Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 40

In this chapter, Joseph interprets two dreams and both of his interpretations are proven true.

The first thing to note is that both the baker and cupbearer would be highly trusted and influential officials in Pharaoh's court.  This might not be immediately obvious, since being a cupbearer (literally, someone who carries a cup full of wine to the king) sounds very menial, and almost like a slave's role.  Being a baker is not much above that, because you just cook bread.

However, the situation is different than that.  The cupbearer is responsible for ensuring that the wine is not poisoned, and the baker is responsible for ensuring the bread is not poisoned.  Therefore they are directly responsible for protecting the king's life, and conversely they are positioned so that they could kill the king if they desired.  There are records of this happening many times to ancient sovereigns, so they will naturally be extremely judicious in their selection of cupbearers.  Furthermore, the cupbearer was a sort of confidante or advisor to the king.  As such, he would have tremendous influence over the king.

I am able to find resources discussing the importance of the baker.  However, due to the symmetry of the passage it seems to be implied that the cupbearer and the baker would be roughly interchangeable roles in terms of significance.  From what I can tell, the baker would possibly not have the same advisory role, but would nevertheless have to be highly trusted because of the risk of poisoning.

While it doesn't say why Pharaoh is angry with his servants, it is possible they were accused of a plot to poison his wine or bread, in accordance with what I have previously stated.  This might be the most likely scenario, but it is still speculative.

There have been several dreams in the bible already.  We saw Abraham have a dream (making the covenant with God), Jacob had a dream (the ladder with angels), and Joseph had two dreams earlier.  Each time a dream has been recorded, I offered some ideas on how the dreams can be interpreted and their significance.  This is almost premature because I have no explained *why* dreams can be interpreted, and how the symbolism should be rendered.  I am not going to explain this here either (if you are very curious, you can look at my "how I categorize dreams" for some general ideas around categorizing dreams which is applicable to biblical dreams as well, although unfortunately I don't say much about dream interpretation).  What this passage can teach us is that dreams *have* interpretations, and that those interpretations belong to God as Joseph says.

If interpretations belong to God, then how is Joseph sharing the interpretation?  The answer is simple: he is filled with the Spirit of God through his connection to the Abrahamic promise and the Spirit gives him the interpretation.  This is really amazing because God never said anything about giving his Spirit to people or interpreting dreams in the actual Abrahamic covenant or blessing.  It just says stuff about having many descendants and being blessed (largely in a material sense).  Joseph's gift of dream interpretation (coupled with "interpretations belong to God") is then very surprising and illuminating.  It shows us that the Abrahamic covenant is deeper than it first appeared in Genesis 12 when we first saw it, or Genesis 15 when it was expanded or Genesis 22 when it was re-confirmed and established.  In all of those cases, the promise was tightly focused on 1) many children, 2) inheritance of land, 3) "blessing" and "greatness", which are ambiguous and undefined, but probably related to points 1) and 2).  Now we are seeing this promise surprisingly expanded to include wisdom and dream interpretations, or in the broadest possible sense, "access to God's interpretations of dreams".  Note that there was no suggested interpretation for either of Abraham's or Jacob's dreams.  In both of those cases, they are simply recorded and left without explanation.  Perhaps we will discover that the Abrahamic blessing is richer and deeper than it first appeared.

The two dreams are probably reflecting the two dreams of Joseph earlier in this story.  However, while Joseph's two dreams matched each other and showed agreement and finality, these two dreams are opposites of each other.  Since they share symbolism (the number 3), they mirror each other to highlight their differences.  This is how Joseph's subsequent interpretation fits the content of the dreams pretty well.

This chapter uses a pun on the expression "lift up the head of", which is used to mean both "restore to honor" and "execute".  The NIV has a good translation of this: "Pharaoh lifted up the head of the cupbearer, but lifted off (i.e. removed) the head of the baker".  The NLT translation is also moderately good; I am not a fan of the Message translation of this passage because it does not honor the pun in its translation.

This is one of those areas that highlights the difficulty of translating the bible, because you want to be able to capture the original author's cleverness in this passage, yet the double entendre is an idiomatic expression that is not commonly used in modern english, "to lift up head."  As such, a word-for-word translation would be confusing since the idiom is unfamiliar, but a thought-for-thought translation would likely strip out the idiom in order to capture the meaning, but would lose the pun.  That's why I like the NIV approach, which mostly maintains the original sense, but changes a few words to make it clearer what is being talked about.

The former sense of the phrase "to lift up a head", exaltation, is extremely common in the bible and one presumes in ancient Hebrew in general.  This implies that the latter sense, execution, would be the clever or unusual meaning.  "To lift up a head"-meaning-execution is almost never used in the bible that I can think of, though other expressions referring to decapitation do occur fairly often.  We will see the phrase "To lift up a head"-meaning-exaltation often in the Psalms in particular, as well as the prophetic literature.  The OT also frequently speaks of "exalting horn", or "my horn is lifted up", where "horn" is a metaphor for head, which is in turn a metaphor for your personhood, honor or self-identity.

Anyway, it says that the cupbearer forgot Joseph, so he is left to rot in prison a few more years, but this interpretation of dreams directly leads us to the next chapter.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 39

In this chapter, Joseph serves an Egyptian official, is falsely accused of attempted rape, and is sent to prison.

As I previously mentioned, Joseph's life is largely dominated by the two dreams he has, and the subsequent tribulations.  He has many ups and downs.  His first "up" was the favoritism of his father, then he had the down of imprisonment and sale into slavery.  Then he has the "up" of favor with his master, Potiphar, then the down of being falsely accused of rape and sent into prison.  But then he has the "up" of favor with the chief jailer.

As of this chapter, it's still an open question whether he will be embittered by the experience.  We will later discover that he is not.

The first thing we see, after Joseph is taken into slavery, is that he is gifted by the LORD and prospers in everything he does.  It states that Potiphar "saw that the LORD was with him" and therefore entrusts him with everything.  This does not mean that Potiphar acknowledges the LORD as God, but it is perhaps a general expression of favor to say "the LORD is with " to the author.  Either way, this expression shows up many times in the OT, so I don't think that it speaks of anything in particular about Potiphar's attitude or knowledge of the LORD.

Either way, Joseph is clearly gifted and favored by God, which is interesting because so far, we have no seen God directly interact with Joseph or speak to him in any direct way.  Joseph had the two dreams, but neither dream mentions God in any way, they simply reflect Joseph's relationship to his family.  With all of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the promise of God was directly stated to them by the Lord at one point or another.  With Joseph, this has not happened, yet he is gifted and favored, and he acts out with that gifting in a simple way.

In my opinion, Joseph is continuing with the same simplicity and innocence that we saw in chapter 37, in that he serves Potiphar without reservation.  He refuses Potiphar's wife's advances, but there is no reference to him ever doing anything else.  He never shows any of the deceptiveness that runs in his family, which we have seen in Jacob and in all of his other sons.

We know from chapter 38 that Joseph is in Egypt for a very long time, since Judah was separated from his brothers for 20-40 years.  Nevertheless, there are no explicit dates or times given for Joseph's various journeys, so one can only guess how long he was in any specific phase (Potiphar's house, jail, later stuff).  The story is very compressed, which makes it feel really short, but it is not actually short at all.  This chapter describes Joseph's entire time in Potiphar's house, but he was possibly there for over 10 years.

Why did Potiphar's wife accuse Joseph of rape?  The text doesn't say, so I wonder about this.  The most likely explanation I know of is that she felt ashamed or angry at his refusals.

It's very interesting that Joseph is sent to the royal prison.  This shows very clearly that Potiphar did not entirely trust his wife's account, because the normal punishment would have been death.  Not only was Joseph sent into prison, but he was sent into the royal prison "where the king's prisoners were confined".  This would be the nicest of the prisons, because political prisoners are usually more important than common criminals and they are not always going to be killed.

I also think it's interesting how closely the account of Joseph's time in the prison parallels his time under Potiphar.  In both cases, he ascends to the rank of chief servant, and everything is put under his care such that his master did not pay attention to anything he did because everything he did went well.  We have seen similar patterns of success under Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, but in all of those cases they were working for their own profit rather than another (the semi-exception to this being Jacob's complicated relationship with Laban where he traded his labor for wives or wages respectively).  Even so, there is definitely a continuity here.  Joseph is a sort of spiritual successor to Jacob, even though he is not given the divine promise by God, and he is not an ancestor to the Messiah.

This success is juxtaposed with the "bad report" that we have about Jacob's other sons, who are perhaps less diligent about their shepherding tasks.  These other sons are clearly more combative (arguing amongst each other, showing their hatred to Joseph, killing the Shechemites, etc) and less diligent than Joseph.  Jacob probably sees more of himself in Joseph than his other sons, and that might be why he favors Joseph above his other sons.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 38

In this chapter, Judah goes away from his family, marries a Canaanite, has several sons die, and then has sex with his daughter-in-law.

I think my title sentence says it all: this is a very licentious chapter.  This chapter describes quite a few events, some of which have important implications, and most of them are very risque.

First, Judah "leaves his brothers" and goes to an unspecified location elsewhere.  We can guess he is still in Canaan (the promised land) because he marries the daughter of a Canaanite it later says he "goes up to Timnah" which is in biblical Israel.  It's peculiar that he would leave his brothers given they are sharing the common task of shepherding their father's flocks, and one wonders if this is related to their actions against Joseph in the prior chapter.  However, ultimately Judah's motives are not described.  One interesting point I've heard raised before is that Judah in this instance is acting as a "prodigal son", in that he leaves his family, engages in what can easily be construed as sinful behavior, and later (4 chapters from now, when we see Jacob with his sons again), Judah is returned to his family with no overt discussion of what he had done or how he was repatriated into his family.  Later still, Judah is given the second best blessing from his father Jacob, so that while the sins of Reuben, Simeon and Levi are held against them, Judah is in effect treated as the oldest accepted son, in spite of his own sins.  This is probably because the first three, Reuben, Simeon and Levi sinned against their fathers in various ways, but Judah never did anything to spite him.  Possibly his father never even learned of what Judah did while he was away.  We don't know.

