Friday, January 25
Genesis 25: Abraham, having spent most of his life childless, seems to have overdone it a bit toward the end. He married a woman named Keturah, who bore him quite a family (vv. 1–6). This brief account sits somewhat outside of the central core of the biblical narrative, almost as an afterthought. Although it may have taken place prior to the marriage of Isaac in the previous chapter, the story is told at the very end, just before Abraham’s death. Its insertion into the Bible manifests a concern to show that the Israelites were related by blood to other peoples who lived in the region, particularly the Midianites and Kedemites (“Easterners”), nomadic tribes of the Arabian and Syrian deserts.
At the same time, however, care is taken to show that Abraham kept this later family separate from Isaac (v. 6), who alone was the heir of the divine promises.
At Abraham’s death, he is buried in the same plot that he purchased earlier at Hebron for the burial of Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac join to bury their father, a fact apparently indicating that some contact between the two households had been maintained (vv. 7–11). The scene of Abraham’s burial, uniting these two peoples of the Middle East, seems especially poignant in our own day.
Now that Abraham has died, the Bible’s interest will go to the history of Isaac and his family. This is not done, however, until the author has tidied up Ishmael and his own progeny (vv. 12–18). Here we observe that twelve tribes trace their lineage back to Ishmael, a parallel to the twelve tribes that will spring from the seed of Jacob later on. Various of these Arabian tribes will be mentioned again in Holy Scripture; in Exodus and Chronicles for example.
The latter part of this chapter concerns Isaac’s own sons, twins who begin to fight even in Rebekah’s womb (vv. 22–23). These men were already rivals, and, according to Romans 9:10–13, God had already chosen one of them in preference over the other. Just as God chose Isaac in preference to Ishmael, He chose Jacob in preference to Esau. “Choice” in this context does not pertain to eternal salvation, but to the role that Jacob was destined to play in the history of salvation. God’s “rejection” of Esau means only that he was not chosen to play that role; in the same sense, God will “reject” the older brothers in favor of David (1 Kingdoms 16:5–12). There is nothing in the Sacred Text, either in Genesis, Malachi 1:1–5, or Romans, even faintly to suggest that Esau was predestined to hell.
Jacob is obviously the shrewder of the two men (vv. 29–34). Indeed, Esau comes off as a bit of a spiritual klutz, forfeiting his birthright for a single meal. He should serve as a warning to Christians themselves, who may be tempted to squander their own birthright in favor of some immediate satisfaction (cf. Hebrews 12:14–17).
The attaining of a birthright requires patience and endurance; it is something to be valued and waited for. In this respect, we learn something of the superior patience of Jacob, which will become even clearer in his dealings with Laban later on.
Saturday, January 26
Isaac and Abimelech: God’s historical choice is now furthered narrowed; the promises made to Abraham are now made to Isaac, as they had not been made to Ishmael (verses 1–5). On the other hand, Isaac is clearly a “transition patriarch,” between Abraham and Jacob. There are almost no stories about Isaac, except in relation to either his father or his sons. Whereas both Abraham and Jacob traveled in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, Isaac never leaves the Promised Land.
The story about Rebekah and Abimelech (verses 6–11) is strikingly similar to two earlier stories about Sarah, and the she-is-my-sister trick is something Isaac evidently learned from his father.
There are differences among the stories, nonetheless. In the present case, we observe that the wife is not actually removed to the other man’s house; Abimelech does not go quite so far on the present occasion. He has evidently become just a wee bit more cautious; this time it does not take a divine revelation for him to discover the truth. He simply watches the couple more closely, until one day he sees them engaged in amorous exchanges (we will not speculate) that reveal that they are husband and wife. Indeed, as it turns out, Abimelech himself never admits being interested in Rebekah; he simply explains that he feared somebody else might be!
The “revelation” in this chapter happens differently from those in chapters 12 and 20. In the former two stories, God manifested the truth by a supernatural intervention easily discerned. In the present story God’s revelation to Abimelech is subtler; indeed, God is not even mentioned in connection with it. That is to say, God’s intervention and deliverance need not be spectacular in order to be real. It is sufficient that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
In the controversy about the wells (verses 12–22), the word “Philistine” is an anachronism, because the real Philistines, to whom the regions about the Aegean Sea were native, would not arrive on the coast of Canaan for several centuries. The mention of them here is something on the order of saying that “Columbus discovered America.” While there may be some disagreement whether or not Columbus actually did so, no one disagrees that the name “America” was not in place when Columbus arrived. Similarly here, the “Philistines” are simply those who lived in the land that would later be inhabited by the Philistines.
