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.

Saturday, February 2

Genesis 33: One is struck by Jacob’s great deference to his older brother, whom he had severely wronged a couple of decades earlier (verses 1–4). As it turned out, however, it was not necessary for Jacob to appease Esau. Even without his primogeniture inheritance and the blessing of the firstborn, Esau had done very well for himself and appeared not to hold a grudge against his brother. Evidently the blessing Isaac pronounced over Esau was very potent (27:39).

Esau meets the rest of the family (verses 4–7), and all manner of politeness is exchanged (verses 8–11). Stress is laid on the great wealth of each of the brothers, in terms that may remind the reader of Solomon later on (1 Kings 10:14–25).

Esau is concerned for Jacob’s safety as he travels with considerable wealth but with no adequate military escort. Jacob moves on, however, and settles down for some time at Succoth (vv. 12–17).

He eventually goes to Shechem (the modern Nablus, a corruption of the Greek neapolis or “new city”), where he builds a shrine (verses 18–20).

Comparing the present account with Jacob’s earlier prayer at Bethel in chapter 28, we observe in him a new level of spiritual maturity. Whereas in that earlier scene the Lord had identified Himself as “the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (28:13), in the present text the shrine is dedicated to El Elohe Israel, “God, the God of Israel.” The God of Jacob’s fathers has now truly become his own God. This designation reflects Jacob’s experience at Peniel, where he wrestled with the Almighty and received a new name. The Bible’s next story will find Jacob still at Shechem.

So far we have found the patriarchs associated with most of the great cultic centers of the Holy Land, such as Hebron, Beersheba, Bethel, and Shechem.

Haggai 2:1-9: This oracle from Haggai was given on October 5, 520 B.C.

The twentieth day of the month Tishri was the fifth day of the week called the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Leviticus 23:34), an autumnal harvest celebration (cf. Deuteronomy 16:13). In the year 520 that festival was especially significant, because God’s people had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, a replacement for the temple destroyed by the Babylonians sixty-six years earlier.

As they rebuilt it, however, a very disappointing fact was becoming clear to the people—namely, that this new structure, when finally completed, was going to be pretty small, because the people had nowhere near the financial resources available to Solomon when he had constructed the first temple four centuries earlier. Like the men who were building it, this new temple would be poor (verse 3; cf. Ezra 3:12-13).

Nonetheless, said Haggai, this new house of God would be adorned, in due course, with silver and riches from around the world (verses 7-9). A literal translation of verse 7 from the Hebrew (“I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of the nations will come in”) makes perfect sense, meaning that Jews from all over the world, coming to the new temple on pilgrimage, would continue to adorn and expand it until “the glory of the latter house would outshine that of the former.”

However, the ancient Christian Latin translation of this verse (reflected, curiously, in the King James Version), reads, et veniet Desideratus cunctis gentibus, which means, “and He who is desired by the nations will come.” This translation is echoed, of course, in the final verse of the old Veni Emmanuel hymn adapted from the “O Antiphons” of Advent, “O Come, Desire of nations, bind / in one the hearts of all mankind.” That is to say, the new temple of Haggai’s era was the very temple into which Jesus, the One desired by the nations, would enter.

Sunday, February 3

Trouble at Shechem: The inhabitants of Shechem are called Hivites in the Hebrew text, Hurrians or Horites in the Greek text. Non-Semites, they did not practice circumcision, and their introduction to the practice is something less than felicitous.

Jacob’s daughter went gadding about (verses 1–4) and came to the attention of a local young man who was evidently accustomed to getting what he wanted. His name was Shechem, too. In spite of the New American Bible’s indication of violence (“he lay with her by force”), the Hebrew wai‘anneha is perhaps better translated as “he humbled her” or “he seduced her.” Subsequent events suggest that this was not an act of violence. As it turns out, in fact, Dinah is already living at the young man’s home.

I remarked that this young Shechem was accustomed to getting what he wanted. Now he is about to be introduced to Dinah’s big brothers, who have some ideas of their own and also know what they want. This will be Israel’s first recorded armed conflict. As in the case of the Greeks assembled before the walls of Troy, they will be fighting over a stolen woman.

Down through the centuries this biblical story has been told chiefly for its moral message. For instance, in the twelfth century St. Bernard of Clairvaux used Dinah as an example of a gadabout, exemplifying the vice of curiosity, which Bernard called “the first step” on the inversed ladder of pride.

