Genesis - a Week at a Time

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"This world is full of crashing bores." -- Morrissey

Sunday, August 27, 2006

New Site!

Well, I'm on my way folks. After trying to contend with managing FOUR separate blogs for all of my work, I have happened upon the opportunity to consolidate them into one website. Thanks to a great deal of assistance from my friend Provoked, I now have a new site that I'm testing out in hopes of making the presentation of my work look more professional and less "Blogspot-ish", as I continue my attempts to locate gainful employment as a free-lance journalist.

Thus, I'd appreciate it greatly if you'd take some time to visit (and maybe even change your blogrolls) Dryvetyme Onlyne in the next few days (and in the subsequent weeks and months and years. And thanks for all of your visits to my blogs here over the past 18 or so months, because, as soon as Dryvetyme Onlyne is fully functional, my four Blogspot sites will become extinct.



Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Brick Testament

OK folks....

If there's one thing in the world that makes me happier, it's the Legos that carried me through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood (don't ask me how many Star Wars-sanctioned Lego sets I have). Thus, I must present to you something that has made me even happier in the past few months (since I've used these images over at my Genesis Commentary Blog a few times recently). This wonderful guy, Brendon Powell Smith, has created this wonderful site entitled The Brick Testament, where he has re-enacted a great many scenes from the Old & New Testament using (you guessed it) Legos. In fact, he's published three collections of his work so far -- Genesis, the Story of Moses, and the Christmas Story. Go check his site out and see if you don't laugh as much as I do. And if you're so inclined, marvel along with me at the time & dedication it's taken to create such wonderment.



Thursday, July 20, 2006

Genesis 29:31-30:24

The Origins of the Tribes of Israel
How to Grow a Large Family
And Still Have Your Family Fall Apart

It seems that Jacob is fairly adept at procreating. Granted, the text does not provide us a chronology during this genealogical breakdown, but Jacob doesn’t have the same issues with childbearing that his father and grandfather did. On the other hand, just like his forebears, the woman he chose as his wife does have the same problems with fertility that Sarah and Rebekah had. Barrenness appears to be a common thread throughout the Story of the Patriarchs, and Rachel is the next in line to experience such heartbreak and domestic turmoil. (Berlin & Brettler, p61)

I don’t know about you, but reading through this selection of verses brings to mind a great many questions, concerns, and queries concerning the details of Jacob’s family and how daily domestic affairs were handled. A cursory examination might lead us to state that things haven’t gotten much better since the days of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. However, when we begin to look deeply into this portion of The Story, we quickly obtain a glimpse of much of the rest of Genesis will bear out, both in terms of Jacob’s generation and that of his children. It is as if the intensity of the effects of Sarah’s desire to subvert God’s plans by pushing Hagar upon Abraham back in Genesis 16 have been compounded and multiplied many times over.

I debated on just how deep I should delve into the finer cultural specifics and details present within this passage. As we see in the course of events between Sarah and Hagar of chapters 16 & 21, a woman, for reasons of procreation, may send her maidservant to her husband and any child born would legally belong to the husband and wife, and not to the maidservant. Moreover, we also learn from those two chapters that a great deal of tension can be easily introduced into a family and the individual lives of the people in that family when infertility and surrogate birthing rear their heads. Nevertheless, on top of the familiar problems Rachel has with bearing Jacob a child of her own, Jacob must face the discordant permutation of Leah and Rachel’s sibling rivalry into marital jealousy. Two sisters fighting over the affections of one man is never a pretty arrangement, and one that I’m surprised hasn’t been made into a major Hollywood teen-oriented movie.

Poor Jacob… At least Abraham and Isaac had enough sense not to marry more than one wife – Jacob has to become skilled at interacting with four adult women in his household. Sadly though, Jacob never becomes proficient with such tactics and diplomacy, because, from the outset of this portion of text, he chooses Rachel above all others, much to the dismay of Leah and the course of his children’s lives. But God proves to possess a rather unusual sense of decency and justice, since, upon seeing how Jacob ignores Leah, God opens up Leah’s womb as Rachel remained barren. “As in the case of Hagar (16:10-12; 21:17-18), God shows compassion to the unloved mate, thus partially equalizing the disparity between her and her co-wife. Barrenness, in some instances a punishment (e.g., 2 Sam 6:20-23), serves in Rachel’s case to place her in succession to Sarah and Rebekah (11:30; 25:21).” (Berlin & Brettler, p61)

Thus, Leah is able to bear children and three sons are the prompt result of God’s blessing – Rueben, Simeon, and Levi. However, in spite of what should be a time of great joy in the life of this family, it seems that Leah is in perpetual angst about Jacob’s lack of love for her and the names she gives to these three boys stands as proof of this. Rueben (see, a son), Simeon (has heard), and Levi (will join) are all evidences of Leah’s pleadings through childbearing for her husband to love her and give her some attention outside of the marriage bed. (Alter, p156-157) It isn’t until the birth of her fourth son, Judah, in 29:35 that Leah’s name-giving turmoil is silenced, but even that isn’t long-lived. (Hamilton, p268)

“When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’” Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’” (Genesis 30:1-2, NRSV)

And, throughout all of this prodigious child-bearing, Rachel, the wife that Jacob does love has remained without a child, much less a son, a fact that plagues Rachel and her plight in life. “In the ancient Near East, one vital measure of a wife’s worth was her ability to bear sons – to tend the fields, herd the flocks, defend land and honor, and carry on the family name. For the woman herself, unable to inherit on her own, sons represented security in her old age.” (Frankel, p 54) Thus Rachel’s torment is two-fold – not only has she not produced any sons from practical reasons, but she feels ashamed that she had not born any sons to the man who does love her, who voluntarily worked seven extra years for her father to earn the right to marry her.

So, she approaches her husband in her anguish, begging him to bless her and give her a child of any kind, but he responds harshly, not truly understanding the depth and breadth of her request. (Frankel, p56) Granted, Jacob is correct in stating openly that he is not the person that Rachel should be beseeching for children, as culture custom and Biblical precedent dictate that she should visit a holy person, talk to God, or hope that God sees her in her childlessness and sends a messenger of God to visit her. (Alter, p158) But while his theological resolve is in the right place, he is relationally unsound. Throughout both women’s frustrations – Leah’s in bearing many sons to a husband who doesn’t love her and Rachel’s in not being able to become pregnant – Jacob seems to either not be present or not paying very much attention to the domestic strife. (Frankel, p56) Thus, reminiscent to Sarah’s thrusting of Hagar upon Abraham, Rachel responds to her husband’s pronouncement that he isn’t God by giving him her servant girl Bilhah to be a surrogate mother, an arrangement that produces two sons – Dan and Naphtali.

And the sad thing is that the birth of these two boys to Rachel, via adopting them straight out of Bilhah’s womb, only produces more domestic strife. It’s as if every single, possible familial disturbance that ever occurred in the prior two Patriarchal generations has been rolled together and greatly magnified in the Love Pentagon that is Jacob-Rachel-Leah-Bilhah-Zilpah. For, as soon as Bilhah bore two sons for Rachel, Leah counters by sending Jacob her maidservant Zilpah, assuming that, in her barren status, she can continue attempting to work her way into Jacob’s heart by siring more children (especially boys). Moreover, these two women were fighting through the naming of their son’s names: 1) Dan – “God has vindicated me”; 2) Naphtali – “I have been entangled in a desperate contest with my sister and have won”; 3) Gad – “What luck”; and 4) Asher – “Women will count me blessed.” (Hamilton, p271-273 & Frankel, p55, 57) Over and over again, the overt infighting being inculcated via the wife-and-sibling rivalry in Jacob’s house sets up the future for the failure, conflict, strife, and pain that will be so prevalent in Joseph’s story in the latter parts of Genesis.

“When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, ‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night. And God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son.” (Genesis 30:16-17, NRSV)

However, the child-rearing competition doesn’t even begin to cease. Rachel observes Leah’s eldest child, Reuben, returning home with some harvested mandrakes, a plant purported to possess a combination of aphrodisiac and fertility-increasing properties. (Berlin & Brettler, p61) Quite obviously, such rumored traits are attractive to both women – Rachel wants to get pregnant and Leah would like for Jacob to love her. (Frankel, p58) With this hope, Rachel proposes a trade with Leah – you give me the mandrakes so that I can increase my chances to become pregnant and I’ll let you sleep with Jacob tonight. There is a bargain here that is undertaken by these women, one that displays the absolute desperation present in both their lives, as Rachel wants a child that is her own and Leah just wants love from a husband that really doesn’t pay her any attention. (Hamilton, p275)

And what happens as a result? Leah bears three more children – another son, Issachar (“God has given me my wages”); her last son, Zebulun (“God has given me, even me, a valuable gift”); and a daughter, Dinah. (Alter, p161 & Hamilton, p275-276) And curiously, in a family rife with the tendency to provide an over-the-top significance for a newborn’s name, there is no explanation given for Dinah’s. However, textual commentators quite enjoy instances like these, as they are able to enjoy the privilege of debating whether the authors are a) intentionally silent due to Dinah’s status as a female (Alter, p161); b) highlighting Dinah’s position as the only female child being born to a family full of boys (Frankel, p58); or c) crafty and alluding to future events (Hamilton, p 276).

“Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’” (Genesis 30:22-24, NRSV)

I can hear Rachel scream at this point, “FINALLY!” God finally remembers Rachel, finally heeds her, finally opens her womb, and finally allows her to conceive and bear a child, all privileges and blessings that have been bestowed upon Leah 8 times already (7 sons and 1 daughter). At this event, Rachel loudly proclaims that she finally feels that God no longer hates her and finally desires for her to have a child, a sentiment that she greatly holds in common with the prior two Matriarchs. However, Rachel becomes a bit consumed in her overwhelming need to compete with Leah and declares that, not only has God at long last given her a son, she will be blessed with more children. Now, there’s nothing wrong with hoping and believing – it’s what keeps us motivated and moving forward, even when we don’t want to do so. “Like all of us, Rachel keeps upping the ante of blessing. Although Jacob clearly loves her, she remains miserable without a child. And when she finally gives birth to a son, she immediately longs for another. Why is it so difficult for us to appreciate the birds in our hand?” (Frankel, p59)

Thus, with the birth of Joseph, and until the late-occurring birth of Benjamin through Rachel, we have the chronological and matriarchal breakdown for the children of Jacob. There are 11 sons and 1 daughter – 6 sons and 1 daughter to Leah, 2 to Bilhah, 2 to Zilpah, and 1 to Rachel, the most-and-only-loved. Jacob has proven to be quite the impressive creator of progeny, far more than the other Patriarchs (his father and grandfather) had ever imagined themselves to be. With 11 sons and 1 daughter, it seems that the Promise given originally to Abraham finally has a chance of coming to pass, if only people could/would stop fighting.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Genesis 29:15-30

Jacob Marries Twice
Laban Plays Rebekah to Jacob’s Isaac
The Youngest Was the Most Loved

Our passions can be quite conniving at times. They have this uncanny ability to dominate the direction our lives at the mere mention of anything that might tickle their fancy. And there’s often something rather fleeting about many of these seemingly random passions of ours in that they rarely have the tendency to stay around for very long. However, what’s easily the scariest about our passions is that there are some that remain a very long time and revel in their capacity to permanently blind us to the actual events taking place in our lives. We think that we have them under control, referring to them as things we “like” or “love,” when, in reality, our passions are dictating to us the terms of any given interaction, whether public or private.

But at the same time, I find my passions to be fairly fickle on a regular basis. Whether it’s a style of music, a certain song, an author, a food group, a restaurant, or even someone in my group of acquaintances, I rotate through my likes and dislikes like I’m changing underwear (a pitiful metaphor, I know). I feel that it’s human nature to undergo this vicious cycle, but that cycle is nothing compared to the spontaneous and overwhelming feeling of “I have to have that now!” And this sudden shift in our passions can quickly turn into an obsession that compels us to set everything else aside, especially our sense of judgment and what's best for us.

Thus, I present the thought that much of Jacob’s trouble in this portion of the Patriarchal Story, as well as subsequent ones in Genesis, revolve around Jacob’s passions and his propensity for allowing those passions to take the lead in decision-making. Jacob was so overcome with emotions in verses 1-14 that he removed a very heavy stone covering the well all by himself and wept openly upon seeing Rachel for the first time. Thus, when Laban offers him a chance to set any possible terms for his servitude and work, Jacob readily offers up himself as a common laborer for the hand of Rachel in marriage. However, as we shall see, Laban has other plans in store for Jacob, plans that will replay an earlier story in a dark tent with a dark twist of irony.

“Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ … Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’” (Genesis 29:15, 18; NRSV)

From the outset, it appears that Laban knows exactly what he’s going to do in terms of exploiting Jacob’s obvious and over-the-top love for Rachel. Jacob arrives at Paddan Aram with little or nothing, the exact opposite of how The Servant approached him, Rebekah, and their mother when negotiating for the hand of Rebekah in marriage to Isaac. There is no possible way for Jacob to pay the standard bride-price to prove his financial and social worth to Laban, as was required for arranged marriages in such cultures. (Alter, p154) Thus, Laban is within his rights to request Jacob’s services in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage, but the language that he employs is intended to display his benevolence at wanting to pay Jacob for his services and mask his desire to marry off his eldest daughter deceptively. (Hamilton, p259) The trickster is tricked and he is so blinded by his passion that he sets aside his normally shrewd tendencies and embarks blindly into his labor. (Coogan, et al; p51)

Now, you see, Laban had two daughters – Leah, the eldest, and Rachel, the youngest – and, by custom, the eldest was supposed to be married off first, a situation reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and/or Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You. Jacob agrees to work seven years for the hand of Rachel in marriage, a time period that Jacob seems to not bother working, especially if it means that he obtains the object of his heart’s desire. However, Laban has other plans in that, when Jacob had completed the arranged period of labor, Laban tricks him into marrying Leah by veiling and disguising her, both during the marriage feast and in the marriage bed. Waking up from his slumber, Jacob discovers that the woman in his bed is not the woman he had arranged to marry and is thoroughly outraged. He confronts Laban with this deception and is met with Laban’s coolly-formed response that marrying off the younger daughter first goes against the customs of the land. The trickster may have been tricked, but this is not the first and this will not be the last time that Jacob’s past actions come back to haunt him.

Whether Jacob is aware of the cultural distinctive of the eldest having to be married first or not, it seems that Laban is fully aware of the fact that Leah must be married before Jacob can marry Rachel. Thus, the question remains – why doesn’t Laban enlist Jacob’s help in finding a husband for Leah? Why didn’t he inform Jacob of that point of cultural law? Don’t you think that Jacob would has been quite motivated to locate and/or coerce someone who is ready, willing, and/or able to ask for Leah’s hand in marriage? Why does Laban decide to deceive Jacob into marrying his eldest? Does he not think that any potential suitors will ever approach Leah? I could ask many more similar questions, but suffice to say that Laban’s course of action was one of intentional deception, forsaking logic and reason for long-term chicanery. (Hamilton, p262-263)

Regardless of his misplaced sense of timing and confronted by Jacob’s discovery of his ruse, Laban presents his son-in-law with the following option: if Jacob really wants to marry Rachel, he can work another seven years as Laban’s servant. If Jacob will wait a week, undergo another wedding feast, and work some more, Rachel is his, since Leah is now married off. And this is an arrangement to which Jacob readily assents, which is not surprising, since he willingly offered up his labor for Rachel in the first place. Victor Hamilton notes that Jacob’s character is affirmed and established in this passage – he honors both seven-year terms of labor and does not find a way to steal away with Rachel, repaying Laban’s deceit for one of his own. (Hamilton, p264)

Jacob’s integrity has been progressively rebuilt (or maybe even created for the first time) ever since his flight from home began, following his life of dishonest machinations. He was born tugging on the heel of his twin brother, he bought the birthright for a bowl of soup, and he hoodwinked his father into giving him the blessing due to the eldest son, effectively stealing the birthright that was rightfully Esau’s. Thus, specific to this story as a whole, from the dual marriages in this chapter to Joseph’s deception of his grain-seeking brothers in Genesis 44-45, Jacob is forced to bear the burdens and learn the lessons prescribed by the villainy he wrought upon his family. (Berlin & Brettler, p60)

Walter Brueggemann states it this way – “Since 25:27-24 and 27:1-45, we have known that Jacob was an effective trickster. But now he has met his match in Laban. Here Jacob is on the receiving end. He is done in. The one led and accompanied by God (28:15) is duped by his uncle. The reasoning of Laban has its own logic. And the irony of it is striking and perhaps a fair retaliation to Jacob. Since the early kick in the womb (25:22), Jacob has struggled with the ‘natural’ rights of the older. Only by subterfuge had he settled that with his own brother. And now it meets him again. The resistant reality of primogeniture blocks his love even as it blocks his inheritance. Leah is older, Rachel must wait. And so also Jacob must wait. But this time, Jacob has no trick to reverse the matter. He must wait. And he does. God is at work keeping promises again, but the keeping of promises can be delayed.” (Brueggemann, p 253)

I am not one to suggest that Jacob is set up by God here to get his “just desserts” and “he was getting what was coming to him.” However, it does appear that Jacob was the recipient of a great deal of justice here – the one who deceived his father regarding his birth order was deceived by his desired bride’s father as to the birth order of his daughters. Moreover, the fact that Jacob acquiesces to the course of events that have been handed to him is further testament to Jacob’s desire to marry Rachel and his growing understanding that he has brought this upon himself. The passions by which Jacob has lived for so long have finally risen up to receive their due position in Jacob’s life – he thought that he ruled over them, but it was they who controlled him.