In this story, we observe that Isaac has inherited the peace-loving, unassertive disposition of his father. When there is trouble, he defuses it by meekness. And in his case too, the “meek shall inherit the earth.”
The account of Isaac’s vision (verses 23–25) links his name to the ancient shrine of Beersheba, much as Abraham’s name was associated with Hebron, and Jacob’s will be with Shechem and Bethel. The account itself is similar to that in chapter 17.
We recall from chapter 24 that Isaac was not to marry any of the local talent, the idolatrous Hittite girls who lived in the neighborhood. A wife was procured for him, rather, “from the old country.” This wife, Rebekah, sharing the family’s dislike of these local girls, is understandably less than thrilled by Esau’s marrying them (verses 34–35). She will determine that Jacob, her own favorite son, will be spared such a fate (cf. 27:46). The two final verses of this chapter prepare us for the story in chapter 28.
Sunday, January 27
Genesis 27: The shrewdness of Rebekah (verses 1–13) was a family trait, which we have already seen in Jacob’s snatching of Esau’s birthright. Very shortly we will find Jacob matching wits with Rebekah’s brother, Laban.
If we are disposed to judge Rebekah’s favoritism too harshly, it will be useful to bear in mind that the Lord had already given her a special insight into the matter: “Two nations are in your womb, / And two peoples shall be separated from your body. / One shall be stronger than the other, / And the older shall serve the younger” (25:23).
Rebekah knew which son was which, so she knew which son would do the serving and which would be served. If such was God’s plan, Rebekah saw no harm in moving things in the right direction, as it were. Moved by a mixture of faith and anxiety, Rebekah decides to take the fulfillment of prophecy into her own hands. (We recall that Sarah also did that, when she gave Hagar to Abraham as a second wife.)
Christians have long been bothered by Rebekah’s and Jacob’s deception of Isaac. Their discomfort is understandable, but we should bear in mind that Holy Scripture is simply telling us what happened. The cunning of the mother and the mendacity of the son are not being held up for our emulation. Ultimately this is a story about what God does, not man. This is “mystery, not mendacity,” said St. Augustine.
There is no indication that anyone but Rebekah had received that revelation of God’s plan, so we should not be surprised that Isaac is unaware of it. Thus, his physical blindness becomes a symbol of his inability to see what is going on, according to God’s plan. His favoring of Esau over Jacob already puts him outside of God’s will; that is to say, his preference between his sons is not that of God. Being outside of God’s will, therefore, he is easily deceived. Acting outside of God’s will is a sure step toward deception. On at least two levels in this account, therefore, Isaac is acting blindly.
The blessing of the Promised Land, then, goes to Jacob, not to Esau (verses 26–29). Isaac unwittingly shifts God’s promises to his younger son, Jacob, and these promises will, in due course, pass to the latter’s descendants (Deuteronomy 7:13–14; 33:28).
The account of Esau’s return (verses 30–33) is especially dramatic. The inspired author is not so preoccupied with the underlying theology as to lose contact with the human and emotional components of this remarkable story. Isaac begins to tremble. At once he becomes aware that he has been acting in ignorance. Yet that blessing, once given, was the instrument of the divine will. He had become the unwitting agent of God’s purposes, which were quite distinct from his own. Thus, this is one of the Bible’s great stories of those who accomplish God’s will in ignorance and even contrary to their own intentions. It is not a story about fate, but it does have some literary similarities to Greek stories about fate. (The story of blind Teiresias, in the Antigone of Sophocles, comes to mind.)
Especially poignant are the tears of Esau, thus foiled a second time. It was not that Isaac had only one blessing to give. The really big blessing, however, the blessing that handed on the promises of God, was already taken and was no longer available. Esau, the man who had earlier thought so little of his birthright, was not worthy to receive the blessing of the firstborn, and Holy Scripture shows no great sympathy for him (cf. Hebrews 12:16–17).
Even acting in mistake, Isaac acted “by faith,” according to the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:20). Personal faith is compatible with a good deal of error, blindness, and misunderstanding.
Esau’s blessing (vv. 39–40) does give some reprieve to his descendants; they will not serve Jacob’s descendants forever. Their subjection will eventually come to an end (cf. 2 Kings 8:20–22; 2 Chronicles 21:8–10).
