Saturday, April 28, 2007

Exodus 5 - 12:30: Plague, a Doozy!

Note: I had better clarify that the title of this post is a lame play on the name of the great early 90s Lawrence, Kansas band Plague of Daisies, of which I was the guitarist and lead long-haired dude (as shown here, at right). Sometimes you just have to be your own pop culture reference.

The Plagues of Egypt! It's a story of how a country's leadership, determined to pursue an increasingly untenable policy despite rapidly accumulating evidence of a situation in which it can not possibly prevail, exposes citizens to hardships, injury, and death and puts ruinous long-term burdens on the national economy. This is the kind of thing that sometimes transpired in ancient times; fortunately, nothing like that could ever happen now.

Exodus is turning out to be classic Bible. It is laying out one of the most familiar and important of the Old Testament tales, with a narrative density that is.... just about what you'd expect! There is none of the hypercompression of the earlier episodes in Genesis, nor the sprawling detail of the Joseph story, but about the volume of text you might see in, say, some hypothetical Big Book of Bible Stories. And if the action is occasionally interupted for some quick laying out of family trees, that is just part of what you expect from a good Bible reading, right?

It doesn't hurt, either, that the action of today's reading follows the rhythms of our most primal literatures, such as children's storys, many song forms, and most jokes: a repeated cycle of action where each instance is a little more exagerated or severe until you finally build to a climax or resolution. The little pigs build three houses before they find a building material that's up to code. The rope gets kicked out of the bar several times before it thinks to become a frayed knot. Stan writes to Eminem three times before he drives off the bridge with his girlfriend in the trunk. And God sends ten plagues to Egypt before the Israelites are able to start their long, long hike back to the promised land.

Let's take a look.

Plagues -- the Rough Guide

I find two things really interesting about the Plagues: the reaction of the Egyptian court magicians to them (an aspect of the story that isn't generally emphasized, I'm thinking) and how Pharaoh's reactions to them are described. But before we talk about that, lets take a quick plague-by-plague survey.

Plague #1The Golden Haggadah -- the Plague of Blood
The Unpleasantness: The Nile and all other bodies of water turn to blood.
The Magicians Respond: We can do that, too.
Damage Report: Massive fish dieoff. Water crisis requires emergency welldigging program.
Pharaonic Response: Irritation. Will not engage in dialogue.

Plague #2
The Unpleasantness: A massive infestation of frogs.
The Magicians Respond: We can do that, too.
Damage Report: Unclear. The frogs seem more of an annoyance than anything else. (Ironically, when God lifts the plague, Egypt is stuck with huge piles of rotting frogs, which almost seems worse than the plague itself.)
Pharaonic Response:
Agrees to Moses' demands (that the Hebrews to be allowed several days' leave for a major religious observance out in the desert), but reneges once the frogs die.

Plagues #3&4
The Unpleasantness: Great clouds of gnats and flies.
The Magicians Respond: Whoa. Frogs we can do, but flying bugs are out of our league. Be careful, Pharaoh, this Moses guy has big guns on his side.
Damage Report: Nobody likes being swarmed by bugs. Oh, and those gnats might actually be lice, depending on who's doing the translating.
Pharaonic Response: Negotiates partial agreement to Moses' demands, but reneges again once the crisis is past.

Plague #5
The Unpleasantness: All of the livestock animals in Egypt drop dead.
The Magicians Respond:
The magicians, apparently laying low after their inability to produce results during the bug crisis, do not weigh in.
Damage Report: Presumably, a near-lethal blow to the domestic economy and food supply, both directly and through loss of animal power in the fields.
Pharaonic Response: An unwavering commitment to his policy of no time off for Hebrew slaves.

Plague #6 Zurich Bible -- The Plague Of Boils
The Unpleasant -ness:
Boils. Everyone has festering boils. (As do all of the animals, which is a little weird because, hey, didn't they all die in the last plague?)
The Magicians Respond: They could not stand before Moses because of the boils that were on them... (9:11).
Damage Report: Ew.
Pharaonic Response:
The Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart and he would not listen to Moses. (9:12) Which is interesting! In previous plagues, it was the Pharoah himself being stubborn. This time, God is making him stubborn. Curious.

The Plague of Hail
Plague #7
The Unpleasantness: Pelting hail rages down throughout Egypt.
The Magicians Respond: Not mentioned.
Damage Report: Widespread injuries to humans and livestock (although, again, I thought the livestock was all.... oh, never mind). Destruction of the flax and barley crops. Major damage to orchards. Wheat and spelt crops relatively intact.
Pharaonic Response:
Abject capitulation, followed by another reneging after the weather returns to normal.

