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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 26

In this chapter, Isaac settles in Gerar and negotiates political agreements with Abimelech, the king.

First thing I want to address is the location of Gerar. I believe Gerar has previously showed up, but I didn't pay much attention to it. From the text, we can roughly deduce that Gerar is in southern Canaan (modern Israel), possibly in the Negev, and very close to Gaza/Sinai. Genesis 10:19 says, "The territory of the Canaanite extended from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza". Sidon is in the north, so this verse is showing the north->south disposition of the Canaanites. Genesis 20:1 says "Now Abraham journeyed from there toward the land of the Negev, and settled between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar." So Gerar is definitely in the far south of modern Israel.

Second, something I mentioned in a prior section is that this chapter parallels Abraham's visit to Gerar and subsequent negotiations in Genesis 20-21. From a conservative perspective, this is interesting. There is the interesting issue of how the king has the same name, Abimelech, and how the commander also has the same name, Phicol. The simplest explanation (which is often proffered) is that these names are customary for the officials who hold these roles, much like how in modern times the Catholic Popes will take on alternate customary names when they ascend to the role, as well as monks and nuns in various Catholic orders.

It's also interesting how the spur of all this was a famine in the land, just as "in the days of Abraham" (v. 1). This is also a parallel, but with an obvious natural explanation in that the country was subject to repeated famines both in the bible and in historical records. There is another famine in the days of Jacob, and the prophets of the OT repeatedly mention famines as punishment for disobedience. The spectre of famine, based in lengthy droughts, was a fact of life for Israelites of many generations.

While Isaac prayed for his wife and avoided that snare of his family, he does not avoid the temptation to deception. He lies to Abimelech about his wife, with the exact same fear and motivation as Abraham his father. One of the biggest differences is that God speaks to Isaac and tells him to stay in Canaan, and he does. In Genesis 12, there is a famine and Abraham goes to Egypt, where he lies to the king. Of course, this was just after God gave Abraham his first promise, so it's reasonable to say he should have known to stay in Canaan, while this is one of the first recorded times that God directly speaks to Isaac.

In fact, that's pretty important in its own right. We have seen the last 14 chapters of God speaking to Abraham, but only now are we entering the story of God's interaction with Isaac, and the continuation of the promises given to Abraham. Abraham is dead; he did not see all of the promises given to him fulfilled in his lifetime, so we are now in a position where Isaac as the promised son must be the carrier of those promises. This is the first time God speaks to Isaac, so God must share the blessings that Abraham passed down to him, and now the burden is upon Isaac to carry those blessings and walk in the ways of his father Abraham to establish the blessings. This is very important because it is applicable to modern life: there are many people who will not see the promised blessings of God established in their lifetimes, because the promises are greater than what can be fulfilled in one life. Yet the promises are not broken, they are passed down to the next generation, to our children. This is a central theme to Christianity (and to a similar extent, Judaism), and it is addressed both implicitly and explicitly later in the Bible.

Abraham's role in this story has finished. His obedience was made complete, primarily when he followed through with God's command to sacrifice Isaac, and therefore he walked in a very great extent what God has planned for him in life. This is why he is called the Father of Faith. But now his part in the story is over, and God hands over Abraham's promise to the one who was next responsible for it, Isaac, the promised son. Isaac was himself an embodiment of the greater promise (father of nations), though he was only a single child. Now he, as a person, has to take on responsibility for what was promised to his father. So the promised one himself becomes the keeper of the promise.

Note how when God speaks to Isaac, he even uses similar expressions to his promise to Abraham, such as "I will multiply your descendants as the stars in heaven". So throughout this whole chapter, we see time and time again how pervasively Abraham's legacy is impacting Isaac's life. This, too, seems like such a common story in modern life, how both the blessings and the promises given to our parents (v. 2-5) and the problems and faults (v. 1, 7), and then even the battles that are fought (v. 18-21) are passed down to us, their children.

Back to the story. Isaac lies to Abimelech, but eventually gets found out, and Abimelech seems to forgive him and orders everyone to not kill him (seems nice to me). Then something bizarre happens. During the famine (v. 1) Isaac sows and reaps 100-fold. This is insane, and quite possibly exaggerated, because a 100-fold return on your crops is unusual even in a good season. But regardless of whether it was precisely 100x or maybe just 10-20x, what's clear is that Isaac prospered, as that verse says.

