Sunday, December 11, 2011

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.

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