Second, Judah bears three sons in this time, which means that he was gone for a *minimum* of 27 months.  In addition, he takes a wife for his oldest son, which means that he is likely over 25 years old, maybe up to 30 or 35 since men in this time tended to marry at a late age while they built up their wealth.  So it is likely that this story about Judah is happening during the years that Joseph is in captivity in Egypt, and it also shows that Judah's departure from his brothers was a serious, multi-year thing, reminiscent of Jacob's 20 years in Haran.

Then there is the story of Er's death and Onan's betrayal to his brother's legacy.  This is a subject that deserves some explanation.  For some of the historical aspects of how this has influenced church-approved theology, this appeared to be a good resource:

I cannot vouch for their accuracy since I am largely unfamiliar with the subject, nor do I vouch for the website in general, but this particular article seemed to be well-formulated and accurate as far as I can tell.

The main thing to draw from this is that the "sin of Onan" has been broadly interpreted in church history to refer to either masturbation or birth control methods in general, anything that would inhibit the formation of a valid embryo during sex (this would include post-sex birth control like Plan B, and would certainly also include homosexuality).

My opinion is what Straight Dope calls the "straightforward interpretations", that the sin of Onan is his refusal to provide an heir for Er like he is supposed to.  I think they are absolutely correct that this is the simplest interpretation, and I believe it is the right interpretation.  While the "alternative" interpretations can in part be supported by unrelated arguments (and that is a complicated subject I will not approach here), I simply do not believe they are supported by this text.  Anyone new to the bible would see this right away: Onan was commanded by his father (and by their social system of the time) to produce offspring for his brother through the pact known as levirate law (this term is unrelated to Levi, the son of Jacob).  He ostensibly agreed, but then during sex would attempt to avoid insemination of Tamar, thereby abrogating his duty.

Some important things to consider:

The levirate law discussed here is *not yet* part of the bible, and Onan is under no divine command to obey the levirate law and impregnate his sister-in-law.  This is purely a social contract at the time, but it is relevant to note that the Law of Moses will institute a levirate law for the Israelites, in the book of Deuteronomy.  However, even though Onan is not under the Law of Moses, he is responsible to maintain his personal integrity, which includes a lot of things in this time period like obedience to his father and truthfulness in action and deed.  Having sex with Tamar but refusing to inseminate her is not that.

One might ask what is the importance of producing a son for the widow in this manner?  I agree that the whole process seems very strange, if not perverse, to a modern reader, so it is very important to get the cultural context set.  This is something I have done frequently in prior chapters, so I will be relatively brief.  1) The woman's importance is related to bearing sons for her husband, so as to carry on his name, 2) bearing sons allows the man's inheritance to be given to them, extending the family line and the man's name (this is why people are called Jacob SON OF Isaac, because it extends Isaac's name and grants him a legacy or memorial that is meant to last forever).  3) the son would grow up and support his mother in her old age.  This is critically important because their society did not possess a public social safety net of any kind.  This is also why Tamar goes on to seek a child through Shelah and then eventually Judah, because without a son, she is left with the very serious possibility that Judah would depart and leave her destitute and without a source of income, and this would be a severe violation of the social contract of the time.

Lastly, what is the important to Onan of *not* producing a son for his brother?  This is touched upon briefly by Straight Dope.  The bible does not say what was his motivation, so we are largely left to speculation.  But of those speculations, the best answer I am aware of (which is also mentioned by Straight Dope) is that Onan wanted to take his brother's inheritance, since without an heir those properties would fall to him as the closest kin.  Providing a son would run contrary to this goal.  This is the most reasonable speculation I've heard.  It is closely related to the kinsman-redeemer issue that shows up in the book of Ruth (Ruth chapter 4).

After a while, it became obvious to Tamar that Judah was not going to provide Shelah to her, so she takes matters into her own hands and literally prostitutes herself out to Judah while disguised.  The sins of Judah are manifold in this chapter.  He refuses his son Shelah to Tamar, even though that was her legal right, and he lies to her about it continuing the pattern of deception that we saw from Jacob.  Then Judah goes and has sex with her when he thinks she's a temple prostitute (which would be a grievous sin to the Israelites reading this book), condemning her to death when she is found pregnant, which is a hypocritical contradiction of his own willingness to sleep with a temple prostitute.  He slept with his daughter-in-law, which is also forbidden by the Law of Moses.  It is astonishing to think that, having struck down Er and Onan, God did not strike down Judah as well.  I don't really have an explanation for that, other than the sparsity of the biblical text concealing much of what is happening.

One can only imagine Judah's relief at discovering Tamar has committed prostitution.  This finally allows him, in a fully righteous manner, to kill off this awkward woman whom he was doing wrong.  It would keep him from ever having to provide her a husband, and would also prevent her from telling others how he had wronged her, and he would never have to do anything illicit or illegal to have her killed.  She walked into this situation as if by her own accord.  In verse 26, Judah discovers what he had done, and it is strongly implied that he calls off her execution (which he had declared in verse 24), and by this she bears two sons for Judah, one of whom, Perez, becomes the ancestor of King David.

It is also important to remember that through all of this, Judah's friendship with the Adullamite (mentioned several times), his Canaanite wife, and the Canaanite wife for his sons (Tamar would almost certainly be Canaanite), Judah is repeatedly breaking the principle of separation from the sinful peoples in the promised land.  As I've said before, this is not a legally binding requirement for them, but the Israelite(s) writing the text, and definitely the ones reading it, would have a strong cultural antagonism towards commingling with the idolatrous peoples.  There is little doubt in my mind that, while it would not have been directly sinful for Judah to do this, it is at least implicitly related to his various moral failings in this timeframe.

My conclusion?  Out of this incredibly awkward and repeatedly sinful passages from multiple figures (Er, Onan, Judah), an ancestor of King David, and through him Jesus Christ, is born.  This is like a microcosm of the larger bible, where the vast majority of what goes on is deeply sinful behavior from most of the actors, and yet through this giant mess, God works in a pattern of grace, that the illicit child of Judah and a prostitute would go on to father King David and bring about the great restoration of the Israelite Kingdom from the hands of Saul, the most glorious period in Israel's history.  This is just one link in the chain, Perez having many ancestors before him and many descendants after, but in his birth he is perfectly representative of much of what happens before and since.

On a minor note, please note that Perez, the younger of the twins, is the ancestor of King David and the Christ.  This continues Genesis's pattern of establishing the supremacy of the younger child (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, now Perez over Zerah).  To be fair, both Perez and Zerah have an older brother in Shelah, so it's not an exact parallel, but it's close enough to be worth mentioning.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 37

In this chapter, we get to meet Joseph, who has several dreams, is betrayed by his brothers and sold as a slave down to Egypt.

I want to add some (almost) last notes about Jacob before moving on.  These are some things I was thinking about while running home earlier this week.

What I was thinking about was character growth.  Character growth is at the heart of every good story, and I noticed that we don't really see any of it until we reach the story of Jacob.  This is what makes Jacob's story so unique, is that everyone before him is described as being essentially static.  They go through various events, but we don't see them change.

Adam is barely described at all.  I don't have any sense of his personal character, other than when he tries to deflect guilt onto Eve.

Enoch is described as righteous, but we see no growth.  The same is true of Noah.

Abraham is when things get interesting, but even in his life the very first act that is recorded is him traveling to Canaan by faith.  So while he is well known as the father of faith, it appears to largely be a faith that he possesses at the outset of the story.  This makes it less meaningful to me.  He goes through struggles, but we never really see him grow or change.

Isaac is perhaps the least interesting of the patriarchs, and he has the shortest story of the three of them.  He is given a wife, has some interactions with Abimelech, stays in Canaan a bit, prefers Esau to Jacob and then dies.

With Jacob, we get to see a full arc as he progresses from birth grasping at the heel of his brother, to driven away from his family, to encountering God for (perhaps) the first time and from there struggling with his sin, trying to do what's right though not always succeeding.

The life of Joseph (segue to relevance here) reminds me the most of Abraham.  That is, when we first meet Joseph he has a certain purity or innocence about him, perhaps due to his young age, that nevertheless remains with him for pretty much the rest of the story.  We see him go through various struggles and victories, but I never really get the sense of changing character or how those events impact him on a personal level.  This is reminiscent of Abraham who faced various challenges and we can see his immediate reactions to those events, but there are few signs of long-term personal development.  It's important to note that I am speaking purely in terms of what's written in the text.  I'm sure they actually did have personal growth and development, but it just wasn't recorded.  With all that said, it's still interesting to read the events of Joseph's life and how he reacts to them, and these descriptions can help set an example for us to follow (or perhaps to not follow).

Joseph.  We frequently see signals of his innocence, we frequently see signs of his naivety.  His greatest victory is not being embittered by years of hardship and because he holds onto his innocence, he is able to help his family from unlikely circumstances.

The first thing we see is that Joseph and his brothers are still shepherding, just like their fathers.  And it says that he "brought back a bad report about them".  So already we see a bit of his innocence, that when he sees his brothers doing something "bad" (I presume it means something like lazy or careless) that he tells his father.  Joseph, as the text explains, is the loved son.  It says this is because he was the "son of [Jacob's] old age", but we also know it's because he's the first son of Rachel.  He's also the second-youngest son in the family (only Benjamin is younger), so it's inevitable that he would get a bit more affection for that reason.  He receives a gift from his father, a multicolored cloak (subject of a broadway play), which is basically a status symbol.  His brothers hate him, both because he's loved by his father and also possibly as a continuation of the rivalry between Rachel and Leah.

