Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some important things to consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting names in the genealogy:

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

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

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

Bible Commentary - Genesis 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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