(I think I mentioned this before, but frequently in the OT material wealth is used to signify spiritual blessings or providence, and the righteous are often promised great wealth, particularly in the Mosaic Covenant. Some later passages will begin to equate wealth with pride, but we aren't there yet.)

Then once he becomes wealthy, we start to see resistance and opposition, which is sensible because throughout human history, wealthy neighbors are usually the sorts of people that are capable of dominating their neighbors and thus threatening.

Isaac digs up the wells of his father Abraham. So again we see Isaac reconnecting with his father, now in a physical inheritance, but this can also symbolize Isaac reconnecting with his father spiritually, in acceptance of the promises. Notably, these wells were present inside the promised land, so we have seen Isaac's obedience to the message delivered at the beginning of this chapter. This obedience also explains his material abundance and blessing.

He quarrels a bit, and then goes to Beersheba, the well of the oath, where Abraham previously made an oath with Abimelech and also built an altar to the Lord. This is definitely one of the holy places of the Lord, and the Lord appears to Isaac here and speaks to him, reaffirming the promise. Isaac again follows in his father's footsteps, building an altar and having a well dug. Wells represent permanence to the highly mobile shepherds of the time, because normally they would travel from place to place. You would only dig wells (which are deep and laborious projects) if you had a firm expectation that you would either stay there, or come back. You don't dig wells for other people. That's why it's significant that Isaac re-dug his father's wells, because the Philistines were trying to shut off the generational inheritance in the land.

It reminds me of a news story I heard recently where the Foreign Minister of Israel (the modern nation-state) went to a ceremony where they planted a tree in some contested area like East Jerusalem or something (I forget where), and it enraged a bunch of people for the same reason the wells are so contentious to the Philistines. When you plant a tree, it's because you plan to be there in 40 years when it starts bearing fruit. If it's contested ground, then read between the lines.

Anyway, things don't get quite as negative in this story. Isaac makes another covenant with Abimelech, and things remain peaceful. For now.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 25

In this chapter, Abraham dies and Isaac has two sons, who struggle with each other.

First thing that's mentioned is Abraham's "other" children. I frequently get the sense that almost nobody knows about this "other" wife, Keturah, and his "other" sons. This is because so much emphasis is placed on Isaac and Ishmael, both later in the bible and in further discussion and sermonizing. This is perhaps rightly, as these two figures are certainly the most important of Abraham's children, both for theological and historical reasons.

It almost seems like a "life goes on" moment for Abraham, in that he remarries after Sarah dies, and then has some more children like he were a normal person (in spite of his great age and long barrenness before conceiving Ishmael). But at the same time, he still obviously favors Isaac over all, by expelling his younger children from the promised land, which he reserves for Isaac. Then Abraham dies and is buried in his familial crypt with Sarah.

Also, note that some of Abraham's "other" children go on to become great nations. Midian contends with Israel frequently, Sheba and Dedan are forefathers of large countries, the Asshurites being a primitive reference to the Assyrians.

None of the children of Ishmael are particularly notable from what I know. It's funny how this chapter says they settled "in defiance" of their relatives, continuing the antagonism between Isaac and Ishmael. Sufficed to say, nobody likes getting surpassed by their younger sibling.

One of my favorite passages is right here, where it says that Isaac prayed for his wife to conceive, because she was barren. This is a very bright note in the midst of some really bitter stories before and after, amongst the trio of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob.

Abraham and Sarah were barren, so Abraham resorts to sleeping with her handmaiden, Hagar. This results in the contention between Ishmael and Isaac, which continues for generations. Jacob and his favored wife, Rachel, have trouble conceiving and in short, this results in lots of contention in their family too, as Jacob sleeps with Rachel's handmaiden, Bilhah (this happens later in Genesis, so I will not discuss it further here; more detail will be provided when we reach that section).

