Genesis 36-40

36: Lineage of Esau. Esau has a very repetitive and elaborate genealogy, all apparently aimed toward explaining the names of the Edomite tribes. The chronology of this section is confusing, as Jacob first leaves Canaan because he’s fleeing from Esau. When Jacob meets Esau again, over 20 years later, in chapter 33, Esau is already in established in Seir/Edom. The brothers make peace at that point, and there’s no indication that they’ve seen each other in the years between. Indeed, the opposite is implied as Jacob is afraid of his reception with Esau and leaves the other way as soon as he can. In chapter 35, Esau and Jacob come together again to bury Isaac. Here it is said that Esau leaves Canaan because his and Jacob’s combined livestock was too great for the land if they lived together. However, according to the previous chapters, there doesn’t seem to be a possible time that they could have been living together with great numbers of livestock before Esau settled in Seir.

Esau’s wives and sons are listed by name multiple times, then there’s a lineage of one of Esau’s wives who descended from the first settler of the city, then a list of kings of Moab, and finally the names of Esau’s descendant chieftains. The description of the Moabite kings as being before any king reigned over the Israelites suggests the time period of the writing to be after the monarchy was established.

37: Joseph sold into slavery. I care little about Joseph here. If Joseph were my little brother, and his brothers were my six sisters, I would understand completely why they got rid of him. I might have more pity if things had turned out badly for Joseph, but his story in Egypt has the tone of a fictional adventure, while his brothers’ hatred for how their father loved the golden sprog more than any of them has the tone of reality. Morally, I suppose they should have left Joseph alone and sold Jacob. When Jacob mourns for Joseph, he’s getting no better than he deserves.

Joseph is often portrayed as being a petulant and spoiled child, but he is seventeen. It’s a bit odd that Benjamin wasn’t the golden sprog, since he was also Rachel’s child and in fact was the child of Jacob’s old age. Perhaps the fact that his birth caused Rachel’s death caused Jacob to favor him less. Oddly, Jacob rebukes Joseph saying “I and your mother”, but there seems to be little doubt that Benjamin had already been born at this time so that Rachel was already dead. Else it would make no sense for there to be eleven sheaves and stars.

Another oddity that shows that the God of Genesis seems to overlook what we would consider just punishment or reward is that Reuben stops his brothers from killing Joseph and intends to rescue Joseph and return him home, but he never receives anything more or less than the other brothers, and has no reward during the blessing. God originally appears to make his choice of blessing during the father’s blessing, but by the time Jacob is the dying father, there is enough land for all the sons and the amount of favor bestowed appears to have to do with Jacob’s wishes than any godly guidance. The commentary says that Ishmaelites would be an anachonism, as Ishmael was still alive and his sons would be the brothers’ relatives and probably not strangers. Later they are called Midianites, but this would be a much later designation after Ishmael and his sons were long dead.

38: Judah sleeps with his daughter in law. Judah moves away from his family and has three sons. His firstborn son Er marries a woman named Tamar. Er is described as evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord put him to death. It’s not described what this evil was, but as murder, rape, stealing and lying appear not to be punishable by death at this point, perhaps it was a personal affront against God. Or more likely, it was a necessary part of the setup.

Here’s a familiar story, and since becoming an adult, I’ve heard the explanation as many times as the misconception, no pun intended. Onan’s sin is not masturbation, but his refusal to give his dead brother an heir, probably by pulling out early. This practice of levirate marriage was common all over the Near East. At any rate, God kills Onan too, and Tamar is made to remain a widow in her own father’s house until the third son is grown up, which is a social insult to her. It seems that Judah thinks that Tamar may be responsible for the deaths, as he fears that the third son will die too, presumably if she stays in Judah’s household.

The rest of the story certainly isn’t taught often though the plot unfolds in a wonderful literary manner – there’s no convenient moral and God doesn’t appear to interfere again. Tamar is a character somewhat like Jacob as a young man, she dresses up to deceive her father (in-law), and ultimately is rewarded for her cleverness despite her dubious morals. Jacob is often dressed up to be righteous by the church, with all sorts of excuses for how Esau was wicked and greedy and undeserving so that Jacob practically merited the blessing, that God practically gave it into his hands. The difference with Tamar, I suspect, is that she’s female and that her deceit involves sex.

