Thursday, January 19, 2012

Wrestling with God

Genesis 32 starts out with another meeting between Jacob and the “angels of God” but we don’t get much of a hint as to what transpired or what the visit was all about other than that Jacob uses it as an excuse to name another sacred place - Mahanaim or ‘two camps’. As a reader, I would think one would want to know what the angels had to say, but all we get is what Jacob said and that wasn’t much. Next we start into a dense section about Jacob’s elaborate preparations for his reunion with his brother Esau, who he clearly fears at this point. Once again, Jacob seems to be doubting God’s promise of protection and instead takes great pains to send bribes of livestock to hopefully appease his wronged sibling. What strikes me most about the passage is just how large Jacob’s retinue is. He’s got cattle and donkeys and sheep and goats and camels and slaves and women and children and on and on. So many, in fact, that he can give a gift of “200 female goats and 20 male goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 female camels with their young, 40 cows and 10 bulls, and 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys” to appease his brother and still have an entourage large enough to split into two large camps. Recall that Jacob had supposedly slipped out of his uncle’s place in great haste, but in retrospect his exit must have looked like a circus parade. Jacob sends his servants ahead with his bribes and then splits the rest of his company into two groups in the hopes that if Esau attacks one, the other can escape. But before we get to the finale of the reunion story, we detour into a strange tale of Jacob wrestling with either God or an angel, depending on your interpretation. Now, it’s really only strange if you are trying to read everything literally. Metaphorically, it seems fine. The story is strange because at first we are told that Jacob wrestled with a ‘man’ until daybreak. But after Jacob apparently wrestles the man into submission (even though the man uses some special power to wrench Jacob’s hip socket) he demands that the man bless him. So that is pretty strange, but stranger still is that the man obliges and announces that Jacob’s name will now be Israel “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” But rather than referring to Jacob as Israel from this point on as when Abram was renamed Abraham, the text just reverts back to calling him Jacob as usual. Jacob gives the place where they wrestled a special name saying it is where he “saw God face to face” and then proceeds to walk with a limp from then on. The text then goes on to outline a new dietary law for the Israelites stating that they cannot eat the tendon attached to the hip because that is where God touched Jacob. Like most dietary laws, it doesn’t make much sense. So what is the point of the wrestling metaphor? Because I really can’t take it seriously as a literal story. It would seem to me more apt for Abraham to be the one who “wrestled with God” when he was trying to convince God to spare the lives of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Or when he was tested with the command to sacrifice his son Isaac. What has Jacob done other than wrestle some promises of safe passage out of God, which he subsequently does not seem to have taken too seriously?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Nobody gets any respect!


Everybody is disrespecting everyone else in Genesis 31 and the one getting dissed the most seems to be God. Yet, he doesn't seem to be the slightest bit upset about it. Earlier in the Bible (and later) God has shown a propensity for violence when being dissed. But not this time.
Laban has been disrespecting Jacob all this time by forcing him to stay in his employ an extra seven years than he originally planned. Now, Jacob is going to disrespect his father-in-law by skipping town without even giving the old man a chance to say goodbye to his daughter and grandkids. Meanwhile, Rachel is disrespecting her father by stealing his "household gods". The mere presence of these other "gods" is disrespectful in itself and is considered a grave sin in other parts of the Bible, but ilicits no reaction here.
At the start of the chapter, God tells Jacob to go home and that "I will be with you." But does Jacob trust that the Lord will keep him safe on his journey home? Not on your life. He flees from Laban because he thinks he won't let him go and who knows what he might do if he catches him trying to sneak away. So Jacob disses God by showing no trust in him whatsoever. And recall that earlier Jacob even made God promise to bring him home safely as part of a covenant he made. And still that isn't good enough.
And then we have this strange interaction between Laban and God after he finds out that Jacob has split. God tells Laban in a dream "not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad." Assuming that is an accurate interpretation, Laban clearly blows God off and goes ahead and says quite a bit to Jacob once he tracks him down. So God is dissed once again, and still no reaction!
But then the story ends on a happy note with Jacob and Laban making nice and everyone parts as friends. So it was just as well that God didn't lose his temper this time, but maybe the point was that he already knew that.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sex wars and striped sheep