From a literary-analytical point of view, many people would say these are repetitions of the same story. However, from a more direct historical/theological point of view, it's pretty clear that barrenness runs in Abraham's family. There are a couple different explanations for this. One is the literary repetition, like I mentioned. Next is the possibility of some genetic condition that causes barrenness being passed down.  Edit: A generous commenter pointed out that since the barrenness was on the female side, it couldn't have been passed down through Abraham, so strictly speaking it doesn't "run in Abraham's family" in a genetic sense.  However, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel (who we meet later) are all genetically related on their side of the family through Nahor, and they are all descended from Terah, the father of Abraham.  So a genetic cause is plausible /End Edit.   And lastly, there is the possibility of some spiritual condition or curse of some kind that is attacking his family. This last explanation is somewhat common in conservative circles, as commentators note that Satan would have a pretty clear incentive to cut off the nation of Israel before it can become a carrier for the Messiah. In my opinion, it's likely there is some sort of spiritual condition here, but I'm not sure it can be directly ascribed to demonic forces as we have yet to see any sign that the demonic forces are aware of Abraham's promises of greatness or what they ultimately entail for humanity.

One way or another, there is a clear history (and future) of barrenness amongst this trio of patriarchs, and the only one whose response is godly is Isaac. Both Abraham and Jacob look for human solutions, but instead of taking on a concubine and disrespecting Rebekah, Isaac turns to God and prayer, and as a result Rebekah is able to bear children without having to suffer the same ignominy as the other two women put in her position. Thus, Isaac clearly has the most tranquil domestic life of the three patriarchs.

Unfortunately, in spite of Isaac's good response, his two children are at war from birth. This continues the two main trends we saw with Ishmael and Isaac: the younger is heir of the promises, and both children are at war with each other.

The "elder serving the younger" seems to be one of the central themes of the bible, and I think it's closely related to other NT concepts like God overthrowing the "wisdom of the wise". It is a strongly established cultural principle (at the time) that the eldest was heir to the birthright and a double portion. Even in Israelite law, the eldest was assured a double portion of the inheritance, which is ironic because Jacob himself, who is later renamed Israel, steals the double portion of blessing from his elder brother. This shows both the controversy of Israel's establishment as the forefather of the Jewish nation, and also the way that God overturns human principle when he desires. Oftentimes, we won't like it, but he is God and he does as he pleases.

Certainly Ishmael didn't like it, and Esau will not like it either, as we will see in detail. An added dimension to this is that God only speaks to Rebekah about Jacob's elevated status. Importantly, this information is not shared with Jacob, Esau or Isaac. So we will see Rebekah secretly support Jacob, while Isaac supports Esau.

Less significantly, note that "grasping the heel" is a Hebrew expression that more or less means "trying to pull this guy down so that I can step over him and take his place". Jacob, as a name, means something along the lines of "deceiver". So already at birth, one might question God's wisdom in choosing this deceiver, this supplanter of his elder's right, as the chosen son whom the elder shall serve.

At the same time, Esau deliberately and willingly trades his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew and some bread. So, as the bible notes, Esau "despised his birthright". One might ask, what is a birthright? To the best of my knowledge, this is his preference as the eldest to a double portion of inheritance from their father. What's strange about this story is that to the best of my knowledge, neither the birthright or the inheritance is ever actually mentioned as being distributed in the bible. Esau will mention it once later on, but it's never actually described how much of Isaac's fortune is given to his two sons. Presumably this is because the actual distribution of money isn't important. That's why, in my opinion, the more significant element is the spiritual or authoritative position as the firstborn, which Esau also gives away to Jacob. This is indeed the more significant element of what God spoke to Rebekah, but Jacob isn't done attaining it. We will see another element of Jacob's deception later in this book.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 24

In this chapter, Isaac is married to Rebekah.

This is a longish chapter, but it is all logically and temporally contiguous. It is pretty apparent that it should be treated as a single unit, so that's probably the best way to read it.

There are a number of minor points to address and then some bigger points. First, some minor points. Second, I have heard some interesting teachings on this chapter and I will recap some of those analyses once the minor stuff is done.

The servant is not named in this chapter. This has resulted in some speculation as to his identity. The main identity assigned to him is Eliezer of Damascus, who is mentioned earlier as Abraham's chief servant and the inheritor of his estate, if he had no son. However, this claim is unconfirmed.

There are a lot of cultural differences between the events of this story and modern life. This is certainly not an exception as there are many differences throughout the entire OT as a whole. Obviously these characters are living in a time when arranged marriage is customary, and Abraham as the patriarchal authority, is responsible for bringing this about.

Another noteworthy fact is Abraham's insistence upon Isaac marrying a relative. This is also largely contrary to modern social rules, but is in keeping with Abraham's marriage to his half-sister; also, Nahor and Milkah are closely related. In modern society, we frown upon it for essentially genetic reasons.

