The Jacob Sagas
Read Chapter 26
This chapter could be entitled, “Like Father, Like Son” because Isaac’s story reflects Abraham’s story in multiple ways.
First, Isaac encounters God. Just as Abraham, his father, encountered God in Haran, and was called to journey to a new land, the Land of Promise, Isaac also encounters God, who tells him to stay in the Land of Promise. The context of this meeting is that there is a famine in the Land of Promise, which tempts Isaac to go down to Egypt to find food. God however, tells Isaac not to go down, but that God would lead him to a place where he would have enough. What is interesting about this portion of the story is that, as we will discover later in Genesis, Isaac’s descendants will eventually make the journey to Egypt, to survive a future famine. At this point though, the writers want us to witness the depth of God’s blessings, in that even during famine, Isaac will be able to find all that he needs.
Second, Isaac receives the Covenant promise that had been given to his father. Isaac is promised that his children will not only receive the Land Promise, an also an unlimited supply of offspring (as many as the stars in heaven) and financial blessing. Most importantly for us though, is that they will bless all humanity. This makes it clear that the Abrahamic Covenant continued to be alive and well, even after Abraham’s death.
Third, Isaac acts just like Abraham. We see this in that he fears that the powerful leaders around him might kill him to take his beautiful wife, Rebecca. To prevent this, Isaac tells everyone that she is his sister and gives her away (as a reminder, Abraham did this twice). When he is caught “fondling” Rebecca in public, the local king realizes that they are married. The king then chastises Isaac yet moves to protect both Isaac and Rebecca (which is one more sign of the blessing). So just like his father, Isaac, could not quite trust that God would protect him.
Fourth, Isaac becomes wealthy. This is the financial blessing portion of the Abrahamic Covenant. If you recall, Abraham also becomes wealthy and powerful. He was in the end able to defeat his enemies, rescue his nephew from captivity and be feared by the nations around him. The same is true for Isaac. We are told that he is blessed with his flocks and herds to the extent that he becomes “very wealthy.” We are told that he is blessed as an agriculturalist in that he sews seed in the land and reaps a hundred-fold. We are told that he is blessed as one who can find water. There are multiple accounts in this chapter of his servants digging wells and finding water. And even though his enemies take some of the wells from him, he is always able to find another.
Finally, Isaac becomes feared, even as Abraham was feared. Isaac becomes so wealthy and powerful that one of the local kings, desires to make a non-aggression treaty with Isaac. The writer helps us understand just how powerful Isaac is when the King comes with his advisor and army commander, to make peace, rather than the king coming by himself. In addition, the king acknowledges that Isaacs blessings are all gifts of God.
Reflection: Once again we are reminded that, as the king notes, all blessings come from God. Though Isaac is the main character here, we are reminded that the power behind his success is God, and that without God, Isaac would be lost. One note, the blessings of God come to Isaac without any great show of faithfulness. They come, if you will, as a free gift.
Read Chapter 27
This chapter describes how the blessing first given to Abraham, then passed on to Isaac, comes not to Isaac’s first-born son, Esau, but to his second born son, Jacob. Passing the blessing to a second son, is a break with all ancient middle-eastern tradition because the blessings of the father always went to the first-born son. This remarkable story unfolds in four surprising acts.[i]
Act one occurs with Isaac, knowing that he is dying, desires to pass the blessing of God on to his eldest son Esau. Isaac does so not only because Esau is the firstborn, but because he is a “man’s man” and thus dad’s favorite. Esau’s task to receive the blessing is to kill some game, prepare a stew and bring it to his father.
Act two occurs when Rebecka, the mother of Jacob and Esau, schemes to get the blessing for her Jacob, who is a homebody and thus her favorite. Rebecka concocts a scheme whereby Isaac will believe that Jacob is Esau, and thereby give Jacob the blessing.
Act three occurs when Jacob carries out his plan and imitates his older brother. The plans work, and Isaac passes the blessing he had received from his father Abraham to his second Jacob, rather than his first son, Esau.
Act four occurs when Esau realizes that his blessing has been given away to Jacob. The ramifications from this are that Isaac grieves for his favorite son and gives him “a” blessing, rather than “the blessing”, Esau becomes enraged at Jacob, promising to kill him and Rebecka once again schemes to save Jacob’s life by sending him to look for a wife.
This story centers around the desperate desire to obtain “the blessing.” Both sons want it. Both parents want it for their favorite child. But what is “the blessing”? The blessing is described by Brueggemann as both power and vocation. It is the power of God that enables a person to be prosperous. It is the vocation of being God’s agent in God’s world-recreating work. These two, power and vocation, are linked. Biblically speaking, you cannot have one without the other. So, if one wants prosperity and purpose, then one desires the blessing.
For those of us living in the 21st century, this concept of “the blessing” may be a strange one. It is strange because we have been taught that we are individuals who make our own way in the world. And that while we may receive some good advice, or a lucky break or two, no one, including God, gives us a blessing that insures our success, or for that matter, a world changing vocation. We only receive what we earn. But what if this were not always true? What if we too actually receive “the blessing”?
I want to offer the possibility that we receive “the blessing” when we are baptized. In baptism, God claims us as God’s own and gives us a vocation; that of being part of God’s world-recreating work. In baptism God also gives us the Spirit that gives us all the Spiritual gifts we need to become the people God created us to be; to reach our full potential. To prosper. While our baptismal blessing may not exactly mirror God’s blessing to Jacob, I believe it is God’s power in the act of baptism at work shaping our purpose and our prosperity.
[i] Brueggemann, Walter; Genesis: An Interpretation Commentary; John Knox Press, 1982, pg. 231
Read Chapter 28
A cursory reading of this chapter may lead us to assume that the intent of the writer was to simply get Jacob from his father’s house to the house of Laban, where Jacob would find a wife. But a more careful reading leads us to three of the great themes of the scriptures: exclusion, encounter and engagement.