The Biblical views on sex are confusing and hard to figure out. So much of what happens in the Old Testament is either blamed on or credited to God so that people look to the Scriptures for clues as to how they should behave. And yet, all through the Old Testament we find stories of God approving of, encouraging or otherwise not dissuading actions and behaviors that we would never tolerate today.
Genesis 30 is replete with examples of bizarre sexual behavior as the sisters Rachel and Leah get into a competition to see who can produce the most sons for their “family.”
Leah already has a headstart with four sons due to God feeling sympathy for her being the unloved first wife of Jacob. Plus she has the advantage that her sister’s womb was closed by God for reasons we can’t begin to fathom.
So we get a replay of the Sarah-Hagar conflict with the barren Rachel jealous of her older sister’s success in the child-rearing department. She complains to Jacob who angrily tells her it’s God’s fault and not his.
She then decides to make one of her maid servants, Bilhah, have sex with Jacob to produce a son for her. And unlike the Sarah-Hagar story, Rachel does not get jealous of Bilhah who promptly conceives and bears two sons. The Biblical authors don’t seem the slightest bit preturbed at the idea of slaves being forced to have sex with their masters (I think we might call that rape today) and then having to give up their children to their mistresses.
Instead, they just pile it on with Leah matching Rachel maidservant for maidservant and Jacob just hopping from one bed to the next having sex with everybody.
In the midst of all this begetting, we suddenly brake for a story about Reuben - Leah’s first born - collecting mandrake plants during the wheat harvest and then Leah using them to “hire” Jacob to have sex with her again. This is really odd because why would she have to do that? She is still one of Jacob’s wives. Why does she have to bribe Rachel in order to get Jacob to have sex with her?
Nevertheless, the ploy works and Leah becomes pregnant again and again and again.
And then, God suddenly remembers Rachel and arbitrarily decides to open her womb so that she gives birth to the next major figure in the story - Joseph.

Now Genesis 30 completely shifts gears and starts talking about sheep and goats. Jacob asks his uncle to send him back to his homeland with his wives and children. Why he needs Laban’s permission if he has completed the second seven years they had agreed to is not clear. But none-the-less, Laban resists and tells Jacob that if he stays he will give him all the spotted and striped sheep and goats in his flocks. He then tries to doublecross Jacob by having his sons cull out all the colored sheep and put them in their flocks.
But Jacob has the last laugh because he apparently knows some ancient secret as to how to get sheep and goats to bear striped and spotted offspring simply by placing in their water troughs fresh-cut poplar branches with the bark stripped off to make stripes. What is really interesting is that the authors don’t even attribute this particular miracle to God. They just act like it is Jacob being clever or something. Weird.

Love at first sight


Jacob’s introduction to Rachel in Genesis 29 is preceded by a strange encounter with a group of shepherds. We get a detailed description of a well with a large stone covering it and then a dialogue between Jacob and the shepherds that goes on for six verses before Rachel shows up in much the same way that his mother Rebeka showed up next to a well for Abraham’s nameless servant in Genesis 24.
It is almost a doublet, which is how they refer to repeated stories in the Bible, except that instead of the girl fetching the water for the boy, this time it is the other way around. After seeming to argue with the shepherds and instructing them on how to raise their sheep, Jacob suddenly jumps up and in what would seem to be a bid to impress the pretty Rachel, moves the large stone on the well and water’s his uncle’s sheep.
He then kisses her and weeps aloud. How odd must that have been for Rachel to have a stranger kiss her and start crying? But maybe that sort of thing happened all the time back then. There certainly is a lot of rending of garments and crying throughout the Old Testament.

