. In the Genesis tradition, Jacob's wives, Leah and Rachel, name the children they bear, be it naturally or through the surrogates each presents to her husband. The names they choos e reflect the particular meaning each newborn holds for its mother. For the unloved Leah, the choice frequently, and certainly in the case of Levi, is related to pursuit of the love Jacob feels for Rachel. For the infertile Rachel, it is pursuit of the ma ny children her sister has borne and she has not. Thus, the biblical narrative of the naming of Jacob's sons has a clear pattern: the woman conceives and bears a son; she describes the personal significance the birth holds for her; and accordingly, she as signs the child a name.

Maternal naming accompanied by personal, emotional rationales for the choice is not unusual in biblical literature. The name giving by Leah and Rachel has analogues in Eve designating the name of Seth and Hannah that of Samuel. The problem lies not w ith the structure of the birth announcements, but with a break in its pattern when it comes to the naming of Levi. Still seeking Jacob's affections, Leah greets the birth of her third son with the words: "Now this time will my husband become attached to m e for I have borne him three sons" (Gen 29:34). According to the pattern, the rest of the verse should read: Therefore she named him Levi. But instead, in this one case, the MT has a masculine form of the verb -- he (by implication, Jacob) named (< FONT SIZE=4 FACE="SPTiberian">)rq) him Levi.

The difficulty is, of course, easily enough remedied. One might, like the LXX, Samaritan, and Syriac texts, emend the verb to a feminine form. Alternatively, like almost all English translations, one might understand the verb as impersonal and render the clause like the association of Esau with Edom in Gen 25:30 -- he was named. It is noteworthy that the author of Jubilees adopts none of these solutions when he reworks the narrative and develops his version of the naming of Levi.

As John Endres notes in his study of the Jacob narratives, a fairly consistent pattern is discernible in the Jubilees presentation of the births: an act of intercourse (except in the cases of Rachel's pregnancies), conception, naming of the c hild, and a date of birth. In every case the explanation for the choice of name is omitted. Most importantly, the mother is not necessarily the parent who names the child.

Although we are primarily interested in Levi, let us momentarily broaden the focus and note how the name giving is distributed. Jacob names the first four sons of Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah) (28:11, 13, 14, 15), and the first child by the surrogate Bilhah (Dan)(28:18). In addition, he subsequently renames, as in Genesis, the son Rachel bears on her deathbed (Benjamin) (32:33). Leah names the two children borne by Zilpah (Gad, Asher) (28:20, 21), the last two sons she herself bears (Issacha r, Zebulun) along with her daughter, Dinah, Zebulun's twin (28:22, 23). Rachel names the second child by Bilhah (Naphtali) (28:19), and the first child she conceives (Joseph)(28:24). Later, of course, she also designates a name for the last child who is r enamed by his father (Benjamin) (32:33).

Given the precision with which the author presents the births, there surely is a pattern to the naming. But lest we, like Endres fail to detect its tendency,we must add one more component to the birth and naming narrative. Years after the births, whe n Jacob and his family return to Canaan, the patriarch takes Judah and Levi to Isaac and Rebekah in Hebron. On that occasion, Isaac confers blessings on the two sons. Midway through the extensive blessing of Levi we find the following:

Your mother named you Levi, and she has given you the right name. You will become one who is joined to the Lord and a companion of all Jacob's sons (31:16).

But, as we have seen, in the birth announcements it is Jacob, not Leah, who names Levi. Given the attention the author of Jubilees pays to detail throughout the work and the exegetical basis for a paternal naming of Levi in the MT (Gen 29:34), it is highly unlikely that the attribution of the name to Leah in the blessing involves an inadvertent presentation of contradictory traditions or as James Kugel has termed it, overkill. Thus, we must assume that the naming of Levi involves both o f his parents. Much as Rachel and Jacob are both involved in the naming of Benjamin, so Leah and Jacob both participate in the naming of Levi. In the first case, the joint endeavor involves a renaming; in the second the parents apparently choose, or agree to choose, the same name. Moreover, unlike those of the other sons, explanations are presented for the names Rachel and Leah choose for Benjamin and Levi (32:33; 31:16).

The problems it poses aside, the doubled naming of Levi provides the logic that governs the naming of all the children. Both Leah and Rachel share the naming of their sons equally with Jacob. Leah, either personally or through her surrogate, bears ei ght sons. Of these eight, Jacob names four and Leah names four. Rachel, either personally or through her surrogate, bears four sons. Of the four, Jacob names two and Rachel names two. Lastly, each wife shares the naming of one son - Rachel that of Benjami n, Leah that of Levi - with her husband.