Monday, January 28
Bethel: As we saw in the previous chapter, Rebekah does not want Jacob simply to flee from the possible vengeance of Esau. She correctly wants Jacob to be sent away by his father. There are several things to be said about Isaac’s sending Jacob away (verses 1–5):
First, there is a sense of historical continuity. Isaac is aware that he is handing on a legacy that he himself received. The current family crisis is not treated simply as a matter of the present; it is subsumed into a larger historical picture.
Second, there is the prayer and promise of fertility. The effects of this prayer (twelve sons and a daughter!) show how powerful a man of prayer Isaac really was (cf. also 25:21).
Third, Jacob continues the tradition of being a “stranger” (v. 4), like his grandfather and father. This theme will be picked up in the New Testament: “By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9).
Esau, having twice failed to please his parents by his choice of wives, decides this time to choose a bride from within the family (verses 6–9). Alas, he marries into the discredited side of the family! One sometimes has the impression that Esau’s brow was branded with the word “Loser.”
The religious experience of Jacob at Bethel is divided into two parts: his vision, in which God speaks (vv. 10–15), and his thoughtful reaction within the dream (vv. 16–22). This division of religious experience into the visionary and the deliberative is found in other places of Holy Scripture, such as the case of Peter in Acts 10:9–17 and several places in Ezekiel. Jacob’s is a night-vision, like that of Abraham in chapter 15 and Isaac in chapter 26; indeed, God says to him (verse 15) much the same things that He said to Abraham (15:17–18) and to Isaac (26:24–25). Thus, all three of the patriarchs have visions in the night, and all three establish shrines: Abraham at Hebron, Isaac at Beersheba, Jacob at Bethel.
Bethel (“house of God”) is the place where earth and heaven are joined, as though by an umbilical cord (v. 12). When Jacob rises in the morning, he consecrates the place, somewhat terrified that he had picked, as his place to sleep, the very spot where heaven and earth are joined; he was nearly run over by all the angelic traffic, as it were. Bethel is a type and prefiguration, of course, of the real house of God, where heaven and earth are joined, Jesus Christ our Lord (John 1:43–51). Christians since the second century have regarded Jacob’s ladder as the ladder of Christ. For this reason, Jacob poured oil (chrisma) on the stone, making it a “Christian stone” (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 86).
Tuesday, January 29
Jacob and Rachel: At about noon Jacob arrives at the city well of Haran, where he finds three shepherds that have already assembled with their flocks. They are waiting for other shepherds to arrive, so that there will be enough manpower to remove the very heavy stone that covers the mouth of the well. It says a great deal of Jacob’s physical strength that he is able, all by himself, to do the job. (And we recall that he was the weaker of the twin boys borne by Rebekah!)
Just as Jacob begins to inquire about Laban, his mother’s brother, his interlocutors point out to him that Laban’s daughter, Rachel, is approaching. Thus, like Abraham’s servant in chapter 24, Jacob is promptly blessed by the arrival of a young woman who proves to be a lady of destiny (verses 6, 9–12). Once again like the servant in the earlier case, Jacob tells the whole story, “all that happened,” to Laban (v. 13).
It is useful to observe that Laban calls Jacob “my brother,” whereas Jacob is really his nephew. The reader should bear in mind that the words “brother and sister,” when used in Holy Scripture, only rarely mean what we ourselves intend when we employ those same words today. The reason for this is very simple: the Semitic biblical languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, have no other way to designate relatives in general, and this Semitic usage has spilled over into the Greek parts of the Bible as well. “Brothers and sisters” is simply the common way of designating relatives in Holy Scripture and throughout the languages of the Middle East. Most of the time in the Bible, then, the expression “brothers and sisters” designates simply “male and female relatives.” Whenever, therefore, these expressions appear in Holy Scripture, they should be understood only in the general sense of “relative,” unless the context indicates otherwise. There are earlier instances of this idiomatic usage in Genesis, such as 13:8. Twice more Abraham’s nephew, Lot, would be called Abraham’s brother [14:14, 16].
Other biblical examples abound. This usage is commonly known among historians and linguists, but modern readers tend to forget it when they come across the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus in the Gospels. Contemporary readers need to remember that the entire Christian tradition without exception was aware of this idiomatic usage, including all the Fathers of the Church, both East and West, all the medieval theologians, and all the major Protestant Reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli; all these writers, consequently, explicitly denied that Jesus had any physical brothers and sisters born of the same mother.
