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September 18, 2013

Models of Conflict Resolution from the Pentateuch and the ANE

by Admin

Dr. Zebedi A. Muga from St Paul’s University, Limuru, explores aspects of Pentateuchal Indaba and resolutions from selected readings of the Pentateuch and the ANE


This paper seeks to examine aspects of resolving intra-person and inter-communal conflicts based on readings from the Pentateuch. This is intended to inform the Indaba listening process of the Anglican Communion through analysis of certain readings that are hoped will shed light on the process from a biblical perspective.

The Pentateuch is chosen by virtue of the fact that few studies have been done in it. Also its social context is deemed closer to the African pastoral and indigenous social orders, organization and ethos. This has therefore provided an area of interest to the researcher.

It can be argued that models of listening and resolving disputes in the biblical context, especially the Pentateuch, are closer to African models and social systems. The Bible is significant in the faith and praxis of African Christians; therefore, it is hoped that it forms the basis of reason and listening for the African church and leadership. Certain principles and guidelines can be garnered from the readings to help the listening process of the Anglican Communion, in bridging and bringing the various parties of the Anglican social divide together.

Methodology for study

The approach of this study will be mainly exegetical but also based on Norman Gottwald’s thesis on Class and conflict that leads to evolving new ways of achieving social equity and peace. It will also be based on Michael De Roche’s thesis, Yahweh’s rîb Against Israel, on the process of conflict and resolution especially in Prophetic literature. De Roche’s study is based on Prophetic literature. The researcher will use this method in studying the process in the Pentateuchal social life and peaceful co-existence.

Passages from the Pentateuch will be read with the notion of conflict in the background and  De Roche’s notion of rîb (conflict) and resolution in the foreground.  The stages of the processes are followed in the Pentateuchal Indaba (listening) and conflict resolution. This will enable the exegetical process to bring out the principles of listening that emerge from the biblical readings. It will be noted, however, that both Gottwald and De Roche are non-African  and therefore may be seen as irrelevant. However, since the issues they deal with are universal and biblical, it would be good to see what principles can be gained from the Ancient Near East (ANE), Pentateuch and African perspectives for the appropriate listening process such as Indaba. The researcher will attempt to view the present issue through the African view based on these two methods.

Conflicts and resolutions from the Ancient Near East

The ANE is replete with examples of conflicts and how they are resolved. A reading of J. B Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, has many examples of modes of resolving conflicts in the ANE. It will be noted that most of these are based on ANE monarchical models which may not suit our purpose. However, the emphasis on covenanting and making of treaties may give insights into how a resolution is arrived at (Pritchard, 1969, 202). Examples include the Egyptian Hittite Treaties which emphasize peace and brotherhood (Pritchard, op. cit.). These are rooted in the notion of relatedness through marriage or other means. There is also the example of Ramses II making treaties with the Hittite states against external aggression and hostilities.

It can be noted here that the social structure is monarchical i.e., the suzerain versus the vassal. The suzerain draws up treaties with the vassal on the basis of their future relationship. The drawer is the suzerain, while the vassal is the beneficiary. The conflicts dealt with in this situation are mainly between nations and communities. However, in all these, one notes the emphasis on good relations, mutuality of interest and protection of that interest. It is also emphasized in these treaties that the gods do not permit hostility; hence, only as a final resort when listening fails do they resort to war. Also note the use of envoys, which results in alliances and cooperation against common enemies.

The best are those conflict narratives of Anubis and Bata the two brothers (Pritchard, 1969, 23). One accused the other of seducing his wife. The younger had been sent home to get provisions, meanwhile an episode much like the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife occurred. After a long stand off he says, ‘what do you (mean by) coming after me to kill (me) falsely when you would not listen to what I had to say’ (Pritchard, 25)? It is not stated how the resolution takes place, but the emphasis on listening as in Indaba is noteworthy for our purposes here. This is crystallized in legal processes described in the ANE where there are judges who listen to the case of Tarmiya who is assigned a slave, but his brother claims the slave is actually his wife [cf. Legal Docs of Nuzi Akkadian, (Pritchard, 219)]. In the ritual against a domestic quarrel it describes the intervention of a priestess who engages in the process of ritual of reconciliation. It does not offer much detail about the process of listening and reconciliation (Pritchard, 351). It can be seen in the examples that there is an initial listening and a process followed in resolving the dispute.

The Process of De Roche’s Indaba (Listening Process)

According to Michael De Roche, he argues that rîb is a process of resolving conflict i.e., it is a lawsuit process. Rîb was a process intended for situations that threaten or disrupt harmony in society. He cites Roberts as saying that there are three levels for this process i.e., the first level of resolution where the parties or individuals convince each other of the justice of their positions. This can be conducted in a calm context, heated discussion, a fight or a combination of the three. Both sides, according to Roberts, can conscript others to join their sides (De Roche,  564).

In the second level, the two parties ask a third person to act as mediator. They must agree to allow the mediator to participate and they can still enlist their friends and associates to garner support.