When Tamar sees that the third son is an adult but she¬† hasn’t been married to him, as it would be considered socially right for her to be, she dresses as a prostitute in a veil. Judah propositions her – and it’s notable that while Tamar appears to have set up the situation, she doesn’t approach Judah, but he asks to sleep with her. If a moral had to be found, it might have been not to sleep with prostitutes. She asks for a pledge of his seal and staff to ensure his payment. When he comes back with the promised goat, she’s nowhere to be found and Judah feels he must keep his mouth shut about the pledge, as he entrusted extremely valuable things in exchange for one incident of sex, and would be seen as ridiculous if he tried to harangue random prostitutes in an attempt to find them.

Predictably, three months later, Tamar is pregnant and Judah is about to send her to be burned to death. She sends him his own seal and staff, saying that the man who owns them was the man who impregnated her. Judah recognizes them, of course, and admits that he was more wrong than she for not marrying his son to her. He considers failure to follow social convention more of a wrong than sleeping with one’s father in law – but forcing her to stay a widow was a serious disenfranchisement. Tamar is saved from death and has twin sons. The first son puts out his hand, but draws back in the uterus and the second son comes out first. It’s another parallel of the pairs of patriarchal sons in which the older is displaced by the younger. It feels like it should be the start of another story, but it’s the last we hear of Tamar that I know of.

39: Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife. If being rewarded for being a woman who tricks a man into sex isn’t a good Evangelical moral, being rewarded for being a man who rejects a whorish woman is an excellent one. Joseph is sold to Potiphar, God blesses Joseph, Potiphar trusts Joseph implicitly. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, he resists, she grabs him. He runs, leaving his cloak, and she accuses him of trying to sleep with her against her will. Potiphar throws Joseph in prison, where God continues to bless him by making him trusted of the warden.

It’s a good enough story, but so familiar that of all the stories so far, I think this is the only chapter in which I have nothing to add, nothing that I’ve observed newly. There are a number of clever word plays and linguistic techniques noted in the commentary, but they add little to the meaning of the story. Joseph’s story also seems the most like a pure fiction, although it may have the most clear cut morals.

40: Joseph interprets dreams of the cupbearer and the baker. Since Joseph has the trust of the warden, he is able to be a guard to some other prisoners. It strikes me as a somewhat odious position to accept, as Joseph has cause to know that that people can be thrown into prison unjustly, but his attitudes toward authority would doubtlessly be different than a modern person’s. Each man tells a dream to Joseph, and Joseph replies that solutions are from God and interprets their dream. It’s not clear whether God speaks directly to Joseph. Joseph asks that the cupbearer remember him when he is restored to his position, but although the dreams come true, the cupbearer forgets Joseph. Again, I have almost nothing to offer on the story.


Genesis 31-35

I am still looking forward to getting through the familiar stories of Genesis, although it has been interesting to see some details that are not frequently taught. After that, I will review some more chapters in Geisler – something I had needed to take a break from for a while. In my personal life, I’ve been reading a fair number of non-religious books, running again, and trying to get everything in the house organized with dubious success.

31: Jacob leaves Laban. Laban’s sons are angry that Jacob has taken the larger flock, and God tells Jacob to return to his birthplace. Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that their father Laban has changed his wages repeatedly, and that God told him in a dream that he was causing the spotted sheep to breed. Alter notes that some source critics consider the dream to be Elohist and the narrative in chapter 30 to be Yahwist. It’s not clear whether the sympathetic magic Jacob performs earlier is a ruse, or if he’s telling his wives a story that makes him seemed blessed by God, or if Jacob thought his own cleverness had caused his success and was later corrected by God. After all, Jacob isn’t overly encumbered by truthfulness.

Jacob’s wives tell him that Laban has sold them and consumed their money. They all take off together on camels. The commentary says that a proper marriage would involve a large part of the bride-price going to the bride. The wives allege that their father kept the money and sold them for profit as if they were slaves instead of daughters.

Early in the Bible, the authors appear to have mixed ideas about other gods. When Rachel steals Laban’s household gods, she is never condemned by either Jacob or the author for having other gods. She hides the gods under her seat and lies to Laban that she’s on her period and can’t get up. Like when the earlier patriarchs lie to the kings about their marriages, the matriarch is blessed and the one lied to is warned by god and loses out. Jacob reproaches Laban for the “false accusation” and also for his cheapness in the face of Jacob’s efforts as a shepherd. Jacob and Laban make a pact and Jacob swore by the Terror of his father Isaac.