Plague #8
The Unpleasantness: Swarms of Locusts
The Magicians Respond:
All of Pharaoh's officials are ready to cave at this point.
Damage Report:
Massive damage to all crops left standing after the hail.
Pharaonic Response: the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let the Israelites go. (10:20)

Plague #9 Malevich - 'Black Square'
The Unpleasant -ness: Three days of total darkness.
The Magicians Respond: None.
Damage Report: Not discussed. But, you can imagine everyone was pretty freaked out.
Pharaonic Response: Initial agreement to allow the religious celebration shot down when the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he was not willing to let them go. (10:28)

Plague #10
The Unpleasantness: All firstborn sons of Egypt die.
The Magicians Respond: Presumably by weeping over their dead sons, like everyone else.
Damage Report: Significant blow to current and future labor force and pool of potential business, political, and religious leaders. Further loss of morale.
Pharaonic Response: the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let the Isralites go out of his country. (10:28)


The business about the magicians is interesting because they are able to keep pace with God for a while. Before the plagues start, they match Moses' trick with the staff that turns into the snake, and then they are able to duplicate the first couple of plagues. In so doing, they provide Pharaoh with some very bad intel, causing him to badly underestimate the national security risks of taking on God.

It's no surprise that God eventually outclasses the magicians. What's surprising is that there are even representatives of an alternative supernatural force involved in the first place. There's something subtly polytheistic about this, it seems to me. If God is providing the supernatural power that backs up Moses, who's backing up the magicians? It would almost have to be... like.... some other god. Wouldn't it?

God vs. the People of Egypt

I mentioned last week how peculiar I find it that God sends Moses to make demands of the Pharaoh, but also possesses Pharaoh to refuse to grant those demands. Looking at the breakdown above, you can see that Pharaoh was willing to say "uncle" after the boils (wouldn't you?), and then again after the locusts, darkness, and deaths of the firstborn -- but God won't let him. Despite the fortuitous composition of fats in the Mediterranian diet, God keeps hardening Pharaoh's heart, to the endless woe of Egyptians of all classes and occupations.

Why would God do this? Well, he actually tells Moses why, in chapter 11, verse 9: Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you -- so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt. God wants as big a showdown as possible, it seems, so that he can demonstrate his power and the word will get out.

This begs two questions, I think. One is, why does the demonstration of power have to be a demonstration of destructive power? Couldn't God make his point by, say, making the crops superabundant, while special cows that yielded ice cream suddenly appeared throughout the land? Or if that is too over the top, don't you think he could have got impressive results through a simple program of detailed skywriting?

The other questions is, why does God want the Egyptians to be impressed with him? Is he after new worshippers? That doesn't seem likely; you wouldn't normally try to draw people into your sphere by destroying their food supply and whacking their kids. No, this seems to be more about exposing the humiliating helplessness of the Egyptians. Which kind of implies -- this might be a stretch -- a humiliation of the gods whom the Egyptians relied on for protection. Which gets us back to that whole polytheism thing again. Curious and curiouser.

Next week: Let's Go! Sinai.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Exodus 1 - 4: Meet Mr. Moses!

When we last saw the Israelites, at the end of Genesis, I was a little confused by how well they seemed to be doing. With Joseph basically running Egypt for the Pharoah, his kinsmen looked to be in pretty good shape. With their flocks happily grazing on the lush fields of Goshen, they were living well, multiplying fruitfully and the whole bit. You certainly didn't get the impression that they needed to led away from oppression and subjegation in a biblical epic starring Charlton Heston.
Chagall, 'Pharaoh's Daughter and Moses'
As Exodus opens, however, a generation has passed, and we are told that in the meantime things have not gone well for Jacob's descendants. A new administration has come to power, and shows no interest whatsoever in courting the Israelite vote. Consolidating his power by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment -- a strategy that has proved sadly durable -- the new Pharaoh encourages the enslavement of the group that is now called the "Hebrews."

In a particularly grim piece of public policy, the new Pharaoh further decrees that all male Hebrew babies must be killed by being thrown in the Nile. One Hebrew woman interprets this loosely, throwing her baby into the nile in a waterproofed papyrus basket, whereupon he is found a way downstream by Pharaoh's daughter, and... well.... you know how this goes, right?