However, I believe that the primary concern of Abraham and the people of his generation is spiritual contamination from the idolatrous peoples they live amongst. This is not actually stated, however: Abraham never says why he wants Isaac to marry amongst his people. He implies the rationale when discussing the Lord though: He does not want Isaac to marry a woman who might dissuade him from following the Lord, which would essentially invalidate the promises given to him.

Furthermore, as I previously discussed, marital separation and purity are strongly promoted concepts in the rest of the Pentateuch, as well as the OT in general, so I don't think it's unreasonable to say that there is some intended correlation here. Not necessarily that the writer of Genesis backfilled events, but at least as likely that the history of Abraham and Isaac informed their later opinions about marital separation from the peoples they lived near. As Abraham and Isaac are two of the most revered figures in Judaism, it should come as little surprise that their choices would guide the spiritual teachings of Israelites for many generations afterwards.

The biggest problem with this whole discourse is that as far as we know, Abraham's family does not actually worship the Lord either. To the best of my knowledge, when Abraham is called by the Lord back in chapter 12, that was essentially a divine intervention: neither Abraham nor anyone else in his family had knowledge of the Lord at that time. Upon further thought, this opens up a whole new window of interpreting that passage: perhaps God drew Abraham away from his family and land for the deliberate purpose of separating him from his past, which would have pulled him back into idolatry. If indeed his whole family and nation was idolatrous, then they would have precisely the same pull into godlessness that Abraham is trying to keep away from Isaac, and that Moses will later try to keep away from the children if Israel (without success, I might add).

So yeah, I'm not really sure what to conclude about Abraham's insistence here. It's probably related to keeping Isaac from idolatry, but I don't know how that fits in with Laban/Rebekah's spirituality. I guess the biggest factor might be a desire to maintain a national/racial identity, separate from the Canaanites'. This is related to worshiping the Lord, because the Lord essentially becomes the patron God of Abraham and his descendants, in the fashion of the time (again, it's a cultural thing). If their national identity were intermixed with the much more numerous Canaanites, they would almost definitely be absorbed into the local (idolatrous) culture.

The other strong insistence of Abraham is that Isaac should remain in Canaan. This one is much simpler and he explains it perfectly: God is going to give this land to his descendants, so his descendants should remain here and not go back.

Verse 50 implies they know of the Lord, but this doesn't necessarily mean they follow the Lord (they were likely told of him by Abraham before he left). It's also possible that, having observed the great wealth the unnamed servant brought with him, they were quite pleased to accept what bridal price he would offer, regardless of the story of divine fortune that he told them. Laban certainly proves himself later to be a very savvy and sometimes deceptive businessman.

The end of the story is, Rebekah comforts Isaac after his mother's death. This is a fitting note, because Isaac, being a sole child and the promised child given to Sarah after she was barren for so many decades, would obviously have been spoiled rotten. Anyone who knows what even a normal mother is like should know that Isaac was probably given anything he could want, so it's humorous to think of Abraham going to get a wife for Isaac so that he would have someone to continue taking care of him after his mother dies. This is not, perhaps, exactly how it happened, but it's funny to think about.

Another thing to note is the repetition of the story, when the servant gives his account. This is precisely the sort of repeated storytelling that implicates the underlying oral narrative that preceded the written Torah. As I was taught in high school, it is good form to repeat information when speaking, because people need to hear things multiple times to absorb them, but it is terrible form to write things multiple times, because anyone can just re-read a given segment as often as they need. It's interesting to note that, in general, these repetitions are largely contained in the Pentateuch, and not in later OT books, which gives an implied older date to the Pentateuch, which has a strong oral tradition compared to the more obviously written form of the later works. Or, as so many others believe, the JEDP theory is true but only applies to the Pentateuch.

Lastly, I will mention that it's worth considering the character of Rebekah in these passages. As others have pointed out, almost all of Rebekah's actions belie a very bold, daring personality. First, we see her water the servant's camels without even being asked. She offers to do it voluntarily. Second, we see her agree to travel with the servant literally the day after he arrives, and she leaves her family to marry someone she's never met. Again, arranged marriages were much more common back then, so this is not entirely surprising. But it's interesting to draw a parallel between Rebekah departing for a husband she doesn't know and Abraham departing for a land he does not know. Both of them seem to have a degree of fearlessness in their actions that shapes how they react to the circumstances presented to them.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 23

In this chapter, Sarah dies and is buried in the promised land, near Hebron.