Jacob and Hamor, the fathers of the two young people, are remarkably patient, but not Dinah’s brothers (vv. 5–7). As we shall see in the cases of Reuben and Judah in the next few chapters, Jacob’s sons are not all models of chastity, but they were genuinely concerned for their sister’s wellbeing and their family’s honor. To describe what has happened to Dinah, they employ the word nebelah or “folly,” which term rather often indicates a sexual offense. For instance, this word appears four times in Judges 19-20, where it refers to a woman’s being raped to death. It also refers to Amnon’s rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:12, to adultery in Jeremiah 29:23, and to the infidelity of an engaged girl in Deuteronomy 22:21. The word is perhaps better translated as “outrage.”

A meeting takes place, as though by accident (vv. 8–12). Hamor and Shechem offer a deal. After all, Dinah is living at Shechem’s house. Why not simply legitimize the situation? Any solution but marriage would make things worse. Besides, the Shechemites reason, if they were all going to be neighbors anyway, why not a general miscegenation of the two peoples?

Here we touch upon an important point of theology, because the very concept of intermarriage might mean that the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would cease to be distinct; the very notion of a chosen people might be lost. Intermarriage with these Shechemites would have led to quite another result than that envisioned in the Bible (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14–18).

Jacob’s sons make a reasonable proposal, but not sincerely (verses 13–17). They speak “with guile,” bemirmah. This is the identical expression we saw in 27:35 to describe what Jacob had done: “Your brother came bemirmah and has taken away your blessing.” Guile seems to run in this family.

Shechem’s relatives, anyway, agree to submit to circumcision (verses 18–24). Do they realize that they will thereby be accepting the covenant in chapter 17? Probably not, but the question is moot anyway. Circumcision is simply part of a deceitful plan in this instance.

The offense of Simeon and Levi (verses 25–29), in addition to its cruelty, has about it a touch of deep irreverence. God had given Abraham’s descendents the rite of circumcision as the sign of a special covenant. That is to say, circumcision was God’s chosen sign for blessing. By their actions in this chapter, however, Simeon and Levi distort that sign, turning it into an occasion of violence against their enemies. They take something sacred and pervert it into the instrument of their own vengeance. Their action in this case points to the danger of using the blessings of God against our fellow man.

Monday, February 4

Genesis 35: Jacob revisits Bethel (verses 1–7) in a story that continues the tough “reform” mentality of the previous chapter. Bethel represents, after all, Jacob’s acceptance of personal monotheism: “There is only one God, and He is my God.”

The washing and changing of clothing is symbolic of Jacob’s sense of the holiness of the place (Exodus 19:10), and the earrings in the story are crescents dedicated to the Semitic moon divinity.

Verse 8 is a sort of parenthesis; that is, the author, when he comes to speak of Bethel, suddenly remembers that the nurse of Jacob’s mother was buried there. Otherwise, this verse seems to have no connection at all to the narrative at this stage.

The promises of the covenant are renewed for Jacob (verses 9–10). The scene is reminiscent of similar covenant scenes with Abraham (15:5, 7) and Isaac (26:2–4).

Bethel had been the scene of an earlier “stage” in Jacob’s religious growth. His return there (vv. 13–15) indicates that that earlier stage must now be incorporated into the larger picture. Jacob goes back to rethink and to rededicate that earlier event. In a sense, he is no longer the same man who first went to Bethel. Yet, that earlier event was an essential component of what Jacob has now become.

Finally we come to the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel (verses 16–20), Jacob’s favorite wife. Benjamin is the only one of Jacob’s sons to be born in the Holy Land. His mother’s choice for the boy’s name, Benomi, meant either “son of my strength” or, more likely, “son of my affliction.” The name Benjamin means “right-hand son.”

This could mean something close to our own metaphor of “my right-hand man,” or it could simply mean “southerner” (for an “oriented” or east-facing person). If this latter signification is what is intended, it may mean that Benjamin was born the furthest south of all the sons of Jacob. Whatever the specific meaning, the reader should not forget that we are reading here the partial genealogy of the apostle Paul (cf. Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:3–4).

Another domestic scandal ensues (verses 21–22), this time respecting Reuben. The latter will later come in for a rather unfavorable mention because of this incident (49:3–4), and in fact the tribe of Reuben will never amount to much in Israel’s history. In due course it will be absorbed by the Gadites and the tribe of Manasseh, and poor Reuben will be left with only a sandwich named after him.