There is nothing written about Moses' upbringing in the royal family. We meet him as a young man, when he kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew. The episode seems incomplete, in that Egyptians were by this point apparently beating Hebrews pretty ubiquitously, but no matter. Moses dodges the rap by getting out of town. He goes and lives in the Sinai, where he marries a nice local girl, Zipporah, and settles down to work in his father-in-law's business, which is of course herding.

It is at work, tending herd, that Moses sees the famous burning bush, from which God speaks to him. Moses and God have a long conversation, in which Moses is charged with the responsibility of going to Egypt and leading the Hebrews to the land that they have been promised so often. [This property, interestingly, is referred to twice (3:8, 3:17) as the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. That God is giving the Hebrews a territory which already belongs to six other nationalities, none of whom are privy to the deal, is ominous foreshadowing of certain troubles that will crop up over the next 4000 years.]

God has an answer to both of Moses' main objections. Because he worrys that he will not be believed by the Hebrews, God provides him with a magical staff that can, among other things, turn into a snake. And because Moses is not especially articulate, God fetches his brother Aaron, who will function as the mouthpiece and press secretary. So, Moses and Aaron return to Egypt, and rally the Hebrews.

Wonder of Wonder, Miracle of Miracles

It's interesting that God, who I was always taught pretty much demands faith up front, is going to offer the Hebrews miracles to extablish Moses' credentials. It kind of begs the question, why can't we get some miracles to reassure us of God's existance?

Now there are of course people about who claim to have experienced miracles, but it is important to emphasize -- with all due respect to their experience and belief -- that they are dead wrong. They were, in whatever circumstances they wish to report, merely very lucky. A miracle is not required to enjoy good luck. To call one's own good luck a miracle is to claim God's favor relative to those suffering bad luck, which is really, when you think about it, self-serving at best and potentially quite odious. So cut it out, y'all, with claiming miracles.

Raphael, 'The Burning Bush' (detail)Unless, that is, you want to say something along the lines of "every [sunrise / waterfall / look at my baby's face / container of Ben and Jerry's Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream] is a miracle." I recognize this kind of thing as a fine and healthy sentiment. It does rather dilute the concept of "miracle," however.

A miracle, a true miracle, needs to be a twist in the laws of physics or of the line between life and death. And really, it makes perfect sense that God wouldn't want to hand them out like candycorn. If everyone got to witness a miracle every time their faith was a little shaky, they would be so common that they would no longer be a violation of the basic laws of the universe. (and you know how we are. We'd just want one little miracle -- but then, a year later, we'd want some kind of confirmation that what we'd seen was real, or that God still existed -- and before long, we'd be wanting them as a regular part of the Sunday service. We're annoying that way, we humans.) They would become merely one of those things that happens sometimes, something encompassed by rather than outside of the basic constants that dictate how the world works.

So if you buy all of that, we can assume that God would be pretty sparing in playing the miracle card. His use of it here suggests that this is a pretty important point in his overall plan, but it doesn't show a lot of confidence in Moses' ability to get the team fired up with his natural leadership skills.

Solitaire on an Epic Scale

We naturally think of the coming conversations between Moses and Pharaoh as being a dialogue carried out between the leaders of two communities, each acting with their personal and political agendas at heart. But if you were to strictly follow the text, it's something closer to a puppet show.

Moses, preparing for his journey, is heavily coached by God, who tells him not to worry, I will help you speak and will tell you what to say. (4:12) He is told that he must tell Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. But, says God, I will harden [Pharaoh's] heart so that he will not let the people go. (4:21) So, God is controlling not only the message, but the reaction to the message, which would seem to really reduce any active role that they humans are playing in all this. It's a bit like God is playing ping-pong with himself.

Trippy Passage of the Week

Then, there's Exodus 4:24-26, for my money the oddest passage since Jacob wrestled with God back in Genesis 32. If any of you gentle readers can give me some idea of what this is all about, you will be officially ordained as a MRTB Biblical Scholar, with a certificate suitable for framing.

Ready? Here goes. Moses and his family are on the road back to Egypt. But before they get there,

24 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it. "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me," she said. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)
I hope somebody can clear this up for me. Speculations, or for that matter wild guesses, are encouraged.

See ya next week.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Gen 46 - 50: The End of the Beginning

And we come to the end of the book of Genesis. When I started this project, in July, I estimated that the project as a whole would take "at least a year." And I was right! It will definitely take at least a year!

