Our story actually begins with Genesis 27:46. This is one of those places where the chapter break is really weird. I once heard a story that the person who was dividing the Bible up into chapters and verses was a very busy man and had to travel a lot, so he got some of his work done while on horseback. The weird divisions are there because every so often the horse would bump him and his pen would slip!
So there’s another little “Just So” myth for you.
Back at the end of Chapter 26, we were told that Esau married two Hittite (that is, Canaanite) women, and that “they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (Gen. 26:34). I commented at the time that this passage was presented without any context, so that the reader is not told why these women made life “bitter” for their in-laws.
Now we get to find out, and the reason is good ol’ fashioned hatred.
Rebekah goes to Isaac and complains that she’s “weary” of her life because Esau’s married some Hittite women. “If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women such as these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Gen. 27:46). Bit dramatic, really.
Isaac’s response is to send Jacob back to Rebekah’s homeland, so that he can marry one of Laban’s daughters.
This is clearly from a different tradition than Chapter 27. My guess would be that both communities shared a story in which Jacob was in Haran, so both came up with separate stories to get him there. In Chapter 27, he escapes the wrath of Esau after stealing his blessing. In this one, he’s travelling to find a bride.
Esau overhears that his parents are upset that he’s married Canaanite women, so he takes one of Ishmael’s daughters, Mahalath, as a third wife. At this point, I feel the need to remind everyone once again that traditional/biblical marriage is clearly not between one man and one woman. The people who claim that it is are just talking out of unusual orifices.
On his way to Haran, Jacob stops for the night. He uses a stone for a pillow and goes to sleep. That night, he dreamed that there was a ladder that reached up to heaven, and he could see the angels of God going up and down on it.
God speaks to Jacob, introducing himself as the god of Abraham and Isaac. He then goes into that incredibly tiresome list of all the stuff he’s going to give to this family (which they’re still waiting for). For those of you keeping score at home, this is the sixth time we’ve heard this promise! (Chapters 13, 15, 17, 22, and 26.)
When Jacob wakes up, he stands the stone he had been sleeping on and pours oil over it (which makes me think of the Shiva Linga and giggle). With his rock well oiled, he decides to rename the place Bethel. Of course, it was already named Bethel when Abraham was there in Genesis 12:8 and 13:3, but never mind. We’ll humour Jacob.
Amusingly, we’re told that prior to Jacob’s renaming, “the name of the city was Luz” (Gen. 28:19). One can only wonder what the citizens of Luz thought of this weird guy who uses rocks as pillows and tells them that their city’s just been renamed because of a dream he’s had.
There’s certain things that people can only get away with in the Bible.
Anyways, Jacob vows that if God takes care of him, giving him bread to eat and clothes to wear, and gets him back to Beersheba safely, he’ll become his god.We also get the origin of tithing – part of the vow is that Jacob will give a tenth of everything God gives him back to God.
The god of this place
“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16).
In ancient times, gods were frequently associated with particular places. A traveller would often worship the local gods rather than his own in the belief that his own were too far away to hear. Rather than simply living in “the sky” like the Abrahamic god, they lived on the tops of certain mountains (Olympus), for example.
But the Abrahamic god is, instead, associated more with a bloodline than a specific place. He has places, of course, such as Mount Sinai, or Bethel. But he lives in the generic “sky.”
I’m not surprised that this form of deity emerged from a semi-nomadic culture – and if we accept the date of the Old Testament’s authorship (or at least, the bulk of its compilation) as being close to the Babylonian Exile, it makes even more sense. A people severed from their land doesn’t get much value from a deity who is overly location-specific. The Abrahamic god has to be able to travel.