The obvious question is why would the author of Jubilees go to the trouble of developing such an intricate formula? Everywhere else in the work only father's name children.Since he had deleted the rationales for the name selections in the birt h narrative, he could have maintained that approach and had Jacob name all the sons. Moreover, what is the significance of having Leah designated the name giver in the blessing that prophesies Levi's elevation to the priesthood? Within the context of his naming system, the author could easily enough have inverted the order such that Leah name the child in the birth announcement and Jacob do so in the context of Isaac's blessing.

I believe the answer to both questions lies in the authors' concern with intermarriage, a concern that leads him to elevate the roles of wives and portray the marriages of the founding parents as ideal unions of copartners. With each marriage, he rew orks the biblical narrative such that there is a demonstrable bond and a partnership relationship between the spouses. I offer a few examples.

In Genesis a frustrated Sarah, resigned to never conceiving a child, expresses the hope -- Perhaps I shall be built up through her (Gen 16:2) -- when she presents her husband with a surrogate. The author of Jubilees portrays a very different S arah. Linking the surrogacy tale to the revelation at Mamre that immediately precedes it, he has a joyous Abraham tell all of these things to Sarah whom he assumes will be the biological mother of the promised heir (14:21). When she does not conceive, the matriarch, as in Genesis, offers Hagar as a surrogate. But brought by the sharing of the revelation into the covenant context that is exclusively Abraham's in the biblical text, this Sarah extends the offer with words that reflect concern both for her hu sband and for fulfillment of the promise: Perhaps I will build up descendants for you from her" (14:22).

The rewriting of the description of Sarah's death demonstrates another aspect of the author's concern with spousal relationships. In the biblical narrative, after the crisis of the Akedah Abraham resettles in Beer Sheva. Sarah, having complete d one hundred and twenty-seven years, dies in Kiryath Arba (Gen 23:1-2). For reasons never offered, the couple are obviously no longer living together. Such a closure is clearly unsuitable for the ideal union that the author of Jubilees wishes to p ortray. Consequently, he has Abraham, go not to Beer Sheva, but to Kiryath Arba where patriarch and matriarch share fourteen years together before her death (19:1-2).

The biblical characterization of Rebekah and Isaac's marriage presents a different type of challenge. In this case there is no need for concern with the significance of the matriarchal role. It is the relationship between the matriarch and her husban d that is problematic. The characterization of the early years of the marriage augurs a particularly close relationship. But when the couple become involved with their sons, the picture changes dramatically. Except for an editorial notation of their commo n distress over Esau's marriages to local Hittite women (Gen 26:35), there is no indication of an emotional bond between Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac never speaks to Rebekah; and she speaks to Isaac only to manipulate him into delivering her favorite son from the hands of his angry brother (Gen 27:46). Isaac does what his strong wife wishes without speaking to her; and Rebekah disappears from the narrative without the surviving spouse (or the narrator) noticing her death.

The task for Jubilees is to redevelop the narrative such that Isaac and Rebekah's personal relationship is not so overwhelmed by each parent's involvement with a favored child. The author does this by creating a family story that intersects wi th, but is independent of, the deception that empowers the third generation of the patriarchal line. In that story the author creates scenes that mitigate any impression of a family fractured by factionalism. Isaac and Rebekah join Abraham to celebrate th e Feast of First Fruits and each contributes provisions for the ancient patriarch's meal (22:1-6). When the senior patriarch dies, they go together to find his body and mourn his death (23:4). Isaac's preference for the older son has already been stated, indeed repeatedly (19:15, 19, 30) and the Jubilees version of Rebekah's intense involvement with the younger one has already been developed (19:16-31). Nonetheless, in these added scenes there is no tension between husband and wife. Indeed, even af ter the deception, the author develops a vignette that transforms Isaac from a father embittered into silence into a spouse who can comfort his bereaved wife, weeping over the separation from her beloved son (27:13b-18). The poignant passage effects a mor e appealing Isaac and a softer Rebekah. Its primary function, however, is to demonstrate that in spite of all that has happened, the emotional bond between the patriarch and matriarch endures.

With such examples in mind, let us turn back to the naming of Levi. The marriage of Jacob and Leah involves a state of insecurity and animus that ill befits the Jubilees notion of the unions of the matriarchs and patriarchs. However, recogniz ing that Jacob's lack of affection for Laban's elder daughter is inherent to the story line, the Jubilees writer waits until after Rachel's death to firmly convert that troubled union into an ideal spousal relationship (36:22-24). In the interim, h e limits his reconstruction to enriching the quality of Jacob's affection for Rachel, minimizing the impact of his lack of love for Leah, and developing the partnership motif in both unions.

