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 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 31: Jacob Steals Laban’s Gods

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In this chapter, Jacob decides that he wants to go back to his family in Canaan, but not before robbing Laban blind.

Gotta leave!

In the last chapter, Jacob used his superior understanding of how biology/breeding works to scam Laban out of his best livestock. While he hasn’t quite realized that this was, at best, morally ambiguous, he does seem to realize that it was likely to piss some people off. More specifically, it pissed off Laban and his family.

When Jacob overheard Laban’s sons saying that “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s; and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth” (Gen. 31:1) and realized that “Laban did not regard him with favor as before” (Gen. 31:2), he decided to high tail it out of Dodge.

So he calls Rachel and Leah over to him and explains the situation. He makes quite the case for himself, almost as if he’s trying to convince him. I was thinking this was pretty decent of him. Even though he’d already made his mind up to leave, he’s at least discussing his reasons with his wives. It’s a step in the right direction, anyway.

But once again, my study bible ruined it for me. Here’s what it has to say: “Jacob discusses the situation with his wives because legally they belong to their father’s house (v.14), and are part of the property.” I don’t really understand why this means that he has to discuss it with them, since I don’t really sit down and have a chat with my furniture before I move, but I figure that the scholars who added the notations to my study bible are far more knowledgeable about these things than I am.

Stealing from the in-laws

So Jacob got his wealth by tricking his father-in-law, which kinda straddles the thievery line. But Jacob doesn’t settle for such ambiguousness. Oh no!

In the morning, he wakes up early and packs up all his stuff to leave (cattle and wives included). Laban happens to be away sheering his sheep, so Rachel steals his household gods. This, according to my study bible, is a huge diss because the household gods “insured a man’s leadership of the family and his claim on the property.”

After three days, someone tells Laban that Jacob ran away, so he goes after him. The pursuit lasts for seven days until both Jacob and Laban end up in the hill country of Gilead.

At this point, God appears to Laban in a dream and tells him not to say a word to Jacob, “either good or bad” (Gen. 31:24).

The horrors of menstruation

Laban searching for the idols by Pietro de Cortona

Laban searching for the idols by Pietro de Cortona

Laban overtakes Jacob and confronts him. Like Abimelech before him, Laban points out how utterly ridiculous the patriarchs’ behaviour is. “What have you done, that you have cheated me. and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword? Why did you flee secretly, and cheat me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and sons, with tambourine and lyre? And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farwell? Now you have done foolishly” (Gen. 31:26-2).

At this point, my study bible (which I’m relying on far too much this chapter!) says that Laban’s argument “presupposes the legality of a type of marriage in which the wife stays in her father’s household and the husband must leave his family.”

Anyways, he continues by asking: “why did you steal my gods?” (Gen. 31-30). Jacob responds that it’s “because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force” (Gen. 31:31).

I’d just like to point out that this is the same excuse Abraham and Isaac each gave when they royally screwed someone over. In all three cases, the patriarchs justify their immorality by saying that they assumed everyone else was going to be immoral as well. More importantly, in all three cases, only the patriarchs behave immorally. And yet, God is on their side – not Abimelech’s, not Laban’s, not Pharaoh’s. God sides with his chosen people no matter what, never with the victim.

Moving on, Jacob invites Laban to search for his gods. Laban checks all the tents, all the camels, etc. Meanwhile, Rachel is sitting on them. When Laban comes to her, she says “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me” (Gen. 31:35).

Now, I’ve had cramps before, and they do get pretty bad sometimes. But I’ve never been unable to stand because of them.

Of course, we all know that that isn’t the issue here. It’s because menstruating women are so unclean. Just like my High School gym teacher, Laban wants absolutely nothing to do with menstruation. And like my gym teacher let all the girls skip his class at the mere mention of menstruation, Laban doesn’t search under Rachel and he never finds his gods.

There’s also the not-so-subtle “my gods are better than yours because, ha ha, yours have menstruation on them!” dig.

“You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine”

Jacob gets angry, complaining that he took good care of Laban’s livestock for twenty years, and paid out of pocket for all the sheep stolen by wild beasts and such. Therefore, it’s not really stealing if he takes them now. He’s totally just taking his due.

