1 Chronicles 1-2: The Never-ending List

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They say it’s important to begin a story in media res, start with a bang, start with something that will grip your audience and leave them salivating for more.

The Chronicler took this advice and decided to do the precise opposite. And so we begin 1 Chronicles with what is little more than an incredibly tedious list of names. This isn’t even like Genesis, where at least “the begats” were interspersed with narrative. No, not here. Our very first paragraph is composed of thirteen names and one conjunction. It certainly does set a tone!

There are, of course, many theories as to why the Chronicler should choose to begin this way. My study Bible argues that the genealogies are provided to “make it clear that he [the Chronicler] was dealing with the true Chosen People.” Personally, I liked James Pate’s thought that:

I Chronicles may have genealogies as a way to affirm a societal structure in post-exilic Israel and to connect it with pre-exilic Israel, to tell Israel who she is, and to convey that God is preserving God’s people, notwithstanding the exile.  There were a lot of people-groups that became lost once they went into exile, but I Chronicles may be trying to demonstrate that Israel did not.

In the beginning…

To being our journey, the Chronicler condenses all of Genesis 5 into these names: “Adam, Seth, Enosh; Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech; Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (1 Chronicles 1:1-4).

Here, Brant Clements notes that this is first mention of Adam that we’ve seen since Genesis 5:5, and that he will not be mentioned again in the Old Testament. “Adam actually featured more strongly in the New Testament. The ancient Hebrews didn’t put much emphasis on him at all.” It’s a very interesting observation, and clearly an indication of theological evolution. I hope that we get to find out some more about that when we finally reach the New Testament (in, oh, about five years).

Up until Noah, this is a list of generational patriarchs, a direct line from father to son to grandson, and so on. But abruptly, without any indication of change, it presents us with three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah.

That’s because it’s with Noah’s sons that we see our first ethnic branching.

The sons of Japheth: According to my study Bible, the sons of Japheth represent Indo-European populations. The section is taken from Genesis 10, and the sons are Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.

In the next generation, the sons of Gomer are Ashkenaz, Diphath (who appears as Riphath in Gen. 10:3), and Togarmah. The sons of Javan are Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim (who appears as Dodanim in Gen. 10:4).

It’s worth noting that Javan (literally Ionia) represents the Greeks. According to James Pate, the discrepancy between Dodanim (Gen. 10:4) and Rodanim (1 Chron. 1:7) may be due simply to the fact that the “d” and “r” sounds are represented in Hebrew with letters that look similar and may have been confused at some point by some hapless copier. Pate goes on to propose another possibility:

Relying on Mefaresh’s interpretation, which is based on Genesis Rabbah 37:1, the Artscroll says that, when Israel sins, the people-group subjugates Israel and is called the Rodanim, from the Hebrew root r-d-h, which means ruling or oppressing.  If Israel controls the people-group, however, the people-group is called the Dodanim, for it is telling Israel that she is its friend, or dod.

Of course, this presents a number of problems, but it’s certainly an interesting proposition.

The sons of Ham: Ham’s sons are Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. In the next generation, the sons of Cush are Seba, Havilah, Sabta, Raama (here spelled without an ‘h’ at the end, though he has one later in the same verse, as well as in Gen. 10:7), and Sabteca. We are also told that Cush was the father of Nimrod, who “began to be a mighty one in the earth” (1 Chron. 1:10). In the generation after that, we have the sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

Back up the line to Egypt, his sons were Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim (whom the Chronicler tells us fathered the Philistines), and Caphtorim.

Next comes Canaan, for whom the pretence of personification is dropped. Rather than naming his sons, we are told instead that he was the father of Sidon, Heth, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites.

The sons of Shem: The final son of Noah is the sire of the Semitic group, the population from which Abraham will emerge. The sons of Shem are Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, Aram, Uz, Hul, Gether, and Meshech (who appears as Mash in Gen. 10:23). This is either an error or deviates quite a bit from the Genesis 10 version, in which Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash are the sons of Aram, and the grandsons of Shem.

In the next generation, Arpachshad was the father of Shelah, who in turn was the father of Eber. Eber had two sons: Peleg and Joktan. Joktan was the father of Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Ebal (given as Obal in Gen. 10:28), Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

Father of sand, father of stars

We move next to Abraham, who is descended from Shem by way of Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah. This portion is lifted from Genesis 11:10-26. Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael.

The sons of Ishmael: This section is lifted from Gen. 25:12-16. I’ve always found it an interesting twist that Ishmael should be the first born, yet did not inherit divine attention. We see this motif a great deal in Genesis, of younger sons usurping their older brothers. It would be nice to have an explanation for this, though I suppose it could be as simple as inversion of expectation making for psychologically satisfying (and entertaining) stories. Ishmael, of course, sired the Arabic people.

Ishmael was the father of Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah.

A painting of Abraham's departure, by József Molnár 1849

A painting of Abraham’s departure, by József Molnár 1849

The sons of Keturah: Though 1 Chron. 1:28 implied that Abraham only had Ishmael and Isaac, we know from Gen. 25:1-4 that Abraham remarried after his wife Sarah’s death, a woman named Keturah. Here (1 Chron. 1:32), she is demoted to the status of concubine.

Through her, Abraham was the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. In the next generation, Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan (the same two sons given to Raamah in 1 Chron. 1:9). Jokshan’s brother, Midian, fathered Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah.

The sons of Isaac: We next move over to Abraham’s son by his first wife, Sarah. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Israel. Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites. Israel was born with the name of Jacob, but received the name Israel after an encounter with the Divine. While Genesis used the two names inconsistently, he is here referred to only as Israel.

Esau’s sons were: Eliphaz, Reuel, Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. In the next generation, Eliphaz fathered Teman, Omar, Zephi (appears as Zepho in Gen. 36:11), Gatam, Kenaz, Timna, and Amalek. Reuel fathered Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are taken from Genesis 36:10-14, where Timna appears as a concubine of Eliphaz, not as his son, and she is the mother of Amalek.

The sons of Seir: We run into a difficulty here, since this is the first mention of a Seir. So where is he meant to fit? My study Bible notes that Seir is “another name for Edom”, referencing Gen. 36:8, and in Gen. 36:20, we learn of a Seir the Horite who lived in Edom. Yet none of this helps to explain how Seir is meant to fit into this genealogy.