Now, like many of you, you’ve heard this story portrayed in loving terms, even used in weddings to describe how Jacob was more than willing to spend the extra seven years of hard labor and that they “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20, NRSV) I’m not discounting such a possibility in my discussion of this passage, but I do want to provide a shift in an interpretation that is merely cursory and simplistic. Jacob did love Rachel and he was more than willing to serve an extra seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, but it must be clearly stated that Jacob’s time spent in Laban’s tents was time spent with Jacob being the recipient of similar levels of deceit that he and his mother Rebekah enacted upon his father Isaac.

This story has two distinct, yet intertwined messages – Jacob does reap what he sows, but he remains focused upon obtaining that which he loves, no matter what the circumstances and obstacles. His passion blinded him to the deception, but also provided him the means by which he could make the best of the situation and come out with what he most desired – the hand of Rachel in marriage. However, Jacob’s desires in the past to obtain the birthright and receive the blessing, eschewing traditional familiar norms come to the fore later in the Story with the constant battles over children and Jacob’s favor undertaken by Leah, Rachel, and their two very fertile handmaidens (Zilpah & Bilhah) as well as the conflicts between Jacob’s children concerning who Jacob loved the most. As the Patriarchal Story infers continually, it can be quite hard for us to escape our past.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Genesis 29:1-14

Jacob Arrives in Paddan Aram
Jacob Really Knows How to Show Off to Get the Girl

One of the primary reasons I’ve come to enjoy the Story of the Patriarchs throughout the book of Genesis is that it is such a distinct microcosm of world history. Nations are born, nations develop, nations propagate internally and externally, the strength of the nations ebbs and flows, nations experience conflict internally and externally, and the story repeats itself endlessly. Moreover, nary three generations have finished with this story before the events are reprised with a new crop of descendents. It is as if the author(s) of the story would like for whoever is reading the tale or listening to it being told to realize the patterns and the various levels of significance present within each pattern.

But what makes the story of the Covenant so great is that, much like all other epic and archetypal narratives throughout literary and world history, these lessons being communicated are not spelled out in specific terms. They don’t scream, “Hey you! Pay attention here! Remember this!” And we should be glad of this fact. And yes, autocratic leaders throughout time immemorial have regularly concocted stories that openly declare their intentions and tell people exactly what to do and not do, believe and not believe. However, history also tells us that (with few exceptions) such belief systems have a rather short shelf life. Thus, we must perpetually approach the Story of the Patriarchs with reverence and awe, for we often aren’t aware of what ideas and impressions our current perusal of any given passage in the text might work their way into our imaginations.

So, if you’ve followed my train of thought this far, I ask you to walk with me into this bit of text – Jacob’s arrival at his mother’s home and subsequent conversation with the shepherds, Rachel, and Uncle Laban, who is both Rachel’s father and Rebekah’s brother. Jacob continues with his journey across the desert, seeking out the family members that his parents instructed him to locate. In so traversing the vast sandy peninsula, he comes across a well, covered by a large stone and surrounded by several shepherds and their sheep. As such wells are common places for people to meet, converse, barter, and trade, it is proper for Jacob to approach these shepherds and inquire of them where he was and if they knew who Laban was. (Coogan, et al; p51) However, Jacob seems to have found a collection of lazy shepherds who were seemingly unable and unwilling to remove the large stone protecting the well so that they may water their sheep and continue on with the rest of their daily chores. (Hamilton, p253)

The subsequent scene is a shortened, but altogether mirrored version of The Servant’s mission to locate a wife for Isaac. (Berlin & Brettler, p59) It seems that not only do these shepherds know of Laban, they point out to Jacob that Rachel, Laban’s daughter, is a shepherdess who is walking their way. Jacob sees Rachel and his reaction is one of “Samsonesque” strength as he removes the stone covering the well on his own, a task that typically requires the strength of two or three men. (Hamilton, p255) It seems that Jacob is intent upon impressing Rachel with his physical abilities and willingness to serve others – without the stone being removed, neither Rachel or the stationary shepherds would be able to water their sheep.

After accomplishing such a feat, Jacob is so overcome with emotion that he kisses Rachel and weeps upon her shoulder. He then declares to her that he is the son of her father’s sister, a piece of information that causes Rachel to run immediately and report this fact to her father, Laban. Realizing exactly who Jacob is and what his arrival means for him and his family, he quickly hurries to the well to see the visitor, falling upon him in a hug and kiss. And thus, upon Jacob’s recitation of the details of his lineage and voyage, Laban announces that Jacob is his flesh and blood and implies that he and Jacob possess more than a casual familiar connection. (Hamilton, p256)

I can hear the comments now – “What are you talking about? You said this episode was a copy of the interaction between The Servant and Rebekah. I don’t see any similarities!” And that’s an understandable reaction. This latter portion of the narrative seems to merely skim the surface of the former, as it is shorter, quirkier, and begins under different sets of circumstances. Nevertheless, you must realize there are some immediate parallels between Genesis 24 and Genesis 29:1-14 – 1) someone is commissioned to cross the desert to find a wife from amongst their family members; 2) there is a discussion that occurs at a well; 3) a man meets a woman at a well; and 4) the woman tells her family about meeting the man at the well. But in spite of those seemingly obvious parallels, what is subtly implied must be overtly stated – Jacob equals neither Isaac nor The Servant and Rachel certainly is not Rebekah. In fact, it’s the total other way around.

The means by which the details of Jacob’s meeting of Rachel occur are literally a mirror image of Rebekah’s introduction to Abraham’s house. The roles of the players are completely flipped. Ellen Frankel, in the voice of “Our Mothers” explains the situation this way: “When Abraham’s servant Eliezer devises a test to identify the right wife for Isaac, he’s looking for the following qualities: kindness to strangers and animals, beauty, modesty, and loyalty to family. He finds them all in Rebekah. But when Jacob comes to the same well years later, he finds himself replaying Rebecca’s [her spelling and italics], not Eliezer’s: so instead of waiting for a young woman to approach him, he comes forward to meet her; instead of her watering his animals, he waters hers. When he reveals himself to her, it’s not Rachel but he who weeps.” (Frankel, p50)

Jacob is certainly not his father; the fact that it is he has made this journey on his own and Isaac never sent out any kind of servant to find a wife for his children. He is the “antithesis” of his father in that he is the one present at the meeting of the future spouses and he is the one who prefers activity to passivity. (Alter, p152) Granted, Esau, back in Genesis 28:6-9, took offense to the mere assistance that their parents gave to Jacob concerning where to go to find a wife, but Jacob, considering the fact that he stole the birthright and blessing, was more than happy to get out of the house. Moreover, Jacob is certainly not a mere copy of his mother: having left his family’s tents, he can act of his own accord and allow his inner strength to come to the fore as he both does the shepherds’ jobs for them and initiates the potentially awkward introductions with Rachel and Laban. (Hamilton, p255)

Thus, we approach the end of this passage with a sense of heightened expectations – Jacob has met Rachel, he has sought to prove his worth and his bloodline to her and her father, his uncle Laban, and Laban has declared that he accepts Jacob as his kin by blood. It seems that everything is in order; all that remains is for Rachel to leave her family’s tents to become Jacob’s wife, just as her aunt Rebekah did when The Servant negotiated for her hand in marriage. However, the common factor in both of these stories is Uncle/Father Laban, a man who did his best to negotiate for extra dowry and time before The Servant took his sister away to Isaac’s tents. Jacob has none of the financial backing that The Servant provided in Isaac’s stead, a variation in the two stories that Laban latches onto quite quickly. Jacob the Trickster will come to meet his match in the personage of Laban. (Brueggemann, p253)

We are faced with the question of how to discern the content and purpose of this story in the narrative. We can approach these fourteen verses as purely story; they are the simple continuation of the larger account. Jacob has to go somewhere after meeting God at Bethel, so the logical place for him to go is for him to arrive at Paddan Aram, the tents of his mother’s family. He meets his future wife and her father, demonstrates his value, and places himself at the mercy of Laban. Many commentators mention specifically that they felt that this is the beginning of Jacob’s reaping of the sowing of bad deeds from his past, but to speak of this passage merely in vengeful tones misses the larger picture. To put it rather simply, the show must go on – Jacob must continue fulfilling The Promise, as God commissioned him to do. Moreover, after three chapters of reading about how despicable, deceptive, and power-hungry he seemed to be, it is in this passage that we learn of good, positive aspects to Jacob’s character. Jacob now stands up, all on his own, and does the proper and honorable thing by watering the sheep of his Uncle Laban and approaching Rachel with reverence and awe. However, with such helpful actions, Jacob falls prey to the machinations of Laban; Jacob will get to see what true deception looks like. (Frankel, p51)

Friday, June 30, 2006

Genesis 28

Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
People CAN Have Visions Without the Use of Hallucinogens

You see, I like stories. I enjoy them quite a lot. With stories, I am allowed to derive what ever point, content, purpose, plan, and/or theme I choose, with the full knowledge that the conclusion I arrive at could be totally different than the one that the author may have intended. And with stories such as the one in Genesis, there are so many twists and turns that it can prove difficult to stop reading. Or, as in the case of historical Jewish culture and similar cultures where history is conveyed through the oral tradition, the listener tries every means possible to keep the storyteller talking because the story is so enthralling that you want to find out exactly what will be happening next.