In the patriarchal list that follows (verses 27–29), the author of Genesis is telling us that the foundation has now been laid for the rest of the biblical story. The patriarchal roots are now in place. We may compare this “list of the Twelve” with the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, which early provide lists of the Twelve Apostles. In all these cases, as here in Genesis, we are dealing with a patriarchal institution.

Finally, we come to the death of Isaac (verses 27–29). Isaac thought he was dying back in 27:4, but here he is, eight chapters later, still alive, up to the end of chapter 35. Isaac was already 60 years old when the twins were born (25:26) and a hundred years old when Esau first married (26:34), and another eighty years have passed since then (verse 28).

Tuesday, February 5

The Edomites: Before closing the door on Esau, who was rejected from a direct and active role in salvation history (Malachi 1:2–3; Romans 9:13), the Bible provides a list of the tribes derived from the seed of Jacob’s older brother, the peoples of Edom. This list forms a sort of literary break between the Jacob and Joseph cycles.

Were it not for the Bible, and for this list in particular, the Edomites would have disappeared from recorded history just as surely as their patriarch disappeared from salvation history. The substance of this list was later incorporated into the work of the Chronicler (1 Chronicles 1:35–53).

This compilation appears to be made up of six separate lists: (1) the immediate sons of Esau and his settling at Seir (verses 1–8); (2) Esau’s grandsons (verses 9–14); (3) the early chieftains of Edom (verses 15–19); (4) the first inhabitants of Seir (verses 20–30); (5) the kings of Edom (vv. 31–39); and (6) the governors of Edom after their monarchy (verses 40–43). The reader observes that these lists correspond to the developing stages of Edom’s political history. That is to say, the biblical historians kept a steady eye on the Edomites over a fairly long history. (Much of this material obviously comes from periods long after Moses.)

In the first list (verses 1–8) it is easy to discern small discrepancies with the narratives about Esau (26:34; 28:9). These are probably to be explained by discrepancies within the extra-biblical sources used in their compilation. Nor do all the biblical sources themselves agree on the names of Esau’s wives. For example, in the Samaritan text Mahaleth is substituted for Basemath in verses 3, 4, 10, 13, and 17. There is no compelling reason to suppose that Esau had more than three wives.

Some names in the second list (verses 9–14) appear elsewhere in Holy Scripture. Reuel (v. 13), for instance, was the father-in-law of Moses (Exodus 2:18; Numbers 10:29), and Eliphaz (verse 12) may be one of the comforters of Job.

The tribal leaders in the third list (verses 15–19) perhaps correspond to the period of the biblical “judges,” on the reasonable hypothesis that the periods of Edom’s political history rather closely matched those of Israel.

The fourth list (verses 20–30), on the other hand, contains information about the pre-Edomite inhabitants of Seir, the Horites. They are listed here only to fill out the genealogical picture of the region. Thus, the mention of Uz (verse 28) likely refers to the founder of the city called by that name, the hometown of Job.

The fifth list (verses 31–39), which chronologically follows the third, contains the names of Edom’s kings and presumably corresponds, in rough fashion, to Israel’s monarchical period (1000–587 B.C.).

The short sixth list of Edom’s governors (verses 40–43) apparently comes from the Persian period when the Edomites, like the Israelites, no longer had kings.

Wednesday, February 6

Genesis 37: An attentive reader of Genesis will recognize that he has arrived at something new when he starts through the long Joseph narrative. Although all of the stories in Genesis are tied together by unifying historico-theological themes and a panoramic epic construction, there is a very clear point of style in which this long story of Joseph stands out unique with respect to the narratives that precede it.

This stylistic point has to do with structure. The various accounts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have what we may call a more episodic quality. Even though they are integrally tied together by theological motifs and theme-threads indispensable to their full meaning, often they can also be read as individual stories, each with a satisfying dramatic anatomy of its own.

For example, while the more ample significance of Abraham’s trial in chapter 22 doubtless requires its integration into the larger motif of the Promised Son and Heir, that chapter is so constructed that it may also be read as a single story with its own inherent drama. That is to say, it is an episode. Part of its literary quality consists in its being intelligible and interesting within itself and on its own merits.

Similar assessments are likewise true for numerous other patriarchal stories, including the rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, the courting of Rebekah, Jacob’s theft of Esau’s blessing, and so forth. Though they are parts of a larger whole, each of these narratives nonetheless forms a good, satisfactory dramatic tale by itself.