Then Joseph has two dreams about ruling his family, and he shares both of them with his family.  There are a couple different ways of looking at this.  First, it's possible Joseph did not realize the interpretation and therefore was simply sharing his dreams with no motive.  Second, it's possible that Joseph knew the interpretations and shared them out of a sense of pride and superiority to his brothers.  Third, it's possible Joseph knew the interpretation and shared the dreams because he did not realize that his family would react with hostility.

I've seen the second interpretation used the most often, but I think #1 and #3 are also very plausible, and would fit with the general picture that I see with Joseph, that of youth and naivety.  Of course, this is all guesswork on what is the most probably state of mind for Joseph.  So nobody really knows, but that doesn't stop folks from writing sermons about it and presuming one interpretation or another.  It makes for great didactic commentary, although not perhaps reliable.

I think it's interesting to cross-reference the dreams of Joseph with the promises of Abraham.  In particular, Joseph's dream about his family being like stars is reminiscent of Genesis 15.  The dream about binding sheaves has no direct parallel, but it can perhaps be compared to the various promises of material prosperity and bounty given to Abraham at various times.

Note, again, that double repetition means confirmation and certainty of what is being shared.  Therefore the two dreams mean that his rule over his brothers is strongly emphasized.

There are some interesting things here about Reuben.  We see that Reuben actually tries to stop his brothers from murdering Joseph, with mixed success.  Most commentators say that Reuben is trying to protect him out of a sense of duty that he feels as the oldest brother.  He feels responsible for them and therefore tries to deceive them into letting Joseph live.  However, at the same time he has lost a measure of his authority as the oldest son because he slept with his father's concubine, and therefore lost his father's favor.  So the sense that I get reading this passage is that he's trying to guide his brothers into doing the right thing, but he doesn't really have the moral authority to do it, so he resorts to deception.  This deception could one again be ascribed to the fruit of Jacob's lifetime of deceit, just as the brothers lied to the Shechemites in chapter 34.

I find verse 27 to be very ironic.  At first the brothers are all into killing him, but suddenly they decide to sell him into slavery because "he is our brother after all."  This is one of the more obvious cases of personal ambition (desire for money) shaping their moral feelings about the matter, that it would be "wrong to kill him".  They did not show this moral qualm just hours before when they were about to kill him.

Joseph, meanwhile, has now been betrayed by all of his brothers and sold as a slave, while they lie to his father and say that he is dead (fruit of deception again).  So Joseph must be feeling pretty bitter or cynical about it, but he will have little time to think about such things now that he is a servant in another man's household.

As many commentators point out, this is a peculiar start for a man who just had two dreams about ruling his family.  He is subsequently betrayed by his brothers and now he's living as a slave in a distant country.  Joseph is considered another archetype of faith, like Abraham, because he is given a promise for a certain thing and then put through a series of challenges until that promise is fulfilled.  In Abraham's life, his greatest challenge was having to sacrifice the very son he was promised, while in Joseph's life, his challenges are (as we will see) a series of difficult situations that are completely out of his control, and his greatest struggle is to survive and maintain a positive or hopeful attitude while facing these challenges.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 36

In this chapter, we find a genealogy of Esau listed as well as some of the kings who lived in Edom.

This chapter is basically a conclusion of Esau's life in the bible.  While he is referred to a couple more times, this is the end of his story.  It's like at the end of a movie when they show some text listing to what happened to the main characters (for non-fiction at least).  In this case, "what happened" to Esau is this genealogy.

Also note the recurring phrase, "these are the generations of...".  This phrase occurs 10 times in Genesis and is used as a marker for all of the major segments.  Whenever you see this phrase, it indicates that the author is moving on to the next major section, which is possibly discontinuous with the last section.

In spite of these discontinuities, the narrative is remarkably linear, as it goes through the lives of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau and next we're moving on to Joseph, the son of Jacob.

It's interesting to see we're finally given an explanation for why Esau moved to Seir: the land could not support both him and Jacob.  This is reminiscent of when Abram and Lot split up for the exact same reason, and in that case Lot moved across the Jordan to Sodom (what is modern day Jordan).  What this shows us is that they were still relying heavily, if not exclusively, on nomadic herding for their sustenance.  We see signs of this in their frequent movements, like when Jacob moved from Shechem to Bethel, and later from Bethel to Hebron.  These migrations would be in pursuit of foliage, primarily.  Now we again see that the great flocks of the Hebrews require them to split apart from each other and it's very interesting that the holder of Abraham's promise is the one who remains in Canaan.

In Abraham's case, he let Lot pick and Lot chose the more fertile land, which just goes to show that, while promised of God, Canaan honestly isn't that great of a country when it comes to natural resources.  I believe this is an intentional decision from God, so that he can ensure that it is utterly clear the wealth of the Israelites will always come from him.  When he promises them a land flowing with milk and honey, they know that their abundance comes from God.

In this case, unlike Lot, Esau is actually moving into a relatively arid country as well, to the southeast which is towards (but not in) the Arabian desert.  One wonders if he was forced out or moved of his own volition.  The bible does not detail this.

This also has the future significance that many of the countries located around Israel are distantly related to the Israelites: the Edomite, Moabites and Ammonites are all related to Israel through Esau and Lot respectively.  This means that they are ostensibly on good terms, and while Israel invokes this on some occasions, their relations are almost always hostile in practice.  This is mostly because the other peoples, the Edomites/etc are already settled in their countries, when suddenly this large Israelite people migrate in (after the Exodus, which happens in the next book), and the Edomites fear that the Israelites will try to appropriate some of their land.  I will discuss this in more detail when I reach the relevant chapters.  Let it suffice to say that *in theory* they should have been friendly, but because of how things happened, they became progressively more hostile as the centuries passed.

Interesting names in the genealogy:

Amalek.  There is a later generation of giant-men called the Amalekites, which I think most commentators say are unrelated.  Still, the coincidence is surprising, so I wonder if there is some relation here.

Korah.  There is a future Israelite named Korah, but these two people are unrelated.

After that, I didn't really see anything that seemed worth mentioning.  Next, I'll be moving on to the story of Joseph!

Bible Commentary - Genesis 35

In this chapter, Jacob moves (back) to Bethel, and his new name Israel is reconfirmed.

This chapter is so much more relaxing than the last one, hahaha.  There's still some interesting stuff but it seems like it's largely a recap of things we've already seen.  But there's actually a reason for this, which is that we are at the end of Jacob's story and it's transitioning to the next important biblical figure, Joseph.  We will not yet part with Jacob, because he still lives for some time after this, but his role is greatly reduced.

In this chapter, we see a confluence of two primary factors that urge Jacob to move to Bethel.  The first and more immediate concern is the wrath of the Canaanites, when they discover what happened to Shechem.  This is also Jacob's concern as he rebukes his sons for their actions.  So in this context, he is probably considering moving just for physical safety, to get away from the aggressors, but to actually move anywhere safe, he would have to look outside of the borders of Canaan, which is contrary to God's command for him to return to Canaan given a few chapters ago.

The second factor is God reminding Jacob of the promise he made, to build an altar at the place where God first met him.  This is, in a fashion, a conclusion of Jacob's promise, although he will continue to serve the Lord afterwards.  Because of this, Jacob demands moral purity from his whole company, because to Jacob Bethel is a place of meeting the Lord, or literally it is the "house of God".

We see God protect Jacob as he travels to Bethel, showing that they would otherwise attack him but also showing that he is divinely protected in accordance with Jacob's allegiance to the Lord.

I find it peculiar how it says that Deborah died.  This is strange because we were never told that Jacob met with Isaac, so how did Deborah get to Bethel?  At some point, Jacob must have joined with Isaac and his household (except for Esau, who is living in Seir), but we are never told when this happened.

In the next section, it's hard for me to tell if this is a new encounter (i.e. God meets with Jacob again) or if it's a restatement of the encounter with God that occurred in chapter 32, because its content is very similar to what happened in chapter 32.  Either way, the content of the message is similar so I don't feel much need to restate my analysis.  God is confirming his relationship with Jacob when he returns to Bethel, and certainly this was the intent.

Then, without really saying why, Jacob journeys onwards towards Bethlehem (another name for Ephrath).  This is well before the birth of David, but Bethlehem has already emerged as a notable site.  It's interesting that this chapter uses both names, Ephrath and Bethlehem.  We have seen stuff like this in prior chapters, which shows that the author is familiar with multiple names for these places.

Rachel dies.  I don't have much to add here, except that the little fight they have over Benjamin's name is interesting.  It goes to show the different perspectives that people can have.

Then Reuben has sex with his father's concubine.  This is an interesting little note and the bible does not elaborate more in this chapter, but Reuben does this for a very specific reason.  Having sex with someone's concubine is basically what you do to signal that you are their inheritor and recipient of their possessions.  To do this while Jacob is still alive is very disrespectful because he's basically usurping Jacob's authority and control over his family.

But, it's still perplexing.  The act only has meaning if it is widely acknowledged, but with Jacob still alive, if Jacob finds out (which he does) then Reuben should have expected that Jacob would punish him in some way.  This act only really makes sense if Reuben were in some sort of power struggle with his brothers, but this is also not really supported by the narrative because the eldest four brothers (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah) were all from the same mother so in theory, one would expect them to be mostly aligned together.  Either way, this is definitely a mistake on his part because Jacob doesn't forget it.