When I tell people about this project, they often suggest -- in the cheerful, easygoing way that one suggests to someone training for a marathon that they might as well do an ultramarathon -- that I should "do the Koran." Well, the thought has crossed my mind. But for crying out loud, people! Let's make sure I'm going to live that long first!

In terms of page count, I am now 4.4% of the way into the Bible. That took me, lessee, 8 1/2 months. So, at this pace, we're looking at 16 years and change (although considerably less if I can avoid having more lamentable slumps like the one this winter.)

The End of Jacob & the End of Joseph

But I suppose that before I start dancing in the end zone, I ought to actually comment on this week's reading. The text continues in the relatively sprawling storytelling vein that I talked about last week, getting even a little maudlin in a pair of patriarch-blessing-his-sons-from-his-deathbed scenes. I will condense.

Gen 47: The entire household of Jacob -- 66 direct descendents, plus spouses, servants, hangers-on, and livestock, trundle down to the famous "land of Goshen," a chunk of pastureland in Egypt that Joseph secures for them through his buddy, the Pharaoh.

Meanwhile, Joseph continues managing Egypt's food supply in the face of ongoing famine. As the people run out of money, he trades food for their livestock. When they run out of livestock, he trades food for their land. Then, he trades food for their servitude, specifically their agreement to provide Pharaoh with 20% of their crops in perpetuity. Is he saving the people of Egypt by finding ways to keep food distribution going in a time of tremendous hardship? Or is he the most despicable kind of profiteer, taking advantage of a food crisis to strip a starving and terrified nation of its property and freedom? The people of Egypt are said to lean towards the first interpretation: "You have saved our lives," they said. "May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh." (25)

[supplementary observation: "Pharaoh" is a really difficult word to spell.]

Gen 48: Joseph brings his boys, Manasseh and Ephraim, to Jacob's deathbed. Jacob gives Ephraim the better blessing, even though Manasseh was born first. Joseph gets a little huffy about this, which is kind of unsporting from a man who has lorded it over his 10 older brothers all his life. Since Jacob, too, was a younger brother -- remember his various tricks on his own big brother, Esau, back in the day -- this is the third generation in a row in which the primary inheritance goes to the "wrong" son.

Gen 49: All twelve of Jacob's sons gather around his deathbed, and he gives them all individual blessings that reflect their personalities or predict their futures. They are an interesting set of blessings. A few seem a lot more like curses, for one thing. You don't want your dad's final message to you to be:
5 "Simeon and Levi are brothers — their swords are weapons of violence.
6 Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
7 Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.
Many are highly specific, some to the point of being surreal:
11 [Judah] will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.
That seems like a passage that would mean something really specific to the original audience, but it's kind of lost on us.

Dying, Jacob says that he wants to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, in the cave originally bought as Sarah's tomb back in Genesis 23. Remember how, in that chapter, there seemed to be a real determination to underscore as often as possible that the cave was purchased fair and square? Well, lest we forget, Jacob -- on his deathbed in Egypt -- revisits the point with his final recorded words: "the field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites." (32)

Gen 50: And in Genesis 50, Joseph lives happily ever after. He lives to 110, and gets to play with his great-great grandchildren. But Genesis ends with some foreshadowing, as Joseph reminds the family that God has promised them a large chunk of real estate up to the northeast. God will lead you back there soon, he says.


So there you have it. Genesis took us through the creation and the flood, and traced the adventures of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The level of detail continued to increase as the chapter went on, so that we are told (for instance) far more about Joseph's relationship with his brothers than we are about God's creation of the Earth.

After the Flood, God is in fact surprisingly absent from the text, for the most part just checking in periodically to reaffirm his commitment to bless this odd and unruly family. Except for this, he is only present to occasionally dispatch those whose behavior he finds disagreeable, either individually (Er, Onan) or in the aggregate (Sodom, Gomorrah).

Regarding this smiting -- it is frustrating to be told so little about what has set God off. Stuff like this would be good to know. But we aren't told, for instance, what everybody was doing before the flood that made God so angry that he killed everyone -- except the family of Noah, the single righteous man. Noah, you will recall, celebrates his deliverance by getting drunk and knocking up his daughters. This was the most righteous man God could find? (I found it very interesting, too, that the near universal interpretation of what angered God before one of the major smitings, the Tower of Babel, is contradicted by what is actually in the text).

