February 3

Genesis 34: The other 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 will be something less than felicitous.

Jacob’s daughter went a 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.

We noted 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 knew what they wanted. 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 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 gad-about, 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 (verses 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 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 (verses 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 stole away your blessing.” Guile seems to run in this family.

Shechem’s family, anyway, agree to submit to circumcision (verses 18-24). Do they realize that they would thereby be accepting the covenant in Genesis 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 (verses 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.

Saturday, February 4

Matthew 9:27-38The healing of two blind men in these verses parallels a very similar account in 20:29-34. This earlier healing of the two blind men stands in contrast to the growing spiritual blindness of Jesus’ enemies in these two chapters, terminating in 9:34. The healing of blindness is a manifestation of the messianic era foretold in a number of Old Testament texts, notably Isaiah 29:18; 35:5; 42:7. This messianic note is particularly emphasized by the blind men calling Jesus “son of David.” The Lord’s answer, “Let it be!” (genetheto), by which the light floods into the eyes hitherto blind, repeats the verb in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light!” (genetheto phos). It is also worth mentioning that this cure of blindness, which is the ninth of Matthew’s series of ten miracles in chapters 8 and 9, is parallel to the ninth plague of Egypt, the darkness.

Genesis 35: Jacob revisits Bethel (vv. 1–7), 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 those earrings 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 (vv. 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. Ina 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 (vv. 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 righthand
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 (v. 28).

Sunday, February 5

Matthew 10:1-15: Before sending out His missionaries in Matthew 11:1, Jesus gives a lengthy discourse on the structure and dynamics of mission; this is the second great sermon of the Gospel of Matthew. This initial mission, unlike the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, is directed only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The disciples are endowed with exsousia, “authority” (10:10:1), which we have seen to be a characteristic of Jesus’ own ministry in deed and word. Sometimes the shaking-off of dust from the feet has been taken very literally by Christian preachers; cf. Acts 13:51. Among many curious features of this list of the twelve apostles, it is instructive to note that the list includes someone who worked for the Roman government (Matthew) and someone sworn to its overthrow (Simon the Canaanite; cf. Luke 6:15). Much of this chapter will be concerned with the resistance that the world will offer to the proclamation of the Gospel. This message has been prepared by Chapter 8-9, where Jesus’ own ministry was constantly resisted by those who felt it to be a threat.

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.

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. 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 (vv. 1–8); (2) Esau’s grandsons (vv. 9–14); (3) the early chieftains of Edom (vv. 15–19); (4) the first inhabitants of Seir (vv. 20–30); (5) the kings of Edom (vv. 31–39); (6) the governors of Edom after their monarchy (vv. 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 (vv. 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 extrabiblical 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 vv. 3, 4, 10, 13, and 17.

There is no substantial reason to suppose that Esau had more than three wives.

Some names in the second list (vv. 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 (v. 12) may be one of the comforters of Job.

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

The fourth list (vv. 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 (v. 28) likely refers to the founder of the city called by that name, the hometown of Job.

Monday, February 6

Matthew 10:16-26: Four animals are mentioned in the first verse, all of them for their symbolic value. Although this initial mission is only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” it is significant that the “nations” are mentioned in 10:18; again, this foreshadows the Great Commission given at the end of Matthew. These verses make it clear that the proclamation of the gospel by the Church will be met with resistance, just as we saw to be the case in chapters 8 and 9. Like Jesus, the disciples will be “handed over” to “councils” (synedria). This description, contained here in prophecy, was very much the experience of the Christians whom Matthew knew when he was writing these words. Similar experiences are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

Genesis 37: 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. He seems almost a type of perfection, a veritable saint right from the start. The Fathers of the Church could thus hold him up as an example of humility, chastity, prudent foresight, and inner discipline of thought. He was “that very man of God, full of the spirit of discretion,” wrote St. Gregory the Great. Likewise, Joseph’s ability to discern the future makes him the Bible’s earliest clear example of a prophet. In his patient suffering, moreover, his endurance of betrayal, his confidence in God’s guidance and his forgiveness of those who wronged him, Joseph seemed to the Church Fathers to embody the highest ideals of the Gospel itself.

