Friday, January 30
Genesis 30: 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 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 (vv. 3–8). Two can play that game, thinks Leah, who promptly follows the same tack (vv. 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 (vv. 13–21) and bears two more sons and a daughter. At last Rachel has a son (vv. 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 (vv. 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 (vv. 35–36).
Meanwhile, Jacob, having grown a great deal smarter, has plans of his own (vv. 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.
Saturday, January 31
Genesis 31: 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.
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, and now He is fulfilling that promise.
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. They flee!
When Laban overtakes them, 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 among Jacob’s associates (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, 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. 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, call it a day, and head for home.
Sunday, February 1
Genesis 32: Jacob, having with great difficulty disposed of Laban, must now figure out how to deal with Esau. Since Jacob last saw his brother, Esau 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 (vv. 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” (v. 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. 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. Jacob cannot face his future until he has faced his past.
Even before he can face Esau, however, Jacob must face Someone Else . 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, as Abram’s was changed to Abraham in a parallel encounter with God. Second, God is no longer simply “the God of my fathers.” He is now “the God of Israel” (v. 20). Third, Jacob will limp from this experience for the rest of his life . 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.
Monday, February 2
Luke 2:21-40: Luke’s portrayal of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56) is strikingly similar to his description of Simeon, who welcomed the newborn Jesus on his first visit to the temple (2:25). Thus, both stories begin with “and behold” (kai idou). Both men are called “just” (dikaios), and both are said to be “waiting.” Simeon is “waiting for the Consolation of Israel,” and Joseph is “waiting for the Kingdom of God.” This complex set of parallels establishes a literary inclusion in the Lukan structure.
Genesis 33: One is struck by Jacob’s great deference to his older brother, whom he had severely wronged a couple of decades earlier. 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 that Isaac pronounced over Esau was very potent.
Esau meets the rest of the family (vv. 4–7), and all manner of politeness is exchanged (vv. 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”). There he builds a shrine.
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.
Tuesday, February 3
Genesis 34: Jacob’s daughter went gadding about (vv. 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.
Jacob and Hamor, the fathers of the two young people, are remarkably patient, but not Dinah’s brothers. 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 well-being 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. 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 family, anyway, agree to submit to circumcision. 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 sin of Simeon and Levi (vv. 25–29), in addition to its cruelty, has about it a touch of deep irreverence. God gave Abraham’s sons 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, Simeon and Levi distort that sign, turning it into an occasion of violence against their enemies. They take something sacred and transform 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.
Wednesday, February 4
Genesis 35: 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.
We come, at last, to the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel, 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 (vv. 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 (vv. 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 (vv. 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.
Thursday, February 5
Genesis 36: 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 its readers with 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. The substance of the list was later incorporated into the work of the Chronicler (1 Chronicles 1:35–53).
Were it not for the Bible, and this list in particular, the Edomites would have disappeared from recorded history just as surely as their patriarch disappeared from salvation history.
Notwithstanding the obvious sympathy toward Edomites demonstrated in the preservation of these lists, Israel’s relationships with this people were anything but harmonious. Although the prophet Obadiah is perhaps our clearest example of an entirely negative sentiment toward Edom, he was scarcely alone in this respect. There is evidence that more than one Israelite found his style cramped by Deuteronomy’s injunction not to despise the Edomite (Deuteronomy 23:7).
Those descendants of Esau, after all, had obstructed the chosen people’s way to the Promised Land in the days of Moses (Numbers 20:21), and according to the prophet Amos in the eighth century the Edomites, having “cast off all pity” (Amos 1:11, NKJV), were involved in international slave trade (1:6, 9).
Edom’s most memorable offenses, however, occurred when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC. At that time they rejoiced at the city’s downfall (Lamentations 4:21), exploiting its misfortune in a vengeful way (Ezekiel 25:12). Most serious of all was the vile complicity of the Edomites in the demolition of Solomon’s temple, an outrage for which they are explicitly blamed in 1 Ezra 4:45.
This final offense likewise inspired a line of Psalm 136(137), a lament composed in captivity “by the rivers of Babylon” (v. 1) where the exiles sat and wept, remembering Zion. Reflecting on the holy city’s recent, ruthless destruction, the psalmist bitterly recalled Edom’s share in the matter: “O Lord, remember the sons of Edom / On that day in Jerusalem, / When they were saying, ‘Empty it out, / Empty it out, / Even to its foundation!’”
Obadiah’s postexilic prophecy testifies that his own rancor toward the Edomites was prompted by the identical recollection. He particularly blames them for rejoicing at Jerusalem’s downfall, despoiling the city, blocking the path of escape against those who fled, and handing the refugees over to their captors (Obadiah 12–14). He can scarcely forget that the descendants of Esau were, in fact, blood relatives of the Israelites. Like Amos, who had earlier accused Edom of pursuing “his brother with a sword” (Amos 1:11), Obadiah speaks of “slaughter and ungodliness against your brother Jacob” (Obadiah 10).
Friday, February 6
Genesis 37: Any reader of Genesis with even a little feel for structure and style 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 are two very clear points of style in which this long story of Joseph stands out unique with respect to the narratives that precede it.
The first 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. While 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 more quiet sequence that calmly closes Genesis and systematically prepares for the Book of Exodus.
The second stylistic point that distinguishes the Joseph story from the earlier Genesis stories is the quality of its interest in the dominant character. The sensitive reader of Genesis will note right away that Joseph, in sharp contrast to the earlier patriarchal figures, appears to have no failings nor faults. Both Abraham and Isaac, for example, acting from fear of possible rivals, go to some lengths to suggest that they are not married to their wives, a precaution that seems, at the very least, to fall somewhat short of the ideals of chivalry.
Similarly, Jacob’s intentional deception of his father in chapter 27 is scarcely edifying, while the cunning brutality of Simeon and Levi in chapter 34 is lamented by Jacob himself. The Bible is obviously making no attempt to glorify those men; it simply portrays them as mixtures of good and evil, very much as we should expect from any accurate biography.
There is a perceptible change of attitude, however, when we come to Joseph. Genesis offers, I think, no parallel example of such a sustained interest in describing the moral shape of a specific character. Joseph is pictured as a flawless or nearly flawless man.