Jacob doesn’t seem to understand that the time for negotiating pay is before you do the work, not after.

Jacob also accuses Laban of changing his wages ten times (Gen. 31:41). This is the first I hear of it. The only thing Laban did that was pretty underhanded was switching Leah for Rachel, but that’s changing Jacob’s wages once, not ten times. So if this happened, it was all behind the scenes.

They accuse each other some more, and then Laban suggests a covenant. They decide to gather stones and make a little pillar (Laban calls it Jegarsahadutha, but Jacob calls it Galeed for some reason), and Jacob is never to step on Laban’s side of the pillar and Laban is never to step on Jacob’s. In addition, Laban makes Jacob swear that he will treat Rachel and Leah well and never take any other wives (in addition to Bilhah and Zilpah?). They both swear.

In the morning, Laban kisses his daughters and his grandchildren, blesses them, and then goes home.

All in all, Laban is a pretty decent guy. I find it interesting that I always seem to like the baddies more in these stories…

Genesis 30: Jacob Rapes Some Slaves

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The first half of this chapter is devoted to the continued rivalry between Leah and Rachel. In the second part, we get Jacob using science to pay Laban back for his trickery.

Sons galore (and one daughter)

Rachel, like Sarah before her, is barren. Apparently, she values herself entirely by her ability to produce children, and says to Jacob: “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Gen. 30:1). This gets Jacob angry at her, and he asks her why she’s raging against him and not God, since it’s God who’s closed her womb. (Good point!)

Again like Sarah, Rachel comes up with the solution of giving Jacob her slave, Bilhah, and then adopting the resulting children. I have to make the point once again that this is rape. Even if it isn’t back-alley, knife-to-throat rape, it’s certainly coerced sex. There’s no way that Bilhah has the option of saying ‘no’ in this context, not once her mistress has “given” her to Jacob.

And once again, there isn’t a peep from God about women (or slaves) being treated this way.

Moving on, things get a bit absurd, and I think that numbered bullet points are in order.

  1. Leah: Has four sons from Chapter 29. (4)
  2. Rachel: Bilhah is “given” to Jacob and produces two sons, Dan and Naphtali. (2)
  3. Leah: Seeing that Rachel is catching up in the son-production department and that her own womb has closed up, Leah “gives” her slave, Zilpah, to Jacob. Zilpah has two sons, Gad and Asher. (2)
  4. Leah: Leah’s son Reuben is out picking mandrake, which Rachel wants. Leah and Rachel make a deal that Rachel gets the mandrakes and Leah gets to have Jacob “go into” her that night. As a result, Leah has a fifth son, Issachar. (1)
  5. Leah: Leah conceives a couple more times. She has a son, Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. (2)
  6. Rachel: God finally takes pity on Rachel and “opens her womb.” She has a son, Joseph. (1)

Final count: Rachel: 3, Leah: 9. Leah wins!

Just a note on point four, it says that Leah “bore Jacob a sixth son” (Gen. 30:19). Someone’s miscounted as Issachar is actually Jacob’s ninth son (or fifth by Leah, or seventh by Leah if we count Zilpah’s children).In other words, six is right out.

By the way, just as Rachel thought she might as well die because a woman’s value is in her uterus, Leah (poor Leah) keeps holding out hope that if she puts herself through the dangers and pain of childbirth enough times, her husband will finally start to love her. When she bears Zebulun, she says: “now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons” (Gen. 30:20).

Jacob’s payment

Jacob and Laban start arguing about Jacob’s payment for his many years of service. Apparently, Jacob is a pro shepherd and has drastically increased Laban’s wealth.

Jacob puts peeled rods in the animals' drinking troughs by the illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale 1372

Jacob puts peeled rods in the animals’ drinking troughs by the illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s Bible Historiale 1372

Just as an interesting side note, in Genesis 30:27, Laban tells Jacob that God has blessed him because of Jacob. In the King James version, he says that he has learned this through “experience.” But in most other translations, he’s learned this through “divination.” Quite a big difference! Hat tip to Skeptic’s Annotated Bible for pointing that out.