Immediately Jacob falls in love with Rachel, whose physical appearance is contrasted with that of her older sister, Leah (verses 13–30). Jacob’s preference is clear, and he agrees to work the seven years that his cunning uncle requires. For Laban, however, Jacob’s preference in the matter posed a bit of a problem. While there would be no difficulty finding a husband for Rachel, Laban was less certain about Leah’s prospects. During those seven years, no one had sought the hand of Leah. (The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi speculated that Leah was afraid that, if Jacob married her younger sister, she herself would be obliged to marry the older brother Esau, and she wanted nothing of that!)
Laban determined, therefore, to look out for the fortunes of his elder daughter. Accordingly Laban pulls a rather mean trick, a trick rendered possible because the bride was veiled (verses 21–25). It is not hard to figure out the wily Laban, who does not shrink from taking advantage when he can. He studies situations carefully, spots weaknesses in his associates, and consistently uses people. There is a special irony in the account, as well. Jacob deceived his father in chapter 27; now he is in turn deceived by his new father-in-law; in each case it was a matter of a “false identity.”
Laban then makes the “magnanimous gesture” of offering Jacob both daughters as wives (v. 27), which procures the wives’ father, of course, another seven years of service from Jacob. (This sororite marriage will later be forbidden in the Mosaic Law; cf. Leviticus 18:18).
Laban has clearly thought this whole plan out ahead of time. This procedure is Laban’s way of keeping his property in the family. He has now procured this apparently dimwitted nephew, an energetic worker who will do whatever is required of him. This nephew will be married to both of his daughters. All of their children will be Laban’s; all the property will be his; everything will be his (31:43). From this point on, the story becomes a rivalry of wits between Jacob and Laban. Jacob will prove to be more than a match for his father-in-law.
Wednesday, January 30
Leah and Rachel: This chapter describes two tests of wills: between Rachel and Leah, and between Laban and Jacob. In fact, this is an important chapter in the mounting tension and conflict of the Genesis story. We began with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. Then came the conflict of Isaac’s household, between Esau and Jacob. After the present chapter it will continue in the accounts of Jacob’s family, eventually leading to Joseph’s being sold by his brothers into slavery. Among the patriarchs there seems to have been precious little domestic tranquility. If one is looking for something along the lines of “The Secret to a Happy Family Life,” Genesis—beginning with chapter 3—is generally not much help.
At the end of chapter 29 the competition between Leah and Rachel was going strongly to the favor of the former. She has four sons to Rachel’s none as chapter 30 begins. Growing rather desperate (vv. 1–2), Rachel resorts to a tactic earlier employed by Sarah; this legal fiction is well attested in the extant literature of that time and period, specifically the Nuzi Tablets from excavations near the Tigris River.
Rachel’s plan, which effectively gives Jacob a third wife, works to her advantage (verses 3–8). Two can play that game, thinks Leah, who promptly follows the same tack (verses 9–12). Now Jacob has four wives and eight sons. Very quickly, however, the two sisters go beyond the niceties of the law. Leah resorts to a fertility drug (verses 13–21) and bears two more sons and a daughter. At last Rachel has a son (verses 22–24), whose story will dominate the final chapters of Genesis.
The relationship between Laban and Jacob has been something of a domestic business arrangement all along. For all legal and practical purposes, Jacob has become Laban’s son and heir. Meanwhile, however, everything still belongs to Laban. When Jacob asks to have a little something for himself (verses 25–34), he appears to be requesting a mere pittance, because in the Middle East the sheep are normally white and the goats normally black. Speckled and spotted animals are the exception. Laban, however, takes steps to eliminate even that pittance (verses 35–36).
Meanwhile, Jacob, having grown a great deal smarter, has plans of his own (verses 37–43). In putting three days’ distance between his own herds and those shepherded by Jacob, Laban intends to keep the speckled goats and the dark sheep away from him. This plan backfires, because it permits Jacob to have a three-days’ jump on Laban when it comes time to leave.
Thursday, January 31
Laban and Jacob: When Jacob wanted to leave in the previous chapter, it was his own idea. As we commence the present chapter, however, the initiative comes from God (verses 1–13).
Jacob summons his wives away from the tents and the ears of inquisitive servants who might report the discussion back to Laban. His argument is twofold, both earthly and heavenly. In purely earthly terms, he is fed up with working for Laban. As regards the heavenly, Jacob has heard from the God who had revealed Himself earlier, the “God of Bethel,” El-Bethel. That God had earlier promised to bring him back home (28:15), and now He is fulfilling that promise (verses 3, 13).
It turns out that Laban’s daughters are none too happy with their father’s treatment either. In his injustice to Jacob, Laban has also been unjust to his own flesh. He has treated them, not as daughters, but as outsiders. He not only sold them to Jacob; he has already used up the money he got for them! Leah and Rachel do not agree about much, but they do agree that it is time to start thinking of the welfare of their own children (verses 14–18). They flee (verses 19–21).