In any case, Mystery Seir’s sons are Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. He also had a daughter, named as a full sister of Lotan, by the name of Timna.

In the next generation, Lotan fathered Hori and Homam (appearing as Hemam in Gen. 36:22). Shobal fathered Alian (appearing as Alvan in Gen. 36:23), Manahath, Ebal, Shephi (appearing as Shepho in Gen. 36:23), and Onam. Zibeon fathered Aiah and Anah (he either fathered a daughter by the same name, or there is some confusion – in Gen. 36:2, Zibeon had a daughter named Anah, who married Esau). Anah (Seir’s son, not Zibeon’s) fathered Dishon. And Dishon (again, Seir’s son) fathered Hamran (appearing as Hemdan in Gen. 36:26), Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran. Ezer fathered Bilhan, Zaavan, and Jaakan (appearing as Akan in Gen. 36:27). Dishan fathered Uz and Aran.

The kings of Edom: Before Israel had a king of its own, Edom had plenty. This record may be compared to Gen. 36:31-43. They begin with Bela son of Beor, who ruled from Dinhabah. When he did, Jobab son of Zerah, of Bozrah, took over. After him came Husham, of the lands of the Temanites. Then Hadad son of Bedad, who defeated Midian and ruled from Avith. Then came Samlah of Masrekah. Then Shaul of Rehoboth. Then Baalhanan son of Achbor. Then another Hadad (appearing as Hadar in Gen. 36:39), whose city was Pai (which appears as Pau in Gen. 36:39) and whose wife was Mehetabel daughter of Matred, daughter of Mezahab.

The chiefs of Edom were Timna, Aliah (appearing as Alvah in Gen. 36:40), Jetheth, Oholibamah, Elah, Pinon, Kenaz, Teman, Mibzar, Magdiel, and Iram.

The sons of Israel: These are, of course, our twelve tribes. Israel fathered Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. This is, of course, parallel to Genesis 35:22-26.

Focus on Judah

The next few chapters cover will cover each individual tribe in excruciating detail. But we begin with Judah, who fathered Er, Onan, and Shelah, via Bathshua the Canaanite.

God killed Er for wickedness (and Onan, but not mentioned here), which leads to Judah impregnating Er’s wife, Tamar, himself. This produced two more sons: Perez and Zerah. This rather sordid story can be found in Genesis 38.

In the next generation, Perez fathered Hezron and Hamul (this corresponds to Gen. 46:12). His brother, Zerah, fathered Zimri (appearing as Zabdi in Jos. 7:1), Ethan, Heman, Calcol, and Dara. If several of these names seem familiar, it might be because they appear in 1 Kings 4:31, as the men of great wisdom to which Solomon is favourably compared. Except, of course, that the version in Kings describes them as the sons of Mahol, not Zerah.

We then skip to a Carmi, who fathers Achar. Achar is described as “the troubler of Israel” (1 Chron. 2:7). Carmi’s link to the rest of the genealogy is omitted, and the description of Achar as “the troubler of Israel” suggests a story with which the reader ought to be familiar. One possibility is that Achar is the Achan from Joshua 7, who cursed the Hebrew army by keeping some of the spoils of war. He is identified in Jos. 7:1 as “the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah.” This would explain his inclusion here. Except, of course, that it completely screws up the timeline of the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt.

In very next verse, we return to the explicit relations with Ethan, who fathered Azariah.

The sons of Perez: Back over to the line of Perez, we move down through his son, Hezron, who fathered Jerahmeel, Ram, and Chelubai. Much later, we learn that Hezron, at the age of sixty, married the daughter of Machir (the father of Gilead). Through her, he had a final son named Segub, who fathered Jair. Jair controlled 23 cities in Gilead until Geshur and Aram conquered a bunch of them.

In the next generation, Ram fathered Amminadab, who fathered Nahshon (described here as the “prince of the sons of Judah” – 1 Chron. 2:10). Through Nahshon, we get Salma (who appears as Salmon in Ruth 4:18-22), through whom we get Boaz (the love interest of the book of Ruth), and through him Obed. Then, through Obed, we get Jesse.

The sons of Jesse: Jesse fathered Eliab, Abinadab, Shimea, Nethanel, Raddai, Ozem, and David. Though only these seven sons are listed here, 1 Sam. 16:10-11 and 1 Sam. 17:12 both explicitly state that he had eight (of which David was the youngest).

He also had daughters: Zeruiah and Abigail. Zeruiah gave birth to some rather plot critical characters: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel, who play a fairly important part in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Abigail married Jether the Ishmaelite (named Ithra the Israelite in 2 Sam. 17:25), and bore Amasa. It’s interesting that the children of David’s sisters should be worth mentioning, but not those of his brothers.

 

The sons of Jerahmeel: The narrative is jumping around quite a bit, making it difficult to follow. We now bounce back to Jerahmeel, Hezron’s eldest. Jerahmeel is a bit difficult, since he is listed specifically as being a member of the tribe of Judah here, yet 1 Sam. 27:10 and 1 Sam. 30:29 refer to the Jerahmeelites as if they were a separate, non-Israelite, group. To smooth this over, my New Bible Commentary argues that “it is much simpler to suppose that the descendants of Jerahmeel, who in any case were settled in the south of Judea, retained their nomadic habits longer, and so in the days of David were reckoned separately from the rest of Judah” (p.372).

Jerahmeel fathered Ram, Bunah, Oren, Ozem, and Ahijah. In the next generation, Ram fathered Maaz, Jamin, and Eker.

Jerahmeel also had a second wife, Atarah, who bore Onam. Onam fathered Shammai and Jada. Shammai fathered Nadab and Abishur. Abishur married a woman named Abihail, and they had Ahban and Molid. Nadab fathered Seled (who died childless) and Apparim, who fathered Ishi. Ishi fathered Sheshan, who fathered Ahlai.

Despite what I said just above, we are told that Sheshan had no sons (this isn’t necessarily a contradiction, as Ahlai might either have died young or been born after the events I am about to relate). To continue his line, he married his daughter to his Egyptian slave, Jarha, and they had Attai.