Finally, let's look at what Genesis had to say about my four initial questions:

1. Is God a Republican? Genesis is suprisingly free of prescriptive language. We are given very little guidance in what is or is not appropriate behavior. So, it is hard to pin a philosophy on God at this juncture.

2. Is God Good? This is the most disturbing of the questions, of course, and Genesis lends itself to disturbing answers. God curses his creation, kills on a global scale in the flood, and kills on a regional scale at Babel, Sodom, and Gomorrah. It is hard not to see this as, at best, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

3. Is there an afterlife? Genesis -- which, significantly, includes the authorized account of the creation of all things -- makes not a single mention of an afterlife.

4. What are God's Family Values? If we are to extrapolate from the behavior of those who find his special favor, a confusing picture emerges. Sleeping with your kids (Noah) is OK, but seeing your father naked (Ham) is anathema. Pimping your wife for safe passage and profit (Abraham) is OK, but not wanting to get your brother's widow pregnant (Onan) is grounds for death. It's a confusing world in the Old Testiment.

The sacrifice of Isaac stands out as a telling moment. The message of that story could have been "stand by your family, no matter what." But instead, the message is "do what you are told, no matter what." This is not anti-family, precisely, but at a point where a strong statement in support of family values might have been made, it was not.

Next week, we put Genesis, and Egypt, behind us. Please join me and special guest Moses next Sunday evening, as Michael Reads the Bible begins the book of Exodus.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Gen 36 - 45: Joseph Makes Good

You know the story. A hard-working farm boy from the sticks goes to the big, cosmopolitan city in the desert where palm trees grow and things are laid back but sophisticated. He has a hard time at first; he's naive about women, and runs into trouble with the law. But eventually he gets discovered, and through a combination of luck, hard work, and natural charisma, eventually joins the ranks of the rich and famous and finds himself attending parties that the likes of you and I can only dream of.

That, friends, is the story of Joseph.

Genesis 36

But first, it's time out for Genesis 36, the first full chapter of family trees we've seen since Genesis 10. A sample verse (36:24): The sons of Zibeon: Aiah and Anah. This is the Anah who discovered the hot springs in the desert while he was grazing the donkeys of his father Zibeon. Oh Yeah! THAT Anah!


Joseph is not Jacob's firstborn -- he is the 12th child and 11th son, if I count 'em right -- but he is the first of the two sons that Jacob has by Rachel, the wife he actually likes, and so Joseph is special. Jacob is none too subtle about playing favorites, dressing little Joseph up in what the New International Version rather disappointingly calls a richly ornamented robe but which you and I know is really a coat of many colors. This, along with the tyke's habits of having dreams that are thinly-veiled predictions of how he is going to rule over all of his brothers, does not endear him to the older boys. So, they sell him to some slave traders, and show Dad the coat of many colors with considerably more red on it than it used to have.

(At this point, there is a break in the story for Genesis 38, a completely unrelated chapter which I think is interesting and will return to. But let's indulge our modern sense of narrative flow and keep going with Joseph for now.)

Speaking of narrative flow, actually, it should be noted that the story of Joseph has a different feel than everything that has gone before. At Genesis 12, I noted that the hypercompressed storytelling of the first chapters broadened out into a more coherent, sustained narrative. At Genesis 37, the style broadens out yet further. The story of Joseph is a full, fleshed-out story with lots of detail and even something resembling character development. It's even a bit long-winded, honestly, and one wonders why there is so much more of it than there is of, say, creation, or explanation of what God really wants and requires from his human creations. That would have been handy.

Anyhoo, Joseph has various wacky misadventures in Egypt. A slave, he nevertheless rises to chief of staff in the household of the captain of the guard. Sexually harassed by the boss's wife (as shown here, at right), he's accused of attempted rape and ends up in jail. Pharoh hears about his ability to interpret dreams, frees him, and appoints him as, basically, Secretary of the Agriculture.

So, Joseph is a real bigshot by the time his brothers come to Egypt to buy grain during a famine. They don't recognize him, but he recognizes them. So, he messes with their heads, makes them jump through hoops, occasionally imprisons one or more of them, and puts them in situations where they have reason to believe they'll be executed, all for the better part of a year before he finally says "hey, it's me, your little brother!" Doubtless they are delighted. At the end of Genesis 45, he sends them home to fetch Dad and bring him back to Egypt, where he can set them up with some good land while they wait out the famine.