32: Jacob wrestles an angel. This is a bit of a change from the normal way that a patriarch has a meeting and comes out ahead despite lying. Jacob leaves Laban and messengers of God accosted him. The story doesn’t say if these were angels or what they wanted with him. However, Jacob realizes that he is coming into Esau’s lands and he’s rightfully scared. Jacob grovels a bit, calling himself Esau’s servant, and his messengers tell him that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob believes Esau will attack him, divides his camp, and begs God for mercy. He sends three gifts of livestock to Esau in waves, hoping that Esau will feel a little more kindly toward him with each gift.

Jacob in the second half of the chapter seems different in character. He wrestles with a man who touches Jacob’s hip and wrenches it. The man says that he has to leave because dawn is breaking. but Jacob won’t let him go until he blesses him. The man renames him Israel, because he has striven with God and men, and won out, but he won’t tell Jacob his own name. Nonetheless, Jacob says that he has seen God face to face and lived. This is such an excellent story that I hate to start discussing Christian interpretations. The text starts out by calling the person a man, but obviously he is more than that. Jacob calls him ‘Elohim. In Hosea, he is called a messenger, usually translated an angel. While I was always taught that this was a pre-incarnation form of Jesus, ‘Elohim can be translated as the plural word gods, so it’s not indisputable that Jacob was referring to YHWH, the god of his fathers, although ‘Elohim is also used to refer to that god.

33: Jacob meets Esau. After all the attempts to show Esau as being a person deserving of being deceived, he turns out to be forgiving and generous. Again, Jacob shows the difference in his regard for Rachel and Leah. He sends the rest of his family ahead of him and comes along scraping and bowing, but Esau runs to him, embraces and kisses him, says that he doesn’t need gifts. Jacob calls the gifts a tribute and oddly, says that he has seen Esau’s face as one might see God’s face. It seems that Jacob is still afraid though, because he makes excuses for Esau to go ahead without him, but then goes in the opposite direction.

Jacob settles in Shechem and builds an alter to El-Elohei-Israel. The commentary notes that Claus Westermann makes the argument that being in Canaan, Jacob claims the Canaanite god El as synonymous with his own god.

34: The rape of Dinah. This isn’t a story that’s taught a lot in Christian school. I had read it before, but I probably read the other stories of the patriarchs ten times more often. Dinah is Leah’s only daughter, sister of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. The prince of Shechem, also named Shechem took her and lay with her and abused her. It seems that he raped her, but then fell in love with her and he spoke to the young woman’s heart. It’s not clear by that last phrase the amount of consent involved. The text says as what might be taken as fact that he ought not to have slept with Jacob’s daughter. Shechem’s father asks for Dinah to be married to Shechem and to begin intermarrying freely at any bride-price and clan-gift.

The sons of Jacob, which turn out to be the full brothers of Dinah, tell them that they can intermarry if they will become circumcised, and Shechem and his father agree, largely because they hope to share Jacob’s livestock. Three days later while they are in pain from the circumcision, Simeon and Levi kill every man in the city, capture all their wives and children, take all their livestock, and loot everything in their houses. They bring Dinah home, perhaps an indication that she was not there by her own free will, as she might have been expected to come home while marriage negotiations were taking place. Jacob is angry that his sons have caused trouble in their new land, and the sons ask if their sister should be treated like a whore. The sons are both sympathetic in wanting to avenge their sister and repugnant in using her rape as an excuse to murder an entire town.

35: God renews the covenant with Jacob. God commands Jacob to make his alter in Bethel as he promised, and Jacob tells his household to put away their alien gods. Jacob takes the alien gods and earrings and buries them. The terror of God kept the towns from pursuing the sons of Jacob, apparently other tribes who had heard about the massacre at Shechem. An odd aside – Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse dies and is buried in Bethel. To be Rebekah’s nurse, she must have been extremely old.

God either repeats or affirms Jacob’s name change to Israel. He is described as ascending from Jacob, suggesting a visual manifestation. Rachel gives birth to the twelfth son Benjamin and dies. Reuben sleeps with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine, an incident that doesn’t surface until the blessings. Possibly this is a way to take his father’s place as patriarch.