Brian Shwimmer (of the University of Manitoba’s Department of Anthropology) addresses this in the broader context of inheritance:

Inheritance by daughters imposed a particular difficulty, which is acknowledged in several biblical passages. After Moses first promulgates the rule (Numbers), he is confronted with a problem: if females inherit land from their fathers they will pass it on to their children and therefore into the patrimony of another tribe or lineage. His solution is to institute a parallel cousin marriage regulation. Thus a woman who inherits from her father is to marry her father’s brother’s son so that property will automatically be retained within the wider patriline. A second mechanism for maintaining the continuity of lineage holdings was to marry inheriting daughters to household slaves. Since these dependants had no partilineages of their own, their children were by default incorporated into their mothers’ lineages. The arrangement of marriages to slaves created a number of segments that originated with female rather than male founders (see I Chronicles 2:34-36 for an example.) This institution directly mirrors a solution to the reverse problem of a daughterless family among the Akan, a matrilineal people of West Africa.

The reference to Numbers, of course, relates to the daughters of Zelophehad, whose story can be found in Numbers 27 and Numbers 36.

Attai fathered Nathan, who fathered Zabad, who fathered Ephlal, who fathered Obed, who fathered Jehu, who fathered Azariah, who fathered Helez, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Sismai, who fathered Shallum, who fathered Jekamiah, who fathered Elishama.

After all that, we move back up the line to Onam’s second son, Jada, who fathered Jether (who died childless) and Jonathan. Jonathan fathered Peleth and Zaza.

A Tale of Two Calebs

I am moving the two sections about Calebs to the bottom for special treatment. The first originally began with 1 Chron. 2:18. The mention of a Caleb is rather odd. It appears to be yet another sui genesis dynasty. In looking for more information, I am finding that the consensus makes Caleb a variant spelling of Chelubai, making him the son of Hezron, grandson of Perez. Except that that Caleb will be mentioned later on, leaving this one still without explanation.

Whoever he is, this Caleb married a woman named Azubah. The verse (1 Chron. 2:18) is rather difficult to parse out, suggesting that Caleb had sons with both Azubah and Jerioth. My interpretation was that this might refer to an arrangement similar to the one used by Abraham in Genesis 16. My New Bible Commentary, however, argues that “either Jerioth was another name of Azubah, or there is a textual corruption” (p.372). The Commentary goes on to suggest that the original wording might have had Azubah give birth to a daughter, Jerioth, who in turn had the sons who will shortly be listed. In any case, Caleb had the following sons: Jesher, Shobab, and Ardon. After Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath (later listed as Ephrathah, compare 1 Chron. 2:19 to 1 Chron. 2:24), who gave birth to Hur.

Caleb, who apparently lived up to his name (kelev means “dog”), impregnated his father’s wife, Ephrathah – though he at least waited until his father was dead. Through her, he fathered Ashhur, who fathered Tekoa. (There is no mention of either of them being put to death, which would be required by Leviticus 20:11.)

In the next generation, Hur fathered Uri, and Uri fathered Bezalel. This appears to be the same as Bezaleel, named in Exodus 31:2.

Further down (I’m putting it here for convenience), we will get another section headed: “The sons of Caleb the brother of Jerahmeel” (1 Chron. 2:42). The two genealogies are different, though my New Bible Commentary insists that the names here are meant to supplement the ones above. To me, this suggests that either Caleb was a quasi-mythic figure in a few different spots, each with their own traditions that had to be amalgamated, or there were a few different Calebs that somehow became conflated.

In any case, the Caleb specifically identified as the brother of Jerahmeel fathered Mareshah, who fathered Ziph and Hebron. Hebron fathered Korah, Tappuah, Tekem, and Shema. Shema fathered Raham, who fathered Jorekeam. While Rekem fathered Shammai. Shammai fathered Maon, who fathered Bethzur.

This Caleb also had a concubine named Ephah, who bore Haran, Moza, and Gazez. Haran also fathered a Gazez, though hopefully a different one.

There is another sui genesis patriarch listed among the descendants of Caleb: Jahdai. Jahdai fathered Regem, Jotham, Geshan, Pelet, Ephah, and Shaaph.

Caleb had yet another concubine, this one named Maacah. She bore Sheber and Tirhanah. We are told that she was also the mother of Shaaph (if the same as above, the implications are even more headache-inducing). Shaaph fathered Madmannah and Sheva. Sheva fathered Macbenah, and was the father of Gibea.

Finally, Caleb had a daughter, Achsah. It is on this basis this Caleb is identified with Caleb the Kenizzite, who appears, for example, in Joshua 14:6, and who also had a daughter by the same name (Jos. 15:17). The theory, if I understand it correctly, goes that he may have been an honorary Israelite, perhaps adopted into Hezron’s family.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that several of Caleb’s descendants are also the names of towns. So are we to understand that Caleb (and his lineage) founded those towns? Or that these individuals gave their names to the towns that they founded?

The sons of Hur: I am continuing this out of order, just to keep Hur in the same section as Caleb. Hur was the son of Ephrathah (called Ephrath in 1 Chron. 2:19), Caleb’s second wife. He fathered Shobal (who “fathered” Kiriath-jearim), Salma (who “fathered” Bethlehem), and Hareph (who “fathered” Beth-gader).

Shobal’s sons were Haroeh, and half of Manuhoth. Yeah, I’m scratching my head as well.

The families of Kiriath-jearim were the Ithrites, the Puthites, the Shumathites, and the Mishraites. From these came the Zorathites and the Esthaolites. The families of Bethlehem were the Netophathites, Atrothbethjoab, the Zorites, and half of the Manahathites. The families of the scribes who lived in Jabez were the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, and the Sucathites. These, we are told, were the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab.

And now I think I need to go detox my brain for a while.

Joshua 23-24: Promises are made and people die

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I mentioned in my post about Joshua 1 that, according to Collins, “key points in this [Deuteronomistic History] are marked by speeches. A speech by Joshua in Joshua 1 marks the beginning of the conquest, and another in Joshua 23 marks its conclusion” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94-95).