In any case, they work out a deal by which Jacob will go through the herd and pick out all the spotted and speckled sheep and goats to take with him as payment (and get his own flock started). Laban agrees to this because, apparently, spotted and speckled sheep and goats are fairly rare, so he doesn’t stand to lose much.

But ah ha! Jacob uses his superior understanding of biology to fool Laban! He gets striped sticks and puts them up in the areas where the healthiest and strongest of the flock are breeding. As everyone knows, if you see a striped stick when you’re conceiving, your baby will be striped! So Jacob ends up “exceedingly rich” (Gen. 30:43) with his superior stock of strong striped sheep and goats.

So, basically, God thinks that this is how markings are determined? Interesting. One would think that the creator of the universe would have a slightly better understanding of genetics.

Genesis 29: Jacob "Goes Into" the Wrong Girl

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In Genesis 27, Jacob played a nasty trick on his father by dressing up like his sibling. This time, true to Trickster tale form, he gets to be the butt of his own (well, Rebekah’s) joke.

We open with Jacob continuing his journey towards Haran, to look for a wife among the daughters of his maternal uncle, Laban. When he finally gets to “the land of the people of the east,” he sees a well with flocks of sheep lying around it. There’s a large stone covering the well, and we’re told that when all the sheep were gathered, the shepherds would roll away the stone to water the sheep and then roll it back.

Son of Nahor

Jacob asks the shepherds if they know “Laban, the son of Nahor” (Gen. 29:5). Of course, we found out in Genesis 24:29 that Laban’s father is Bethuel, and Nahor is his grandfather. It’s possible that “son of” is just a Hebrew way of saying “in the lineage of,” but unfortunately my study bible has no notes on this passage so I’m purely speculating.

Although a quick Google search tells me that many Christians find this passage troublesome as well. I wasn’t able to find any explaining away of the contradiction within about a minute of searching (which usually means that it isn’t a hot topic), but looking at a passage comparison, I see that many Bibles have opted to “correct” the Word of God by changing “son” to “grandson.”

Love at first sight

In any case, the shepherds know Laban and point out his daughter Rachel, who is arriving with her flock of sheep.

Jacob's deal for Rachel by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1851-1860

Jacob’s deal for Rachel by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1851-1860

Jacob is a bit confused by the fact that the sheep are being gathered around the well in the middle of the day, and remarks to the shepherds that it’s a bit early to be bringing them all together. He tells them to simply water their sheep and take them back out to pasture. They explain to him that they can’t water their sheep until everyone has been gathered.

My study bible says that this is an ancient practice to ensure fairness. The stone covering the well is too heavy for any one person to move. Therefore, all shareholders of the well must be present to open up the well. This way, they can make sure that no one takes more than is his due.

In any case, when Rachel approaches, Jacob rolls the stone away from the well and water’s Laban’s flock. He then kisses Rachel, “and wept aloud” (Gen. 29:11). We’re not told that the kiss was mutual. The phrasing is clear, Jacob is the actor, Rachel is the passive recipient. I have no idea why he starts weeping, either, but I imagine he must be quite a sight during sex!

After kissing Rachel, Jacob tells her who he is. Once again, the Bible seems a little iffy on the order of things…

A wedding gone awry

Laban has two daughters. The eldest, Leah, has “weak eyes” (which my study bible notes refers to them “lacking luster” rather than any kind of blindness), while the youngest, Rachel, is beautiful.

After Jacob had stayed with him a month, Laban asks him what he wants as payment for the work he’s been doing. By this time, Jacob is in love with Rachel, so he offers to continue working for seven years, at the end of which he can marry Rachel. In effect, he’s paying his bride price in kind (I’ll neglect to comment, this time, on the morality of paying for a wife as though she were a commodity to be bought).

Laban agrees to the terms because “it is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man” (Gen. 29:19). With that glowing endorsement, Jacob works for seven years.

Ever the romantic, Jacob goes to Laban and says: “Give me my wife that I may go in to her” (Gen. 29:21). Jacob takes a woman he thinks is Rachel and “goes into her,” but wakes up in the morning to find out that it was actually Leah. Ooops!