Jacob’s uncle Laban is more than happy to see him and after about a month offers to pay wages for the work that Jacob is apparently doing for him. Jacob clearly wants his daughter’s hand in marriage, but rather than just saying so he promises to work seven years for his uncle first. Seven years!?! That’s a long courtship! Why not seven months or something more reasonable?
Then, after the seven years, which is said to have passed like it was just a few days because of his love for Rachel, Jacob the trickster gets a dose of his own medicine. His uncle tricks him into marrying his oldest daughter Leah, instead of Rachel. Damn those veils!!
So now, Jacob has to work seven more years for his uncle to get Rachel, but at least this time he doesn’t have to wait seven more years before he can jump in the sack with her. But now God intervenes and determines that because Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah he will allow the unloved one to have children while the other remains barren.
Leah then gives birth to four sons who will play big roles later on - Rueben, Simeon, Levi and Judah.

Stairway to Heaven


Having just been blessed in place of his brother Esau, Jacob is now instructed by his father to NOT marry a Canaanite woman. Rather, he is told to go to his uncle and marry one of his cousins.
So we have yet another example of the Bible encouraging behavior that we reject today. Marrying one’s cousin is considered boderline incest today. Just recall the public reaction back when rock-n-roller Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin. People were apalled and disgusted. Yet, this is common everyday practice in the Old Testament.
When poor, rejected Esau hears of this, he immediately runs out and marries one of his cousins too in a seeming bid to curry favor from his father. We don’t find out if this works or not, but the passage does not that the new wife is “in addition to the wives he already had.”

On his trip to find a suitable wife, Jacob has his famous ladder dream. The ladder, or stairway to heaven, has been a popular image ever since, but the story itself is kind of disappointing. Other than the basic description of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending, there is no other explanation. I mean, why do angels with wings need a ladder or stairway?
Basically, it is simply a setup for God to issue the same promise to Jacob that he has already made to Abraham and Isaac.
The next morning Jacob decides to consecrate the stone he slept on with oil and then make a vow to God. It is an interesting vow because of all the conditions he puts on it. Jacob promises to worship the Lord as his God, but only if God watches over him on his journey, makes sure he has food to eat and clothes to wear, and assures that he gets home safely in the end.
Wouldn’t we all like to make vows like that?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Lie, Cheat, Steal and Be Rewarded


I don't know how anyone could read Genesis 27 and not feel sympathy for Esau who has his birthright taken away by his conniving little brother.
I guess one could say that Esau's claim to the title of elder brother was tenuous at best since he and Jacob were twins and he just happened to come out of the womb first by a few minutes.
Still, it is hard to understand why Rebekah is so intent on pushing one child over the other. I'm not sure what the lesson is that we are supposed to take away from this story if any. But I guess it makes for a good story.
A very strange story, though. What is the deal with these "blessings" and "curses." How are they enforced? Why can Isaac only give out one blessing to his children and why can't he take the blessing back when it became clear that he had been tricked into bestowing it on the wrong person?
Perhaps the only purpose is to explain why the Israelis, who trace their heritage back to Jacob, should be more blessed than the people whose roots go back to Esau.
Surely, it can't be to say that people who lie, cheat and steal will be rewarded by God.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Third Times the Charm


Here we go again! It's the Biblical version of "Take my wife, Please!" told for the THIRD time. Yes, that's right, three times we get to here the same story - Genesis 12, 20 and now 26. Methinks the scribes and editors got a little mixed up and added this story more than once by accident.
The only difference is that this time instead of Abraham and Sara as the main characters, we have Isaac and Rebecca. But all the bit players are still the same! We still have King Abimelech from Genesis 20 back for an encore to play the role of the duped almost-adulterer, and his personal advisor Phicol revising his role as the only other person in the story with a name.
I don't think there is a clearer example than this to demonstrate that there were multiple authors of the Bible compiling tales passed down through an oral tradition.