Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Bible, Pt. 11: Genesis, Chapter 32 - 35

My commentary on the Christian Bible, continuing from Part 10, all quotes from the King James version. (The entire series is here.)

Chapter 32:
3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

4 And he commanded them, saying, Thus shall ye speak unto my lord Esau; Thy servant Jacob saith thus, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed there until now:

5 And I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and menservants, and womenservants: and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight.

Jacob has spent twenty years with his uncle, but now he's returning home with his two wives, two concubines, and twelve children, not to mention all of his herds and servants. Note that he'd left home because his twin, Esau, was threatening to kill him (not without reason).
6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.

7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed: and he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands;

8 And said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape.

We'll get to exactly how he divided his people in the next chapter. For now:
13 And he lodged there that same night; and took of that which came to his hand a present for Esau his brother;

14 Two hundred she goats, and twenty he goats, two hundred ewes, and twenty rams,

15 Thirty milch camels with their colts, forty kine, and ten bulls, twenty she asses, and ten foals.

16 And he delivered them into the hand of his servants, every drove by themselves; and said unto his servants, Pass over before me, and put a space betwixt drove and drove.

17 And he commanded the foremost, saying, When Esau my brother meeteth thee, and asketh thee, saying, Whose art thou? and whither goest thou? and whose are these before thee?

18 Then thou shalt say, They be thy servant Jacob's; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau: and, behold, also he is behind us.

Clearly, Jacob has done very well for himself, if this is the size of his bribe to Esau! OK, OK, maybe he genuinely feels regret for what he's done to his brother. But there's still some time to kill while waiting for Esau to arrive:
24 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

25 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

26 And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

27 And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

28 And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

29 And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

30 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

31 And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

32 Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank.

This is very hard to follow, since it's not always clear who "he," "his," and "him" are supposed to refer to: "And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him." So who is touching whose thigh here? Seriously, I wish it were more clear.

After all, Jacob isn't going to be dislocating his own thigh by touching it. And apparently, this is God he's wrestling ("for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved"). Does Jacob touch God's thigh and magically end up getting his own thigh dislocated? Or does Jacob get the upper-hand on God, despite God grabbing him by the thigh?

Is Jacob actually winning? The following lines definitely indicate that: "And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." Obviously, it's Jacob who's refusing to let go, unless he gets a blessing first. The other way around (God demanding a blessing from Jacob) wouldn't make any sense.

This is where the Jews get some of their Kosher dietary restrictions. Although "sinew" is a tendon or ligament, this is interpreted as meaning the sciatic nerve. And the reasoning for it - "because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank" - really does seem to indicate that God was the guy losing that wrestling match, doesn't it?

It was God who "prevailed not" against Jacob. It was God who grabbed Jacob's thigh and dislocated it. And it was God who asked Jacob to release him, in return for which Jacob demanded a blessing. I don't see how anything else makes sense. (Admittedly, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, either.)

I've heard that some Christians interpret this allegorically, claiming that Jacob was just praying. But it's pretty clear that this was all meant literally in the original story. After all, that dietary restriction would make no sense otherwise. Others think that he was wrestling with an angel, not God. But why would he say that he'd seen God face to face, then? And why would an angel want to keep his own name a secret?

This is also where Jacob is renamed "Israel" - literally, "may El persevere." (Note that El was the Canaanite god, so there's quite a bit here that's confusing.) God asks Jacob what his name is, which seems a little odd for an omniscient being. But that might be just a rhetorical device, in this situation (setting up the changing of Jacob's name).

Why does he change Jacob's name? God says (if this really is God),"for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed." Again, this implies that Jacob did win the wrestling match. This is all very confusing. (This is one place where I'm tempted to read other interpretations of the text.)

Note that God avoids answering that question about his name. Is that why we call this particular god 'God' (in English, at least)? That's always seemed rather unimaginative to me. But that might be consistent with the original story, since "Yahweh" just means "creator" and "El," in addition to being the name of the paramount Canaanite god, is also the word for a generic "god," apparently.

Oh, well, I'm getting away from the narrative here, aren't I?

Chapter 33:
1 And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids.

2 And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost.

As we saw in the previous chapter, Jacob divided up his household, so that if Esau started killing the first group, the others would have a chance to escape.

He puts his two concubines - the slaves of his two wives - in the front, with their four children (his children, too, remember). Obviously, these people are the least important to him. Then he puts Leah and her children next. Rachel and Joseph, of course, are the most precious to him, so they're in the rear.

What do you think of this? When I first read it, I was disgusted by it. But,... what was he supposed to do. He's always loved Rachel. There's been no doubt of that, right from the beginning. In fact, he had to be tricked into marrying Leah. And someone has to go first.

To his credit, the very first person is Jacob himself:
3 And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

4 And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.


8 And he said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And he said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord.

9 And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself.

Consistently, Esau has been the better of the two brothers, don't you think? He's been ill-treated by Jacob - twice - and became angry enough to threaten to kill his twin (but only "in his heart," so I'm not sure how Rebekah heard it). But now he's had time to calm down, and he welcomes Jacob, even telling his brother to keep all of those valuable animals which had been sent ahead of the family.

Yet God has always preferred Jacob. Funny, isn't it? Well, as we've seen before, God seems to be a terrible judge of character, doesn't he? Not that Jacob has turned out so bad (indeed, Jacob insists that Esau accept his gifts), but I really have to admire Esau, at least so far. Of course, Esau married outside the immediate family, which seems to be a terrible thing in this inbred clan.

Anyway, they part as brothers, with Esau returning to Seir and Jacob building a house at Succoth, and then traveling to Shalem.

Chapter 34:
1 And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land [of Shalem].

2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.

3 And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel.

4 And Shechem spake unto his father Hamor, saying, Get me this damsel to wife.

This chapter is a distinct, separate story in itself. Dinah, Jacob's only daughter, is raped by Shechem, the son of the local prince. But he wants to marry the girl. (Note that, later in the Bible, that's one of the punishments for rape, that you have to marry the victim.)

You know, given everything else which happens here, I really have to wonder if this might have been consensual. We never hear from the girl herself (of course), but Shechem is clearly smitten with her. (Obviously, that doesn't rule out rape, though.)
11 And Shechem said unto her father and unto her brethren, Let me find grace in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me I will give.

12 Ask me never so much dowry and gift, and I will give according as ye shall say unto me: but give me the damsel to wife.

13 And the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor his father deceitfully, and said, because he had defiled Dinah their sister:

14 And they said unto them, We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one that is uncircumcised; for that were a reproach unto us:

15 But in this will we consent unto you: If ye will be as we be, that every male of you be circumcised;

16 Then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people.

Shechem offers to pay whatever dowry they wish, in order to marry Dinah. But Jacob's sons say they can't agree to that, because Shechem isn't circumcised. In fact, they require that every man in the town get circumcised!

But then, they promise, they'll live together in peace.
18 And their words pleased Hamor, and Shechem Hamor's son.

19 And the young man deferred not to do the thing, because he had delight in Jacob's daughter: and he was more honourable than all the house of his father [rape aside?].

20 And Hamor and Shechem his son came unto the gate of their city, and communed with the men of their city, saying,

21 These men are peaceable with us; therefore let them dwell in the land, and trade therein; for the land, behold, it is large enough for them; let us take their daughters to us for wives, and let us give them our daughters.

22 Only herein will the men consent unto us for to dwell with us, to be one people, if every male among us be circumcised, as they are circumcised.

Shechem and his father are pleased that they've found a solution to this impasse. And they convince the rest of the men in their city, too. (Again, only the men have anything to say about this. Admittedly, in this case, it's only the men who'll be having their genitals mutilated.)

But Jacob's people will agree to settle here in peace, adding their numbers to a land with is big enough for everyone. Isn't that worth getting part of your penis cut off? Yup, apparently, it is:
24 And unto Hamor and unto Shechem his son hearkened all that went out of the gate of his city; and every male was circumcised, all that went out of the gate of his city.

25 And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males.

26 And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem's house, and went out.

27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister.

28 They took their sheep, and their oxen, and their asses, and that which was in the city, and that which was in the field,

29 And all their wealth, and all their little ones, and their wives took they captive, and spoiled even all that was in the house.

30 And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.

31 And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with an harlot?

After they've made an agreement for peace, and the men of the city have all been circumcised ("when they were sore" - yeah, I'll bet they were!), Jacob's sons kill them all.

Note that they didn't just kill Shechem, the accused rapist. They killed every man in the city, they took the women and children as slaves, they stole all of their livestock, and they spoiled everything else! Whatever happened between Shechem and Dinah (and no matter what did happen, you really have to sympathize with Dinah), this is really overkill, isn't it?

Of course, God is just fine with this. There's not one peep out of him. He brought plagues to Egypt because the Pharaoh had sex with Abraham's wife, despite both Abraham and Sarah swearing that they were merely brother and sister, but this kind of mass murder, mass enslavement, and mass rape (let's get real here) doesn't bother him in the slightest. Well, Jacob's folk are his people, huh?

Jacob is worried about what will happen now, since they're a small clan in the land of the people they've deceitfully killed - after concluding an agreement of peace. So it seems that Jacob knew nothing of what his sons were planning. (Note that it's still "Jacob," not "Israel," even though God had changed his name in the previous chapter.)

Chapter 35:
1 And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother.

2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments:


5 And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob.

It's clear, again, that they had multiple gods here (and that Jacob is well aware of this). But Jacob's family has a god who favors them, so he insists that they get rid of all those other gods. (They bury them - the graven images and the earrings - under an oak tree.)

And as they flee to Bethel, after slaughtering and enslaving everyone in Shalem, the other Canaanite cities are too frightened to come after them. (But note that Bethel is still Canaanite land, itself.)
9 And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padanaram, and blessed him.

10 And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel.

11 And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins;

12 And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land.


15 And Jacob called the name of the place where God spake with him, Bethel.

Multiple versions of the same basic story has become a pattern here, hasn't it? This is the same story we saw in Chapter 32, God renaming Jacob "Israel." But this happens in Bethel, after they flee from slaughtering and enslaving the people of Shalem.

Furthermore, note that God again appears before them in person. There's none of this vision or dream or 'feelings' nonsense, not back then. God may have become remarkably shy these days, but he had no problem coming down to Earth to appear in person back then.
16 And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour.

17 And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also.

18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin.

Yeah, "fear not," because her son will live. Of course, Rachel dies in the process, but she's just a woman, anyway, so no big loss, huh?

This was her second child and Jacob's thirteenth, if I've kept track accurately (twelve boys and one girl). Jacob erects a pillar at her grave, and they move on to Ephrath (Bethlehem).
22 And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve:

I'm not sure of the significance of this verse, except to accentuate the trailer trash/Jerry Springer Show aspect of Genesis. Reuben is Jacob's oldest child, the son of Leah. Bilhah was Rachel's slave, whom she gave to Jacob (Israel) as a concubine, and the mother of two of Reuben's half-brothers.

But she's still a slave, clearly. Still, nothing comes from this incident, as far as I can tell. Is it just here for titillation? (Again, God has no problem with it, despite his earlier concerns about women having multiple sex partners. Obviously, Bilhah isn't a wife, but only a slave.)
27 And Jacob came unto Isaac his father unto Mamre, unto the city of Arbah, which is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned.

28 And the days of Isaac were an hundred and fourscore years.

29 And Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people, being old and full of days: and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Note that Isaac had been blind and feeble and near death twenty years previously. Back then, Esau had said (in his heart), "The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob." That was a little premature, apparently! At least twenty years have passed, and now Isaac finally dies.

Note: Links to this entire series can be found here.


Chimeradave said...

Glad you're studying up on El and Yahweh. Maybe you can make sense of it.

I can't believe all the men in a town would agree to become circumcised. That doesn't make any sense.

And I guess God doesn't care about justice anymore. since he doesn't punish Jacob or his sons.

And the parts about God appearing. I'm reading online that people think it was angels or Jesus. But it doesn't say that. It says God. Other place in the Bible say an angel of the Lord appeared. So why doesn't it say that here?

WCG said...

1. I'm not actually studying up on El and Yahweh, John. I was just using those links you sent me. (Thanks for that!)

2. Re. the men agreeing to be circumcised, Jacob seems to have been a very wealthy man, and that was part of the argument. Think of it like towns today agreeing to give businesses tax breaks for settling there. The men of Shalem were expecting, not just peace, but a boost to the local economy. (Unfortunately, they were treated like some corporate CEOs treat modern communities, huh?)

3. God never did care about justice - at least, so far. Do you see any sign that he has, in Genesis? I certainly don't.

You're looking at God as a modern believer might. But back then, your god merely looked out for you (assuming that you kept him happy, of course). Worshiping your own god just meant that you had supernatural help on your side. Justice didn't seem to enter into it at all.

4. It's hard to imagine that a god would actually get down in the dirt and wrestle with Jacob, but that seems to be what the text says. Of course, it's hard to imagine that an angel would do that, either.

In some stories, God sends his angels down to Earth, but in others, it's clearly God, himself. And here, Jacob plainly says that he's seen God face to face (which is said to be impossible elsewhere in the Bible).

Well, if you want consistency, this isn't the book for you! Nor if you want clarity, for that matter. :)

Thanks for the comment, John!

Chimeradave said...

Re: Justice-

Maybe Justice isn't the word I'm looking for. But like you said God gave that King's people a plague because he'd taken Sarah as his wife when she was already married. And he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. And he kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden. Not to mention drowning everyone but Noah and his family. God definitely has strong opinions over what humans should and should not be doing. Yet he has no problem with Jacob's sons killing everyone in the town after they had agreed to a deal. It just seems like a disconnect to me.

WCG said...

Sure. These are morality tales; they're just not our morality. And they're not consistent, either. But that's probably because they were individual stories, individual myths, later combined into one (and then later combined into a holy book with even more inconsistencies).

It's like looking for consistency in a book of fantasy short stories by multiple authors. And like looking for modern concepts of justice and morality in... well, a bunch of ancient myths from a primitive, patriarchal, slave-owning culture.