Lastly, Jacob meets with Isaac again (so he does, in the end, return to his father), and when Isaac dies both Jacob and Esau bury him, which must have been an awkward meeting after Jacob's deception.  But we are given no description of that meeting, so apparently they were able to patch things up somehow.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 34

In this chapter, Shechem rapes Dinah and Jacob's sons exact revenge against him and his town.

This chapter has been tough to write about.  I think there's a lot of subtle interactions going on here, and at the same time I have a pretty strong emotional response too.  I will try to outline these interactions and then state my opinions about how they work together to form the substance of what is going on.

First and most obviously, Shechem is committing a sin here.  There's is no doubt that in both a modern and an ancient perspective, what he did was wrong.  Jacob's sons are pissed off when they hear what happened, so there is no doubt that they consider Shechem as deserving punishment.  Shechem's subsequent attraction to Dinah does nothing to make up for this.

What is not stated, but we can discern from the text, is that there is a power relationship here as well.  Shechem is a very powerful figure, and Dinah and Jacob and Jacob's sons are in a position of weakness.  There are quite a few factors that make this clear.  Some of them are: Shechem is the son of Hamor and has a town named after him, he is "more respected than all the household of his father", and then later we see Jacob's fear that the Canaanites and Perizzites would wipe him out, because they are numerous and he is few.  This is all obvious when we consider that Jacob very recently migrated back into Canaan, so just like Lot moving into Sodom, Jacob is a foreigner and a minority.  He is wealthy, but he is vulnerable at the same time.

Shechem abuses his position of power over the much weaker Dinah.  Dinah, being the daughter of Jacob, would have had no protection whatsoever apart from her family, and Shechem could easily expect no retaliation for his crime.  This is exactly what we see when Jacob is told what happened, because Jacob remains silent, showing that he doesn't want to escalate the event into a conflict.  This is not because Jacob is happy with what happened, but because of fear.  This shows his weakness compared to Shechem.

Next, in light of this power difference, we see Shechem seek to marry the girl.  This has a few different implications.  First, it is a sort of compensation for the rape.  This is because in this culture, a woman who is not a virgin is generally going to be ineligible for marriage.  And in very general terms, the "point" of a woman was to get married.  At the very least, women were largely a cost center in a family until they got married, at which point the father is recompensed with the bridal price.  So, the father pays for the girl's food and clothing until she is old enough to marry, and then he gets repaid with the bridal price.  If the girl cannot be married because she isn't a virgin, then her life basically falls into this void space because then she can never really leave her father's household and form her own household.  I'm definitely oversimplifying, because we saw at least that Rachel was holding an occupation as a shepherdess, this what I've stated is definitely the overall trend of this era.

Note: I'm not saying any of this is fair, I'm just saying that's how it was in that time period.

So because of this, Shechem attempting to marry the girl is a form of compensation because he is basically agreeing to marry her rather than leave her in that void space of ineligibility.  This is implication number one.  (Men, of course, are always eligible to marry because they do not have the same expectation of virginity, so this analysis does not apply to Shechem.)

Implication number two is the one actually mentioned in this chapter, which is the absorption of Jacob's wealth into Shechem's family.  Shechem and Hamor propose an alliance with Jacob out of a desire to "marry into wealth", which is a modern idiom as well.  At this point, I don't consider their proposal sinful.  I have heard some commentators say that their desire for money overwhelmed their prudence, but I actually think their offer is not unreasonable.  Of course, they are once again taking advantage of their stronger position, but at the same time, this is a really decent offer for Jacob as well.

From Hamor's perspective, he gets to align with the wealthy Jacob, while from Jacob's perspective, he can attain protection from the much stronger and more numerous Canaanites.  So while we can see Hamor and Shechem leveraging their dominance in this negotiation, I think they could reasonably point to the benefits that would go to Jacob if he accepted.

The third implication is the dissolution of the Israelite people.  This is a really big deal to the Israelites and if they had no other reason to turn down Hamor, this would be enough.  Simply put, Jacob is the current holder of God's promise to Abraham, that God would give him this land and make him a father of nations and multitudes.  If he intermarried with the Canaanites, then the promise would basically be diluted through them, and they would inherit the promise along with Jacob.  However, since the Canaanites did not (and would not) worship the Lord, they would violate their side of the agreement (cf. Genesis 28:20-22), and the promise would be nullified.  So the importance of remaining a distinct people, faithful to the Lord, is equivalent to maintaining and holding onto the promise of God given to his forefathers and given to Jacob as well.

The fourth and final implication, which is related to the third, is that it violates the Mosaic principles of purity and separation from the idolatrous natives of Canaan.  This principle is stated later, but it is related to maintaining Israel as a distinct people and staying free from the idols of Canaan.  Nearly every time that Moses speaks about intermarrying with the natives, he relates this act with "worshiping their gods", that the Canaanites would draw them into idolatry.

So with all this said, we can see where is Jacob's position.  Jacob was just offended, the rape of Dinah was an insult to him and to his family, but he is in a position of weakness compared to Shechem.  Hamor's offer is, in natural terms, very beneficial to Jacob, but he cannot accept it because it would inevitably break his oath to God and invalidate the promise he was given.  So he is in a difficult situation and Dinah is caught in the crossfire.

Next, Jacob's sons respond with deception.  This just goes to show that the sins of Jacob have, in some measure, been passed on to his children.  While he has gone through a redemption process and there is no sign that he lied in this chapter, he lied when dealing with Laban and Esau, and his sons clearly adopted this aspect of his behavior (as sons are apt to do).  They trick Hamor and all his town into circumcising themselves as a condition for the marriage, and while they are in pain from this and still healing, Simeon and Levi (Jacob's 2nd and 3rd sons respectively) go and kill all of the men, every single one.  I am really not entirely sure how this is even possible, that a town of at least several dozen men (we know it had gates, i.e. walls, so I would guess it is between 100 and maybe 300 residents, at most about 500), and yet they left no guard to stop just two men.  Maybe they simply did not fear any attacker, being in their own country and with no obviously hostile groups around.  Either way, it was their mistake and they paid for it with their lives.

The rest of Jacob's sons go and loot the town, taking all of the women and children as slaves (to keep or to sell) and taking all of the property and livestock.  This is relatively standard protocol for invaders in this time period and we will see this same behavior later in the OT.  We also see behavior like this in non-biblical sources, and many, if not most, slaves of the time were prisoners of war.  I'm not really going to say it's "right", but it was definitely normal.  And we have to keep in mind all of the implicit support for Shechem's actions, since he did this while Dinah was visiting the "daughters of the land".  Dinah is perhaps one of the only innocent people in this story, as everyone else commits a crime either directly through their actions or implicitly through their support of somebody else's crime.  The careful reader will note that Shechem was never punished or even rebuked for his actions by anyone in his family or town, or at least this was not recorded.  Hamor continues to support his son in spite of his deed.  I won't say I support the sons of Jacob in this, but I can understand their anger and frustration in the face of this stronger aggressor.

Jacob is angry because he fears being crushed by the other Canaanites, when they hear what happened, but as we'll see this doesn't happen.

Dinah goes on to live a life of sorts, but she is not mentioned again in the bible.  Whether she ends up marrying, I do not know, but if she does, the biblical authors did not consider it significant.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 33

In this chapter, Jacob meets with Esau and things go favorably.  Then Jacob lies to Esau again and settles away from him.

The first thing we see in this chapter is Jacob's prioritization of his family, the most important being last because that way they're the furthest away if something goes wrong.

But it turns out that all of Jacob's fear had been for naught: Esau had forgiven everything and they are now at peace.

One thing I found really cool in this chapter is how Jacob says that seeing the face of Esau is like seeing the face of God.  This amused me when I first realized that, while many of us might say something like that as a form of hyperbole, to Jacob he actually had just seen the face of God just last night, in the prior chapter.  So to him, this was a very real thing, and he is in a real sense drawing an equivocation between the (peaceful, kind) face of Esau and what one can infer, the peaceful face of God as well.  Not to say that Esau is God, but to say that their appearances to him were similar, because he had expected .... hostility? from both, but from both he was met with peace.

After that, Jacob lies to Esau about traveling to Seir, which is to the southeast and outside of the promised land.  To my recollection, this is the first time it's mentioned that Esau is now living in Seir, what would become the kingdom of Edom, and outside of the promised land.

Superficially, what everyone who reads this story latches onto is that Jacob is lying again.  This is true, but it seems incomplete.  I think there's more going on than just "Jacob starts acting bad again."

I have to admit, I find this story a bit confusing.  From Jacob's perspective, he just met his brother again for the first time in 20 years and was received well.  But perhaps he still has some lingering fear?  Is that why he would lie to Esau?  We don't know why Esau moved out of the promised land, but clearly Jacob is supposed to move back there, because he is the holder of Abraham's promise and the inheritor of the promised land.  His covenant with God, and God's command to him, is to return to "the land of your fathers and to your relatives" (chapter 31), which is a fascinating reversal since this is now referring to Canaan, rather than Haran.  Jacob is actually in Haran when he is given this command, which is the opposite of what it meant when Abraham was told to *leave* the land of his fathers and his relatives back in chapter 12.  This shows a clear reversal in terms of cultural identity ("home" is now Canaan) and in a larger sense, the cultural mission of Jacob vs. Abraham.  Abraham, being a pioneer, was told to leave his home and go to a new land.  Now that his family has lived in this new land for several generations, the mission is to stay and to cultivate the land.  I don't think any value judgment is necessary to observe these differences and say that while Abraham and Jacob have different roles, they are both operating towards the same goal.

