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 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 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!

Genesis 25: Jacob takes his brother by the heel

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The first bit of this chapter is just another genealogy. Sorry.

Abraham takes another wife, named Keturah, and has a bunch of kids with her.

  • Keturah’s kids: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.
  • Jokshan’s kids: Sheba and Dedan.
  • Dedan’s sons: Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim.
  • Midian’s sons: Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abidah, and Eldaah.

Abraham gives all his possessions to Isaac (remember, it’s very important that we keep track of those possessions! Reading the Old Testament makes me feel like an accountant…). But don’t worry, he isn’t completely abandoning all those other kids he’s fathered! He’s making it up to them by giving them gifts! Yay!

By the way, it says “but to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts” (Gen. 25:6). Concubines? Plural? Does Keturah count? If not, it would seem that her kids get nothing. So I’ll assume that she’s just being counted as a concubine. But that’s still only one. Does Hagar count?

Anyways, so he gives these sons some gifts, which is good. But then he “sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country” (Gen. 25:6). Abraham has a habit of abandoning his kids. I’m just hoping that his “gifts” were a little more than some bread and a skin of water this time…

Abraham lives 175 years before kicking the metaphorical bucket (poor bucket – gets kicked by absolutely everyone!). His sons, Isaac and Ishmael bury him in the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham purchased in Chapter 23, so that he can be next to Sarah. Aaaw.

It’s a bit sad that Ishmael would come back to bury his father after the way he’d been treated. There’s also no mention of an awkward reunion with Isaac, which you’d think would be inevitable considering… One also has to wonder where Abraham’s other kids are. Ishmael came back, why didn’t they?

Anyhoos, Isaac lives by a well called Lahairoi. And that’s enough of that. Now we get to hear about Ishmael’s genealogy!

  • Ishmael’s sons (by birth order): Nebajoth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah.

These guys each father their own tribe, so that the Ishmaelites (who are the proto-Arabs, by the way) get twelve tribes just like the Israelites will be getting later on.

Ishmael lives 137 years. Then he, too, kicks that poor abused bucket.

Jacob and Esau

Birth of Esau and Jacob as an example of twin's fate against the arguments of astrology by Francois Maitre, c.1475-1480

Birth of Esau and Jacob as an example of twin’s fate against the arguments of astrology by Francois Maitre, c.1475-1480

So back when Isaac was a young buck of 40 years, he married Rebekah. But she, like his mom, turned out to be barren (only women can be barren, apparently). Isaac prays and, after twenty years, God answers him because this is going to be a pretty short book if Isaac doesn’t have any kids. And, as is the pattern so far, whenever God causes a barren woman to conceive, the kids are male. Why bother with the effort of a miracle if we’re just going to be making girl babies?

But now, Rebekah is not only pregnant, but she’s pregnant with twins! As commonly occurs for barren women who either pursue in-vitro or are characters in myths.

All is not well with Rebekah’s womb, however. Her twins hate each other so much that they’ve already started to fight. So Rebekah goes to God and asks him why this is happening. God tells her that she has two nations in her womb (yikes!) and that “one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). Wuh? How is that possible? Inheritance laws would never allow such a thing!

Well, Rebekah finally gives birth and the first baby is red and hairy and they name him Esau (he stands in for the Edomites). The second baby comes out with his hand grabbing Esau’s heel, so they name him Jacob. Taking by the heel apparently means supplanting someone, so it’s all very forshadowy when they name him Jacob, which can mean “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants.” Cue dramatic music.

Esau turns out to be a great hunter, while Jacob is quiet and likes to stay closer to home (this apparently symbolises the epic struggle between hunters and shepherds).

Isaac, ever the pragmatic one, likes Esau better because he brings home the bacon. Rebekah, on the other hand, likes Jacob better – presumably because he hangs out close to home and is a bit of a momma’s boy.

But for all of Esau’s strength, Jacob gets the brains of his family. So one day, as he’s sitting around at home making dinner, Esau comes in starving and asks for some food. Jacob, ever the sly one, says that he can have dinner, but only if he sells his birthright in exchange. Esau agrees and BAM! God’s prediction about the elder serving the younger comes to pass.

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!

Genesis 22: The Attempted Murder of Isaac

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After telling Abraham to abandon his first-born son and Hagar in the wilderness, God now turns his sights on Abraham’s other son. He tells Abraham to take Isaac into the land of Moriah and “offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2).