This “hagiographical” approach is rare in scriptural narrative, the other few examples that come readily to mind being only Jonathan, Nehemiah, Daniel, Tobit, and perhaps Stephen. Most of the biblical personalities, after all, are composites of good and bad, mixtures of strength and weakness, with which most of us more easily identify our own experience: Abraham, Jacob, David, Jeremiah, Jonah, Peter and the other apostles, and so forth. It is understandable we find ourselves more in sympathy with these latter figures, and their use throughout the history of Christian ascetical literature amply justifies our doing so.

Nonetheless, it seems important to observe that the more idealized picture of the “saint” also has biblical roots. For example, the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 11 is sufficiently cloudy to leave out all mention of the weaknesses and failings of it numerous characters, instead concentrating entirely on their faith. Such a hagiographical disposition is already at work in the Genesis narrative of Joseph.

Tuesday, February 7

Matthew 10:27-33: This section continues to portray the resistance with which the proclamation of the Gospel will be met. In His exhortation to confidence in the face of such adversity, the Lord takes up an image from the Sermon on the Mount, God’s care of the birds (verses 29-31). Will He not be even more solicitous on our behalf, if He displays such regard toward the tiny sparrows? (Cf. 6:26) As we face the animosity of the world, He warns us, there is the real danger that we will end by denying Him. Indeed, confessing and denying, the two verbs spoken of in verses 32-33, are both illustrated in the case of Simon Peter, who both confessed Jesus (16:16) and then denied Him (16:22f; 26:31-35,69-75).

Genesis 38: 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 will give the “Jews” their name.

Between Genesis 37 and 45, some twenty years elapse, and a significant number of those years are required by the events in Genesis 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).

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).

Wednesday, February 8

Matthew 10:34-42: The New Testament provides a number of stories in which entire households accepted the Gospel, which then became the basis of a whole new way of family life. These verses of Matthew, however, affirm that such is not always the case. The Gospel proclamation can divide as well as unite, and family unity has sometimes been destroyed by the Gospel’s acceptance by some family members and its rejection by others. This is a matter of history experience.

Consequently, there is the principle announced in verse 37 about the priorities of love. This “he who” sentence becomes the first of a series of ten such sentences that close out the chapter on the more positive note of those who actually accept the Gospel. In this series of short sayings we particularly observe the emphasis on the first person pronoun, “Me” or “My,” with reference to Jesus. It appears seven times.

Genesis 39: The story of Joseph is staged in various 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 37:3f., is dipped in blood in 37:23-32, thus symbolizing Joseph’s alienation from his family. Then, in verses12-18 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.

How does Joseph survive all those years in Egypt? Surely by his reliance on the providence of God. This was the secret of Joseph’s inner life. It explains both his patience in tribulation and his ready forgiveness of enemies. Even as a slave, even in prison, Joseph was an inwardly free man, said St. Cyril of Alexandria, and Procopius of Gaza wrote that Joseph was perpetually and prayerfully mindful of the presence of God.

Thursday, February 9

Genesis 40: The climax of the Joseph story will be his revelation of himself to his brothers. Everything in the story is arranged to set up that event. Thus, Joseph must go to jail. If he does not go to jail, he will not meet the king’s cupbearer. If he does not meet the king’s cupbearer, he will not come to the attention of Pharaoh. If he is not brought to the attention of Pharaoh, he will not encounter his brothers. And so on. The narrative is thus very carefully pieced together.

Meanwhile, Joseph is in jail. Indeed, he is pretty much running the place after a while (39:23), when two other prisoners are brought in (verses 1-4). Already introduced to the reader as a man of dreams in Genesis 37, Joseph now appears as an interpreter of dreams (verses 4-8).

A royal cup bearer was a great deal more than a table servant. He was, rather, a high official of the court, normally ranking right after the royal family itself. Such men were obliged to be very careful, for they served very autocratic masters and were perpetually in danger of offending them (cf. Nehemiah 1:11—2:6). Somehow or other, this cup bearer had managed to offend Pharaoh. Thrown in jail, he had done a lot of brooding, and this brooding led to a dream about his fate (verses 9-11). Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, however, is rather encouraging (verses 12-13). In this instance, to “lift up the head” means to exalt, to restore to honor. Even as Joseph gives the cup bearer his interpretation of the dream, he senses that this gentleman may someday provide his own way out of prison (verses 14-15).

