Genesis 49: "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel"

Leave a comment

In previous chapters, kids have been stand-ins for various nations: Esau represented the Edomites, Mizraim represented the Egyptians, Ishmael represents the “Bedouin tribes of the southern wilderness.” But now, the sons all represent different factions within the Hebrew people, commonly known as the 12 (+1) tribes of Israel.

The setup is this: On his deathbed, Jacob/Israel brings up each of his sons and issues a description of them that is *wink wink nudge nudge* indicative of their tribe’s place in later Hebrew society.

Jacob blesseth his sons by Gerard Hoet, 1728

Reuben: First-born and, therefore, stands to be the principle inheritor. However, due to a little indiscretion, loses his primacy. My study bible says that Reuben “was once a leading tribe but in early times was overcome by the Moabites.” The confusing mention of him sleeping with his step mom in Genesis 35:22 is explained here as typifying “the tribe’s moral weakness and instability.” Now, Israel found out about this little bit of incest and didn’t say anything at the time, so it must come as quite the shock to Reuben to suddenly have this thrown into his face!

Simeon and Levi: These are the two who convinced the Shechemites back in Genesis 34 to cut off their foreskins and then killed them all while they were too sore to fight back. As punishment, they won’t get a territory to themselves, but instead Jacob/Israel will “divide them” and “scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7). My study bible notes that Levi became the priestly caste, while Simeon was eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah.

Judah: Up until now, Judah has generally acted as spokesman for the family whenever Jacob/Israel isn’t around. This all makes sense now as Judah is destined to be the ruling class of the Hebrews. But Jacob/Israel imposes a time limit, saying that he shall rule until his sceptre “comes to whom it belongs” (Gen. 49:10). In the King James version, this verse makes reference to a specific individual: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” (Wiki has a brief and somewhat lacking explanation of this difference.) Once Shiloh or the true owner of the sceptre comes, there will be so much plenty that “his eyes shall be red with wine” (Gen. 49:12). Note: You know you’ve had too much when your eyes turn red.

Zebulun: Zebulun gets to live by the sea (not him personally, of course, since he is in Egypt) and “become a haven for ships” (Gen. 49:13).

Issachar: Issachar is a “strong ass” (Gen. 49:14). This may well be true, but it’s not the kind of thing one says in polite company. This is apparently a comment on their willingness to “surrender political independence in subservience to the Canaanites.”

Dan: Dan will become the judiciary caste. My study bible indicates that when he is referred to as “a serpent in the way, a viper by the path” (Gen. 49:17), the reference is to the “insidious warfare of a small tribe in its rise to power.” Oooh, burn.

Gad: Gad will be raided, but “he shall raid at [the raiders’] heels” (Gen. 49:19). According to my study bible (on which I feel I am over-relying in this chapter), this is a commendation for “bravery in repelling Ammonite and desert marauders.”

Asher: Asher gets “royal dainties” (Gen. 49:20), referring to the rich and high yield lands he gets (the coastal strip between Mount Carmel and Phoenicia, says my study bible).

Naphtali: Naphtali gets compared to a “hind let loose” (Gen. 49:21). This is supposed to have positive connotations.

Joseph: Joseph gets blessings heaped on him and is commended for having continued to fight (“Yet his bow remained unmoved”) even when “fiercely attacked” (Gen. 49:23-24). He gets the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (Gen. 49:25). We also get a little pun at the end, where Joseph is said to receive all these blessings for he was “separate from his brothers” (Gen. 49:26), which could be taken literally as his separation from them while he lived in Egypt, or metaphorically as being set apart from the common rabble.

Benjamin: The ‘blessing’ given for Benjamin is presented without commentary from my study bible, so interpret as ye will. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, and at even diving the spoil” (Gen. 49:27).

Once all the blessings (to the extent that they are such) are dispensed, Jacob/Israel repeats his wish to be buried at Machpelah (the family burial plot that Abraham bought in Genesis 23).

And with that, he “drew up his feet into the bed, and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33).

Genesis 46: Hebrew moving day!