This is the second time (or third, depending on your reckoning) that someone in the Bible has had accidental sex. Who needs Reality TV?

In any case, Jacob goes to Laban and whines that he’s been given the girl with the “weak eyes” and Laban explains to him that in his culture, the younger daughter doesn’t marry before the elder. Jacob, apparently, hadn’t picked this up in the seven years he’s been there.

But no matter. Now that the eldest is married, Rachel is free to marry. So Laban offers to let Jacob have her in exchange for another seven years of work. Presumably after checking to make sure Laban doesn’t have any other daughters stashed away just in case, Jacob agrees.

Thankfully, he gets to do his seven years of service after his marriage to Rachel, so he gets to “go into” her after waiting only an extra week.

Rivalry between sister-wives

Jacob has little love for Leah. Seeing that she’s “hated” (Gen. 29:31), God makes her pregnant while keeping Rachel barren. After having her first son, Reuben, poor Leah says: “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Gen. 29:32).

No such luck, so God gets her pregnant again. Once Simeon is born, Leah says: “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (Gen. 29:33).

Third time’s the charm? Leah gives birth to Levi and says: “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen. 29:34).

Nope, not yet. But she gives up when she bears her fourth son, Judah.

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 24: Finding a wife for Isaac

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In this chapter, Abraham sends his servant back to Mesopotamia – where most of Abraham’s family still lives – to find a wife for Isaac, because he doesn’t want one of those dirty Canaanite girls with their alternative deities and all that.

So he calls to his servant and asks him to grab his testicles. Seriously. He says to his servant: “put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord” (Gen. 24:2-3). Boy, if I had a nickel for every time a guy’s said that to me!

I’d still be woefully nickel-less. But Abraham’s servant would clearly have at least one!

Aaanyways, the point of all this testes-fisting is apparently an old form of oath taking. One would think that spitting into one’s hands and shaking them was sufficiently disgusting, but these guys like to go all out. In any case, the servant vows to go to Mesopotamia and never ever ever ever to allow Isaac to marry a local.

But the servant is concerned – what if he goes all the way to Mesopotamia, finds a girl, and she isn’t willing to come back with him? Not to worry, says Abraham. If that happens, he’ll be freed from the oath. So the servant sticks his hand under Abraham’s thigh and swears.

Meeting at the well

Rebekah at the well by Valerio Castello, c.1645

Rebekah at the well by Valerio Castello, c.1645

When the servant gets to Nahor, he sets up shop beside the well (which, apparently, is where all the lovely ladies like to congregate). Now, the servant wanted to make sure that he got the right lady for Isaac, so he prayed to God that, when he goes up to a lady and asks her if he could drink from her jar, the right lady will respond by saying: “Drink, and I will water your camels” (Gen. 24:14). Gotta make sure his master’s new lady comes ready-domestic!

So he’s barely done talking when Rebekah comes waltzing up to the well. Rebekah, if you remember, is Abraham’s grand-niece. What we haven’t been told is that Adam and Eve were created with only three fingers on each hand. The five we have today is from all the incest.

Anyways, the servant (poor guy doesn’t even gets a name) goes up to Rebekah and goes through his spiel of asking her for a drink of water. She answers him: “Drink, my lord” and lets him have her jar. At this point, ancient readers (before TV took entertainment to the next level) were probably on the edge of their seats. Will she say it? OMG, will she?

She did! Sort of… What she actually says is “I will draw for your camels also, until they have done drinking” (Gen. 24:19). Right, well not exactly what she was supposed to say for the magics to work, and it’s pretty much what anyone would say in that situation, but the servant seems to be okay with a bit of fudging. She got the gist of it right, at least.

So the servant gives Rebekah a gold ring and two gold bracelets, and asks whose daughter she is and whether there’s room for him in her father’s house. Rebekah tells him her lineage – which pleases the servant because she is suitably closely related to Abraham &son to satisfy God’s penchant for incest – and says that there is room in her father’s house.

Meeting the Family

Rebekah runs home to let her family know that the servant is coming. Her brother, Laban, sees her new bling and gets rather excited. So he goes out to meet the servant and invites him in very warmly. Yes, it says that he “saw the ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms” (Gen. 24:29) and that’s when he goes out to meet the servant. The implication is rather clear.

But before the servant will have dinner, he wants to re-cap the entire chapter for Rebekah’s family. The reader is therefore treated to the entire story we’ve covered so far for a second time, and it isn’t all that shorter this time around. He does, blessedly, leave out the part about grabbing testicles.

Of course, he does dwell on how much stuff Abraham has. “The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become great; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and fold, menservants and maidservants, camels and asses” (Gen. 24:35). It’s important, I find, when introducing someone to list all of their possessions. Make sure to mention that they have slaves (both male and female!). Is he a drunk? Is he violent? Does he have a history of trying to sacrifice his kids or sending them off into the wilderness? Perhaps a history of raping members of his household?

See, if I were considering whether or not to send my daughter off to live in some guy’s household, these are the kinds of things I’d like to know. I’m not frankly all that concerned about how many flocks and herds he has.Although the slave ownership bit might be some indication of what this poor girl is getting into.

The servant even tells Rebekah’s parents about Rebekah telling them who her parents are. He lists her genealogy right there, in front of her genealogy. I’m sure they were riveted and oh-so-very glad that he’s made everyone wait before eating dinner to hear this.

Ancient Hebrews: big on being good hosts, not so much on being good guests.

By the way, that ring he gave Rebekah? It’s totally a nose ring. Rebekah is hard core. Also, the servant is the one who stuck it in her nose (Gen. 24:47). I find that hilarious.

On the delaying of having dinner, Matthews explains that the servant “demonstrates his own shrewdness by refusing to accept the hospitality of Laban’s house before beginning the negotiations. He does not wish to be unfavorably obligated to Laban, and thus it is only after the bargain is struck that he willingly enters the house and eats a meal” (Manners & Customs, p.37). It all comes down to the laws of hospitality – the obligations of host to guest and guest to host. Something Lord Walder Frey really ought to learn something about.

She said yes!

The servant finishes off by asking if he can take Rebekah back to Canaan for Isaac, and her father and brother answer: “Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son” (Gen. 24:51). Don’t bother asking her or anything. Heck, even for an arranged marriage, this is pretty crappy background checking. All he did was give her a nose ring and a couple bangles, that doesn’t mean that anything he’s said is true! Are they not even going to go meet Abraham? Check out the household? Make sure he’s really as wealthy as he claims (assuming that this is their primary concern, rather than, say, his history of trying to off his own kids)?

But it’s cool, cause the servant then gives “jewelry of silver and of gold, and raiment” to Rebekah and some “costly ornaments” to her brother and mother (Gen. 24:53).

In the morning, the servant announces that he’ll be taking Rebekah back to Abraham now, and her family asks if she can at least stay ten days. But the servant insists. Bit rude for someone they only the day before, I say…

But finally, someone thinks to ask Rebekah for her opinion, so they ask her if she wants to go right away or wait a bit. In what I can only imagine is an air of resignation, Rebekah agrees to go post haste. Thus, Rebekah and her maids get on a bunch of camels and ride back to Canaan with Abraham’s servant.

Meeting Isaac

So Isaac’s hanging out in the Negeb and goes outside to meditate. When he opens his eyes and looks out, he sees camels coming. Rebekah happens to look up at precisely the same moment and they see each other.

She asks the servant who the man is and he confirms that it’s Isaac. So she covers herself up with her veil. Her future husband shouldn’t see her, but it’s fine for everyone else, apparently. Modesty rules are weird…

The servant meets Isaac and tells him everything we’ve covered so far in the chapter (thankfully, it isn’t all spelled out this time). Isaac then “brought her into the tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife” (Gen. 24:67). Wait… He “took” her and then she became his wife? That’s not the order my Sunday School told us to do things…

Despite what my Sunday School had to say about such relationships, Isaac does love Rebekah. In fact, getting with his new lady-friend totally comforts him after his mom’s death. So yay!