Encouraged by Joseph’s interpretation of the cup bearer’s dream, the royal baker decides to tell his own dream (verses 16-17). The images in each dream are related to the professions of the dreamers, pressed grapes and cup for the first man, baskets of bakery goods for the second. In each case, the number “three” is important. This second dream, nonetheless, introduces a disturbing note: Birds come and peck at the baked goods. This is an alien element, a common symbol of frustration in dreams.

Joseph sees right away that this is not a good sign (verses 18-19). There is a rather grim play on words here. “Lifting up the head” no longer means restoration and exaltation. It now assumes a disturbing literal sense; the baker’s head will be “lifted up” when he is impaled on a tall stake, perhaps. The meaning of the metaphor could also be that the man will be hanged, crucified, or beheaded. All three forms of punishment were known, and the metaphor could cover any of the three. We observe that the baker neglects to thank Joseph for his interpretation!

The important point is that Joseph’s interpretations of the two dreams are prophetic (verses 20-23). The next chapter will tell us, however, that Joseph will not be remembered by the cup bearer for another two years.

Friday, February 10

Genesis 41: We now come to the third discussion of dreams in the Joseph story. Pharaoh has a dream. Indeed, it becomes something of a nightmare, causing Pharaoh to wake up, which is perhaps why he can recall the dream so vividly (verses 1-4). Going back to sleep, he has another dream (verses 5-7).

It is interesting that Herodotus (2.136) provides us with a story that parallels the present instance. It concerns the dream of an Ethiopian pharaoh named Shabaka, of the 25th Dynasty (725-667). Egyptian literature itself is full of such dreams. In antiquity dreams were regarded as among the ways that gods revealed practical truths to kings and other leaders. We find another instance of it in the case of Solomon (1 Kings 3; 2 Chronicles 1).

Pharaoh’s two dreams have left him very upset, and at last the cup bearer remembers Joseph (verses 8-13). After all, kings could become very upset if no one could be found to interpret their dreams (cf. Daniel 2:1-6). Evidently the cupbearer sensed danger, since Pharaoh’s dream had not yet an interpreter. The fear serves to jog his memory; he recalls how he himself had gotten out of jail two years earlier. At this point he apparently does not even recall Joseph’s name (verse 12).

Joseph is summoned (verses 14-16). We note that this is the third reference to a change in Joseph’s clothing.

Joseph has no doubt that this dream comes from God. God speaks to man in dreams (compare Job 33:15-18; Numbers 12:6). Pharaoh, then, tells his dreams (verses 17-24). We observe that these dreams are not predictions; they are a diagnosis and a warning. Thus, Joseph is able, not only to interpret the dreams, but to instruct Pharaoh what to do about them. His wisdom, in other words, is not just speculative, but practical (verses 25-32).

These dreams have to do with the Nile River, the annual flooding of which is essential to Egyptian agriculture. The Nile’s failure to flood over a seven years period would be catastrophic indeed. In fact, there is a stone inscription found near the first cataract of the Nile, on the island of Siheil, which indicates that a seven years’ drought was not unthinkable.

Joseph does not even pause (verses 33-36). He immediately supplies the practical remedy for the problem, not even waiting for Pharaoh to question him. One has the impression that he has already worked out the details in his mind, while he gave Pharaoh the interpretation. There is no time to be lost (verse 32). The work will require centralized control. This is no work for a committee, and there is no time for a discussion. The only efficient course will require a strong, swift, executive hand (verse 33).

We have already seen Joseph as a take-charge kind of fellow, managing Potiphar’s estate as soon as he arrived, put in direction of the jail as soon as he became a prisoner, and so forth. Pharaoh knows that he has before him the right man for the job (verses 37-43), recognizing that this wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit (verses 38-39).

Joseph again changes clothes (verse 42) and starts a new life (verses 44-46), with new responsibilities (verse 47-49). His plans are successful (verses 53-57).