Chronological and Thematic Order


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"אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה"

The principle of "אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה", that the Torah does not always preserve chronological order, is well known.  In several places in Torah this achronology is explicit in the text.  Time markers such as people's ages, passage of time, lengths of rule, or more rarely, definitive dates, clue the reader into the phenomenon.  More often, though, the true timing of scenes is ambiguous.  For textual or conceptual reasons a case might be made for achronology, but no definitive proof can be found in the text. Regardless of what prompts the claim, though, whenever achronology is posited one must question: what is its goal? Why does Torah sometimes opt to tell events out of order? What is gained through the reordering?

Scope of the Reordering

Cases of achronology differ both in the length of the material which is displaced and the scope of the displacement. At times, it is just one or two verses which is recounted out or order, while at other times entire chapters might be moved.1 They might be moved just a few verses away from their proper chronological pace or many chapters away, and in a few cases, they are even placed in an entirely different book of Torah altogether!  In other cases, an event is recorded twice, both in its chronological place and again in a different setting.  How might one account for these different types of displacement? Are these factors indicative of differing goals?

Connected Issues

  • Indicators of achronology – When a story is achronological, are there any clues in the text which might hint to the reader that the event is out of order?  When a text employs the past perfect rather than past tense, is this significant?  What might headings such as "ויהי אחר הדברים האלה" ,"בימים ההם", or "ויהי בעת ההיא" suggest about the chronology of the events being recounted?  See Indicators of Achronology for discussion.
  • Commentators and chronology – Which commentators are more likely to posit achronology than others?  What reasons do they tend to give to explain the displacement: literary, thematic or homiletical?  How might an exegete's approach to question's of chronology relate to their general exegetical methodology? See Commentators and Questions of Chronology.

Additional Topics

Topics which touch on questions of chronology include: