Monday, March 18, 2013

Reboot the Pentateuch: The Ninth Saga - The Generations of Isaac (Gen 25:19-35:29)

This is Part 11 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.

Click here to read the entire series.


As we have said throughout this series, it is important that we understand that the Pentateuch was written by Moses shortly after the Exodus out of Egypt. He (and his readers) were struggling with this covenant laid down by Moses and were trying to make a kingdom for themselves in Canaan, having escaped the most powerful empire in history.

As we read Moses' account of Abraham's life a few weeks ago, we Moses highlight the similarities between the lives of his people and the life of their patriarch, Abraham. In that saga, we saw that Abraham was promised Canaan, but during a time of famine he left Canaan. He sought refuge in Egypt, which ended poorly for him. Eventually he had to turn from Egypt and return to Canaan in order to receive God's promised safety and security.

Keep that in mind, as you will see similar themes in both patriarchs in today's Saga.

Isaac stays in Canaan (25:19-26:33)

Isaac is living with Rebekah in Canaan, but Rebekah has been barren--just as her mother-in-law Sarah had been. Isaac prayed to God, and she was granted to bear a child. She had twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau grew up to be a skillful hunter, while Jacob is described only as a "quiet man, dwelling in tents" (25:27). He seems to have been introverted and strongly preferred by his mother, while his father preferred the 'manlier' Esau (25:28).

Now in the Near East, inheritance was divided in this way: every male child receives an equal inheritance, but the eldest son receives a double inheritance. He will serve as patriarch of the family when the father passes away; this responsibility and burden is rewarded with extra inheritance. Esau, legally, had a right to this double inheritance.

At some point after they were grown, Esau had been out hunting and was so exhausted he seems to have honestly believed he would die if he did not eat (25:32). Exhausted, he drags in to find Jacob cooking a stew for himself. Esau asks for some stew, and Jacob agrees to sell it to return for his birthright. Esau agrees, and thus we see how Jacob "bought" the right to be the head of the family after Isaac's death.

My primary interest in this passage is that we see here again God using the second child as the patriarch of the family--just as Isaac's older brother Ishmael was cast out. The key learning here is that God's will leads through the "children of promise" rather than the children of Law--that is, God willed for the path to go Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, even though by human law it should have been Abraham-Ishmael or Abraham-Isaac-Esau.

Remember how Abraham was shown to the Israelites by Moses as a theme--of how leaving Canaan into Egypt to escape famine was not a good thing? Well here we are shown a positive example. Another famine arises, and Isaac considers going down to Egypt just as his father had. God appeared to Isaac however and told him to stay put in the promised land and He would take care of Isaac (26:1-6). Do not miss this, as it is a key point! Moses is showing his readers that, time and again, Abraham and his descendents have faced struggles before, but things are better if they stay in Canaan! Going back to Egypt is not the we shall see later, this is an important point for them to remember.

Isaac didn't learn from one of Abraham's mistakes, though. He too tried the "my wife is my sister" routine (26:7; go re-read the passage on Abraham to understand the cultural reasons why). In this case, though, Rebekah remained pure to Isaac and they were able to live peacefully among the Philistines.

Jacob's Flight (26:34-30:43)

So far we have seen Abraham flee the promised land rather than rely on God's protection, and suffer for it--only to one day return. Then we saw Isaac think about fleeing, but stay faithful to God and remain in Canaan. Now, Moses points out that Jacob followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, and fled Canaan--when he should have stuck around.

Esau did not age well. He made life "bitter" for his parents--a harsh testimony at a time when children were expected to bring their parents honor (26:35). This was largely due to his intermarrying with two Hittite women (26:34-35, 27:46). Perhaps for this reason, Rebekah decided that not only should her favored son Jacob have Esau's inheritance, but he should also steal his fatherly blessing (27:8-10). They concoct a plan to deceive the aging Isaac, and stole his birthright.