When Laban overtakes them (vv. 22–32), his complaints seem natural enough: “I did not get to say goodbye. I did not get to kiss my grandchildren. I did not get a chance to throw a going-away party. How could you treat me like this after all these years?”
Somebody in Jacob’s party (and the reader already knows who) has, in addition, pilfered one of Laban’s household gods. This incident does say something about the introduction of idolatry into the family, a problem that will prove to be chronic in biblical history. Holy Scripture provides numerous instances of idolatry introduced into Israel by the wives of Israel’s kings (cf. 1 Kings 15:13, for instance).
To cover her tracks, Rachel resorts to a ruse (verses 33–37), concerning which two points should be made: First, the reader is expected to be amused that a god is being sat upon. Second, there seems to be no end of deception in this family!
Feeling vindicated by Laban’s failure to find the absconded god, Jacob then upbraids his father-in-law, laying it on pretty thick (verses 43–54). It is a masterpiece of self-justification, in which the speaker is manifestly enjoying himself. Indeed, the author intends for the reader to enjoy it too.
By ascribing all his success to God, Jacob also intends to make Laban pause for thought; does Laban really want to be tough on someone whom God favors? Laban, evidently chagrined at not finding the stolen god, is at some disadvantage; he is unable to answer Jacob. The two men make a covenant and call it a day (verses 41–54). Laban and Jacob both head home.
Friday, February 1
Wrestling With God: After taking leave of Laban, Jacob must think about how to approach Esau, for Esau represents the tricky aspect of Jacob’s homecoming (verses 4–7). Esau, meanwhile, has moved south to the land of Edom, a dry and inhospitable land that lucidly explains the words of God, “Esau I have hated, and I have appointed his borders for destruction and made his heritage as dwellings of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:3).
If Jacob is feeling threatened by Laban, he now feels even worse from the information that his older twin is coming to meet him with four hundred armed men. That last part is hardly the sort of detail calculated to allay anxiety. Indeed, a certain sense of anxiety may be exactly what Esau wants to inspire in Jacob. If so, the maneuver is successful.
Jacob does two things (verses 8–13). First, he prepares for the worst, taking certain practical steps with a view to at least a partial survival of his family. Second, he takes to prayer, certainly the most humble prayer he has made so far.
Ultimately, after all, this is a story of Jacob’s relationship to God. Up to this point, God is still Isaac’s God, the “God of my fathers” (verse 9). Jacob has not yet done what he promised at Bethel—take God as his own (28:21). God had also made certain promises to Jacob at Bethel, and Jacob now invokes those promises.
He continues his preparations for meeting the brother he has not seen in twenty years (v. 14–23). He sends delegations with gifts, which are intended to impress Esau. Jacob, after all, knows that Esau has four hundred men, but Esau does not know how many Jacob may have. Jacob’s gifts, including five hundred and eighty animals, verge on the flamboyant.
Jacob approaches the ford of Jabbok, at a place called Peniel, or “face of God” (v. 30). The Hebrew text of verses 17–31 uses the word “face” (paneh) no fewer than six times. Jacob knows that Esau will soon be “in his face.” He must “face” Esau, which is why he is going directly toward him. Up to this point, Jacob has been a man of flight, flight from Canaan, flight from Haran, flight from Esau, flight from Laban. This all must change. No more flight; Jacob cannot face his future until he has faced his past.
Even before he can face Esau, however, Jacob must face Someone Else (verses 23–33). This encounter with God, which apparently Jacob has not anticipated, is far more significant than his encounter with Esau. A millennium later the prophet Hosea would meditate on this scene. This wrestling match is Jacob’s decisive encounter with God.
Everything changes: First, his name is changed to Israel (verse 29), as
Abram’s was changed to Abraham in a parallel encounter with God (17:3–5, 15). Second, God is no longer simply “the God of my fathers.” He is now “the God of Israel” (verse 20). Third, Jacob will limp from this experience for the rest of his life (verses 26, 32–33). No one wrestles with the living God and afterwards looks normal and well-adjusted. There is a further irony here. Jacob began life by tripping his brother as the latter exited the womb. Now Jacob himself will be permanently tripped up by a limp.
Jacob has remained on the near side of the river all night long, not fording the Jabbok with the rest of his family. When he rises in the morning, he must limp across alone. Esau and his four hundred men are just coming into view.