The narrative in Genesis 14 describing Abraham’s struggles with the four kings from the east has generated much discussion among scholars. In this chapter Abraham is portrayed not just as a lonely man sojourning through the land of Canaan, but rather as the chief of a clan, a man with a large entourage, one who is strong enough to challenge the four kings and defeat them (Genesis 14:14-17).
According to the story, Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was captured by the four kings from the east at the time they invaded Canaan. Lot was taken as captive after the invaders sacked the land and returned back to their countries through North Syria. In order to rescue Lot, Abram prepared a contingency of 318 men, all of them servants born in his house, and pursued the four kings “as far as Dan” (Genesis 14:14) and rescued Lot.
The purpose of this article is not to discuss the identity of the four kings, nor the composition of Chapter 14, nor the relationship between Genesis 14 and the Abraham cycle. Rather, the intent of this article is to discuss the meaning of the expression “as far as Dan” in Genesis 14:14.
As it stands in the text, the use of Dan is an anachronism. Dan was the fifth son of Jacob and the first son of Bilhah, the maid given by Rachel to be Jacob’s secondary wife (Genesis 30:6). Later on, when the people of Israel conquered the land of Canaan in the days of Joshua, the tribe of Dan received a portion of the land as its inheritance.
When Dan received its inheritance in Canaan, Dan’s territory was between the tribes of Ephraim and Judah. In the days of the judges, the Amorites forced the Danites into the hill country (Judges 1:34). Later on, during the struggle between Israel and the Philistines, the Danites were oppressed by the Philistines. Shamgar, the son of Anath, killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad and delivered Israel (Judges 3:31).
In the days of Samson, the Israelites struggled again against the Philistines, but Samson, a judge from the tribe of Dan, was not able to deliver the Danites from the oppression of the Philistines and the Danites were forced to move (Judges 18:1-31). The migration of the Danites is also mentioned in Joshua 19:47-48.
The tribe of Dan conquered Laish (Judges 18:7) and burned the city (the city is named Leshem in Joshua 19:47). Then, they rebuilt the city and called it Dan. Laish was a city at the northernmost end of the land of Canaan. Eventually, the expression “from Dan to Beer-sheba came to express the northern and the southern borders of Israel. The reference to Sidon in Judges 18:28 may indicate that, at the time the Danites conquered the city, Laish was a colony of Sidon.
Thus, it is clear then that the appearance of Dan in Genesis 14:14 is an anachronism, since in the days of Abraham Dan was not yet born and there was no Dan to give name to a city located in the northern part of Canaan.
The expression “as far as Dan” is also an anachronism because Moses could not have written about the location of Dan since the land of Canaan had not yet been occupied by the Israelite tribes who were living in Egypt.
The issue with this anachronism has to do with the question of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. For those who accept Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the anachronism of Genesis 14:14 poses a problem. Several solutions have been proposed to solve the anachronism and thus hold to the integrity of the text and to Mosaic authorship.
The proposed solution is the view that the Dan of Genesis 14:14 is not the Laish conquered by the Danites and then later renamed Dan, but that this Dan was Dan-jaan, a city mentioned in 2 Samuel 24:6. According to this view, the Dan of Genesis 14:14 belonged to Gilead (see Deuteronomy 34:1), and is no doubt the same as the Dan-jaan mentioned in 2 Samuel 24:6 in connection with Gilead.
This view should be rejected for two reasons: First, Josephus in his Antiquities 1:10 mentioned that this Dan was located near one of the sources of the Jordan. In addition, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and Targum Onkelos follow the Masoretic Text.
Second, many scholars believe that Dan-jaan and Dan were the same city. This view reflects the possibility that the scribes did not preserve the correct name of this city. Some Bible translations accept the identification of Dan-jaan with Dan.
The following translations translate “Dan” in 2 Samuel 24:8: ESV, RSV, NRSV, Tanak, BBE, Douay-Rheims, NAB, and the NJB.
The following translations translate “Dan-jaan”: KJV, NIV, NKJV, NLB, CSB, Darby, Geneva, JPS, Webster, and Young.
Another proposal to deal with the anachronism is the view that Dan was the original name of the city, which was renamed Laish by the Sidonians after they conquered the city. Thus, when Abraham pursued the Mesopotamian kings, he went as far as Dan, a city that already existed in the days of the patriarchs.
Other scholars believe that the name Dan in Genesis 14:14 was substituted by an editor or a redactor for its older name Laish in order to reflect the new name of the city.
Some scholars have identified “Jaan” with Ijon, a city located north of Dan (cf 1 Kings 15:20). Others have identified Dan-jaan with Denyen, one of the groups that settled in Canaan at the time of the migration of the Sea Peoples.
These explanations do not solve the anachronism in Genesis 14:14. Thus, it is clear that someone other than Moses wrote Genesis 14:14. The attempt at explaining the anachronism has not been successful (click here to read an article on inerrancy that lists several possible explanations which have been developed to clarify the anachronism).
The book of Genesis is an anonymous book. The Bible never says that Moses wrote Genesis. It was Jewish tradition that attributed Mosaic authorship to the Pentateuch and Christians have adopted this tradition as a matter of fact. The Bible is the Word of God even if someone other than Moses wrote Genesis 14:14.
NOTE: For several other studies on Abraham, read my post Studies on Abraham.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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