It is in this spirit that we approach our continuation of Jacob’s story in this chapter. The chapter markings that fill up contemporary Bibles were not part of the original texts and the standard division between chapter and verse was not achieved until the 16th century, just in time for the KJV to enter into mass production in 1611. Thus, anyone who read the Bible before this time would only read the story as it had been written, not being forced to stop by artificially imposed endings to chapters. And even more than that, those who were listening these stories were subjected to the whims of the storyteller who might have ended the recitation for the day whenever they felt like it.

I say all of that to say this – most scholars, when writing about Genesis 28 and focusing their remarks appropriately, combine Genesis 27:46 with Genesis 28:1-9 as a commentary upon how Isaac and Rebekah view Esau’s choice of wives and Jacob’s coming search for a wife. Specifically, Isaac’s blessing of Jacob is a reiteration of the blessing from chapter 27 and an echo of how Father Abraham sent The Servant to look for a wife (Rebekah) for Isaac. Some scholars also note that this section exists to provide a positive and theological context for Jacob’s flight, as if the composers wanted to show that Jacob wasn’t really leaving because of Esau – he was leaving to perpetuate the Promise and find an appropriate wife. (Brueggemann, p237) Moreover, this scene mirrors the events concerning the wives taken by Isaac and Ishmael – Jacob gets the benefit of the blessing and the chosen wife, while Esau reacts negatively and incorrectly by choosing wives from amongst the Hittites and by marrying his first cousin (Ishmael’s daughter). (Alter, p147) It is no wonder that Rebekah’s reaction to Esau’s choices in 27:46 is one of revulsion (and yet another example of her preferring the younger over the elder) – her complaint produces Isaac’s sending off Jacob to Paddan-Aram, in harmony with her sending of Jacob to Laban in 27:43-44. (Berlin & Brettler, p 58)

“When he [Jacob] reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway, resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of the Lord were ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:11-12, TNIV)

Thus, while the core of the story in this chapter is contained within verses 10 through 22, detailing the beginnings of Jacob’s flight from home and the subsequent vision of the ladder/stairway leading to heaven, it seems that Jacob himself is unprepared for what’s about to happen to him. For you see, as opposed to his grandfather Abraham, Jacob had not experienced any contact with God when he launched across the desert. Moreover, in further contrast to Abraham, the reader knows a great deal about Jacob biographically at this point, whereas with Abraham, besides noting the names of his siblings and his wife’s infertility, the reader knew nothing of his personality and character when God first comes to visit him. (Hamilton, p238) In fact, when you examine what we learned about Abraham over the course of 15 chapters with what we have learned about Jacob in the last 3 chapters, one would find it hard to believe that God would really consider either Esau or Jacob to carry on the Promise that had been given to Father Abraham. Esau was a wild man who cared nothing for the birthright and what it truly meant, while Jacob, though understanding the true significance of the birthright and blessing, decided steal it from his brother instead of waiting on God to fulfill the prophecy given to Rebekah.

However, in a move that confuses (or should!) the “morality police” and gossipmongers of past, present, and future, God tends to choose some strange people to prod along the story. It appears that, no matter whatever prophecy or promise is at stake, the character of the one who will fulfill it often doesn’t really matter to God. Thus, Jacob travels towards his mother’s old home and to wherever his father has deemed appropriate to find a wife, unbeknownst to God’s higher purposes and desire for Jacob to truly receive Isaac’s blessing, regardless of Jacob’s tendency towards trickery and deceit. (Berlin & Brettler, p58) Thus, when Jacob awakes from his dream (or in the midst of his dream) to find angels walking up and down a set of stairs that stretch from heaven to earth, he is wholly unprepared to hear from God.

Jacob has never had any contact with God directly, something we can directly intuit from the text’s silence on any communication between God and Jacob up to this point. And that is often how God prefers it to happen. Jacob is running away from his brother fearfully, seeking to save only his own skin, sent off to find a wife by his parents just so he doesn’t start wandering and marry someone who was a local and not suitable for entrance into the First Family. Jacob’s agenda doesn’t include anything close to the will of God and God runs with that fact in how the conversation with Jacob comes to take place. (Brueggemann, p242)

“Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel…” (Genesis 28:18-19a, NRSV)

What a transformation Jacob underwent in the verses preceding his response here. Jacob enters into a dream and comes to stare in awe at the angels walking up and down the stairs between heaven and earth. God appears beside Jacob and proclaims to him the same promise that his grandfather Abraham received, and does this as the God of his grandfather and father. Isaac never had this experience and never blessed Jacob with the details of this promise; thus, while Jacob probably heard the stories about his grandfather, there is no evidence textually to state that Isaac or Jacob ever lived in light of these promises. If one were to compare the details of the Promise from Genesis 12, 13, and 17 to those in Genesis 28, the similarities would be overwhelming to the extent that they would seem quite verbatim. God extends to Jacob these promises: 1) the land on which Jacob sleeps will be his and his offspring’s; 2) his offspring will be as innumerable as the dust of the earth; 3) the peoples of the earth will be blessed by his offspring; and 4) God will be with Jacob, no matter where he travels. And upon waking from such a specific and direct line of communication with God, Jacob leaps headlong into loving God and acknowledging God’s presence in his life and in that place. (Brueggemann, p246) From there, Jacob worships a God through the building of a physical monument, the consecrating the direction of his life to trusting God for everything, and honoring God with a tenth of whatever God gives to him first.

A great many commentators give much attention to the physical and historical aspects of the events of this chapter. Whether they attempt to locate the location of this God-to-man communication, discuss the finer aspects of the building of the pillar/monument, or whether or not the angels were walking up and down a ladder or stairway, they spend more time trying to ascertain the specifics rather than gain a glimpse into the transformation that has taken place in Jacob’s life. Now, I do not ever want to dismiss such critiques and information from these authors; in fact, I find much of it to be great illumination into why Jacob chose to erect a physical monument as he made a verbal, spiritual declaration about the course of the rest of his life. However, I feel that some missed the larger, over-arching purpose of God’s entrance into Jacob’s life – Jacob needed this experience, this visitation from the God of Heaven. Before this dream, Jacob had lived a life by his own means and for his own ends, never truly taking the lives of others into consideration (besides obeying the whims of his mother). But after the dream, Jacob realized that he had received a literal and figurative wake-up call for his life – he became heir not only to his family’s physical possessions, but to their spiritual legacy and heritage. The birthright for which he had schemed and deceived for so long was much more important, significant, and eternal than he had ever imagined or dreamed.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Genesis 27

Jacob Acquires Esau’s Blessing
Not Only Does Jacob Find Lying Easy,
But He Also Enjoys Dressing Up

Again and again, I find myself convinced that the impact, truth, and depth of the Patriarchal stories in Genesis lie within the day-to-day humanity of the characters’ lives. These were real people, with real problems, with real issues, who tended to screw up quite often. And I find lots of hope and help in that fact, not because they’re broken, but because, in that brokenness, we can grow along with these characters. For far too long, the Church has idolized these men and women, but I take issue with that, not because they’re not worthy of study and respect, but because they are fallen humans, just as we are today.

Thus, with this third confrontation between Esau and Jacob, we gain yet another glimpse into how families, as wonderful and blessed by the Lord as they seem to be, struggle with their sin natures. These struggles come to the surface both in the lives of each individual and in how they four characters in this story interact with each other. Therefore, as I sift through the notes from several commentaries, the major theme of this story (and the rest of Genesis, in fact) seems to be how Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau grapple with the juxtaposition of blessing and duplicity, in conjunction with how this results of the events of this passage bear out across the rest of the book of Genesis. (Brueggemann, p227) Just as in Genesis 25, the two parents have chosen sides, the twins have made their preferences known, and all four equally honor and disparage the blessing. And in a bit of foreshadowing, since history has this sad and frustrating way of repeating, Israel as a nation, throughout the Old Testament and into the Gospels, embroils itself in this internal conflict over earning, deserving, and actually living as in the blessing.