Leave a comment

The meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt by William Brassey Hole

The meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt by William Brassey Hole

Before heading into Egypt, Jacob/Israel makes a quick pit stop in Beersheba to chat with God. “Jacob, Jacob,” begins God, apparently forgetting all about Genesis 35:10 and 32:28.

God tells Jacob/Israel not to worry about going into Egypt, for “I will also bring you up again” (Gen. 46:4). Spoiler alert: He doesn’t. My study bible tries to explain away the lie by saying that Jacob/Israel technically lives on in his descendants, who are then brought out of Egypt. But let’s get real – would an old man concerned about a big move really interpret God’s statement in that way?

The sons of Jacob/Israel

And now we get another genealogy. At least this time, they did try to make it fit with the story by positioning it as a list of dudes who are entering Egypt (making me feel something like a border guard, honestly).

Jacob/Israel’s descendants by Leah:

  • Reuben’s sons: Hanoch, Phallu, Hezron, and Carmi.
  • Simeon’s sons: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul (this later being the son of a Canaanite woman).
  • Levi’s sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
  • Judah’s sons: Shelah, Pharez, and Zerah (plus Er and Onan, who have died). The sons of Pharez are: Hezron and Hamul.
  • Issachar’s sons: Tola, Phuvah, Job, and Shimron.
  • Zebulun’s sons: Sered, Elon, and Jahleel.

Zebulun, by the way, always makes me think of Zabulon, the leader of the Day Watch in Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series. Just sayin’.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Zilpah:

  • Gad’s sons: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli.
  • Asher’s kids: Jimnah, Ishuah, Ishni, Beriah, and a daughter named Serah. Beriah’s sons: Heber and Malchiel.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Rachel:

  • Joseph’s sons: Manasseh and Ephraim.
  • Benjamin’s sons: Belah, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Bilhah:

  • Dan’s son: Hushim.
  • Naphtali’s sons: Jahzeel, Guni, Jezer, and Shillem.

We’re also given a bit of math. We’re told how many people are in each of Jacob/Israel’s wives’ parties, so of course I had to double check!

  • Leah’s party: Bible says 33 (including Dinah). My count is also 33. So far so good!
  • Zilpah’s party: Bible says 16, but I count 17. The only way I get the same number as the Bible is if I discount Serah, who is female. But then, shouldn’t we have discounted Dinah as well?
  • Rachel’s party: Bible says 14. The only way I get the right number is if I discount Rachel (for being dead), but then I would have to ignore Genesis 46:27 that says that we’re to tack Joseph and his sons on to the very end.
  • Bilhah’s party: Bible says 7. I get 8.

At the end of this, we’re told that we should come out with 66 people. We add to this Jacob/Israel himself, and then Joseph&Sons who will be met with in Egypt, and we should come out to a nice auspicious 70.

Unfortunately, both the Bible’s numbers and mine add up to 70 before I ever add the four additional people! So what we end up with is a decidedly inauspicious 74.

Abominations

Judah rides out ahead to fetch Joseph so that he can meet them on the road. When Joseph and Jacob/Israel see each other, they embrace and weep. Jacob/Israel announces that he can die now that he’s seen his son.

This next bit is a bit confusing, even with the study bible’s help. Joseph tells his family to say that they are shepherds, “for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34). Now, when I am relying on someone’s hospitality, I try to avoid making them think that I’m an abomination…

The study bible explanation is that Joseph wants them to settle in Goshen, which would put them near him. Convincing the Egyptians that they are abominations would make them more likely to settle the Hebrews “apart in the land of Goshen.” I can’t figure out if that means that the land of Goshen is otherwise uninhabited and that settling them there would make them apart, or if this is a trick to get them a spot of land all to themselves within Goshen.

Now, granted, the Hebrews are shepherds, and I’m sure that the Egyptians would have found out about it eventually. So it makes good sense to state it right up front. But the way it’s phrased is really awkward for this interpretation.

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

Leave a comment

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 30: Jacob Rapes Some Slaves

Leave a comment

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.

Newer Entries