Esau, furious, notes that is now the second time Jacob has cheated him (27:36). Esau planned to kill Jacob, and so Rebekah sent him away, with a command from his father that he may not marry outside of their tribe (27:42-28:5). He went to Paddan Aram, also called Harran--it was the city Abraham lived in after leaving Ur (11:31). Yet again, we see one of God's chosen people leaving Canaan to seek their future, rather than staying in the Promised Land.

Was this necessary or correct? It is virtually certain that he was not supposed to intermarry with the Canaanite women, but considering the size of Abraham's tribe in Canaan it is rather shocking to believe that a suitable wife could not be found. Esau went after Hittite women to punish his parents for their favoritism toward his brother--not because Abraham's massive tribe had suddenly shrunk. No, Jacob was sent out primarily because they did not trust in God to do the protecting from Esau--they (like Sarah and Abraham before them) took matters into their own hands, trying to "work" God's will into happening rather than allow it to be. Immediately, we are told what God thinks of the matter.

As Jacob was leaving the promised land he had a vision in a dream. He saw a ladder or staircase coming out of the ground, with angels going up and down it. The Lord stood above it, and God tells Jacob that the land he is currently leaving--Canaan--is the promised land and that it belongs to Jacob and his offspring (28:12-15). God promises Jacob that even though he is currently leaving Canaan, God will provide him protection while gone and return him to it safely one day (28:15).

Jacob is awed by the vision. This is no minor thing in his life, and it is only now that he realizes there is something special about Canaan. Now he says, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it...How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven." (Gen 28:16-18).

So you see, Moses has now told us of a third person who leaves Canaan to seek God's protection:
  • Abraham left despite God's promise, to try and seek safety in Egypt. His experiences were negative and he was forced to return.
  • Isaac thought of leaving to seek safety in Egypt, but was obedient to God. He stayed in Canaan, and God provided for him through the famine.
  • Jacob leaves to seek safety from his brother in the Middle East (not Egypt). God promises to protect him on his journey and return him.
In all three cases, we see that the Promised Land is the place of safety and refuge. They are not to leave, and it is there that they are blessed. The two who try to flee to Egypt are explicitly told to avoid it (one listens, one doesn't). The one who flees to the Middle East is at least protected during his journey.

The clear message to Moses and his readers? Trust God in the Promised Land--He will provide. And be assured that if you DO leave, going back to to Egypt is absolutely the last thing to do. It always ends badly.  (We'll see that message again in a later Saga in Genesis.)

It is here that Jacob meets a woman whom he desires to marry--a beautiful woman named Rachel. Jacob, though with a large inheritance ahead of him, was penniless during his journey. He traveled apparently alone, without servant or money, fleeing the wrath of his older brother. He had nothing to offer. He stayed with Laban for a month (29:14). Laban however said that Jacob could not work without pay, so he should name his price. (This sounds great to us, but was likely a bit of a dishonor for Jacob, being reminded that he must act as a hired servant since he had no actual money.) Jacob names a high price--he wanted to marry Rachel, the beautiful daughter of Laban.

Having no money, Jacob sells himself into a seven-year period of slavery, with his value being a dowry for Rachel (29:20). This was much higher than a regular dowry, but Jacob had little negotiating leverage. The time for him passed quickly, so strong was his love for her. At the end of it, Laban tricked the trickster Jacob, however: he sent Leah to Jacob's bed instead. Jacob, having sex with the veiled woman, was now married to her (29:21-25). Jacob was furious, but willingly worked another seven years of slavery to earn Rachel as his second wife (29:28-29).

The heartbreaking part of the story is a throwaway line..."He loved Rachel more than Leah." (29:30). Rachel was beautiful and Rachel was his 'true love' and Rachel was the woman he worked for. His 'other wife' was ugly, and forgotten.

Yet for the Christian, it is a strange and amazing story here--for it turns out that it was Leah, not Rachel, whose line God blessed. As the Jesus Storybook Bible says, while others saw an ugly woman in Leah, God saw a princess--an ancestor to Jesus the Messiah.

Jacob served Laban for seven more years (21 in total: 7 for Leah, 7 for Rachel, 7 after). During this time he had many children, by both women and by surrogates (Rachel was barren). Before Jacob finally left to strike out on his own, Laban asked him what wages he wished for. (29:31-30:25).

Now Jacob is a man who historically grabbed whatever he could. He selfishly stole his brother's birthright...and again later his blessing. He had to flee for his life because of it. And here he is, being given essentially a blank check by a wealthy landowner. But all he asks for are the animals who are impure and imperfect (30:26-36).  But God blessed Jacob regardless, and his wealth grew mightily, until eventually his flocks were even better than Laban's (30:37-43).

Why did Jacob change into a person who acted humbly rather than selfishly? He could have asked for the best of the best, but instead chose the lowest sheep and trusted God to fix the situation. Was it because he had now been tricked, and humbled, by Laban? Or was it maturity, as he grew into his full age? Or was it being a father and gaining greater love for family? Or was it the years of hard work as a slave, having to actually earn something for the first time in his life (rather than being the spoiled beloved son of a wealthy mother)?  We will find out in a moment.

Jacob's Return to the Promised Land (Gen 31-33)

As Jacob's wealth increased, Laban became jealous. God told Jacob that it was time to return (31:3), and so he decided to do so. And as he is telling his wives about why they are leaving, we learn that Jacob may not have matured as much as we had thought.

You see, Jacob did not choose the impure animals completely out of humility. God, seeing how Jacob had been cheated by Laban and proud of Jacob's hard work despite it, told Jacob to choose all of the spotted (31:7-13). So Jacob may indeed have just kept on being the trickster...just this time under God's command.

I typically avoid the 'preaching' part, where we try and discover hidden truths in the text, but I think there is a good one here. Jacob never actually changed all that much...the same sins of greed which affected him as a youth still affected him as an adult. But one thing that did change during his vision and subsequent 21 years of slavery was that he came to rely on God, rather than himself. Early in Jacob's life, we see a con artist trying to lie and steal his way into wealth; at the end of his life, we see a man who is willing to choose apparent poverty because God told him to do so.

God speaks to Laban, after a brief argument, Laban and Jacob part on more or less good terms (31:17-55).

Jacob returns to the Promised Land, entering the land of Edom which his brother Esau now owns. Jacob introduces himself as a servant and humbles himself before Esau (32:1-5). Again, no trickery here: Jacob has indeed grown at least in some ways.

Jacob's messengers return saying that Esau is coming armed with 400 soldiers--a fairly powerful small army (remember what Abraham did with fewer!). Jacob is terrified, and hides half of his people and wealth in the hopes that at least one would survive (32:7).  (Again, we see that he is no longer the selfish youth, but a responsible father.)

Jacob prays to God for protection, and sends a gift ahead of him to try and appease his brother, before setting out himself to meet him (32:9-23). That night, unable to sleep, Jacob had an incredible answer from God. A "man" wrestled with Jacob all night, eventually popping Jacob's hip out of socket. Jacob recognized him as God, and refused to let him go without a blessing. The man renames Jacob as "Israel"--for no longer is he a trickster, but a man who has undergone struggles and prevailed (Gen 32:24-32).

This passage seems strange to many of us. Why would God take human form to wrestle with Jacob? (And why did He lose?) Why was this the event that made his name change, and why did it happen after Jacob prayed for safety from Esau but before meeting Esau?

The key, I think, is in the naming. Names are powerful in Judaism, and "Jacob" isn't that great of one--it means "leg-puller" from his attack against his older brother in the birth process, and implies the con artist that Jacob is. However, since his time abroad in slavery, Jacob has matured. He now relies on God to make things happen. He trusts not in himself or his father's blessing (which he stole), but in God's blessing. It is to God whom Jacob turned when the fear of Esau was upon him--and in this wrestling match, he showed that he would allow his very bones to be broken before he would flee from God's blessing again.