The concepts of blessing and birthright, as we have seen in regards to the relationship between Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, are often hard for the modern reader to understand. To bless one child over another signifies the transference of material blessing from the parents onto their children, with the eldest son receiving a double share compared to his other siblings, a share that usually meant that child would take over the running of the family upon the death of the father. (Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, p58-59) Thus, as Isaac realizes that he doesn’t have much time left on the earth, he wants to set into motion the events by which Esau, the son he favors, will take over the family. But little does he know that his wife was intently and purposefully listening to their conversation, much as Sarah eavesdropped upon Abraham and his heavenly visitors. (Frankel, p44-45)

We learned in Genesis 25 that Rebekah did receive the prophecy from God that The Twins warring within her would war their entire lives and would foster nations that would be at odds throughout history, with the specific mention that the youngest would be served by the eldest. I would imagine that she shared this prophecy with her husband, so the questions that I immediately ask myself when I begin reading of the conflicting interests of The Twins’ parents are, “Why do these two perpetually seek to serve their own purposes? Didn’t Isaac grow up in a house with a Mom and Dad who chose to take God’s promises into their own hands, much the eventual chagrin of Hagar and Ishmael?” One would think that Isaac would have learned that, no matter what humans might attempt, God’s promises find a way of coming to pass on God’s terms and not humanity’s.

Rebekah and Isaac knew that the younger child would rule over the elder, yet their actions lead me to believe that they really didn’t take that promise of God into account. Their initial choosing of favorites back in Genesis 25 simply laid the groundwork for the turmoil that would boil over in Genesis 27. Isaac’s preference for Esau obviously includes his preference for Esau as the primary heir, not precluding the culturally appropriate practice of primogeniture. Rebekah’s preference for Jacob isn’t specified in Genesis 25, but one could intuit that she preferred him because the prophecy declared him to be the eventual, historical victor. However, such a preference does not explain why she decided to deceive her husband and attempt to force God’s hand into making Jacob to be the heir and recipient of the blessing and birthright. Why does Rebekah not believe that the prophecy will come true without her direct intervention? If they are as close as Genesis 25 tells us they are, would not Jacob have already told his mother that he had bought the birthright for a bowl of soup?

I say all of that to say this – the deception occurred and all of the participants in this sordid, domestic power play suffered from it in the long run. But, you might ask, “What did Esau and Isaac do wrong here? Don’t the details of this story lead us to believe that it Rebekah and Jacob who should bear the brunt of the guilt and shame on display here in this story?” And I would respond to you, stating, “Oh yes. Rebekah and Jacob were at fault, but we should not ignore Esau’s contempt for the birthright (Genesis 25:34) nor Isaac’s deliberate ignorance of the prophecy and subsequent predilection for Esau.” So, in order to better describe the overarching outcomes of these events, let’s take a short walk through the essential details of this tale.

After hearing about Isaac and Esau’s preparations for the blessing of Esau, Rebekah counters by preparing a meal, covering Jacob in animal fur, and placing him in Esau’s clothing, all to trick her husband in his old age. Jacob’s only complaint concerning his mother’s plan was his initial reticence concerning his lack of hair; Jacob himself had purchased the birthright for a bowl of soup. Just because Esau misunderstood and despised the birthright didn’t mean that Jacob could step in and take advantage of the situation. Once in the tent, bearing the food so that he might receive the blessing, Jacob lies to his father about his identity, in regards to his voice, skin quality, and smell (as the text tells us how poor Isaac’s eyesight was). Isaac blesses Jacob, Jacob leaves quickly, and Esau enters. Esau asks his father for his blessing, and when Isaac tells him that he has already given out the blessing to someone else that had identified themselves as Esau, both men instantly realize that Jacob has deceived them. To top it off, Esau was very specific in his awakening – he declared that since Jacob had again deceived him, having first taken the birthright, he would launch a search for his brother in order to kill him, but only after the death of his father. Rebekah again overhears Isaac and Esau talking and tells Jacob where to run in order to escape his brother’s wrath.

Whew! I hope that I didn’t lose you back there in our attempt at summarizing. I know that we moved through the chapter at break-neck speed in that last paragraph, but we needed to do so in order to debate and discuss what this story really means to the overall story of God’s people in Genesis. What we have here is a chapter full of foreshadowing – from Rebekah’s decision to take on the curse from Jacob for their deception, to Jacob’s taking of the birthright, to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and proclamation of perpetual tumult in Esau’s life, to Esau’s declaration of intent to murder his manipulative and lying brother, all the way to Jacob’s flight from home to Rebekah’s brother Laban’s household. Each instance of wrongdoing towards a family member comes back to haunt them later in Genesis.

Thus, this chapter is a turning point for the rest of the story as it sets the table for Jacob’s troubles: his obtaining a wife, the issues between his wives, the conflicts between his children, and the clashes between him and his children. As we will see in our next few chapters, Jacob will serve his uncle Laban for 20 years in order to marry Rachel, his wives and concubines will not get along due to their differing levels of fertility (in what seems to be a recurring theme in the stories of the Patriarchs), his sons will gang up upon Joseph (the son he prefers, though he should know that preferring one son over another causes more grief than it’s worth), and that conflict with Joseph will cause his sons to deceive their father with goat’s blood when they sell Joseph away. Moreover, Rebekah’s adoption of Jacob’s curse does not go unpunished – she dies before Jacob ever returns to his home, having never seen her wide collection of grandchildren.

Once again, in yet another fatalistic turn of events, human attempts to play God have gone awry. Both Rebekah and Isaac, having chosen sides, have perpetuated domestic strife in the tents of the Patriarchs; one son, already at odds with the other due to their personality differences and an earlier deception, is now intent upon killing the other. Isaac ignored the prophecy and looked to impose the birthright upon Esau, while Rebekah used trickery to sneak Jacob into receiving the blessing, even though she knew that Jacob was already supposed to be the chosen one. The Patriarchs do not seem to be able to listen to the voice of God, obey the directives of God, or believe the prophecies of God, after praying to God for directions. This chapter is a microcosm of the bulk of the book of Genesis; it is an indictment of human nature when it chooses to pay only lip service to the role of God in their lives. By choosing their own methods, plans, and strategies, The Patriarchs only suffer when God only seeks to bless them, which is a bit ironic, since they ARE supposed to be God’s Chosen People.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Genesis 25

The Twins Arrive!
How Domestic Conflict Can Come Early in Life

This chapter contains three distinct sections – 1) the specifics of Abraham’s last years on earth; 2) a chronological record of Ishmael’s sons and his death; and 3) the arrival of Jacob & Esau and their early dispute. And while it can seem as cut and dry as that, the chapter revolves primarily around the beginnings of the third Patriarch – Jacob. For you see, the Jacob & Esau conflict sets the stage for the rest of Genesis; from here on out, the story of Jacob and his family (primarily Joseph) takes center stage in the history of the Jewish people. Thus, our conversation here will discuss how the birth and early clash between The Twins introduces the major themes that will resonate throughout the rest of Jacob’s life.

It is not that Abraham’s death and burial are not important events, but with the marriage of Isaac to Rebekah, Abraham’s role in this story becomes drastically diminished. Notice how, after sending out The Servant to locate Isaac a wife, Abraham fails to appear again in that chapter, including when Rebekah arrives in camp for the first time and joins Isaac in Sarah’s tent to become married. And in the beginning of this chapter, we are only passive observers to the events at the end of Abraham’s life – his marriage to a wife/concubine named Keturah, through whom he birthed six sons late in his life. What is worthy of comment here is that the story takes time to specifically mention that Abraham gave each of these six sons a gift and sent them away from Isaac, reminding Isaac & the people then and readers throughout history that Isaac was the son of promise and no one else. (Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas, p57)

From here, the story tells us about the death of Abraham, including providing a eulogy that anyone would be proud of – “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 25:8, TNIV) Commentators note distinct tones of cooperation between Isaac and Ishmael as they bury their father. (Brueggemann, p203) There is no discord, only two sons working together to show the utmost respect to a man they both called father. (Hamilton, p168) Abraham is laid to rest in the tomb that he purchased from the Hittites for his wife Sarah and Isaac and Ishmael have a brief reunion to honor the passing of their father before they set off on their own separate ways to birth their own children.