That’s pretty much the ground covered in Joshua 23.

Years have passed in peace and, now old, Joshua calls together all the elders. Strangely, he tells them that he has “allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off” (Josh. 23:4). Strange because for all the talk of peace for many years and the end of the conquest, it’s quite clear that there’s plenty of warring left to do if the Israelites are to accomplish their stated goals.

But at least he promises God’s support in the remaining conqueration.

Was Joshua’s task not to take the whole of the land promised to the Israelites? Why did he not finish? It seems like the author(s) was dealing with a conflict between the rhetoric of the story being set down and the reality they lived in.

I also think that the idea of ‘work left to do’ might serve another purpose. In the context of a land half-occupied by Assyrians and soon-to-be overtaken by Babylonians, I can well imagine that the people may have wanted to read: “The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you” (Josh. 23:5).

Assuming that the authors are writing with purpose, Collins writes:

The need for fidelity to “all that is written in the law of Moses” is also emphasized in Joshua 23, the farewell speech of Joshua. Joshua concedes that the Canaanites have not been wiped out and warns against intermarriage with them (23:12-13). The prohibition of intermarriage is found already in Deuteronomy 7 with reference to the seven peoples of the land. It did not necessarily apply to all peoples. Some distinctions between Gentiles were possible. Deuteronomy 23 distinguishes between the Ammonites and Moabites, who may not be admitted to the assemble of the Lord “even to the tenth generation,” and the Edomites and Egyptians, who may be admitted after the third. The thrust of Deuteronomy, however, is to maintain a distinct identity, and this could be threatened by intermarriage with any Gentiles. After the Babylonian exile, moreover, a significant part of the Jewish people lived outside the land of Israel, and the need for boundaries over against the Gentiles became more urgent. In this context, distinctions between Ammonites and Edomites lost its significance and all intermarriage was discouraged. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.106)

Joshua then passes on to a summary of the story so far, starting with Abraham’s entry into Canaan, through Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob going into Egypt, Moses and Aaron leading the people back out, and then fighting loads of people. There’s even a mention of Balaam (though his donkey is, sadly, absent).

The new covenant

As Brant Clements points out, Joshua speaks directly on God’s behalf, tripping only once in Josh. 24:7, where he reverts to the third person.

Joshua 2Mostly, the speech serves to reinforce that all the Israelite victories have been God’s, and that it was God’s hand who guided them through the last couple hundred years of their history. At the end of this, Joshua asks the people not to serve other gods, even if their fathers did. The people agree.

Joshua then reminds them that if they serve other gods, God will “consume you” (Josh. 24:20). The people promise a second time.

Finally, Joshua reminds them that by giving their word they serve as a witness against themselves if they ever backtrack. The people promise a third time.

The implication is that the people had the choice, at this point, between following God or not doing so, that it is this promise that binds them (and not the promises made earlier to Moses). This is reinforced when Joshua finishes my making “a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem” (Josh. 24:25).

I’ve been theorizing throughout this book that Joshua may have once been a prophet/founder figure competing with the Moses-based cult. I don’t think it gets any clearer than it does here, where Joshua appears to go through all the same motions as Moses with no real acknowledgement that it’s been done before (despite the mention of Moses in the historical summary).

He even, after giving the statutes and ordinances, write his own “book of the law of God” (Josh. 24:26).

To memorialise this new covenant, Joshua places a great stone under the oak in the sanctuary at Shechem (Josh. 24:26). The reference to anything being “in the sanctuary” feels rather anachronistic. Apologists online seem mostly to argue that the oak is in the same field as the ark, but it sounds an awful lot like there is an actual sanctuary at Shechem at this point, one where Joshua was known as the covenant-bringer, not Moses.

My study Bible does corroborate that Shechem had some covenant-related importance: “The Canaanite god worshiped at Shechem was called Baal-, or El-Berith, “god of the covenant” (Jg. 9.4,46). The city thus had covenant associations for the Canaanites as well as the Israelites” (p.292).

According to Victor Matthews, this story became important for the later Samaritans:

Instead, they [the Samaritans] declared Mount Gerizim near Shechem to be their place of worship (see Gen 12:6-7 and Josh 24 for events justifying their position). The Samaritans took advantage of Alexander’s political goodwill to construct an alternative temple on Mount Gerizim around 330 B.C. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.165).

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that the oak at Shechem is mentioned. In Genesis 35:4, it is where Jacob buries all his household idols at God’s command.

Many deaths

At 110, Joshua dies and is buried on his land at Timnathserah.

Joseph’s bones – which had been brought up out of Egypt – are finally buried at Shechem, on the land that Jacob bought in Gen. 33:18-19.

Eleazar dies and is buried at Gibeah.

Deuteronomy 1-3: Recapping with a slightly faulty memory

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Deuteronomy picks up the story from the end of Numbers. The Israelites are hanging out in Moab, on the wrong side of the Jordan, getting some last minute instructions from Moses. Before getting into the ordinances, however, Moses decides to make sure that everyone is up to speed on what’s happened so far.

Moses recalls feeling rather overwhelmed with the duties of being the leader, and he tells the story of selecting tribal leaders (and sub-leaders) to help him. He does not mention the involvement of his father-in-law (then called Jethro) – as told in Exodus 18 – where he notices that Moses seems a little tightly-wound and recommends that he do some delegating. We also don’t get the details from Numbers 11, with the prophesying and the involvement of Joshua.

But where this narrative does flesh things out a bit is with the instructions that Moses gave to his new judges during the delegation. In particular, he instructs them to judge “righteously,” whether between two Israelites or an Israelite and a non, whether when judging a “small” man or a “great” one, etc. They are also not to “be afraid of the face of man, for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17), which I take to mean that they shouldn’t allow fear repercussions (social, political, physical, etc) to influence the judgement rendered. Overall, these are great ideas in principle, though, of course, nearly impossible to enforce.

He also tells them that they are to come to him if the cases are too hard, and Moses will consult with God on their behalf. It’s not specified whether that means that they are to come to Moses specifically, or whether they are to come to whomever happens to be the leader or prophet at the time. The implications of either interpretation are rather important.

The Scouts

When Moses retells the story of the scouts, he gets a rather important detail wrong, and then it cascades from there.

He tells the Israelites about how “all of you came near me, and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us'” (Deut. 1:22). But if you’ll remember, back in Numbers 13, it was God who told Moses to send the scouts, saying: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:1-2).

Why the difference?

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

One clue may be in Moses’ response. In Deuteronomy, he agreed to send the scouts, for “the thing seemed good to me” (Deut. 1:23).

The sin that condemns all the people to spend 40 years in the wilderness is still that they were scared by the scout’s report. In Numbers 13, we read about the “evil report” that the scouts brought back, but I noted then that it was unclear whether the “evil” part of the report was that it was untrue or whether it was just bad news.

The two books agree that Canaan is wonderful and has some nice fruit, but the Israelites say: “The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there” (Deut. 1:28).

Granted, they could simply be repeating what the lying scouts told them, but it seems to me now as it seemed to me in Numbers – that the scouts are punished for telling the truth because doing so makes the people falter. By warning them of what’s to come, they are guilty of introducing doubt where there should only be blind faith in God’s ability to win any war he pleases. So it matters whether it was the Israelites who had sent the scouts or God (because if God sent the scouts and then punished them for doing as instructed, it’d create a really tough situation for his PR team).

What’s really interesting here, though, is how the passage seems to be a continuation of Numbers 14. I had noticed then that when God lists the people who will be spared, he only lists Caleb and Joshua. He doesn’t mention either Moses or Aaron who, at that point in the narrative, were still goodies in God’s books.

We had to wait until much later, Numbers 20, for Moses to commit the sin that is explicit said to be the reason why he will be barred from entering Canaan. Yet here, Moses agrees with the Numbers 14 narrative that he is not an exception to the punishment:

The Lord was angry with me also on your account, and said, ‘You also shall not go in there’ (Deut. 1:37)

Moses plays the Blame Game in Deut. 3:26, as well:

But the Lord was angry with me on your account, and would not hearken to me.

Though, of course, it was entirely his own actions that damned him in Numbers 20.

I also find it interesting that, as in Numbers 14, Caleb’s exception to the punishment is mentioned first, and Joshua’s comes later, almost as an afterthought. In every instance where Joshua has appeared so far (except, tellingly, in Numbers 13 where he is listed as being among the scouts but his name is spelled quite differently), he feels added in – like a later editor had the book of Joshua and wanted to legitimize his leadership by giving him a history of associations with Moses. (I discuss this at greater lengths in this post about Joshua.)

Whom to kill, whom to spare

Moses retells the story of why the Israelites had to go around – rather than through – Edom. In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites sent messengers to Edom asking for passage. When Edom refused, they were forced to go around. In Deuteronomy 2:4-5, God was worried that the Israelites might spook Edom, and asked them to go around as a courtesy.

There’s a speech in there about how the Israelites are related to the Edomites (Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites, and Esau, grandsire of the Edomites, were brothers), so they should not harm them. Likewise, the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot and should also be left alone.

In both cases, we are also told that they are living in lands that God has given them, so those lands are rightfully theirs.

David Plotz sees this as an explanation for why the Moabites were not punished – but the Midianites were – in Numbers 25, though women of both groups were caught trying to tempt the Israelites into the worship of other gods.

But not to worry, there were plenty of people that the Israelites were allowed to harass.

We get a repeat of the story from Numbers 20:14-21, where the Israelites are refused passage by the Edomites. Except that in Deuteronomy 2:26-31, the one doing the refusing is Sihon, king of the Amorites in Heshbon. This makes them fair game for harassment (and is presumably the reason why the Edomite refusal is conveniently unmentioned).

Of course, the reason given for King Sihon’s refusal is that God made him refuse:

But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as at this day. (Deut. 2:30)

So it’s not really Sihon’s refusal that dooms his people, but rather all part of God’s original plan. But, I guess not to appear the jerk, he orchestrates things so that it looks like Sihon deserved his fate. Or, more likely, God is like a cat that just tripped – he wants to make sure that everything knows that he totally meant to do that.

The Israelites also fight with King Of of Bashan. His and Sihon’s lands are divided between the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh.

The multitudes

When addressing the Israelites, Moses says: “The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude” (Deut. 1:10). Does that mean that the multitudes part of the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled?

The reference certainly seems to suggest it, yet Moses is not yet satisfied:

May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you, as he has promised you. (Deut. 1:11)

Closing business

Commenter Abbie from The King and I went through much of these chapters and found which parts of what stories were selected for retelling – and, most importantly, which sources those passages came from. Her analysis deals with the Documentary Hypothesis, which you can read more about on Wikipedia.

Her whole comment is quite interesting, so do go have a read. But in summary, she found that material is derived strictly from Exodus and Numbers, and that it seems to be “mostly drawn from chapters that have a mix of JE and P, but only containing JE references… except in ONE case… which is basically fossil rabbits in the precambrian.”

Deuteronomy 3 ends with the appointing of Joshua as Moses’ successor.

Genesis 36: Another Genealogy

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Fair warning, this is going to be another dreadfully boring chapter.

Before I get into this horrendously long list of names, I just want to point out an issue with Genesis 36:31, where the authors write: “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.” Now, tradition has it that Moses is the author of Genesis, and yet Moses died before the Israelite monarchy was established. As John Collins points out (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.28-29), passages such as this prove that the Mosaic origin of the Torah is “problematic.”

The descendants of Esau

We’re told again about the wives of Esau:

  • Adah, daughter of Elon the Hittite
  • Aholibamah, daughter of Anah, daughter of Zibeon the Hivite
  • Bashemath, daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebajoth

If you remember back from Genesis 26, we’re told that Bashemath was the daughter of Elon the Hittite, not Ishmael. And in Genesis 28, we’re told that he marries Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath, who doesn’t appear in this list at all. Speaking of disappearing women, Esau’s second wife listed in Genesis 26 is Judith,  daughter of Beeri the Hittite. Where’s she?

Esau also has a bunch of kids. Here are the kids, listed by their moms:

  • Adah’s children: Eliphaz.
  • Bashemath’s children: Reuel.
  • Aholibamah’s children: Jeush, Jaalam, and Korah.

