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.


Karin said...

Ooh! Seven covenants in three generations? Those are some mighty important numbers as the Bible goes. Seven and three. But here we have seven AND three. No WONDER his family eventually gets the land we call Israel (but I'm jumping ahead). So, should we take this to ultimately mean that the Israelis are right to occupy Palestine? Some would say yes and who can blame them, with those numbers?

chuckdaddy2000 said...

Reading your entries, I think what's really standing out to me is how much the OT seems to be an odd combination of morality tales, daily tallyings, and historical fiction. And I'm really intrigued by just how was it put together, who did do the editing, and for the real events, how much after the fact were they told.

Like with the Shechem story. It's both too specific and too weird to be totally false or totally true. But was it just the 4 generations later retelling of an actual event? The tale of killing 1 tribe after it's been through the telephone game? That's what makes the most sense to me...