So. We just finished the very emotive story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac, and now there is a thematic gap as we "move on" to a different time when Sarah dies. I don't believe this chapter is dated relative to the last event, since the last one is not at some specific time. We can guess that Isaac is maybe 10-15, and since Sarah is 127, that means he is now approximately 26 years old. So maybe 11 years have passed, more or less.

The first thing I notice reading through this is the usage of some arcane terminology, some of which is explained and some isn't. The first term, Kiriath-Arba, is Hebron, as the text notes. It's kinda funny that the text provides this interpolation. It certainly seems to imply either a) the original writer knew both terms, and perhaps knew that one is older than the other, or b) the text first stated the first, and then the interpolation was added later. This second viewpoint is probably the JEDP perspective, though I've never studied it. I don't think the interpolation requires any specific theory though, because basically every commentator (even JEDPists) agree that the OT texts at least loosely draw on some older mythos, whether written or eventually oral, before it was written down. So it is natural that at some point, someone would explain older terms to the "modern" Jewish audience of X00 BCE for whatever value of X. Or alternatively, the writer simply knew the older names for these places/things and knew those names were historical, and chose to use different names in different places.  A good modern parallel for this would be Istanbul, also known as Constantinople.  Modern readers (and writers) are familiar with both names, and could in certain contexts use them interchangeably.  The next term I noticed was "sons of Heth", which is clearly an archaic term for the Canaanites. I'm not familiar with the etymology, and not sure if the etymology is even known.

The rest of the chapter is kinda like the genealogy chapters: fascinating for scholars, kinda boring for theologians or laymen. It is largely an account of Abraham negotiating the purchase of a family burial crypt from some Canaanites. The downside of this passage is that it does little or nothing to advance the general storyline, and God does not intervene in any stated way so it is not particularly spiritual in nature. The upside is that it gives us yet another vantage point of Abraham's character, from the more mundane side of barter.

Abraham has just lost Sarah and is clearly grieving.

Note that the generous offer (I will give you this field for free) is considered a conventional form, and was not intended literally. That is, he was just being polite and it was not supposed to be accepted. The rest of the pleasantries, the bowing, the "my lords" were also conventional. Not to say it's all bad, I personally prefer pleasant conventions to unpleasant conventions. But that is what's going on.

Two things are somewhat strange here. The first is that Abraham does not barter him down. This would have been expected, and from what I've read, Abraham most likely overpaid for the plot of land by a substantial amount. The other strange thing is that they used the merchants' scales. Well, maybe it's not quite "strange", but it is noteworthy. The merchants' scales would generally be much less trustworthy than the royal scales, because they were much less regulated. It is fairly normal to have "bad measurements" to try to exploit others by making their silver appear to weigh less, therefore costing them more.

To be fair, I'm not sure where or if royal scales even existed at this time, so maybe merchants' scales are the only option. I don't know.

Another cultural note (and this shows up often): sitting at the gates is a sign of respect and dignity. This is where the elders or leaders of a city would spend their time. This is also where legal transactions usually happen, because for a legal transaction you need witnesses, and generally the most respected elders make the most reliable witnesses (or if not trustworthy, at least the most trusted).

The last thing I find interesting about this passage is that this is the first (recorded) moment of Abraham owning land in the promised land. I see this as like a first step in the greater promise that he was given by God, just like the birth of Isaac was a first step towards the greater "father of nations". Just as Abraham only sees his one promised son during his lifetime, he also only sees this small, overpriced patch of land, when he had been promised the entire land as far as his eyes could see. It's small beginnings.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 22

In chapter 22, Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac, only to be turned back at the last moment.  It concludes with minor genealogical notes.

This is one of the highest profile chapters in the bible, and deservedly so. The theological implications span much of the bible, and this is widely considered foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ. But I don't want to get ahead of myself quite yet. We still need to establish the proper context.

Remember in the last chapter what happened, and really the entirety of Abraham's life. He was childless for about 86 or 87 years, yet he held the promise from God of not just one offspring, but of the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky (two separate promises at different times, but reaffirming the same message).

And this brings me to a point I was planning on raising from a later verse, but I'll just say it now; double repetition is a device used in the bible to denote strong, powerful emphasis. This is relevant to the two "main" promises to Abraham. Though admittedly he is given the promise a couple more times in other ways, I consider these the two most prominent, descriptive and specific promises.