There is nothing similar in the Joseph narrative. Hardly any scene of the Joseph narrative could stand alone and still make sense. It is one, and only one, story. No one of the parts is of interest without the rest. The Joseph epic forms one long dramatic unity, characterized by the careful planning of particulars, sustained irony, a very tight integration of component scenes within a tension mounting to a dramatic denouement, followed by a quieter sequence that calmly closes Genesis and systematically prepares for the Book of Exodus.

Joseph also prepares for the tradition of prophecy. Indeed, his ability to discern the future makes him the Bible’s earliest clear example of a prophet.

Thursday, February 7

Judah & Tamar: Although this last section of Genesis centers on Joseph, the text does not lose sight of the bigger picture, the bigger picture here understood as the entire biblical message. In that bigger picture, Judah plays a more important role than Joseph. Ultimately the descendants of Joseph, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, pertain to the ten lost tribes, whereas the tribe of Judah will provide the royal house of David and the Messiah (49:8–10; Matthew 2:6; Revelation 5:5). It is ultimately Judah who will give the “Jews” their name.

Between chapters 37 and 45, some twenty years elapse, and a significant number of those years are required by the events in chapter 38. Hence, this chapter allows the reader to put Joseph out of his mind for a while. It is something of an interlude, permitting Joseph to become settled in Egypt. It is a “here and there” style of narrative, inserted to fill in a gap and convey the impression of the passage of time until the thread of the larger narrative is taken up again. (Other biblical examples of this technique must include the narrative between Mark 6:7 and 30, contrasted with that of Luke 9:2 and 10).

The interest of this chapter, however, is less in Judah as a person than in Judah as the father of his tribe. In the larger picture this is a story about Judah’s descendants. Since it is the story of his lineage, it must start by getting him married (verses 1–5). This family, too, has its problems (verses 6–11). Once again there is a deception by means of disguise, an unfortunate characteristic which, as we have seen, tends to run in the family (verses 12–19).

We note that the Bible is not hard on Tamar here; she is simply trying to get what she has coming to her; namely, children. Judah, thinking he has managed to avoid Tamar all those years, now discovers an easy way to get rid of her for good (verses 24–26), but the young lady turns the tables on him. There is nothing Judah can do but acknowledge his paternity and get on with life.

This story is, in addition, one of the Bible’s great accounts of an underdog getting back at an oppressor. In this respect, Tamar’s story runs parallel with those of Esther and Judith. The irony of it continues into the New Testament, where Tamar enters the genealogy of the Savior (Matthew 1:5).

Friday, February 8

Genesis 39: In the story of Joseph the theme of Wisdom is explicit and pronounced (cf. 41:39; Psalms 104 [105]:22). In the present chapter Potiphar’s wife serves as the very incarnation of Dame Folly, that quintessential adventuress trying to seduce the inexperienced young man (Proverbs 5:3–6, 20; 6:29–40; 7:5–6).

As Joseph learned to his considerable hurt, it was in reference to Potiphar’s wife and residence that the wise man was warned, “Make your way distant from her / And do not come near the doors of her house” (Proverbs 5:8).

The ongoing history of Joseph is staged in symbolic ways. For example, Joseph’s different changes of fortune are symbolized in his clothing. His famous and elaborate tunic, which focuses the hatred of his brothers in 37:3-4, is dipped in blood in 37:23–32, thus symbolizing Joseph’s alienation from his family. Then, in verses 12–18 of the present chapter, his ill-fated encounter with Potiphar’s wife is imaged in the loss of the cloak used as evidence to imprison him. His eventual release from prison will again involve a change of clothing in 41:14, and finally a whole new wardrobe symbolizes his new state in 41:42.

Another element of staging and cohesion in the story is introduced by Joseph’s two dreams in 37:5–10, in each of which his brothers bow down before him. This double prostration is prophetic, inasmuch the brothers bow before him on each of their trips to Egypt (42:6; 43:26; 44:14; 50:18), and Joseph specifically remembers the dreams on the first of these instances (42:9).

The Joseph narrative is one of the Bible’s first examples of a story happening in two places at once. The introduction of the Judah episode in chapter 38, right after Joseph’s departure for Egypt, serves to suggest a lengthy passage of time, but it also establishes what will become a mounting “geographical” tension between dual centers of activity, Canaan and Egypt. The journeys of the brothers to Egypt and their returns to Canaan will eventually provide the setting for the two conflicting aspirations of Joseph and Jacob, the former resolved to bring Benjamin to Egypt, and the latter determined to keep him in Canaan.