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.


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