So it's clear that Jacob was supposed to return to Canaan, which is exactly what he does.  But still, why did he feel like he had to lie to Esau, rather than simply tell him, "I have to go to Canaan, I cannot return with you to Seir"?  Maybe the best explanation is that Esau still has the 400 men with him and Jacob didn't think that Esau would take "no" for an answer.  Jacob's obsequiousness shows that he definitely still perceives a threat from Esau, even though Esau is being ostensibly kind.  At the end of the day, I'm not really sure.  I do think that Jacob's resorting to deception shows he's falling into the same sin pattern, even though he is growing out of it.  His personality has changed a lot, but he's still struggling with the same issue 20 years after he stole Esau's blessing.  Yet, I don't think the issue is as simple as "Jacob is a perpetual liar".  Esau is definitely threatening with his 400 men, and Jacob cannot go to Seir.  So I think the situation is somewhat complex, but I nevertheless recognize Jacob's culpability in this.  He should have depended on God for his protection, but to be fair, I think any of us would feel pretty insecure if we were surrounded by 400 armed men in the middle of a desert where there is no police force or social structure to protect us.

After Jacob moves back to Canaan, he builds an altar to God, which I see as a partial fulfillment of his vow from chapter 28.  I think this is a genuine act from Jacob, and shows once again his growing faith in the Lord.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 32

In this chapter, Jacob begins his journey to Canaan and encounters God again.

The first thing Jacob sees after parting from Laban is angels, who "met him".  It does not state what they said or did, but remember what I said before about the role of angels in the bible: they are messengers and delegated authorities of the one who sends them.  We don't know how they interacted with Jacob, but they serve as a portent for God.

Next, Jacob finally has to return to his land and make peace with his brother.  This is a full 20 years after they had last met, and both are now surely much older than they were before.  Nevertheless, Jacob still fears the grudge of his brother, and his servile tone shows all of the deference in the world for the man who he fears will try to kill him.  Yet Esau's response is all the more cause for alarm, because Esau is coming with 400 armed men, certainly a large enough group to murder Jacob and everyone with him.  Remember that Laban was able to catch him because of all of the flocks and herds and children slowing him down, and the same is true of Esau: Jacob is in absolutely no military position to resist him.

Note that Jacob dividing his camp into two groups is both tactically smart, but it's also a pun on Mahanaim.  Before the "mahanaim" was his camp and the angels', but now they are both his.

Jacob prays to God for protection, again showing the change in character since when he first departed Canaan.  Jacob prepares some gifts for Esau and then has his second profound encounter with God.

The first encounter, fittingly enough, was when Jacob was fleeing Canaan and fleeing Esau.  He had nothing but his staff.  Now, in his second noteworthy encounter, Jacob is returning to Canaan and going to meet the same brother he had fled from 20 years before.  He is now extremely wealthy and has a large family, desirable things for any man of the time.  More importantly, he had been subjected to the treachery of Laban over those 20 years and has slowly developed a willingness to depend on God for protection rather than rely on his own means, through deception and manipulation.  There is no sign that he is now considering deceiving his brother, even though his departure from Laban still showed that Jacob has some lingering reliance on deception.

For the contents of the encounter, there are a couple things I'd like to note.  First, remember that Jacob means "grasping at the heel", which in my mind is an allusion to wrestling.  Thus one could say that his wrestling against God is a reference to his name, which is also emblematic of his character throughout this whole story.  God says that he wrestled with men as well, and this is also an allusion to his name.

Second, I really think this episode speaks a lot to Jacob's character in general.  When has there been a time in this whole story that Jacob is not struggling with somebody, whether it's Esau or Isaac or Laban?

Third, I find it peculiar how the story just says that "a man wrestled with him".  It doesn't really say where the man came from or how they were matched.  It seems that Jacob just wandered off until he was alone, and then this man came and grappled with him.  Well, "wandered off" is perhaps not correct, because we know that Jacob was sending his family and his belongings across the river, so presumably this included all of his servants and possessions.  It's unusual that he would do this in the middle of the night, and that too is unexplained.  Additionally, Jacob seems to discern that this man is God, yet we are never exactly told how he knew.  Jacob's insistence that the man bless him only seems to make sense if Jacob knew it was God, but even so, this whole episode seems surreal.  Where were all of Jacob's servants and wives and children?  It is unusual that they would all be separated from him on the eve of such an important and threatening encounter with Esau.  This set of events almost seems more consistent with a dream or a vision than real events, though perhaps in the end it is not very important one way or the other.

Fourth, when the man asks, Jacob tells him his real name.  The last time Jacob is recorded as telling someone his name, it was when his father Isaac asked and his answer was Esau.  This, I believe, is the conclusion of Jacob's redemption arc, as he is finally given the opportunity to right his previous wrong, and that on the eve of meeting Esau again.

Fifth, God renames Jacob to Israel.  Going forward, these two names are used interchangeably in the Bible, so do not be confused when Israel (the nation) is sometimes called Jacob, or Jacob is called Israel.  They are basically the same thing, as far as the biblical authors are concerned.  The last person to be renamed in the bible was Abraham (well, and Sarah too.... well, Esau was also named to Edom... moving on).  In Abraham's case, his name was changed from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations/multitudes), showing a subtle but important transformation as he is given the promise that he will be a father of nations.  Jacob's case is similar.  He is renamed from Jacob, "grasping at the heel/deceiver" to Israel, "wrestles/contends with God".  This is yet another significant element of Jacob's redemption which does not destroy his character (he is still as aggressive as ever), but it redeems his character, by stripping out the fleshly elements of deception and manipulation and leaving the fiery core that seeks to contend with the whole world.

Lastly, it says that God blessed Jacob.  Jacob walked with a limp after that event.  Some people speculate that he was injured for the rest of his life, although I don't believe the text actually makes any reference to Jacob's limp after this chapter.  In some respects, one could downplay Jacob's limp, and yet it says the Israelites never ate the sinew attached to the hip because that's where Jacob was touched.

Other people have written at great length about Jacob's limp, and preachers have preached on it multitudes of times, so I feel like I should say something more, but I honestly don't know what I really want to say: that wrestling will always leave you bruised a bit?  Maybe, but that doesn't feel very insightful.  That God injures people?  It sounds kinda funny to say, but again I don't really perceive much significance there.

I feel like I've done a lot of "wrestling with God", and yet I can think of few parallels in my life to the injury that Jacob sustains.  I guess I'll just leave it at that.  If my readers desire a more detailed interpretation, they can search through other sources and judge the quality of those interpretations.  For my part, while I recognize that many have extrapolated much from this passage, I don't know how much of what is said can be justified by the text.  I don't see anything in the story that shows some particular significance of the hip, or of Jacob's injury in any larger context.  It just seems to happen, and then that's it, the end of the encounter.  Everything else that I have mentioned, from Jacob's struggles with deception and his renaming to Israel, have significant connections to other chapters in Genesis and indeed the rest of the story of Israel at large.

In conclusion, Jacob contended with God for a blessing, and a blessing he received.  As well as a new name and identity, purged of the unfortunate connotations and patterns of his youth, even since birth.  While this concludes Jacob's redemption arc (in my opinion), it does not conclude his story, which will pick up in the next chapter when Jacob finally meets Esau face to face.

As a minor addendum, note that the people in the bible thought that someone would die if they saw God face to face.  That's one of the reasons why a lot of people in the bible freak out when they see God's face.

Bible Commentary - Genesis 31

In this chapter, Jacob deceptively departs from Haran, Laban chases him, and they make a covenant of peace at Mizpah.

This chapter begins with a more detailed discussion of Jacob's business arrangement with Laban.  We see a couple things happening here.  First is the deterioration of their relationship.  Laban (who is now described as having sons, who would have a competitive interest with Jacob) used to view Jacob as strongly beneficial.  We saw how Laban's flocks multiplied under Jacob, and Laban insisted that Jacob stay after the full 14 years of service (half of that earned through Laban's deception of Jacob).  However, now Jacob's pagan manipulation of the flock's birth to his favor has worn away Laban's wealth, and Laban is increasingly hostile to Jacob.  God sees this and "speaks" to Jacob, telling him to return to Canaan.

Second, we finally see Laban's manipulation of Jacob's wages, and the corresponding changes in the animals to ensure that Jacob continues to be paid.  Further, Jacob relates a dream where the angel of God confirms Laban's unfaithfulness and shows that the ultimate influence behind Jacob's successful manipulation with the striped sticks was God.

Third, we also see that Laban's daughters are increasingly alienated from him, possibly because of their allegiance to their husband, and also possibly because Laban now has sons and as I've already said, daughters do not pass on the bloodline of a family; sons do.

Even after all this, I'm not entirely sure I would say Jacob is in the right, but I will say that it paints a pretty bad picture of Laban.  But Jacob continues the pattern of deception by not telling Laban that he was leaving.  Throughout all of the events of Jacob's life, he still has not completely dealt with the deception and manipulation sin patterns in his life.

Even so, Jacob's deception proves meaningless because Laban pursues him.  Jacob has a three day lead, but he also has large flocks and herds including young animals, while Laban travels with a group of armed men, so Laban will clearly be moving faster than the heavily burdened Jacob.  It's reasonable to suspect that Laban would have harmed Jacob both because he already disliked Jacob and then because Jacob left without telling him.

Rachel's theft of the household gods is peculiar.  For one, notice the continued influence of paganism even amongst the family of Abraham.  This is something I've noted before but here we can clearly see their adoption of household idols, which is a violation of the Mosaic Law (that has not been given yet).  While it might be unreasonable to think that they would adopt a law not yet given, remember that these are the forebears of the Israelite people, so there is in some respects an implied presumption that if they worship the Lord, they would follow his commands even if they had not heard them.  I find it even more striking that God never directly addresses their usage of household idols.  This seems to me another instance of God working in the given culture, since he operates in this family and in Jacob even though they continue to use household idols that are opposed to God's ways.  God does address other aspects of their character, but what I draw from this is that God is willing to work through people who have unresolved issues.