This time, Abraham doesn’t protest. Either he’s learned his lesson from Chapter 21, or he just doesn’t like Isaac as much. Either way, he wakes up early and gets things ready to murder his son.

This is a really creepy chapter because there’s absolutely no indication that Abraham has any reaction to God’s command. All we get is a narration of him packing up his knife and kindling. No tears are shed, he never complains or begs God to spare his son. It’s all very cold and methodical, it’s almost psychopathic. Just to make the whole scene seem even more cruel, he makes Isaac carry the wood on which he intends to burn him.

Isaac is still fairly human at first, asking his dad where the sacrificial lamb is (normally a fair question when one is carrying a bunch of pyre wood up a mountain, but rather chilling in this particular situation). Abraham lies and tells him that God will be bringing that himself. But then we’re told that Abraham “bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood” (Gen. 22:9). At no point does Isaac say “Hey, dad, why are you binding me up?” or “okay, pa, I can overlook the whole binding me part, but putting me on the sacrificial pyre? What exactly do you think you’re doing?”

There’s no reaction from Isaac, no emotion from Abraham. And remember, this isn’t Isaac being stoic – Abraham lied to him and he has no idea that he is the lamb God will be providing. Yet he doesn’t seem at all concerned.

In the nick of time

The Sacrifice of Abraham by Andrea del Sarto

The Sacrifice of Abraham by Andrea del Sarto

As Abraham raises his knife to kill Isaac, the angel of the Lord calls down to him, saying “Woah, dude! I was just kidding! I didn’t think you’d actually go through with it!”

Interestingly, his exact words are: “For now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). There are two problems with this.

The first is the implication that God has to test Abraham to know whether he fears God or not. In other words, God not only cannot predict the future, he also cannot even read our minds.

The second problem is that God refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” Does Ishmael suddenly not exist? He’s been cast out, sure, but he’s being made into a nation because he is Abraham’s son even after having been abandoned. Unless part of the abandonment was a total disowning. If this is the case, it might explain the literal issue, but it only raises a moral one.

I do think it’s important to note that, while God does stop Abraham from killing his son, it’s “without ever suggesting that the act of slaughtering one’s own child is immoral” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, p.97). Once again, God prevents a crime because it serves his own purposes, not because the crime itself is wrong. Furthermore, it’s insane to think of this as having really happened. Imagine if someone today claimed that they heard the voice of God telling them to kill their child! That person would be locked up, but paraded as a paragon of faith!

But God does stop Abraham from killing Isaac and, because Abraham was totally willing to go through with it, God will reward him with a blessing. “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:17-18). For those of you counting at home, this is the fourth time God is promising these things to Abraham.

Abraham goes back down the mountain with Isaac and they all go home.

Is a lie still a lie if it turns out to be true?

Abraham makes a couple statements that seem out of place given what he’s supposed to know:

  • When he gets to the mountain, he says to his servants: “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you” (Gen. 22:5);
  • When Isaac asks where is the lamb for the offering, Abraham answers: “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8).

In both cases, Abraham is lying to avoid suspicion. But in both cases, the lie turns out to be the truth. Is this the authors’ idea of humour?

Prophecy

By the way, this chapter is a favourite of Christians who claim that Jesus is prophesied throughout the Old Testament. There are two passages cited:

When asked about the sacrifice, Abraham says: “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8). This, clearly, is not supposed to answer the question he has just been asked (even though it fits perfectly in this context). Rather, it’s letting the reader know that God will be sending a lamb (*wink wink nudge nudge*) to be sacrificed for our sins.

When God tells Abraham for the fourth time that he’ll have oodles of descendants, he adds: “By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Gen.22:18). If you turn your head to the side, squint, ignore the context of the passage, and pretend that “descendants” is actually in the singular, this is totally letting us know that the future messiah (Jesus!) will be descended from Abraham.

More Genealogy

After all that excitement, the authors decide to bring us back down with another genealogy. This time, we’re jumping over to Abraham’s brother, Nahor.

From his wife, Milcah (who, if we remember, is also his niece), he has eight sons: Uz (or Huz), Buz, Kemuel, Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel. Kemuel fathers Aram and Bethuel fathers Rebekah.

Not content with just a wife and her eight sons, Nahor also takes a concubine, named Reumah, and has four kids: Tebah, Gaham, Thahash, and Maachah.