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.

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