Also, Rachel's deception of Laban shows the influence that Jacob and Laban have on her, basically as their repeated deceptions of each other form a pattern for her own deception.  It's sad, really.

After that, Jacob and Laban yell at each other a bit, then they make a covenant of peace and eat together.  Eating together, as I think I previously stated regarding Abraham and Abimelech, is an act of agreement and mutual friendship in the Bible.  When you eat with someone, you identify with that person.

I think at the end of the day, when I see Jacob and Laban, I see two people who both employ deceptive means against each other to acquire as much wealth as possible.  Both of them make a number of moral mistakes, and both of them profess a sense of personal injury from the deception of the other.  I do think the bible paints a more favorable picture of Jacob though, for a couple reasons.  First, Jacob repeatedly expresses the protection of the Lord as being the reason that Laban had not robbed him completely of his wages.  This is fairly accurate because Laban did repeatedly change his wages to avoid whatever defect the flocks were currently producing.  We see this in the statements God makes to Jacob.

Second, we see God's warning to Laban not to harm Jacob.  This again shows Laban as more of an aggressor towards Jacob, since it is only God's protection that keeps Jacob from possible death.

Third, we see that God did actually change the flocks so as to give them to Jacob.  While I do not entirely condone Jacob's actions, and I don't believe God entirely condones them either, God is even less in favor of Laban's deception and seems to judge in favor of Jacob, and Jacob receives wealth in accordance with that judgment.

In conclusion, I think it's pretty clear that Jacob is still struggling with using deceptive means to protect himself from perceived threats, but he's also clearly beginning to depend on the Lord for protection, as we see in his statements to his wives and to Laban regarding the Lord.  This shows the impact of God's redemptive process in his life as he moves away from human means of protection and towards God's protection.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 30

In this chapter, Rachel and Leah continue to compete over children, while Jacob negotiates a new contract with Laban.

The strife continues.  I feel like a broken record at this point, since we've seen nothing but conflict for Jacob in the past... 4 chapters?  In this chapter, Rachel is facing her barrenness and pleads with Jacob for children.  This request is peculiar, as Rachel almost certainly knew that it was outside of Jacob's control (apart from their obvious attempts at conception, which one can only presume were quite frequent).  Certainly Jacob, being the husband and the head of the household, has ultimate responsibility for protecting and caring for his wives, but in this case Jacob's response is quite natural: he can do nothing.  This contrasts with Isaac's response, which is prayer for his wife, and is more in line with Abraham's response, which is to resort to a concubine.

While the record certainly indicates that Jacob loved Rachel (to the detriment of Leah), yet it's not hard to criticize his response here.  Jacob says, "I am not God."  Fair enough, but Isaac wasn't God either.  Jacob should have done more, yet he responds in anger which does nothing for Rachel and only alienates her from him.  It is from Jacob's refusal that Rachel gives him her maidservant, and while this pleases Rachel in the short term, in the long term those children are never really known as hers.  In the end, Rachel is only accounted the mother of two children, who are the most loved of Jacob.

Now the difference between Jacob and Abraham is that in Jacob's case, the concubine children are not cast out and remain firmly planted in the house of Israel.  There is no evidence that there was any hostility or competition between the wives' children and the concubines' children, like there was between Ishmael and Isaac.  This seems consistent with how Abraham is promised a child, but Jacob is promised a land with no specifics.

The names of the children follow the struggle between Leah and Rachel, but from what I've seen in the OT they never seem to have any deeper significance.

On a personal note, it's sad to me to see how Dinah is downplayed in the bible.  This is obviously a cultural factor, as women are not the carriers of the bloodline nor the inheritors of their father, so while there are twelve tribes of Israel for the twelve sons, there is no record of the children of Dinah outside of Genesis.  In fact, she is never mentioned again in the entire bible after this book (she is mentioned later in Genesis).  We, as modern readers, have to be understanding of the culture of the bible, and as such I understand that women would be less important in that society.  But it doesn't mean I have to like it, and this is a general truth for a lot of the OT.  There are many things that people dislike, and some people disavow or criticize Christianity or Judaism for their adoption of the OT as religious text, but much of that is based around failing to adopt the culture of the bible.  In this case, it's the simple, unfortunate fact that women were not equal with men.  Later, it will be other things and I will discuss those when it is relevant.  In all of these cases, there are two important facts to remember.  1) Much of the bible is descriptive, not prescriptive, and 2) God will nearly always operate in the cultural reality that he's working in and speak with people in terms they would be able to understand.

That is, a lot of the bible is a detailing of facts, but without justifying or supporting the actions so described.  We have already seen a lot of this (such as Jacob's actions towards Esau, which are described but not commended), and we will see a lot more before this bible study is over.  The second point is the sort of thing that a lot of people will say, "well duh", and yet subconsciously do not accept even when they verbally affirm it.  Most people read the bible (or excerpts thereof) with the perspective, "the bible is written by me, for me, and God will use terms and ideas the way I understand them", and that's just not realistic.  This is why atheists or other various critics are happy to point out the genocide or slavery detailed in the bible, which is sometimes commanded by God, because such things are generally frowned upon in modern live, but this was not always the case.  This is a bigger point than I really want to make here, but I guess what I'll say to make it somewhat reasonable is, imagine what it would be like if God came to modern society and started interacting with people using the morals of 2400 CE, 400 years in the future.  It's pretty obvious that the morals then will be vastly different than now, and lots of things acceptable now will not be acceptable then.

I can only speculate what the differences might be, but let's imagine that world hunger is considered a crime against humanity.  National leaders are tried in court for the famine statistics of their nations.  The UN launches interventions in the handful of countries where famine remains, overthrowing local rulers and occupying the territory.  Today this is true about so-called engineered famine, but imagine it were true about *any* hunger deaths, that they are attributed to malice and considered negligent.  If God operated with that set of morals, then in modern life every nation on the planet is in violation of his moral standards and must be condemned.  God would not speak about the issues of our day, about climate change or abortion or natural disasters or 9/11 or the economy or about anything else, he would be busy threatening every country on the planet for violating his moral standards.

.... This all sounds kinda funny because it is actually fairly true.  I would have to say that probably every country on the planet *is* breaking God's moral standards.  But now imagine it were true of every person.... which is also fairly realistic.  But now imagine that God talked to every single person about nothing but their violations of his moral standards.  This might be hard to imagine for the many people who aren't actually used to hearing from God at all, but try extrapolating backwards into the bible.  It basically means that Jesus would never have happened because God would be busy sending prophets to condemn Israel, because it's not like they stopped sinning.  The Jews were still sinning during Jesus's time, and therefore instead of redemption and resurrection, Jesus would have been Yet Another Prophet Coming to Condemn.  The entire bible would be 5000 pages of condemnation!  In real life it's only about 4500 pages of condemnation and 500 pages of hopefulness and redemption.  But if God really did talk to everyone from his moral purity and our failure, there would be nothing left!  Even if you ignore the genocide and the slavery and the various murders and the rape and the theft and the idolatry and the pride and the racism, you would still be left with all the adultery and the prostitution and the human sacrifice and the lying!  This is not just the bible, this is human history, and this is not just human history, this is modern life too.  This is our lives, this is the lives of the very people criticizing the bible for its "support" for genocide and slavery, and yet those very same people will invariably be dealing with so many personal failings that they're willing to sweep under the rug.  I don't know specifically what, but I can tell you a perfect God will always find something wrong with you if that's what he's looking for.

One of the bases of such criticism is that the sins that normal people commit in everyday life are somehow not as bad as the sins in the OT, that one can somehow say the sins of other people are bad but my own sins are not as bad, and perhaps if not acceptable, at least they are little, which positions the critics into a place of moral superiority.  Jesus speaks about this sort of attitude in Matthew chapter 5:21-22, 27-28, where he says:

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court...

“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

So the presumed moral superiority is a false premise.  Living in the present is not unique, because sometime in the future, the present will become the past and then future critics will wonder why God did not burn us all to death for the many sins of this generation, just like modern critics wonder why God has not destroyed past generations.

So that is the answer: God does hold moral absolutes, but because every generation of humanity from the times of the bible to the present has a set of moral failings, God will not tear people down until they reach his moral perfection, but will operate with people in the culture in which they exist.  If he didn't operate in our current culture, no matter how bad, he wouldn't be able to operate anywhere.  He will always seek to move us to a higher moral plane, but frankly that's not always possible: people are usually stubborn and rarely receptive to change.  But he will still try anyway, just like he's trying with Jacob and he is trying with you and me.  I admit there are additional complexities with the genocide, since God sometimes commands the Israelites to wipe out certain peoples, but I think the principles I have stated do partially address the issue because in my opinion the difference between working in a culture that accepts genocide and commanding them to perform genocide is not as big as it might seem.  This is of course all horrible to us in our generation, but that's only because our culture does not accept genocide so we intrinsically cannot relate to the issues described.  I hope all that made sense, if I were to try to formally state everything then it would have to be 3x times longer.  Or maybe a book.

Back to chapter 30, note that the events described must have taken place over the course of many years, probably during Jacob's latter seven years of service for Rachel.  This means that the rivalry between Rachel and Leah continue for years, emphasizing the schism.  In the end, Rachel has a son and her relief is palpable.

In spite of Jacob's refusal to do anything for Rachel, she becomes pregnant and finally bears a son.  Her reaction clearly shows her relief at this.