Jacob still loves Rachel and does not love Leah. But the contrast between the situations of the two sisters no longer dominates their story. The author deliberately constructs the narrative of the births of the children such that the two women experi ence common situations and common emotions. God opens Leah's womb when she gives birth to her first child and God opens Rachel's womb when she gives birth to hers (28:11; 28:24). When her sister bears four sons, Rachel becomes jealous of Leah, since she w as not bearing children (28:16) and offers her husband a surrogate. Thereafter, the situation reverses. The surrogate, Bilhah, bears two sons. Leah, having become barren and not bearing children, becomes jealous of Rachel (28:20) and in turn gives Jacob h er handmaid as a surrogate.

The rivalry between the women remains. But no longer is Leah pursuing her husband's affections and Rachel pursuing motherhood. Both women are motivated by same thing: the desire for children. The entire issue of Jacob's affections becomes subtext. Th e reader knows why Rachel's womb is closed and that Jacob cohabits irregularly with Leah (hence the notations of intercourse before each conception). But in the narrative of the births, neither woman expresses concern about the feelings of the common husb and. All that places that issue to the foreground in the Genesis text is expunged. In its place stands the intricate pattern of birthing and naming that affirms the matriarchal equality of the two wives and establishes each of them in a partnership relati onship with her husband.

There still remains the question of why the reference to a maternal naming in the blessing scene. Although only a single name is involved with Levi, one might argue that the two explanations that Isaac offers for Levi's name (31:16) parallel the two parental explanations for the names given to Rachel's youngest son. One rationale is that of the mother; the other of the father. However much such an interpretation may solve the exegetical problem in the naming scene of the MT, it does not suit the nami ng in Jubilees. The author has too carefully placed Jacob's naming of Levi not only outside the blessing, but in a context where there are no explanations for the given names.

Leah is the only parent mentioned in the blessing scene and the singularity is telling. The name she is credited with giving her son has two rationales with the same etymological base: First, Levi will be one who is joined (hwelfyyI), (niphal form of hwl) to the Lord (30: 5). Secondly, he will a companion to all of Jacob's sons, a play on the root hwl involving an interpretive read ing of Gen 29:34 that would have Levi joined to," i.e., a companion to, his two older brothers and a reinterpretation of Num 18:2, 4 where God designates the tribe of Levi to be joined to, associates with (w@wln , wwlfyi,) the priestly line of Aaron, here transformed into the kingdom of priests (16:19) that will descend from the sons of Jacob.

A comparable structure, that is, dual meanings developed from a single etymological base, appears in the naming of Samuel in I Sam 1:20, 27-28. When he is born, his mother, names him Samuel meaning I asked the Lord for him" (wytl)# 'hm) (I Sam 1:20). When she brings him to God's service at Shiloh, the name takes on another meaning based on the same root: I hereby lend him (w@hytl)#$hi) to the Lord. For as long as he lives, he is lent (lw@)#) to the Lord (I Sam 1:28).

I would suggest that the naming of Samuel serves as a subtext for Leah's presence in Isaac's blessing of Levi. The echo of that scenario in this one reinforces the judge and prophet role assigned to Levi's descendants earlier in the blessing (They wi ll be princes, judges, and leaders of all the descendants of Jacob's sons. They will tell my way's to Jacob and my path's to Israel [31:15]) and create's a connection between Levi and the prophetic role of hi's descendant, Samuel.

What i's more important from the perspective of the question of Leah, Hannah's story invites a comparison (contrast as well as similarity) between the mothers. Leah and Hannah are both married to men who have two wives. Both women give birth to sons who are destined for future service with God. Each of them, Leah, intuitively, and Hannah, perhaps consciously, assigns her son a name that is loaded with meaning related to his future. Yet Hannah is the beloved wife with no children and Leah is the unlov ed wife with many children. The implications of the contrast are clear: (a) Infertility is not the signature for maternity of a distinguished heir (b) In a polygamous marriage affection of the husband is not a necessary condition for giving birth to a son destined for distinction. Significantly, neither connection is made in the Samuel narrative. That Peninnah has children and Hannah does not is acknowledged without any reference to Hannah as hrq(, an infertile or ba rren woman. Moreover, Elkanah's love for Hannah is stated only over against the fact that God had closed her womb (I Sam 1:2, 5).