And that's the story of Joseph. I think kids like this story, and actually it has all of the elements of childrens' fantasy literature. The boy-hero gets separated from his family, has adventures, becomes important and powerful, and gets to stick it to his siblings in the end. It's a pretty unbeatable formula, when you are eleven. As an adult, I find myself more wondering about the relevance of the tale than anything else.

Genesis 38

Now smack dab in the middle of the Joseph story, as I mentioned, is this quirky little chapter about another of Jacob's sons, Judah. This is yet another chapter that highlights the freakshow family values of one of the great patriarchs. For a religious tradition that is so often held up as forbidding any but the very narrowest range of sexual behavior, JudeoChristianity certainly has a lot of creepy sexuality going on here in its sacred writings.

Judah starts off wholesomely enough. He marries a local girl, the daughter of a man called Shua, whose name we are not told. She is called "the daughter of Shua." Judah lies with her in the customary fashion, no doubt crying out "I love you, daughter of Shua" in the heat of passion, and pretty soon they have three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.

Years pass, and Er gets married to a woman who is blessed with an actual name, "Tamir." Unfortunately, Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death. (7) Yikes! that's bad! And naturally we are curious as to what exactly made Er wicked in the sight of the Lord, so we can avoid making the same mistakes. But this is not revealed.

Following the standard practice of the day, but making the modern reader rather queasy, Judah sends in the second team: Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother. (8) Onan is not down with this plan:

9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.
Well, at least this time we know Onan did wrong. Or do we? There is a tradition that this little tale shows that God hates masturbation -- because spilling semen on the ground is wicked. There is a tradition that it shows God hates birth control -- because deliberately failing to produce offspring while, um, laying, is wicked. But on the face of it, it seems to me that this passage is really about the moral imperative of getting your sister-in-law pregnant if your brother dies without an heir. And yet you never hear anyone going on about getting back to THAT traditional family value!

It goes on. Judah's first two sons having croaked on her, Tamir becomes peaved when the third one, Shelah, isn't sent her way to take care of business once he comes of age. To take her revenge on Judah, she poses as a prostitute (as shown here, at right -- it is very easy to find images for the Bible stories that involve sex) and sleeps with him, taking his staff and seal on consignment. She gets pregnant, and the townspeople tell Judah that his daughter-in-law has been foolin' around. "Bring her out and have her burned to death," cries this stalwart believer in the God of justice and mercy. Then we come to the punchline:

25 As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," she said. And she added, "See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are."
26 Judah recognized them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah." And he did not sleep with her again.
Moral tale? Soap opera? First written dirty joke? I dunno. I'm just reminded of this quotation: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The people of Genesis certainly seem to approach life with a different set of first principles than most of my friends.

Gentle readers, we are only four chapters from the Genesis/Exodus border. What a long, strange trip it has been, so far.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Gen 31 - 35: Jacob -- the Middle Years

Genesis 31

Last week, we were looking at the various shams and shenanigans of Jacob, and I have to admit that it never occured to me to think of him as a classic mythological trickster. This is why I need smart readers like yourself, and like the two commenters who suggested the idea. Thanks, commenters.

Having said that, in this week's chapters Jacob seems less inclined to pull fast ones on others than to cry foul about the way that the others are treating him. As chapter 31 opens, Jacob is nervous. His brothers-in-law are grumbling openly that Jacob has cheated their father, Laban, and gathered a great deal of wealth -- herd animals, in this society -- at Laban's expense.

Now, according to what we read in Genesis 30, this grumbling is entirely correct. Jacob did rig a system, using magic decorated tree branches -- really! -- to skim the best animals out of Laban's herds. In Genesis 31, however, the story is told a little differently. His own hard work is stressed:

6 You know that I've worked for your father with all my strength, 7 yet your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me. 8 If he said, 'The speckled ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, 'The streaked ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks bore streaked young. 9 So God has taken away your father's livestock and has given them to me.
The Jacob of Genesis 30 is actively working the system, making sure that the livestock comes out with the proper coloration. The Jacob of Genesis 31 is innocent as a lamb -- streaked, speckled, or whatever. If God makes the flocks speckled than gosh, what can he do about it? It's an interesting about-face.

Anyway, Jacob decides it's time to get out of Dodge, and sneaks off with the wives, the wives' maidservants, the children, the livestock, and the various household functionaries and hangers-on while Laban is busy with the shearing season. They are not exactly travelling light, however -- I get the impression that Jacob's household is a pretty good sized travelling town at this point -- so there is a slow-motion chase scene as Laban comes after them. He catches them after eight days, but it's pretty much an anticlimax. They agree to let bygones be bygones, and to stay in touch.