The second half of the chapter is also interesting.  After Jacob agrees to accept goats and sheep with skin color deformities, he attempts to manipulate the outcome of their breeding with stripped branches during the mating season.  What's even more peculiar is that it worked.  This is the sort of (divination?  Sorcery?  I don't even know what to call this) thing that almost certainly would have been condemned under the Law of Moses, yet here is Jacob doing it with at least no explicit condemnation.  It's also fairly reasonable to say this is immoral.  I mean, if Jacob didn't think it would work, he wouldn't do it, and if he did think it would work (and it did), then he was intentionally taking all of the strongest goats and sheep and intentionally depriving Laban of his possessions.

Obviously there is a reasonable expectation for Jacob to be paid, but Jacob is manipulating the outcome to maximize his personal benefit, at a cost to Laban, and he's doing it in a way closer to the divination of the idolatrous peoples than in the ways commanded by the Lord.  So one can wonder why God allowed this.  This question is answered later, when God speaks to Jacob.  What is unstated in this chapter is that Laban is trying to cheat Jacob too, by changing his wages ("the striped sheep are yours," "the speckled sheep are yours", etc).  So while one can question Jacob's behavior here, it is not unprovoked.  We will see more about this in the next couple chapters as the story of Jacob concludes and as Jacob heads towards his personal redemption from the issues of deception and manipulation.

Bible Commentary - Genesis 29

In this chapter, Jacob arrives in Haran and marries the two daughters of Laban, his relative.

Having been driven out of the promised land, and having first experienced God while on that journey away from the threat of death, Jacob at last arrives in the land of Haran.  First let me say a few words about biblical shepherding, and then I will focus in on the specifics of this chapter.

I mentioned back in Genesis 4 that there is a transition occurring from nomadic herding to a more agrarian culture in the ME.  This is a broad cultural and social trend, and it impacts the early Israelites no less than anyone else.  As astute readers will notice, Abraham and his children (and parents) are very mobile and are obviously shepherds.  Abraham, for instance, is marked as very wealthy man by the greatness of his herds and flocks.  Abraham and Lot were forced to separate (in chapter 13) due to resource conflicts between their respective herdsmen.  This shows that they were both living off of livestock.  Abraham and his whole family moved before settling in Haran, but then Abraham left there.  Abraham also traveled down to Egypt to escape a famine.  Isaac shows similar mobility, although he ends up staying in the promised land after God commands him, and only then does he sow and reap crops.

Jacob, after returning to Haran, is now assisting Laban with the tending of his flocks, but in a single place so the degree of mobility exercised is starting to go down.

In this time period, then, shepherding is fairly well regarded by the Israelite people.  When it notes that Rachel was a shepherdess, this would likely be a neutral statement, if not slightly positive.  When the Israelites travel to Egypt towards the end of Genesis, it is noted that shepherding was considered detestable by the agrarian Egyptians, which is consistent with what I said before about the intrinsic resource conflicts of agrarian vs. nomadic/shepherding societies.

Importantly, in later times shepherding will be regarded much more poorly by the Israelites, due to their increased reliance on static farming consistent with the "inheritance" culture of father-to-son farming within the borders of the promised land.  By the time of king David, shepherding will be in so little regard that David was the family shepherd as the youngest of seven brothers, being the least respected in his family.  By this time, in spite of the continued importance of livestock in Israelite society, actually shepherding those animals would essentially be the lowest rung on the social ladder.  This is part of the significance of the shepherds being the first people to see the newly born Jesus, because the shepherds (sleeping out in the fields, essentially homeless) would have been the poorest and least regarded of the Israelites, though perhaps not as hated as the tax collectors.

To conclude this digression, I simply suggest that my readers consider references to shepherding with the thought that "the social value of being a shepherd begins relatively high in Genesis and will steadily devolve throughout the Bible all the way into the NT".  Always try to keep in mind the implicit hostility between those who raise livestock and those who farm.

Moving on, Jacob meets Rachel and in his joy he moves the stone and waters her flock.  Some commentators note that Jacob seems to have surprising strength in moving the large stone, but since we aren't told its exact dimensions, I don't think this is necessarily supernatural or excessive.  This is an interesting reversal of the story of Abraham's servant, where Rebekah watered the camel of the servant.  Now it is Jacob who is watering.  There are a lot of parallels between Jacob's story and the unnamed servant's story.  They both travel to Haran to find a wife (... for someone at least), in both cases that wife is the first named woman to appear, and in both cases Laban is one of the primary brokers of the marriage.

There are also some contrasts.  The unnamed servant departed Haran literally the day after he arrived, because his primary role was to find a wife for Isaac and return immediately.  He was completely focused o his task, and Laban dealt with him fairly.  Jacob comes mostly to avoid Esau, and finding a wife is really just an excuse, and he stays an awkwardly long time, a full month, before Laban basically hires him.  So Jacob demonstrates none of the focus of the unnamed servant and Laban cheats him.  I think this is (intended to be) Jacob's redemption process.  He who was so long the deceiver of his brother is now the one who is being deceived by the manipulative Laban.

Whenever I read this, I always wonder about how Jacob did not know it was Leah in bed.  What clouded mind could have sex with someone and think it was someone else?  Furthermore, I wonder why Leah would go along with it.  Did Laban lie to her also, or did she knowingly pretend to be Rachel... to what end?  Didn't she realize she would be unwanted, since she was only married through a deception?  Or was her appearance indeed so bad, her eyes so weak, that she would be hard-pressed to find a legitimate suitor?  I don't actually know.  I'm sure Leah would have done many things out of obedience to her father (much like Jacob deceived Esau out of obedience to his mother), but surely she could have known it would end badly for her, perhaps like Jacob should have known his deception would have ended badly too.  The biggest difference I see is that Rebekah's deception was for the benefit of Jacob, while Laban's deception was for his own benefit: seven years of valuable service.

Either way, Leah does deceive Jacob and now they both must face the results of that deception.  Jacob goes on to marry Rachel as well, as he initially desired, and the result is immediate strife between Leah and Rachel.

Marrying two women rarely turns out well in the Bible, but it seems particularly ill-advised to marry two sisters, who would already share competitive impulses.  Jacob's immediate preference for Rachel aggravates the situation even further, as Leah is now clearly depressed at being unloved by her husband.  Unlike modern times, Leah has no option to divorce, and will have to stay with Jacob at least until his death.

Verse 31 is very interesting.  The Lord sees that Leah is unloved and gives her children, while Rachel remains barren.  Her sons are a consolation, but I have to admit I am perplexed why Rachel would remain barren.  I think part of the answer is the generational barrenness of Jacob's entire family line, from Abraham through Isaac, and perhaps it is only through the Lord's mercy that Leah is given children.  I'm not really sure.

What I can say is that the conflict between Leah and Rachel is now about children.  As I previously mentioned, bearing children is an extremely important role for women in this era, especially the firstborn son, and so now Leah and Rachel are trying to have more children than the other in a perverse sort of race to bear the most sons.  This is reminiscent of Sarah's strife with Hagar, except in this case Jacob will not divorce Leah and unlike Isaac vs. Ishmael, all of the sons of Jacob are considered the "promised children".  I use the term metaphorically because Jacob was not actually promised a son, though he is the inheritor of Abraham's promise to the land.  Therefore Jacob's children will bear a sort of equality that is not seen by his ancestors.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 28

In this chapter, Jacob is sent out of the promised land and encounters God for the first (recorded) time.

When I think of the story of Abraham, the central theme I see is faith.  He goes out to an unknown land, trusts God and is willing to sacrifice his son all by faith.  He is breaking new ground and establishes the Abrahamic faith.

When I think of the story of Jacob, what I see is a man who grows out of an early sin pattern, deception, passes through a series of challenges, and ultimately overcomes to establish his identity.

When Jacob was born, he was grasping his brother's heel.  This is his sin pattern: deception.  His father had a promise to inherit the land, but this promise was not shared with Jacob and by everything we had seen, his father was going to pass it on to his eldest son, Esau.  But Jacob falls into his sin pattern and steals his brother's blessing to supplant him, as his name suggests he would do.  Yet, as a result of this sin pattern, he is forced to leave the land that he would otherwise inherit (though, again, he does not know about the promise).  This is directly contrary to the command given to Isaac, so it's pretty clear that this is a metaphorical departure from his destiny.  His destiny lies in the promised land, not in Chaldea.  So he is being sidetracked by the force of his sin pattern from the goals in his life.

In this chapter, the first thing that happens is he is sent away.  I find it interesting that Isaac does not actually address Jacob's deception.  It is strange to me that he does not mention it at all, and acts like Jacob never did anything.  I don't know why this is.

Another thing we see in this chapter (and the end of the prior chapter) is the awkwardness of marrying the local Canaanite women.  It is a point of difficulty for Rebekah when Esau marries two Canaanites.  So even before it is explicitly condemned by Moses, the early Hebrews are already struggling with the issues related to intermarriage.  Esau tries to "fix" the issue by marrying one of Isaac's relatives, which is a questionable decision with a largely undocumented outcome (that is, the Bible doesn't state how this affected his relations with his parents).

Then Jacob has a dream.

First, note the contents of the dream.  It speaks specifically about a "ladder" that rises from the earth whose top reached into the heavens.  There are angels ascending and descending upon the ladder, and at the top of the ladder stands the Lord.  I will address this in more detail later.

Second, note the contents of the Lord's message, which is shared while Jacob is still in the dream.  As with Isaac, the Lord is largely recapitulating earlier promises made to Abraham and Isaac.  In particular, that his "descendants will be like the dust of the earth", that he would possess the land, and that in him and his descendants "all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Gen 12:3).  He adds one more relevant detail, which is that the Lord promises to bring Jacob back into this promised land and will protect and keep him wherever he goes.  So unlike the Lord's earlier command for Isaac to remain in the promised land, this time the Lord seems to accept and understand Jacob's need to leave and promises to be with him regardless of where he goes.  This reminds me of Jesus's promise in Matthew 28:20 where he says "I am with you always, even unto the end of the age".