In Genesis 36:6, we get a nice long list of Esau’s possessions, and we’re told that he had to leave with them  to live in the hill country of Seir. The reason is that he and Jacob both have too many possessions, so they can’t both occupy the same land. This is the same reason that forced Abraham and Lot apart back in Genesis 13. Once again, the Bible puts concerns over wealth ahead of family.

Just in case you didn’t get it the first time, the children a listed a second time before we can get into their sons.

  • Sons of Eliphaz: Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz.
  • Son of Eliphaz by his concubine, Timna: Amalek.
  • Sons of Reuel: Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah.

Now we get to hear the whole genealogy again, but this time all the names have the title of “chief.” Seriously, most boring chapter evar.

Children of Seir the Horite

Now we get a genealogy for Seir the Horite!

  • Sons: Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. They are all named as “chiefs” (or “dukes,” if you’re reading the King James) of the Horites.
  • Daughter: Timna.

And on to Seir’s grandchildren:

  • Children of Lotan: Hori and Hemam.
  • Children of Shobal: Alvan, Manahath, Ebal, Shepho, and Onam.
  • Children of Zibeon: Ajah and Anah. We are also told that this Anah is the one who found mules in the wilderness while he was out feeding his father’s asses (Gen. 36:24). That’s quite a distinguishing accomplishment! Another note on Anah: S/he is listed as male here, but as female in Genesis 36:2, 14 (although my RSV corrects this to “son of Zibeon” with a note at the bottom, in teensy-tiny font, saying that the Hebrew says “daughter of Zibeon”).
  • Children of Anah: Dishon and Aholibamah (this latter is a daughter).
  • Children of Dishon: Hemdan, Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran.
  • Children of Ezer: Bilhan, Zaavan, and Akan.
  • Children of Dishan: Uz and Aran.

The kings of Edom

Now we get to read about a succession of kings. Brace yourselves.

  1. Bela, son of Beor. His city was Dinhabah.
  2. Jobab, son of Zerah of Bozrah.
  3. Hasham of the land of Temani.
  4. Hadad, son of Bedad, who smote Midian in the field of Moab. (It’s unknown if this is the same Midian who is the son of Abraham, seen in Genesis 25. Either way, it’s a better distinguishing factor than having found a bunch of mules.) The name of his city is Avith.
  5. Samlah of Masrekah.
  6. Saul of Rehoboth.
  7. Baalhanan, son of Achbor.
  8. Hadar. The name of his city is Pau. His wife’s name is Mehetabel, daughter of Matred, daughter of Mezahab.

Conclusion

To conclude the chapter, we’re told that the following chiefs/dukes come from Esau: Timnah, Alvah, Jetheth, Aholibamah, Elah, Pinon, Kenaz, Teman, Mibzar, Magdiel, and Iram, and that Esau is the father of the Edomites.

Phew, we made it! The next one has a plot, I promise!

Genesis 35: The Death of Rachel and Isaac, the Birth of Benjamin, and Incest

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This is one of those chapters where the authors really want to move on to the next interesting episode, but feel the need to cover a few plot points first. Due to lack of interest, they plough through at an inappropriate speed.

God tells Jacob (who is still being called Jacob for some reason, despite having been renamed in Genesis 32) to go to Bethel and to make an altar to God there. So Jacob instructs his household to “put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves” (Gen. 35:2). This raises the question of how many gods are supposed to exist. I realize that the word “gods” in this context probably refers to idols, but there’s no indication that they are false idols. It seems far more consistent with the text to interpret God as the tribal god of Jacob’s people, one of many gods. Certainly, his frequent reference to a heavenly “we” would suggest this interpretation.

So they take all their gods, as well as their earrings (earrings, according to my study bible, being magical amulets that belonged to foreign idolatry), and bury them under a tree.

Jacob had previously been concerned that the Canaanites would be pretty angry given his sons’ slaughter of the Shechemites, so God causes a “terror”to fall upon the cities along their path (Gen. 35:5). Does that make God the original terrorist?

In case, Jacob arrives at Luz – which is called Luz (although there is a note in the text saying that, by Luz, they actually mean Bethel) here, despite being called Bethel earlier in this chapter (Gen. 35:1) and having renamed it Bethel in Genesis 28:19. This is all in addition to the fact that it was simply called Bethel in Genesis 12:8 and 13:3. There is a little note in the text indicating that, by Luz, they actually mean Bethel. So why not just call it Bethel? This, folks, is why you should always get a proofreader when starting a religion!

None of this really matters anyway because Jacob renames the place again to Elbethel (Gen. 35:7).

While they were there, we’re told that Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, died.

Renamed… again

God appears to Jacob again and says: “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10). Perhaps God felt the need to do this because the name didn’t really stick the first time.

God goes into his whole benediction again, telling Jacob that he shall be the father of nations and kings, and he shall have all the land that’s been given to Abraham and Isaac. To commemorate the occasion, Jacob (yes, he’s still being called Jacob) decides to call the place Bethel.

No, really. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Rachel dies

The Death of Rachel by Francesco Furini

The Death of Rachel by Francesco Furini

The household gets back on the road when Rachel goes into labour. The labour is hard, but she’s able to name her baby Benoni, or Son of my sorrow. “But his father called his name Benjamin” (Gen. 35:18), or Son of the right hand or Son of the South.

Now, okay, granted that Benjamin is a good deal chipper than Benoni. I’ll definitely let Jacob have that. But when your wife dies giving birth to your child and, with her dying breath, tells you what to name him, proper decorum dictates that you keep that name. Seriously.

And the way the episode is presented, with Rachel naming the baby literally with her dying breath, “but his father called his name Benjamin.” Just like that. Abrupt, and totally without consideration for his wife’s (his favourite wife) wishes.

Jacob, who suddenly switches back to being called Israel, moves on both literally and figuratively.

Oh, also, Reuben totally sleeps with his step-mom Bilhah and Israel hears about it. BAM!

We’re given another list of Jacob’s wives and kids, with Benjamin included. Then Isaac dies and Esau and Jacob (back to Jacob) bury him.