In contrast, the connection between infertility and birthing the distinguished heir is strongly implied in the Genesis narratives of the matriarchs. Sarah, mother of Isaac, Rebekah, mother of Isaac, and Rachel, mother of Joseph, are barren. Leah, on the other hand, is notably fertile. In Jubilees, however, Levi, son of Leah, not Joseph, son of Rachel, is the most distinguished of Jacob's sons. Consequently, in rewriting the matriarchal stories, the author deliberately undermines the connection between the matriarchs and barrenness. Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel are never described as makanat, barren. In fact, the term is used only once, if the Ge'ez reading is correct, and then it is applied to Leah after the birth of her first four sons ( 28:20).

In Jubilees genealogy, not childbearing ability, is the noteworthy characteristic of the wife of a patriarch. As in Genesis, childlessness is an issue in the marriage of Abraham and Sarah. But here it ceases to be a motif particularly associat ed with matriarchy. No reference is made to the fact that the new wife is barren in the Jubilees announcement of the marriage of Abraham and Sarah (12:9). When the fact of the absence of a child is acknowledged, the author deliberately avoids prese nting the lack in terms peculiar to maternity. It is the patriarch who is brokenhearted when he separates from Lot for he had no children (13:18). Moreover, the same language is used to account for why Sarah offers Hagar as a surrogate - she continued not to have a child (14:21). As for Rebekah, the biblical narrative of her difficulties with conception is totally omitted (19:13-14). Indeed, an announcement of the birth of the twin brothers almost immediately follows the notice of her marriage (19:10, 13-14).

The description of Rachel's barrenness in Genesis - And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren (Gen 29:31) - connects barrenness with the complex issues of two wives and spousal love. Rachel, the beloved wife, is barren - clearly, given the stories of Sarah and Rebekah, a forecast that she, like her predecessors, will give birth to the covenantal heir. Leah, on the other hand, lacks the primary signature of the other matriarchs specifically because her husband does not love her. Reworking the description, the author of Jubilees breaks apart the triad of associations - infertility, maternity to primary heir, and spousal love - that diminish Leah's status as a matriarch. He replaces barren with language t hat echoes that used to describe Hannah in I Sam 1:5 and shifts the effect of Jacob's lack of love for Leah from the opening of her womb to the closure of that of Rachel: Now Rachel's womb was closed because the Lord saw that Leah was hated but Rachel was loved (28:12). Leah's image as a matriarch is greatly enhanced. Her fertility no longer augurs poorly for the potential of her sons. Moreover, it no longer reflects the absence of her husband's love.

However, Leah's status as a matriarch is still deficient for her matriarchal function does not appear to extend beyond biological procreation. Much as the author of Jubilees transforms the marriages of the founding spouses into positive, lovin g relationships so he also elevates the roles of the matriarchs by making them active participants in covenant history. In the case of the mothers of the primary heirs, the act involves somehow facilitating the futures of their elected sons. The Genesis a ccounts of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and of the deception of Isaac provide frameworks for developing such roles for Sarah and Rebekah. The author of Jubilees reworks those narratives such that each matriarch is aware of the covenantal promises an d of the place of her son within them. Sarah is informed by the angels who do in fact return at Isaac's birth (16:18-19). Rebekah receives her knowledge from Abraham whose life is extended in Jubilees to overlap with that of Jacob (19:17-25). Empow ered by the knowledge, each matriarch takes the initiative in guiding her husband in a way that involves the destiny of the elected son. Aware that Ishmael's status has been elevated in Abraham's mind, Sarah insists that he and his mother be sent away. Kn owing that Isaac is about to bestow the patriarchal blessing on the wrong son, Rebekah orchestrates the exchange of Jacob for Esau.

Clearly a comparable role is necessary for Leah, mother of the penultimate heir. Indeed, the various facets that comprise the elevated portraits of Sarah and Rebekah also appear in the Jubilees characterization. She too is informed of the cove nant and promises of the future for Jacob shares the dream vision he had at Bethel with Rachel and Leah before their departure from Mesopotamia (19:3). She too assumes a corrective role in relationship to her husband by guiding him to love and resp ect her (36:22-24). So, she also has a part in the future of her most prestigious son. She assigns him a name that reflects his appointment as head of the priestly tribe.

With Leah, however, the components of the portrait cannot be integrated for the timing is off. The love of her spouse comes to her long after her procreative years and knowledge of the covenant is revealed to her eight years after Levi's birth. Conse quently, careful that his motifs not undermine one another, the author presents Leah's most significant role - the naming of Levi - in a blessing scene where is presence is discrete and subtly assisted by the mother of Samuel.

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