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 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 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.


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.