Finally Jacob returns to Isaac, who is a hundred and eighty years old. He lived over twenty years past the blessing. Apparently Jacob does see Esau again, because he is said to have helped bury his father Isaac. It appears that reconciliation happens at the death of a father, as Ishmael also helped Isaac bury Abraham.

Genesis 26-30

26: Isaac settles in Gerar. There’s a famine and Isaac goes to the Philistine king. God tells him not to go to Egypt but to stay in this land, and Isaac stays in the land of the Philistines. It was noted in chapter 21 that the Philistines are an anachronism. Staying around Canaan appears to be some sort of condition for receiving Abraham’s blessing, but it’s not clear whether this has to do with Isaac’s obedience or with God’s attachment to the land. It was common for different gods to be in charge of different regions, and God later appears to have a physical presence in Israel. God tells Isaac that Abraham listened to his commandments, statutes and teachings, but I wouldn’t consider God’s reported interactions with Abraham to include statues and teachings. He tells him to build alters and to be circumcised, but almost everything else is situational.

We have almost the exact same story that happened twice with Abraham – Isaac says that his wife is his sister and the king finds that he’s lying. The odd thing is that this is the exact same king as in the second Abraham story – King Abimelech of Gerar. This time, Abimelech sees Isaac and Rebekah being intimate instead of getting a message or plague from God, and instead of being apologetic, appears to be at least somewhat reproachful toward Isaac, whereas he was afraid and fawning toward Abraham. However, Isaac is still the one who profits. It still seems unlikely to me that these are all literal different stories instead of variations on one story or a fiction to illustrate how Isaac is the successor to Abraham, although I can see why the patriarchs would repeat it since the outcome is always that they get rich. The commentary points out that Isaac may have strong physical appetites as he loves the venison that Esau brings him and disports with Rebekah in public – it seems to me that he has little self control.

Also like Abraham, Isaac has a dispute with Abimalech over a well, but this time, Abimelech sends Isaac away from the city where he continues to fight over water rights until he moves farther away. God appears to Isaac and renews the covenant, and Abimelech asks to make a peace pact and appears to recognize Isaac’s god. Esau marries two Hittite women, which provokes Isaac and Rebekah.

27: Isaac is tricked into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. This is the first chapter that has affected me as a story. Esau previously is portrayed as stupid and unappreciative of his birthright, but here he is simply victimized. He goes out to obey his father, and Rebekah prepares Jacob to appear as his brother. The story is thorough, Jacob and Rebekah prepare for every detail – even the smell of Esau’s clothes. It always struck me as odd that Isaac would be so easily fooled, because my impression was that blind people are extremely oriented toward sound differentiation. But Isaac hadn’t been blind his entire life.

I’m not certain how the blessing differs from the birthright. Since Jacob already had the birthright, what did the blessing add? Was it purely religious or was it the emotional trauma of being cut out from a father’s favor? It’s reminiscent of the kind of fairy tale in which once the king makes a declaration, it cannot be taken back or changed. Like Esther, for example, where Xerxes does not rescind his order to kill the Jews, but makes a new rule that allows them to fight back. It’s difficult to understand.

I don’t even think that Esau comes out so poorly in character at the end of the story. Of course, when the story was taught in Christian school or Sunday school, Esau was always defamed as much as possible. He didn’t respect God and he wanted to kill Jacob, but many people have been killed in the Old Testament for less. But when he hears that Jacob has stolen his blessing, his immediate instinct is to beg – Bless me, too, Father! And that is the saddest thing that I’ve read so far. Esau uses an unBiblical style vernacular before his birthright is stolen, but he gets poetic here. Still, his biggest flaw appears to be stupidity, while Jacob’s only virtue appears to be cleverness.

Rebekah uses the excuse to Isaac that Jacob needs to leave to find a wife. She’s like a Jewish mother stereotype – I loathe my life because of the Hittite women! If Jacob takes a wife from Hittite women like these, from the native girls, what good to me is life?