Part of the reason Laban gives chase is that, at the same time Jacob snuck off, his household gods went missing. Jacob is hurt by the implied accusation, and tells Laban to go ahead and search the whole camp. Rachel, unbeknownst to Jacob, is the one who swiped the gods, and they are right there in her saddlebags. Thinking fast, she stays seated when her father searches her tent, apologizing for not being able to get up because she is having her period. I mention this episode only because I remember seeing it when I was maybe eleven years old, and thinking it was pretty steamy stuff.

Genesis 32 and 33

The next two chapters are about Jacob's return to his brother Esau. Whether out of contrition for his earlier exploits, or because Esau seems to have become a powerful local figure since last they met, Jacob is nervous about the reunion. He choreographs their meeting right down to the minute details, and the exact numbers of goats and cows and donkeys, the order of their presentation, the little speech of presentation that the herdsmen were supposed to make, and the marching order of the sprawling family are all laid out in loving detail. (Esau, as likeable a character as Genesis has yet given us, seems bewildered by all of the fuss and just happy to see his brother again.)

This narrative is interupted at Gen 32:22-32, though, by an episode I find very strange indeed. (And I'm consistant. Both teenage Michael and grad school Michael left notes in the margin here noting their puzzlement. If I remember rightly, this is as far as grad school Michael got in HIS attempt to read the Bible. The big loser.)

Let's take a look:

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
27 The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered.
28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

OK, what just happened? Anybody? I know from, uh, U2 that "Jacob wrestled an angel, and the angel was overcome," but why? And what does it mean? There seems to be a very alien logic at work here, and Verse 24 is such a sudden transition into the weirdness -- such a non sequitor, really -- that it kind of cracks me up. Or freaks me out. Take your pick.

A few verses later, we learn that to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon. (32) And again, I say unto you: How does that follow? The word "because" is supposed to indicate some sort of causal logic, but to my mind there are quite a few missing steps in this particular "because."

Genesis 34: The Unkindest Cuts of All

So Jacob and the family settle in near Esau's place, but things go wrong right away. The son of the local Caananite bigwig rapes Jacob's daughter, Dinah. Or does he? I'm not sure:

2 When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and violated her. 3 His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her. 4 And Shechem said to his father Hamor, "Get me this girl as my wife."

I've looked at this passage in a number of translations, and really wish we could get Dinah's testimony on the incident. Jacob and his sons are more than a little upset, but I can't tell why. Three possibilities:

  • Dinah and Shechem liked each other, and did some consensual foolin' around. The boys regard her loss of virginity as a defilement.
  • Shechem really did rape Dinah, and the boys regard her loss of virginity as a defilement.
  • Shechem really did rape Dinah, and her family is outraged and horrified that their loved one has been hurt and disrespected.

It is not at all clear to me whether the first or second possibility is the accurate one. The third possibility seems vanishingly unlikely.

The exact nature of the Canaanite prince's offense would be nice to know, as he and his entire community are going to pay for it. Hamor, the king, suggests that Shechem and Dinah just get married, and offers to pay any bride price that Jacob wants to set. Jacob's sons say this is fine -- with one little catch:

15 We will give our consent to you on one condition only: that you become like us by circumcising all your males. 16 Then we will give you our daughters and take your daughters for ourselves. We'll settle among you and become one people with you. 17 But if you will not agree to be circumcised, we'll take our sister and go."
Hamor, who is a KING and does not have to stand for re-election, agrees and institutes mandatory circumcision. Once this has been done, and all of the men in town are feeling, well, sore -- two of Jacob's sons come to town and kill everyone. All the males, anyway. The women and children they seize and carry off, along with the flocks, herds, donkeys, and wealth.

And again I ask: Are these guys supposed to be setting a good example for how we are supposed to behave in the world?

Genesis 35

Understandably concerned about what the neighbors might be thinking about them, Jacob's clan sets off again. At a place called Bethel, God appears to Jacob and promises yet again that this family is going to produce nations and kings, and that it is their destiny to rule over much of the Middle East. I have not gone back to count, but I believe it's the seventh time God has made this covenant with this family in three generations.

Have a good week!


In looking for this week's illustrations, I came across something called The Brick Testament. It is truly strange and brilliant. Check it out.