From here, the chapter presents a brief synopsis of the life, times, and offspring of Ishmael. Walter Brueggemann, in Genesis: Interpretation, takes the position that, while the narrative is written heavily in favor of Isaac’s position as the son of promise, Ishmael’s story is not ignored, his claims as a son of the promises given by God to Abraham are not denied. (p203) Moreover, in conjunction with this view, Victor P. Hamilton’s The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 states, “We are told in v. 11 that God blessed Isaac, but we are not told how. Here we do not find the verb ‘blessed’ in reference to Ishmael, but we do find an ample illustration of what constitutes a blessing, twelve offspring. That Ishmael had so many children and that he enjoyed longevity are sure trademarks of divine blessing.” (p170) What we can learn from verses 12-18 is that Ishmael’s story is a part of Abraham & Isaac’s story and that Ishmael, even though he was not the primary recipient of Abraham’s blessing, still returned for his father’s funeral and lived a life that bore the fruit of God’s blessing. Ishmael was the father of a great nation in Biblical history, fulfilling, in his own right, the promises God gave to Abraham.

“Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. The Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two people from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:20-23, TNIV)

And with one fell swoop, God declares to Rebekah that her children will be not only creators of their own respective nations, but those two nations will be in conflict, beginning with her two children. Rebekah’s cry of pain and confusion regarding her warring children in verse 22 is met with a prophecy from God in verse 23 that doesn’t even answer her question. The birth itself is not even what is notable in this section; with the declaration that the siblings will live in tension and struggle, it is the oracle that takes center stage here. (Alter, p126) However, Rebekah, ever the astute woman, uncharacteristically doesn’t reply with a question to this troubling non-answer; the comforting answer she sought never came, yet she seemed to be strangely content to be the mother of this conflict. (Hamilton, p177-178)

Once again, this time in the guise of The Twins, the story of the Hebrew people twists, turns, and runs counter to cultural norms, in the same fashion as the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, & David and his brothers. (Hamilton, p177) Primogeniture, though upheld in general across the Old Testament as a cultural and regional norm concerning the passing on of the family line, is curiously cast aside when it comes to the foundational scenarios in the Patriarchal line of Israel. (Plaut, p175) What makes these occurrences stand out is that the means and methods employed for the younger child to rise over the elder child(ren) varied throughout history. In this story, as we will see, it was truly a case of not just sibling, but parental rivalry, that allows for Jacob to take the birthright from Esau.

“The boys grew up, and Esau became skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27-28, TNIV)

Many commentators approach this section from the vantage point of attempting to ascertain why Isaac and Rebekah played favorites with their sons. It seems that Isaac prefers the bounty of Esau’s profession and Rebekah simply loved Jacob, but that would be a shallow, cursory glance into the workings of that family’s lives. The concept of birthright, which Esau willingly trades away for a bowl of red lentil soup, stands up at the center of this controversy, since the son who receives Isaac’s blessing it both traditionally the oldest son and the son who is most responsible for carrying on the family name. However, with this family, the birthright carries with it the weight of fulfilling the promises of God made to Father Abraham. (Plaut, p175)

Let us sift through a few different interpretations of the domestic situation in the tents of Isaac and Rebekah. Hamilton theorizes, “We are not told why Rebekah was fonder of Jacob than of Esau, but later narratives (see ch. 27) focus more on that relationship than they do on Isaac’s favoring Esau. Isaac prefers Esau because of his own love of venison.” (Hamilton, p182) The women in Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam declare, “Rebecca [Frankel’s spelling] clearly understands that it is someone like Jacob who will fulfill God’s covenant. Isaac, on the other hand, hopes for a different outcome for his family: to become through Esau a nation like all other nations among whom they live. That is why God reveals the future to Rebecca.” (Frankel, p42) The commentators in The Jewish Study Bible agree with that perspective, stating, “Once again, the mother mediates God’s preference (cf. 21.9-13; Mal. 1.2-5). The father seems blind to the higher purpose (cf. Gen. 27.1-45).” (Berlin & Brettler, p53) It simply seems quite peculiar to many people’s sensibilities that Isaac and Rebekah inculcated and supported the strife that was prophesied over The Twins. What is more strange is the fact that, even though Rebekah knew the youngest child would eventually rule of the elder, she had no problem supporting Jacob as the eventual victor, creating a space where the two boys would grow up in conflict with each other. (Frankel, p42)

Taking all of those comments into consideration, we must find a way to set this instance of parental affection gone horribly wrong into context of the larger story that exists until the end of Jacob’s days. There must be a reason that the author of Genesis includes these passages that often offense our ears, eyes, and understanding. “The narrative does not accommodate our discrete sensibilities. It does not waver from the exasperation of Rebekah (v. 22). It does not apologize for the partisan character of the oracle (v. 23). It is not even embarrassed by (nor does it bother to explain) the blatant preference by the parents (v. 28). Like its main character, this narrative is indiscreet and at times scandalous. It shows God and his chosen younger one aligned against the older brother, against the father, and against the cultural presumptions of natural privilege. Jacob is announced as a visible expression of God’s remarkable graciousness in the face of conventional definitions of reality and prosperity. Jacob is a scandal from the beginning. The powerful grace of God is a scandal. It upsets the way we would organize life.” (Brueggemann, p217)

“Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.” (Genesis 25;34, TNIV)

Ahhh… Brotherly Love… It seems that the Old Testament overflows with stories of strife amongst families, even more so than the historical record would reveal to be the average. What stands out from the story of Esau’s selling of the birthright is the utter disdain for the birthright that Esau seems to have and the downright guile with which Jacob conducts the negotiations for what is rightfully Esau’s birthright. (Alter, p129) Jacob has no problem openly declaring that he desires the birthright from Esau, doing so over a bowl of lentil soup. And what is most astonishing to me (and probably to Jacob) is the speed and bluntness of Esau’s response to Jacob’s offer – “‘Look, I am about to die,’ Esau said. ‘What good is the birthright to me?’” (Genesis 26:32, TNIV)

However, Jacob is no saint here, far from it actually. Jacob’s willingness to offer a mere bowl of soup for the privilege of leading the family after Isaac’s passing reveals how manipulative Jacob truly is, how he recognizes the worth of the birthright, but denigrates it by hoping to trade it for dinner. Jacob’s ability and readiness to deceive come to plague him for much of the rest of his life, as future chapters will reveal. Moreover, “The doubtful exchange of food for birthright brings him a brother’s enmity and still does not ensure him his father’s blessing.” (Plaut, p176) However, at the same time, Hamilton notes, “… The author or narrator of 25:27-34 never [overtly] condemns Jacob’s modus operandi. But he indicts Esau for spurning his birthright.” (Hamilton, p 186) The two boys are simply the product of their environment – they each are shown preferential treatment by one parent at the expense of the other, leading ultimately to Jacob living out a life of struggle with his father, his brother, his wives, his children, and the God who follows his throughout his life. (Brueggemann, p219)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Genesis 24

Isaac & Rebekah
You’ve Gotta Love Arranged Marriages

At first glance, this is quite a long chapter – 67 verses of Abraham sending off “his servant” (Eliezer, by most accounts and commentators, and referred to in this lesson primarily as “The Servant”) to locate a wife for Isaac so that the promise of a nation being born through can continue on unabated. Yes, to our contemporary thought processes appears to be quite a quaint social convention of ancient and/or pre-modern times. And yes, as someone rather versed in monarchical political machinations throughout history, I am more than aware of the biological messiness that often arises with marriages between closely related families. However, in all reality, Abraham is engaged in a tried-and-true exercise in nation-building, all dressed up in the guise of finding his son a wife.

Thus, in attempt to expedite and flow smoothly through these culturally delicate, our glimpse into this story in the lives of the Patriarchs will occur from four different perspectives – 1) Abraham & The Servant, 2) The Servant & Rebekah, 3) The Servant & Rebekah’s family, and 4) Isaac & Rebekah. (Brueggemann, p197) The Servant’s eyes will show us what it was like to be sent out on the search for the woman who will continue the promise with Isaac. Through the eyes of Rebekah, we will gaze into what it was like to be the woman being sought after to be the future wife of Isaac. And we will attempt to do our best and wait along with Abraham and Isaac back at the tents, hoping that The servant is either discerning, lucky, or both. Hopefully, throughout this discussion and three-voiced conversation, we will gain a clearer vision of what this story entails for the larger story in Genesis.

“He [Abraham] said to the senior servant in his household [Eliezer], the one in charge of all that he had, ‘I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.’” (Genesis 24:3-4, TNIV)

From the beginning of this story, the journey the reader takes with Abraham’s servant is one of faith, no different than that of Abraham’s original journey. Abraham declares to The Servant that he must travel back across the whole of the desert, back to Abraham’s homeland, in a possibly vain attempt to locate Isaac’s wife. There can be no stopping midway for a wife from a local girl, since, by marrying a Canaanite woman, the promise could not be properly fulfilled. I would surmise that to have married locally would meant that Isaac would have been able to possess the land through political machinations and not through divine providence and blessing. And if there’s anything that Abraham has (or should have) learned over all of these years is that his and Sarah’s human plans have paled in comparison to God’s and have usually caused more harm than good. Abraham simply isn’t going to settle for anything less than a God-provided miracle, even if he does send The Servant out on this very important mission, as opposed to himself or Isaac.

