The remark that Edom had kings "before there reigned any king over the children of Israel" (Genesis 36:31) might be used by critics to suggest that the author knew of kings presently in Israel—and that, therefore, the text was not written by Moses, but much later. Is that fair to say? And if it is not, then why would Moses say such a thing? What reason might he have had to make this remark?

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    There's lots of evidence in Genesis and other books of editors adding some details after the text was original written, possibly long after it was written. The debates are usually over the earliest composition of the text in a form largely the same as it is now.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 5:28
  • I’m well aware, which is why when I come across passages that might suggest later composition, I want to get into the details, where the debates properly take place. After all, there is much evidence and many claims of Moses’ authorship: the text is hence presented as a lie if he was not in fact the author. Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 4:49
  • Why is Mosiac authorship of Genesis something to be defended? Is there anything in-book that suggests Mosiac authorship?
    – A.O.
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 22:06
  • We do not know how many "books" or scrolls the Torah/Pentateuch, as originally written, was written in. So we do not know whether what Jewish scholars came to call "Bereshit," or Genesis, was regarded as a unitary piece of writing until much later. What we do know is that later scripture treats the whole Torah as a single work, and that that work was written by Moses: Judg 4:11, 1 Kgs 2:3, esp. 2 Kgs 14:6, etc. Not a single volume within the Torah is named or referred to as such anywhere in the Bible: it's just "Torah." Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 22:21

1 Answer 1


If one assumes that the Pentateuch was composed in, say, the time of Ezra, as some liberal scholars do, then this might well be what would be expected, albeit it would have been a “slip.” “Aha!” they say, “this shows the author was writing to people who knew of kings in Israel!”

But suppose it was written by Moses, before any king had yet ruled in Israel. How—with what construction—would he have expressed this fact? And why would he have done so?

I submit that Moses would have used precisely this expression: “before there reigned any king over the children of Israel,” or in a more modern formulation, “before Israel had any kings.”

Why would he have wanted to express the fact, and why in this way? What could his purpose be?

On the one hand, he is acknowledging something God told Jacob in the previous chapter: “kings shall come out of thy loins” (Gen 35:11). Yet the Lord who inspired this text also later made it only too clear that Israel ought not to have any kings. When the people, later, will demand one from Samuel, the Lord will reply to Samuel, “they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” (1 Sam 8:7) This same God told Moses that future kings ought to be selected by the Lord himself, and should live humbly, without horses or many wives, studying Moses’ law and doing it (Deut 17:14–20).

The original readers, or hearers, of the book of Genesis would have known the reputation of the kings of Edom: they had long since fallen away from the faith of Abraham and Isaac to become like the pagan people around them, and their kings were nothing whatsoever to envy. I cannot say for certain, but it seems to me Moses was saying, between the lines, “Look, children of Israel! You want kings? Edom gained kings before you. Do you think that is glorious? Look at their kings! Do you really want men such as this to rule over you? You are ruled by the Almighty God!”

If you still suspect that the construction "before there reigned any king over the children of Israel" might indicate post-monarchy authorship, there is a bit more evidence in this very passage that it was authored by Moses.

If we assume that kings of those days reigned 50% longer due to longer age, then estimating 150% of the average length of reign in Israel and Judah, we have an average length of reign in Edom of 25 years. Multiplied by eight kings, the total length of the reigns described would actually occupy approximately 200 years, only half the time between the captivity of Joseph and the Exodus.

Of course, the first king might not have arrived for something on the order of 100 years, because neither Esau, nor his sons or grandsons, are among the Edomite kings (though it appears a great-grandson is); and some of the reigns could have been much longer, further bringing up the average.

In any event, if the text were written by Moses, one would expect a relatively short list of this sort, not one that would continue on past the time of Saul.

It is also interesting that the last-listed king, Hadar, is not recorded as having died, and his queen is given special treatment, as might befit a living queen. The suggestion, then, is that Hadar was reigning even as Moses was composing the document. If it were written much later, then this would show that those pretending to compose the document in the name of Moses would give great attention to detail in constructing quite an elaborate lie.

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