The third and last element I will address is Jacob's response.  His first response is fear, but later he sets up the very stone that he put his head on as an altar of sorts.  Then he makes a pledge of service to the Lord.  I will address this last.

The contents of the dream have several predicates and several conclusions.  One of the most important predicates and the only one I will discuss is the nature of angels.  The Hebrew word for angel transliterates to malakh which primarily means messenger or ambassador, in the sense of "delivering a message" with a secondary sense of "spreading the influence of an authoritative sender".  "Angels of God" are therefore messengers or servants of God who are responsible for spreading his influence, sharing messages with given recipients, or generally influencing the world in accordance with the desires of their master.

They are only supernatural/spiritual implicitly, as one can learn by reading the context of passages that speak of angels.  There is also the more specific term "angel (singular) of the Lord" whose interpretation is somewhat more ambiguous.  The angel of the Lord is sometimes considered a "traditional" angel but also sometimes considered either a physical manifestation of the Lord himself or possibly even a metaphorical term for the influence of God in a general sense.  If anyone is surprised by the concept of the Lord manifesting physically, just re-read Genesis 3:8-9.

That said, what we can conclude from angels traveling along this ladder is the direct connection between heaven and earth, with a sense of God's continuous divine influence and impartation upon the earth, both in terms of effecting change but also in terms of sharing messages from the Lord for specific people.  Also significant is the ascension of angels from the earth to the heavens, which can either represent angels returning from missions to the earth or also can signify angels bearing messages from humans directed to God.

This brings up my next point: the inherent accessibility of God.  Since there is a ladder connecting earth (people) to heaven (God), God is inherently accessible to mankind for intercession or communion.  If we remember back to Genesis 2, there was an inherent unity between man and God which existed in the Garden of Eden.  God interacted with man and spoke with him regularly.  Yet this unity was destroyed by sin and the fall from grace which occurred in chapter 3, and while God is still described as speaking directly to Cain in chapter 4, from chapter 5 and onward the described interaction between man and God minimized rapidly.  Beginning with Abraham, there is a reconnection between man and God, yet it is a tenuous reconnection that is chiefly characterized by brief (yet potent) interactions where the Lord shares a specific message and then.... that's it.  There is no sense of the mutually abiding presence of man and God, with one possible exception when the Lord and the two angels visit Abraham before going on to Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yet here, in this dream, we are shown a permanent structure which binds the divine with the mortal, the dust of the earth with the stars of the heavens, with messages passing up from man to God and down from God to man.

Regarding Jacob's response to this dream, I have heard a number of teachers share various things about this passage, and it seems that a lot of people are critical of Jacob's response.  In particular, there is sometimes a comparison drawn between Jacob's "conditional tithe" and Abraham's "unconditional tithe".  In particular, some teachers assert that Jacob is trying to draw up some sort of bargain with God, which they similarly assert is a bad thing, that one cannot deal with God nor should one try.

Personally, I don't think these arguments hold a lot of weight for one main reason, which is that they do not seem to account for the culture that Jacob is operating in.  Among other things, just look at the life of Abraham himself, in chapter 15.  After Abraham asks for assurances regarding God's promise, God initiates a covenant ceremony with him.  And then later, Abraham negotiates with God regarding saving the righteous from Sodom, which I just talked about!  So it perplexes me why people think these things are okay for Abraham but bad for Jacob.  As for Jacob's conditions, from what I've seen this is a fairly conventional suzerainty-vassal agreement where in exchange for protection and provision, Jacob would serve the Lord and give him tribute.  To say that Jacob is trying to "manipulate" God based on this is misleading at best.

My opinion about this passage is that we are seeing exactly what it looks like: Jacob just met God for the first time and he was scared by it.  He knew about God from the teachings of his father Isaac and the traditions of his family going back to Abraham, but now he met the God he had only heard about before.  He did what any reasonable person would do, which is agree to serve God as his lord.  The only issue is that this form of vassal-lord treaties does not exist in modern life, so some people misinterpret it for that reason.

I also think it's reasonable to draw a parallel with Abraham's tithe, but it's not a negative "Abraham good, Jacob bad" thing, it's more of a "Abraham and Jacob both offered tithes to God and the similarities are surprising" thing.

So remember the story I shared about Jacob at the start?  He was driven out of his promised land, but now he has the promised protection of God, he is given the promise of Abraham by God (v. 13-15) and is now the carrier of that promise for real, and he establishes a covenant to serve God much like Abraham did.

Bible Commentary - Genesis 27

In this chapter, Jacob deceives his father and appropriates his brother's blessing.

First off, note that this is an unspecified time after the previous events. We see the Isaac is now a very old man and cannot see clearly due to age-related illnesses. So this is not a continuation of the prior events, even though it relates to the same individuals.

This actions in this chapter are so morally questionable.  Even though this passage does not explicitly condemn Rebekah and Jacob's action, at the same time, I do feel that the deception is implicitly condemned, for reasons that we will see later.

One thing I'd like to mention is that Jacob is the one whose name means deceiver, and yet it is actually his mother Rebekah that conceives the deception, and that spurs him onwards. Jacob is actually hesitant here, when he describes the risk of getting caught. They both go the such great lengths to maintain the deception that there really is no question they are doing wrong. Putting on his brother's clothes, wearing the skin of a lamb to cover his hairless skin, and then lying about his name are all levels of this deception and while the genesis of the idea came from his mother Rebekah, Jacob shows a willingness to go through with it actively when he lies to his father about his name.

Some points of interest. First, it appears that Isaac cannot differentiate between his sons by their voice. This is surprising to me, although Isaac demonstrates quite a bit of skepticism when Jacob says he is Esau, demanding to touch his skin and smell his garments. And indeed, Isaac says "the voice is the voice of Jacob", but the other factors of the deception outweigh this misgiving.

Second, I thought it was amusing that the skin of a young goat was so similar to the skin of Esau. Was he really *that* hairy? This amuses me greatly.

Lastly, note that Jacob lies about his name, saying that he is Esau. This might not appear significant now, but it will show up later as a story element.

So in conclusion, Rebekah conceives the lie, but Jacob agrees to go through with it, and receives the blessing as a result. As it was explained before, Rebekah preferred Jacob, possibly because the Lord told her that he would be ruler over his brother. Isaac, who had heard no such thing, preferred his elder and wilder son, Esau. It's also interesting to note (from a sociological perspective) that Jacob, the tamer son, is ruler over Esau, the man of the fields. This can possibly be related to the later Israelite's divergence from nomadic pastoralism into a more settled agriculturalism, though such an analysis would depend greatly on the date of writing for this material. Nor would such a theory explain the strong nomadic bias of almost all of the rest of the text.

Regarding the blessing itself, my only comment is to note its similarity to both 1) the Abrahamic promise (bless those who bless you...) and 2) God's promise to Rebekah about Jacob (the older shall serve the younger). In Jacob's life, such promises will be combined in him and he will be the next carrier of Abraham's promise. What was before imparted to Isaac, through the spoken word of the Lord, will now be imparted to Jacob through the deceitful theft from his father Isaac. Yet, as Isaac later notes, such a blessing cannot be withdrawn.

I do think it's interesting that Isaac considers the blessing irrevocable. This is not how most modern readers would think of "blessings" or words in general. The concept of "taking back" what you say is fairly pervasive to modern life. But that is not how the bible operates. The bible later says the "gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). This means that once given, they cannot be withdrawn even if they are used for something besides what God intended. Even if good gifts given for good purposes are twisted to evil ends, they cannot be withdrawn. This is obviously a big deal and is one of the central explanations of how evil happens in the world, and misunderstanding it is why many people are confused or angry at how God allows evil. The common, or perhaps universal, illustration of this is Hitler (blah blah blah Godwin's Law). Hitler is widely regarded as a very charismatic leader and skilled orator, yet he used these gifts to evil ends in destroying much of Europe. Yet God never revoked the gifts given to him, because that is not what God does. Once given, a gift, calling or promise of God cannot be broken no matter what is done with it. This is the agency of human free will, and the judgment of man is not the gifts that we are given, but it is the actions that we take with them.

Next, Esau's response is perhaps all that could be expected of him. He is clearly distraught and blames Jacob for the theft of his birthright and blessings. On the second point, he's right. On the first point, the bible notes that Esau "despised his birthright", so the blame should at least be shared. Such logic is, of course, inaccessible to Esau who just had his fatherly blessing stolen from him and is not in the mood right now to view Jacob favorably about anything.

Isaac's blessing of Esau is.... less than ideal. :) It is not the sort of blessing that I would particularly want, just speaking for myself. But, as so often happens, Esau doesn't get a choice in the matter. In this particular saga, he never even does anything wrong. He just goes out hunting and when he comes back, his blessing is gone and now he has to serve his brother and live away from the fertile blessing of earth and sky. This, also, seems so emblematic of life where we so often don't get the gifts or calling that we desire and perhaps even that we deserve, even when it's not our fault. Esau, too, will be judged by what he does with the (mixed) blessing he is given.

So now Esau wants to kill Jacob, and Rebekah (ever scheming) provokes Isaac into sending Jacob away to her brother in Haran. Notably, Haran is not in the promised land, so one of the first results of Jacob's deception is that he is forced out of the land that he is supposed to inherit, contrary to the command given to Isaac (though from what we've seen so far, God has never spoken directly to Jacob, so it's a command he would not know).

The story continues in the next chapter.