And listen to this unusual requirement Abraham issues for identifying his future daughter-in-law: “If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” (Genesis 24:8, TNIV) Abraham declared that an angel of the Lord would be guiding The Servant to any potential marriage candidates and, if they didn’t want to return to see Isaac with The Servant, then she was obviously not the woman for Isaac. Moreover, I find Abraham’s specific declaration that Isaac should not accompany The Servant on the journey to be a curious one. Now, while I don’t want to read too much into the text from my sociological purview, it would seem that Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to be tempted by any Canaanite woman along the way. If you’ve done your math along the way, you’ll remember that Isaac is 37 years old by this time and has just experienced the death of his mother, not to mention having had a near-death experience. Maybe Abraham is fearful that the middle-aged, lonely, and hurting Isaac would be inclined to marry any woman that struck his fancy or that he thought would be good enough. But we can only surmise these things because Abraham simply was not very clear in the instructions that he gave to The Servant, leaving him to his own devices.

“Then he prayed, ‘Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ – let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.’” (Genesis 24:12-14, TNIV)

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were praying a specific prayer to God to lead me in some difficult task, I’m not sure that I’m going to be requesting that this woman knows how to serve water well to a complete stranger. I understand that he’s looking for certain traits in a wife for Isaac, but The Servant’s desired method of back-and-forth conversation with a woman leaves much to be desired in terms of being effective. (Frankel, p32) However, Ellen Frankel, using the voice of Rebekah, responds to such criticism of The Servant’s methods with these words: “Eliezer’s test was designed to locate a woman discreet enough not to approach a stranger but bold enough to extend herself, once approached by him. This particular combination of character traits – a kind of cagey gumption – is precisely what enabled me to secure Jacob’s future by tricking my husband and my older son out of a birthright. So Eliezer’s angel [Genesis 24:7] obviously knew exactly what she was doing.” (Frankel, p33) It seems that God answered The Servant’s prayers, and as strange as the methodology might seem to us, it brought Rebekah and the servant together, in accordance with God’s plans. (Brueggemann, p198)

And in case you’re interested, I’d like to provide this side note to the general flow of the lesson, a curiosity upon which many commentators took specific note. The Servant launched off from Abraham’s tent with ten camels across the blazing hot Arabian Desert; thus, upon arriving at Aram-Naharaim, The Servant and his camels would be quite parched. A camel could drink up to twenty-five gallons of water to replenish their internal supplies, so The Servant’s prayerful request that the potential spouse for Isaac be willing to water all ten of those camels would be quite a daunting task for anyone to fulfill adequately. (Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas, p56) Robert Alter even goes as far as to make the comparison in his book Genesis, stating, “This is the closest anyone comes in Genesis to a feat of ‘Homeric’ heroism. … Rebekah hurrying down the steps of the well would have had to be a nonstop blur of motion in order to carry up all this water in her single jug.” (Alter, p116) Rebekah’s overt willingness to achieve this feat would have been an example of chutzpah and physical strength that would have astounded the travel-worn, yet hopeful Servant beyond his wildest expectations.

So, The Servant has found, through angelic and divine direction Rebekah, the woman who is to be the wife of Isaac. From the well, The Servant went to the tents of Rebekah’s family so that he may meet with her (unnamed) Mother and brother Laban (who Jacob will have severe issues with later in Genesis) and persuade Rebekah’s family to permit her to return with him to marry Isaac. Much of the interaction between The Servant and the family revolves around two primary motifs – the ceremonial retelling to Laban and Mother of the scenario in which The Servant met Rebekah and the proffering of gifts as a means of proving Abraham’s wealth and Isaac’s suitability as a potential husband. With the recitation of their meeting, The Servant leaves out only Abraham’s specific directions that relate to the Covenant, an omission that many feel was necessary and proper to not offend those who might hear such seemingly egotistical declarations of divine supremacy. (Plaut, p163 & Alter, p118) Such a speech, though its style and substance sounds overly formal and unnecessary to our contemporary ears, in cultures where stories of familial history such as these were passed along orally, such repetition is quite typical, as it was used as for dramatic effect in an attempt to keep the listener’s interest and to underscore the importance of the details being discussed. (Brueggemann, p198) Moreover, the concept of “bride-price” and “dowry” appear as anachronisms to our societal behaviors, but such customs have been in practice amongst families, whether royalty or otherwise, as a means by which the parents of the betrothed can determine if bride will be taken care of appropriately and if the two families will be able to coexist peacefully (which is why many times arranged marriages were used as political tools to achieve long-sought-for peace). (Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas, p56)

All of the cultural factors present in this story are designed to display the historical importance of this marriage to the listener and reader, since it seems that God has chosen this method to further extend and grow the Patriarchal line that God has promised to Abraham. By sending The Servant back to the land of his relatives, Abraham hoped to locate an appropriate wife for his son Isaac, who had yet to or was unwilling to find a wife amongst the Canaanites. Moreover, the great amount of detail in this story further illustrates how God works in ways that humanity has trouble wrapping its collective and individual minds around. Abraham and The Servant have the greatest understanding of this, which can be seen in the seemingly vague guidelines under which their search was undertaken – the fewer human preferences and wishes present, the greater the reliance upon God.

“When they [The Servant, Rebekah, and her family] got up the next morning, he said, ‘Send me on my way to my master.’ But her brother and her mother replied, ‘Let the girl remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.’ But he said to them, ‘Do not detain me, now that the Lord has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.’ Then they said, ‘Let’s call the girl and ask her about it.’ So they called Rebekah and asked her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ ‘I will go,’ she said.” (Genesis 24:55-58, TNIV)

Standing there in her mother’s tents, Rebekah observes the parley between The Servant and Laban concerning her future, a discussion that she arranged by fulfilling The Servant’s prayerful requirements, a discussion in which, by custom, she has no part whatsoever. However, when it comes time for The Servant to return with Rebekah to Isaac’s tents, her family understandably resists, since her departure meant that they would most likely never see her again. They petition for a ten-day waiting period, to which The Servant responds by declaring that he must return immediately as a way of thanking God for answering his and Abraham’s prayers. But in an instance unparalleled in Near Eastern literature from that time period, the men turn to Rebekah to ask her what she would like to do. Having not been consulted earlier during the exchange of gifts as to whether or not she would like to be married off to Isaac, the fact that The Servant and her family are now asking for her approval is quite unusual and atypical for similar scenarios. (Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas, p56)

On pages 34-35 of her The Five Books of Miriam, Ellen Frankel provides the following two portions of commentary in dialogue/conversational format to shed some light upon these quite curious events. Read along with me.
Her Mother’s Household
“Our Daughters Ask: Why does the Torah say that ‘The maiden ran and told all this to her mother’s household’ (24:28)? More likely it’s her father’s house.
Wily Rebecca [Frankel’s Spelling] Answers: So much in my story goes against the grain of patriarchal culture: My genealogy’s usually traced through my grandmother Milcah (though Eliezer, whenever he told his side of the story, kept substituting my grandfather’s name). Although the narrator rightly identifies my home as my mother’s household, Eliezer always insisted that he’d been sent to Abraham’s father’s household. But notice that Eliezer gave gifts to my brother and mother, but not to my father. And it was my mother and my brother Laban who negotiated for my hand. And my mother and Laban asked me if I wanted to go off with Eliezer to marry Isaac.
Our Mothers Observe: Even today Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures typically don’t grant such privileged status to women. How much more exceptional that the ancient Bible does!”

Rebecca’s Decision
“Our Daughters Ask: Who makes the decision that Rebecca should marry Isaac? Is Rebecca really allowed to decide for herself, as it is written, ‘Will you go with this man?’ (24:58) In most traditional cultures, such things aren’t allowed.
Wily Rebecca Answers: I always suspected that my brother Laban was up to something in asking me for my consent. Maybe he was hoping I’d refuse, so that he could squeeze more of a bride-price from Eliezer. Laban was certainly capable of such crude behavior. Remember that he later extorted from Jacob seven extra years for Rachel’s hand. And I also wonder about my mother’s motives. I suspect that she wanted to keep me home, so she insisted on my consent in the hopes that I would refuse the marriage. She already knew that she’d probably never see me again, never see her grandchildren. But in the end all she got was ten more days with me.
Our Mothers Add: Perhaps she simply wanted to grant Rebecca a voice, something she did not have in her own life. After all, she does not even have a name.”

“Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:66-67, TNIV)

After a long voyage back to Abraham’s old home, meeting Rebekah, negotiating with Rebekah’s family for her hand in marriage to Isaac, and having Rebekah personally decide that she did want to leave home to be Isaac’s wife, The Servant returns home to Abraham’s tents, bringing with him the woman who would help Isaac perpetuate God’s promises to Abraham. And as you read through the events of Rebekah’s approach via camel with Isaac observing her coming as he stands in the fields, you get the impression that Hollywood itself has borrowed from this idyllic scene a few too many times. The scene is almost cliché in how it concludes the journey that is Genesis 24, yet it evokes a sweet and happy tenderness as the coming together of husband and wife is so gently rendered, including Isaac’s comforting in his mother’s tent. (Brueggemann, p199) The long voyage and search have concluded and all parties involved are pleased with the outcome, one in which every possible consideration and plea that had been made prior to the journey being made was met to its fullest extent. Rebekah approached her husband veiled, in the cultural tradition surrounding marriage (Plaut, p166), and Isaac brought her into his deceased mother’s tent, so that Rebekah could take her place as the family matriarch. (Alter, p123)

The line can now continue and can do so without all of the domestic discord that surrounded Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac for those great many years. Isaac, above all, must have been quite pleased in the amiable outcome of the search for his wife, unbeknownst to the domestic trauma that will arise between his twin sons in the next chapter.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Genesis 23

The Death of Sarah
Abraham is Either a Great Negotiator,
A Very Respected Man, Or Both

Hello there folks. How are you doing? I hope you’re doing well.

If you’re not busy, I’d like to invite you to take a look through Chapter 23.

Yes, I’m talking to you, so stop reading this now and go read the chapter.

This is not a discussion. Go now.

You’re reading – Very Good.

Keep going. That’s it. You can do it.

So, since you’ve now finished perusing and soaking up the story recounted in those 20 verses, does it seem to you that the Hittites like Abraham?

It does?

I thought it would. That was my first impression as well. And it immediately begged the questions, “Who are these Hittites and why do they like him so much?” Until this chapter, there aren’t any references to Abraham talking to or having interactions with the Hittites, yet it appears that Abraham is quite a revered and honored person amongst their people, enough that they are willing to give up some of their best property for free. A cursory reading of this passage would suggest that Abraham has to finagle them into taking the money from him so that it won’t look like he took the land from them, alleviating any future pressure or misunderstanding about his family’s cemetery for years to come. Thus, if you’re anything like me, you’re quite curious as to how this specific story comes to arrive in the general flow of the book of Genesis. The author of Genesis has never failed to amaze me and neither has the story of Abraham, Sarah, and their descendents.

“He who possesses these three traits is one of the disciples of our father Abraham: a generous eye, a meek spirit, and a humble soul. How do we know that Abraham possessed a meek spirit? While the children of Heth call him a prince, he refers to himself by saying: ‘I am a resident alien among you’ [Gen. 23:4]. It further says: ‘Abraham bowed low before the people of the land’ [Gen. 23:12]. The Hebrew literally says ‘before the am ha-aretz,’ which later came to mean ‘the common people.’ To do what Abraham did is the sign of the great man.” (Plaut, p159)

To begin, the point being made in this portion of midrashic commentary is that Abraham was honored and respected by the Hittites. The burgeoning Jewish people were foreigners on Hittite soil, and thusly, had no claim to any land, any property, or any legal rights. Abraham needed a place to bury his deceased wife and had to purchase property to do so, something that was quite difficult to achieve in many ancient cultures. (Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas, p54) While the bulk of the conversation is representative of a typical Near Eastern economic transaction (i.e. haggling), the fact that Abraham, as an outsider, is allowed to make such a request to purchase land is quite notable. (Berlin & Brettler, pp 47)

“Perhaps the narrative reflects no more than a specific commercial transaction. Nowhere is there any mention of God. The narrative gives no hint of any theological intention. It may best be left at that. In any case, beyond the actual securing of the grave, one may note the almost humorous style of negotiations, governed by the verb ‘give’ (vv. 4, 9, 11, 12) which is only a euphemism for buying and selling. If there is one thing neither party intends to do, it is to ‘give’ anything away. This tone is culminated by the speech of Ephron (v. 15). He finally, reluctantly, names an amount, probably a high amount and in effect says, ‘What is 400 shekels among friends?’ The answer is, ‘A lot.’ But that is the basis of the settlement. (The maneuvering for a suitable settlement is reminiscent of intense bargaining between Abraham and God in 18.23-33). (Brueggemann, p195)

Therefore, even with all of the consideration and respect that the Hittites afford Abraham, it seems that the Patriarch still must pay a premium for the land on which he will bury his wife Sarah. And as a good, dutiful, loving husband, he is willing to do everything in his power to honor her memory. Consider all that Sarah experienced as the wife of Abraham: 1) She followed him to Haran, then across the desert to Canaan; 2) she was declared barren when we are first introduced to her, yet God chose her to bear the child of promise that would begin the Jewish nation, a promise that she often laughed at and didn’t believe; 3) she suggested that her handmaiden Hagar become Abraham’s concubine, yet when she realized how she had set domestic disputes into motion, she cast her out of her house twice; 4) she had her life put into jeopardy twice by her husband concerning her beauty; and 5) bore the child of promise at the not-so-young age of 90, only to have God ask her husband to sacrifice Isaac as some sort of test. (Plaut, p158) Abraham wants to commemorate his wife and their life together by securing her a proper burial place and not just some random place in the desert near where their tents had been pitched. Such a strong, beautiful, flawed, yet virtuous woman deserved nothing less.

Abraham’s status as a loving husband notwithstanding, the Hittite Ephrom openly, yet acting fully within cultural norms, exploits Abraham’s willingness to pay a premium price to obtain a burial place for his beloved wife. Robert Alter, in his translation and commentary Genesis, notes that, from the outset the conversation between Abraham and Ephron is quite typical of land purchasing agreements in the ancient Near East. (p110) Thus, Abraham is not manipulated by Ephron into paying an exorbitant price; he is more than willing to engage in these negotiations with the landowner because he knows that any purchase he makes for his family must be beyond reproach and be indisputable in the eyes of the people in whose land he resides as a foreigner. (Alter, p110) Furthermore, some theorize that Abraham could be looking to buy whatever small piece of land is available as a symbolic representation of his family’s beginning to possessing the land that God had been promising him and his progeny for 67 years. (Brueggemann, p 196) But no matter how noble Abraham’s reasons were, Ephrom is attempting to secure from Abraham whatever Abraham is willing to pay.

“‘My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.’ Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants. … After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.” (Genesis 23:15-16, 19-20, ESV)

Abraham and Ephron pull no punches with each other during the course of the negotiations. Ephron seems to know or intuit just how badly Abraham needed to purchase the land he so desired. Abraham keeps offering the same amount over and over again, in full realization that his bid was quite inflated and well above the market rate. (Berlin & Brettler, p 48) These are two quality, competent, and well-informed negotiators who are both were aware of where the other stands in relation to Canaan’s cultural milieu – Abraham, as the resident alien, needs to purchase the land outright and not be beholden to the native Hittite inhabitants, while Ephron, knowing that Abraham desires the independence inherent in land ownership and will gladly pay nearly any price to get the land, tests the strength and determination of Abraham’s bartering tactics, hoping to extract the maximum amount of silver from this respected outsider.

What’s that you’re saying?

You don’t know what this story is really about? And you’re wondering just what’s going on here with Abraham, his deceased wife’s body, this Hittite named Ephron, and a cave on some land?

Don’t worry. I had the exact same questions and concerns. So here’s what I feel the writer of this book was attempting to convey through this story.

Throughout this story, Abraham’s determination shines through every issue and every discussion. To some, this whole chapter simply delineates a cultural quirk of the ancient Near East – Abraham didn’t belong officially, so he had to jump through several hoops, including (possibly) paying more for the land than what it was worth, in order to purchase a bit of land on which to bury his wife. But if you look through that story, and not past it in an attempt to dismiss its content, you will view a man who is in love with his wife and will do anything within his power to display his love, respect, and affection for her. Some commentators have reflected upon the curiosity present in Abraham’s having to purchase land from others that God had already promised to him. (Berlin & Brettler, p47 & Brueggemann, p196) Still others muse upon the possibility that Abraham was simply trying to act appropriately as a foreigner in his attempt to purchase land for the family cemetery. (Alter, p110) However, while not debating the veracity and depth of those passages of commentary, what exudes out of Abraham, in my opinion, is the love of a husband for his wife – all other observations are simply trying to make the issues more complex and more worthy of quirky and esoteric conjecture.

“Perhaps the narrative should be left in this restrained way, as an actual report of a transaction without more meaning intended.” (Brueggemann, p195-196)

Yes, Walter, I think that I agree with that statement.