The end.

Genesis 33: Jacob and Esau make peace

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genesis-33-jacob-meets-esau-unknown-illustratorJacob (who is supposed to be called Israel now, but it appears that the authors have forgotten about that) sees Esau coming towards him. He organizes his household so that his “maids” and their children form a meat shield in front of his real family, and then the whole lot forms a meat shield in front of Rachel and Joseph. Just in case anyone had any doubts as to their place in the hierarchy of his filial affections.

All this was for naught, however, as Esau greets him with an embrace. There’s a bunch of “here, take these gifts” and “oh no, I couldn’t possibly!” and “but you must!” before Esau proposes that they journey on together. Jacob refuses because his children and cattle require a slower pace, so they head out behind Esau.

In the end, Jacob makes it to Shechem and sets up an altar that he names EleloheIsrael.

Bit of a short chapter this time, and thank goodness! See you all on Tuesday!

Genesis 32: Jacob’s big wrestling match

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Having angered the people behind him, Jacob now remembers that he’s angered the people in front of him as well. With nowhere else to go, he sends some messengers ahead to Esau.

But first, he sees a bunch of angels – just hanging out, I guess – and decides that they must be God’s army. That’s it, end of reference. The passage seems to have been stuck in haphazardly just to give the ‘just so’ story for the naming of Mahanaim.

Back to Esau. Jacob’s message starts off well with a nice little bit about Esau being Jacob’s lord, but then veers off into a list of all the stuff Jacob owns. It just goes to show that my old New England Protestant family culture couldn’t be more dissimilar from the culture that penned the Old Testament.

Predictably, given their somewhat dysfunctional upbringing, Esau isn’t thrilled to hear that his brother is returning after all these years. The messengers come back to Jacob, saying that Esau is on his way with 400 men.

Damage control

Jacob divides his people and livestock into two companies, hoping that if Esau comes after one, the other may still escape.

Next, he whines to God that he totally promised to be nice to him if he returned to Canaan.

Just in case plans A and B fail, Jacob then sends a bunch of gifts ahead in the hopes of appeasing his brother. But we’re dropping Esau for now, because…

The epic wrestling match

That night, Jacob is left alone “and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Gen. 32:24), as one does. The man, realizing that he can’t beat Jacob, uses his magical powers to lame him – touching his inner thigh (!!) to knock his hip out of joint (Gen. 32:25).

Jacob wrestling with the angel by Gustave Doré 1865

Jacob wrestling with the angel by Gustave Doré 1865

But Jacob is still winning, prompting the mystery wrestler to beg: “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” To which Jacob replies: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26).

Wait, what?

In case you hadn’t guessed, the mystery man Jacob has been wrestling with all night is God himself! Forget rocks so heavy that even God cannot lift them, God can’t even beat Jacob in a wrestling match! Worse yet, when he finds himself losing, he uses magic to cheat – and still loses!

And did that business about letting him go before daybreak remind anyone else of Cinderella?

Back to the story. God renames Jacob, calling him Israel (which means “He who strives with God” – an interesting choice for God’s chosen people to name their country, I’d say).

Because of the injury God inflicted on Jacob (with magic, because he was losing what was otherwise a fair wrestling match), the Israelites don’t eat the sinew of the hip. Well, I guess if you really need a reason not to eat sinew, ‘some guy was once injured there’ is as good as any…

Genesis 28: A Dash of Xenophobia

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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.

Xenophobia

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.

Jacob’s dream

Jacob's Dream by William Blake c.1805

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake c.1805

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.

Genesis 27: The Hebrew Trickster

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The Trickster is a staple of mythic traditions. Famous ones include Coyote, Raven, Weesakayjack and others among Native American groups, Loki in Northern Europe, Reynard in France, Hermes in Ancient Greece, or even the more modern Brer Rabbit in the Southern US. The Trickster is a male (always male) figure who, as the name suggests, plays tricks.

Trickster tales tend to be bawdy, outrageous, and extremely funny. The Trickster is morally ambiguous, sometimes working to the benefit of humans and sometimes to their detriment. He is also ambiguous in form, a shapeshifter. He may disguise himself as an animal or as a different person. Either way, his identity is rather fluid.

One of my favourite aspects of the Trickster is that he’s frequently the butt of his own jokes, concocting overly elaborate schemes that backfire badly.

Chapter 27 is a classic Trickster tale, set in a Hebrew milieu.

The Favoured Son

We found out in Chapter 25 that Isaac prefers his eldest son, Esau, because he hunts and brings home the noms. So now, in his old age and going blind, he asks Esau to go hunting so that he can have his favourite foods. In exchange, Isaac will give him a blessing.

Rebekah overhears this and decides to trick Isaac so that he blesses her favourite son, Jacob, instead. She tells Jacob to go out back and kill some goats, which she then prepares into Isaac’s favourite dishes. He’s blind, so he won’t be able to see which kid he’s blessing, but he still has his other senses. To complete the subterfuge, they dress Jacob in Esau’s clothing and tie some goat skin to the backs of his hands and neck (remember, Esau is the hairy brother).

Esau? Is that really you?

Disguised as his brother, Jacob takes the meal to Isaac. When Jacob presents the food, however, Isaac becomes suspicious and asks him how he found it so quickly. Hilariously, Jacob replies that it’s “because the Lord your God granted me success” (Gen. 27:20).

Isaac Rejecting Esau by Giotto di Bondone, 1290

Isaac Rejecting Esau by Giotto di Bondone, 1290

This is a classic Trickster line. On the obvious reading, it’s clearly a lie. He’s not Esau, the meat isn’t game, and the Lord most certainly did not grant him hunting success. However, the hidden meaning is that God is on Jacob’s side, as the listener (who has likely heard other tales of Jacob) probably knows.

But Isaac isn’t convinced by this explanation. So he calls Jacob to him so that he can touch him, to make sure that he’s as hairy as Esau. When he touches Jacob, he feels the goat skins. “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:22). He then asks Jacob to kiss him and, while they’re kissing, gets in a sniff to confirm that he smells like Esau too (remember, Jacob is wearing Esau’s clothing).