The third level is where they ask or appeal to a member of society who is ‘pre-acknowledged by all as umpire’ (De Roche, p. 565). This could be a chief, tribal council, king, president or appointed representatives, i.e., judges. The latter hears the case and hands down their verdict which is binding on all the parties and is respected by all those involved.

Examples of Indaba from the Pentateuch

There are several examples of rîb in the Pentateuch. De Roche’s work has mostly focused on the Prophetic literature where Yahweh brings a rîb against his people Israel and calls on nature as witnesses in this suit. It can, however, be noted that in the narratives of the Pentateuch most rîbs are resolved at the individual level and between individuals and groups, so they tend to resolve at the first level.

  1. The first case is the rîb between Yahweh and Adam in Genesis 3 on the question of who ate the fruit. It is trilateral—i.e., between Yahweh, Adam/Eve and the Snake. Here Yahweh has a rîb but he acts as judge. This narrative does not bring out the trilateral process.
  2. Next is the rîb in Genesis 27 and 28, on the soured relations between Esau and Jacob. Jacob steals the blessing of Esau and leaves a grieved brother. On his return he makes efforts to reach out. It is interesting that Isaac does not try to arbitrate the rîb, but instead pronounces another oracle subjecting Esau to his brother (Gen. 27:39 – 40). Jacob is later outwitted by Laban when he secretly married Jacob to Leah and not Rachel, on whom he had eyes. It is interesting to see how he backs down and serves another 7 years for his love. It appears he listens to Laban’s reasoning (cf. Gen. 29:21 – 28).

21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”

22 So Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast.

23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.

24 (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.)

25 And in the morning, behold, it was Leah; and Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”

26 Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the first-born.

27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”

28 Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to wife.

29 (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.)

30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.

  1. In Genesis 26:12 Isaac is in conflict with the Philistine king Abimelek. Issac is prosperous and envied by the Philistines so they have stopped his wells. In verse 16 he is sent away by the king, ‘ go away from us you have become too powerful for us.’ First he departs (i.e., withdrawing from conflict) and settles in another place, seeks new pastures and opportunities. It is also interesting that he acts alone. When he is confronted again by the herders of Gerar, he leaves his new well and digs another. Later when Abimelek, King of Gerar, sees that he continues to prosper despite his circumstances he asks to make a treaty with him (cf. Gen. 26.26). ‘let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you.’ It is noteworthy that Isaac accepts this offer and they make a feast and part amicably. Note that Abimelech takes the first initiative to a face-to-face meeting, Isaac reads the situation and agrees to make peace with them and the rîb is resolved.
  2. In Genesis 13:8 Abraham contends with Lot over pasture. It is worth noting how Abraham does not insist in his position, but lets Lot choose what he wants. He is aware that Lot may choose the greener pastures therefore he says ‘if you take the left I will take the right…’ (13:9).
  3. In Genesis 31:1ff there is a narrative of the rîb between Jacob and Laban’s sons i.e., (“Jacob has taken all that was our father’s; and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.”) and later with Laban himself. It can be noted here that he enlists the support of his wives when he sees that Laban is no longer happy with him before he makes his move to leave. When he later reprimands Jacob for leaving without farewell he softens at Jacobs shrewd answer that he thought Laban would take away his daughters and grandchildren and the fact that God spoke to him the night before. The principle of mutuality and relatedness reigns supreme in verse 44 when Laban accepts that what is Jacobs is his and what is his is Jacobs. Later they eat a ritual meal of reconciliation and depart. Once again resolution of rîb at the first level.

Principles of Resolution and Indaba listening

  • Face to face meetings. The subjects take the initiative to meet the other party to vent their feelings to one another—cf. Jacob and Laban.
  • They withdraw from conflict i.e., they give the other party time to arrive at a reasonable time for resolution.
  • Their consciousness of mutuality and relatedness enable them not to take drastic or violent paths to the destruction of the relationships cf. Laban – Jacob, Abraham Lot etc. the relatedness as in blood relations, marriage etc.
  • After participating in a ritual of reconciliation (covenant meal) they eat and make a treaty and leave cf. Jacob – Laban, Isaac – Abimelek. In the African context it is believed that eating erases ill will and one cannot harm the other if they share a meal.

Note the use of gathering and community. There is communal involvement because they have other men with them. Later the gathering at the gate becomes a significant forum for Indaba listening and resolution. Later they have the ziqney Yisrael ‘elders of Israel’ – seasoned, proven, wise elders attempt a resolution. i.e., they develop trusted institutions for listening and resolving conflict. Use of laid down structures used by the community.


De Roche, Michael. “Yahweh’s Rîb against Israel: A Reassessment of the So-Called ‘Prophetic Lawsuit’ in the Preexilic Prophets.” Journal of Biblical Literature 102, no. 4 (Dec., 1983): 563-74.

Gottwald, Norman K. The Hebrew Bible in Its Social World and in Ours. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993.

Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement. 3 ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

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