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.


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