We will see double repetition of certain things from now all the way through the NT, where one of Jesus's most repeated phrase is, "Truly, truly." This could also be considered another angle on some of the repeated stories in the bible. For instance, the two accounts of the creation of man in Genesis 1 and 2 could possibly be considered a slightly more elongated double repetition for emphasis. This is all an aside, though.

So Abraham has this promise of a son, and then there's the whole Ishmael drama. After that, miraculously Abraham has another son by Sarah, who God says is the promised son. Last chapter, after more conflict Abraham throws out Ishmael and Hagar, so in terms of children still with him, he is only left with Isaac, the promised son, his joy and his future.

Verse 2: Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac (which means laughter), and go offer him as a burnt offering. You can see repetition, again. This time it is emphasizing "son" and also emphasizing Abraham's love, which is appropriate given the context. This really is Abraham's hope of a future, because it is the promised son.

Strangely (to me), it does not at all describe Abraham's emotional response, or anything that happens between the two of them until early the next morning, Abraham and Isaac (with a few servants) saddle up and head off to Moriah. Commentators tend to emphasize the promptness of Abraham's obedience, that he leaves "early the next morning". I agree that this is a striking response to such a difficult request. However, we are left without any other textual indicators of how Abraham (or for that matter, Isaac) responded to this command. Note that Isaac is not actually told he is going to be sacrificed. He is left questioning Abraham later on the journey, and only at some unspecified point later, he seems to figure out what's going on. So as far as I know, Abraham is the only one aware of the purpose of this journey.

So what we know is that Abraham responded promptly and (understandably) didn't tell Isaac. In verse 7, Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is. Abraham's response is considered by many to be a prediction of the coming Christ. It can also be considered somewhat implicit foreshadowing of the Passover, though in the Passover the people themselves provide the lambs, so it is really much more directly related to the Christ. What Abraham says is that "God will provide [for] himself the lamb". I put [] around "for" because some (obviously Christian) commentators suggest that it is not implied in the original text, that "God will provide himself the lamb", which is of course a much more direct prediction of Christ, the lamb of God.

At this point, there are a few perspectives on what's going on in Abraham's mind. For his last statement, either he is trying to invent something comforting, or he is actually knowingly prophetic. As for the sacrifice, some people say that Abraham is expecting God to raise Isaac from the dead after he is sacrificed. This opinion is somewhat reinforced by a verse in Hebrews, which talks about Isaac's offering. The other, more direct opinion, is that Abraham really thought Isaac would die. But that leaves a paradox, how the son of the promise, the father of nations, would have children though he was dead. That's why he might have to be raised from the dead. But regardless of what Abraham thought, these are the issues he had to face.

About this point, Isaac is either told or figures out that he is the sacrifice. Or Abraham just starts tying him up. More likely the former than the latter. Also interesting to me, Isaac's reaction is not recorded either, and I'm sure his emotional response must be at least as poignant as Abraham's. It's one thing to have to sacrifice your promised son, it's another thing to be the son being sacrificed! I'm slightly, but not overly, surprised by Isaac's obedience. At no point is he described resisting. This is not because I think he is eager for death, but because of the very strong culture of patriarchal obedience in this time. Abraham is the lord over his house and Isaac, even his favored son, must conform to whatever Abraham desires. So that's why I'm not fully surprised, but even so I am mostly surprised at how little of his reaction is depicted.

Just as Abraham is about to stab Isaac, an angel speaks to him, with Abraham, Abraham (2x repetition). Abraham sees a ram, and thus what he spoke before comes true, that the Lord did provide a lamb. And the angels repeats Abraham's two promises regarding his son, the sands of the seashore/stars of the sky. This is another 2x repetition. Abraham leaves and goes to Beersheba, the well of the oath.

Lastly, Abraham discovers that his relatives had a number of children. I don't think this is particularly relevant to the story.

So yeah, in summary, I think a diligent scholar could mine a lot out of this chapter, as indeed many scholars have. I'm not going to go into a lot of that, but anyone who's interesting can do so pretty easily by just Googling it. It is one of the most important events in Abraham's life, and in many ways it defines his faith: his willingness to sacrifice all, simply under the command of the Lord whom he obeys in accordance with the promises given and fealty that he swore.