This is a wake-up for Jacob, and for Moses' readers. Abraham suffered for leaving the Promised Land, and Isaac was blessed for staying. So why did God bless Jacob's journey? Because Jacob was not yet ready for God's promises--he needed to struggle as a man and grow to rely on God. Jacob did, for two decades. And now that he relied on God, we have him renamed as Israel--which means, "perseveres with God" or "rules with God." After a lifetime of doing things for himself, Jacob had finally learned to rely on God...and he would nurse a lifelong limp after this date, a not-so-subtle reminder of his commitment to God.

Esau approaches, and Jacob divides his people--he puts the servants and their children up front so that if Esau attacks it won't be Jacob's family who is caught unable to escape. Then comes Leah and her family (after all, Jacob doesn't love them remember?), and finally Rachel and her family at the back.

Esau, it turns out, seems to have grown as well. Esau asks Jacob why he sent such gifts. "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself," Esau tells him. Jacob insists, however, as a sign of his newfound humility. Esau accepts, and the two reach if not a brotherly affection, at least a peaceful coexistence. Jacob continues into the Promised Land unhindered (33:1-20).

Jacob's Line Lives in Canaan (34-35)
Having returned to Canaan as God intended, Jacob lived out the rest of his life in the land of his fathers.

Life living among the pagans was not easy, though. God will later ask the Jews to clear the land of the Canaanites, and no doubt stories like Genesis 34 were shared specifically to provide justification.

After Jacob moved back to his father's land, one of the local princes raped her and (as if that weren't enough) publicly humiliated her. Oddly, though, the prince began to fall for the woman and wished to have her hand in marriage.

Jacob, aging, allows his sons to serve as negotiators. The father of the prince-rapist negotiates with them, to join the families via intermarriage and thus attempt to regain some of the honor that had been stolen from her. This was a common practice in the Near East at the time--rape stole the honor of the woman, but a marriage of a foreigner to a prince would regain it.

However, intermarriage has always been horrible among the Jews--going back as far as Seth's line. The children of Abraham knew they had a special relationship with God, and they were not supposed to be intermarrying with pagans. On top of it all, the sons of Jacob are furious at the rape--as well they should be--and thus have no real interest in agreeing to the deal (34:1-12).

It was well known among the Canaanites by now that the Israelites (like the Egyptians) engaged in ritual circumcision. The Canaanites did not understand the Jewish religion, but their own religions were full of ritual sacrifices and they understood at least the purity aspect of it. So the sons of Jacob deceived them, saying that only if every male of the local prince's kingdom is circumsized would they agree. The prince agreed and every male was circumsized immediately (34:13-19). This (ironically) brought great honor to him, for he had made the first intermarriage with a rightful heir of this mighty Jewish people (34:19).

However, circumcision is tough on grown males. While all were weak and in pain, the sons of Jacob raided the city and slaughtered the males, "plundered" their women, kidnapped their children, and stole their goods (34:20-29).

Jacob is furious, and argues with his sons. This act of vengeance, he points out, puts their entire tribe at risk for it is not appropriate (he actually says, 'it makes me stink' to the neighbors). The sons say that they will not see their beloved sister sold as a prostitute to her rapist. (For what it's worth, I'm on their side here--although not with the 'kill everyone' part, of course.)

So what will Jacob do? The old Jacob would have sought a compromise, probably intermarrying with them. Or he would have tricked them.

The new Jacob, though, seeks God as his refuge. He prays and listens to God, who tells him to move his tribe to Bethel and make an altar. Jacob insists on much greater purity from all of his people, making even his servants cast away their pagan gods and to stop dressing like the locals who worshipped these pagan gods. Newly purified, no one dared accost this tribe of God, and they arrived at Bethel (35:1-7). They would live their and their family would grow, and when Jacob's father died he and Esau together would bury him (35:8-29).


So what do we see in Jacob's life? We see a man who is a con artist and trickster, selfish and greedy. A man who is spoiled rotten by his wealthy mother. He nearly gets himself killed by his brother and ends up in slavery in a foreign land for 21 years. In the process though he learns to rely on God rather than himself, and eventually is renamed as Israel, and seen as a patriarch of God's people.

God does not always choose the obvious person. But when we follow God first, He will bless even the most notorious of sinners.