28: Jacob’s ladder. Jacob goes to find a wife from the daughter’s of Laban, Rebekah’s brother (who is a relation of Abraham as well). He gives him a new blessing that God should give him the blessing of Abraham. Poor Esau, who already has two Hittite wives, sees that Isaac disapproves of Canaanite wives, and in what appears to be a last useless attempt to gain his approval, marries a daughter of Ishmael. The text says that he goes to Ishmael, but it’s not clear whether that means that Ishmael is still alive, as he was probably at least ten years older than Isaac. I never noticed this little story before.

This is the only place that the word usually translated “ladder” is used in the Pentateuch. Alter points out that the phrases used are associated with a ziggurat, so the ladder is probably a ramp. God promises to continue Abraham’s blessing through Jacob. Although God made a promise, Jacob’s vow sounds like a bargain in saying that the LORD will be his God and he will build a house of God and tithe, but only if God gives him bread, clothing and safety on his journey.

29: Jacob marries Leah and Rachel. The sadness of Genesis went over my head when I learned these stories. Now I think that the stories are better than I remembered, but the morality is worse. As a former Calvinist, I believed then and still believe that it’s a strong theme that God loves and chooses certain people, but I don’t see any righteousness in it. Jacob talks to some men at a well, and they talk about Laban and point out that his daughter Rachel is a shepherdess who is arriving with her sheep. It seems to fit the idea that the women of Abraham’s extended family are very capable.

The men say that they can’t water the sheep until the flocks have gathered and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well, but when Rachel arrives, Jacob moves the stone and waters the sheep. The significance of this story is a little confusing to me. It imitates to some degree the story in which Rebekah waters the camels, but I don’t know why the other men can’t roll the stone away sooner, although it appears to be a feat of strength for Jacob to do it alone. Nor do I know why Jacob starts weeping when he meets Rachel.

Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel was comely in features… I’ve heard this translated “weak” to imply that Leah had poor vision, but it’s not clear whether the word means gentle or weak. It makes it sadder if it refers to Leah’s character. Jacob agrees to serve seven years for Rachel, and while there’s a feast, there doesn’t appear to be some kind of ceremony where Rachel is supposed to appear, they just go to bed together except that Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel. What is not explained is if or why Leah and Rachel are complicit in this. They must both have been aware of the deception, but there are no stories of how they had to be bribed or restrained, or what they thought of the arrangement. Nor does it explain how Jacob could have not been aware that he was sleeping with Leah. Perhaps for all his love, he rarely had a chance to be near her. I always thought that Jacob served seven years, was deceived with Leah, then served another seven years before marrying Rachel, but it turns out that he gets Rachel after a week and then owes another seven years in the future.When Laban says that it is not done thus to give the younger girl before the firstborn, surely that is a narrative condemnation of Jacob’s own deception.

The sad thing about the story is not just that Leah is loved less and knows it, but that with each son, she hopes to no avail that having a child will cause Jacob to love her.

30: Rachel conceives and Jacob performs sympathetic magic. Rachel demands that Jacob give her a son, and Jacob becomes angry and asks her if he’s God. So Rachel gives Jacob her slave to sleep with, and then Leah gives him her slave. Rachel obviously considers this to be a competition and says that she has won out over her sister. Then, Leah gives Rachel some mandrakes in exchange for sleeping with Jacob for one night, which appear to be either a contraceptive aid or a way to drug Jacob, who hasn’t been interested in being with Leah. Leah tells Jacob that she’s hired him, but still holds onto the false hope that having another son will cause Jacob to love her. Leah’s last child is a daughter.

All of these people are repugnant and I can have no sympathy for people who so desperately want sons. Oddly, when Rachel finally has Joseph, his name implies a request for God to give her another son. What a bitch. Jacob and Rachel are my least favorite people in the Bible, including Satan.

Jacob tells Laban he wants to go back to his land and that God blessed Laban on Jacob’s account. Jacob asks to remove every spotted animal, and then he gives the spotted animals to his sons and herds Laban’s sheep separately. He puts peeled strips of trees in the water when the flocks go into heat and then the flocks bore spotted young, then bred the strongest of his own flock in front of the strips. Google this and it’s funny to see Christians have conniptions about how the mean atheists are bullying them by pointing out that this isn’t how one creates spotted sheep. Later in Genesis, God tells Jacob that he was the one who made Jacob prosper, but that doesn’t erase the fact that Jacob was superstitious.