Finally, Isaac is convinced that Jacob is Esau and he gives his blessing. “May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth…” yadda yadda (Gen. 27:28).

Esau returns

With the blessing received, Jacob leaves the room just as Esau comes in with his meal. Esau approaches Isaac and offers up the food he’s just prepared and it doesn’t take long before they work out what’s happened.

Esau is in anguish and he begs his father to bless him as well. But that’s not how it works, because Jacob “came with guild, and he has taken away your blessing” (Gen. 27:35). And, because Isaac has already given away his only blessing, he gives Esau something that looks a whole lot more like a curse instead: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling me, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother” (Gen. 27:39-40).

Esau vows to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies and, once again, Rebekah McEavesdroppy overhears. She tells Jacob to flee to Laban, her brother, until Esau cools his jets.

How do blessings work?

As a Trickster tale, this chapter works well. Trickster tales are often funny and light-hearted, and they don’t always make perfect sense. The idea that a blessing is a tangible thing to be possessed and fought over works well in a mythic context. The fact that the audience knows that a father can give multiple blessings, one or more to each of his children, just makes the fact that Isaac can’t all the more funny.

But the status of the Bible for many Christians (and Jews?) must somber our reading. The fact is that there’s a whole lot of people out there who view the Bible as the literal historical truth, and even more who view it as a moral guide.

If we’re to interpret it in light of this, the story goes from humorously ridiculous to just plain ridiculous. Isaac’s blessing was clearly intended for Esau – does God not realize this? Can God’s favour be evoked by magic incantation, to be bestowed or stolen according to human will rather than God’s? Or, if God likes Jacob best and wanted him to be blessed, making this whole episode part of his divine plan, why couldn’t he have just bypassed Isaac and blessed Jacob himself? What do we learn about the nature of God from this chapter?

And then there’s the “Good Book” set of questions: Is it right to lie and steal? Jacob is rewarded for his efforts, and nowhere are we told that there is anything wrong with his methods. Read morally, the interpretation is clear: the ends justify the means. And what about Isaac? Is it right for him to bless only one child, cursing the other? Is it right for him to bless one child by making him “lord over your brothers” so that “your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Gen. 27:29)?

This is the second time in this book that a father has cursed his own son, making him the slave of another. God remains silent.

I’m going to stop here even though there’s a bit more to the chapter. The break is in a weird place, so we get a portion of Chapter 28’s story at the tail end of Chapter 27. I’ll just cover it next time instead.

Genesis 26: The Apple Falls Close to the Tree

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In this chapter, Isaac basically just wanders around copying a bunch of stuff his dad did.

He starts off by going into Gerar (because of a famine – which we’re told is a different famine from the one that sent Abraham into Egypt), the land of Abimelech. He does this because God tells him not to go into Egypt (see? Different!).

God then goes into yet another speech about how blessed Abraham’s family is, and how they will have so many lands, multitudes of descendants, and the blessing of nations. Yadda yadda. God, apparently, can’t get enough of telling people this (even though he never did end up giving them that land).

Back to the story, Isaac gets to Gerar and starts telling people that Rebekah is his sister. This is, of course, the same lie Abraham told to both the Pharaoh of Egypt and, more coincidentally, to Abimelech of Gerar. This family apparently has a thing for lying to people and pretending to be siblings with their spouses. It’s kinda weird.

But Abimelech (my favourite biblical character so far) doesn’t fall for it a second time. This time, he catches Isaac fondling Rebekah and puts two and two together.

He says to Isaac: “Behold, she is your wife; how then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” (Gen. 26:9). When Isaac gives the standard excuse of being afraid because she’s so beautiful and the Philistines are such beasts that he couldn’t trust them not to kill him for her, Abimelech continues: “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us” (Gen. 26:10).

This is why Abimelech is my favourite character – he tells it like it is. It’s too bad he’s suffering from amnesia. Then again, he’s probably rather old at this point.

In any case, he tells his people that anyone who touches Isaac or Rebekah will be put to death. Once again, he proves that he’s an upstanding guy and that Abraham and Isaac’s fears were completely misplaced and irrational.

Isaac gets rich

Abimelech spies on Isaac by Raphael, 1518-1519

Abimelech spies on Isaac by Raphael, 1518-1519

Continuing on with the accounting sub-theme of this book, we’re told that Isaac sowed the land and became very rich (even though he was the sole inheritor of his father, who was also very rich). Like his daddy, he has tons of possessions. In fact, he has so many possessions that the Philistines envy him and, I guess because of their envy, filled up all the wells Abraham had dug.

Abimelech tells Isaac to leave, “for you are much mightier than we” (Gen. 26:16).

I think it’s important to keep in mind, at this point, that Isaac is the stand-in for the Israelites and that this is a book written by Israelites. It makes me think of that weird kid in every High School who keeps writing in his journal that the reason no one likes him is that he’s just so awesome and cool that they’re all jealous.

So yeah, after both Abraham and Isaac lie to Abimelech, the former causing Abimelech’s household to be cursed and the latter nearly so, I’m totally sure that the reason Abimelech tells Isaac to scram is because he’s just so mighty.

Isaac starts re-digging all the wells his dad dug, but the locals keep telling him that they own that water and send him packing. He finally finds an uncontested well, but moves on anyway. At some point, God comes to him and reminds him, again, that he’s blessed and will have many descendants, so Isaac builds an altar.

Another covenant with Abimelech

Mirroring Chapter 21, Isaac gets a visit from Abimelech and his commander, Phicol. This time, he’s also brought Ahuzzath, his adviser. They ask Isaac to form a covenant not to harm them (and, just like when he formed a covenant with Abraham, he reminds Isaac that he hasn’t harmed him).

They swear the oath to each other and, that same day, Isaac finishes digging a well. Since the well was finished on the same day as the pact was made, he calls it Beersheba (even though it was already named Beersheba under the same circumstances by Abraham).

Esau’s genealogy

At 40 years old, Esau marries Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite. He also marries Bashemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite.

Bit of a weird ending to this chapter. We’re told that this (Esau’s marriages) make life “bitter” for Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 26:35). We aren’t told why, but I hope we find out!

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