First, exclusion. This chapter begins with Jacob’s mother not wanting him to marry a Canaanite woman (meaning a local), but one of their own kin. Since God had not prohibited the descendants of Abraham marrying locals, we might ask, what is going on? The answer is that this section of the story is a later addition. We can see this because it breaks the narrative of Jacob fleeing for his life in fear of Esau and focuses instead on racial purity. This section is an attempt to discourage assimilation and encourage exclusion of foreigners from the community.
Second, encounter. The middle portion of this story concerns Jacob’s encounter with God. Jacob is sleeping, and, in a dream, he sees angels descending from and ascending to heaven. But that is not all. He also encounters “the Lord.” This encounter is not merely a spiritual, ecstatic experience, but it is an encounter with the promise-giving God of Abraham and Isaac. Just as his father and grandfather had encountered God and received the promise of land, offspring, and blessing, so too does Jacob. This is, in many ways remarkable considering how Jacob had schemed his way to receive both the promise and the blessing.
Third, engagement. Following any encounter with God, the question becomes how will the one encountered respond? The answer for Jacob is three-fold. First, he acknowledges that he has had an encounter. He does not dismiss it nor assume it was his imagination. Second, he engages in a physical/spiritual action by creating an altar to signify that the place where he has encountered God is holy. Third he commits himself to God by declaring that if God keeps God’s promises then Jacob will make this God, his God and will give God a tenth of all he receives.
Exclusion focuses on how far can a faith community assimilate with the surrounding culture and still be a faithful community? For us this question manifests itself in our struggle to determine how we as Jesus’ followers, live in a supposedly Christian culture? Meaning, what parts of our culture do we accept and what parts do we reject, or how much can we assimilate?
Encounter focuses on whether we believe that God meets us in unique and powerful ways, or is merely a religious construct? As Protestants, we profess that God meets us in many ways; in music, art, sacraments, scripture, preaching, study and service. We also profess that God can encounter us through the Spirit, giving us guidance and encouragement. In other words, encounter does not have to be, though it can be, a spiritually ecstatic experience.
Engagement focuses on our response to God. If we believe that we have been encountered by God, then this story reminds us that response is not optional but required. The question then becomes what does that response look like? Fortunately, in Jesus we are offered multiple ways of being faithful by loving God and neighbor; of loving God through worship and study and loving neighbor by forgiving, feeding, welcoming and sharing (among many).
Read Chapter 29
Our story picks up with Jacob searching for his relatives in order that he might either find a wife that is acceptable to his mother, or shelter and safety from his brother, Esau who wants to kill him. Regardless of which reason we choose for his journey, we witness God’s continuing blessing upon Jacob, such that the Promise of God might continue. What we will also see is Jacob being deceived, even as he had deceived his older brother.
First, we read of Jacob mysteriously finding his father’s family. Though he has not yet reached Haran (his family’s ancestral home), he meets shepherds at a well who just happen to know his Uncle, Laban. At the same time Laban’s second daughter, Rachel, arrives with her sheep. In a show of strength (and virility), Jacob removes the stone covering the well (which normally requires several shepherds to move) so Rachel’s sheep can be watered. It is at this point that Jacob announces his identity (that he is Rachel’s kin), which Rachel passes on to her father, who then invites Jacob to stay with them.
Second, we witness Laban’s deception of Jacob. It begins when Laban brings up the issue of wages that he will pay Jacob for the work Jacob will perform for him. Note that at this point, Jacob has not offered his services. It is not clear if Laban knows why Jacob has come to Haran, but he appears to sense that Jacob has fallen in love with Rachel, who can then be used to extract labor from Jacob. The bargain they strike is that Rachel will be the wages, payable after Jacob works seven years for Laban. The writer offers the romantic imagery that Jacob so loved Rachel that the seven years seemed a few days. This is a deception because Laban has no intention of letting Jacob go after seven years. We watch the deception play itself out as Laban, on Jacob and Rachel’s wedding night, sends Rachel’s sister Leah into the tent to sleep with Jacob. It is only in the morning that Jacob realizes he has slept with the wrong sister. Laban, then bargains with Jacob, for another seven years’ worth of work for him to get Rachel (though Jacob gets to sleep with Rachel after seven days).
Third, we watch the promise of children fulfilled almost immediately. Leah, though she is unloved by Jacob, conceives four times, with the result being four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. The writer tells us that these sons were born as the direct intervention of God on behalf of a wife, Leah, who was unloved by Jacob. Rachel on the other hand remains barren.
Reflection: As noted above, this story has two central themes, which occur not only in this story, but also repeatedly in the scriptures. The first is that God’s blessings and promises cannot be thwarted by anyone or anything. Jacob’s deceptions cannot stop them. Laban’s deceptions cannot stop them. Instead their deceptions are used by God to fulfill the Promises and move along the story of God’s world-restoring work. The second, is that “what goes around-comes around.” We see this as Jacob, thinking that his deception has gone unnoticed by God, finds himself being deceived. This is a reminder from the writer that God not only has a sense of humor, but that God will ensure that the scales of justice are leveled out. These two themes can offer us hope in difficult times. They can remind us that even when all seems to be lost, that God’s plans and God’s justice will still win out.
Read Chapter 30
This chapter is one of barrenness and blessing. It begins with barrenness. Rachel, just like Sarah and Rebekah, before her, cannot conceive. The writer of Genesis makes it clear that God, for whatever inscrutable reason, has chosen to bless the one who is unlovely and unloved (Leah), rather than the one who is lovely and loved (Rachel). We know this is God’s doing because when Rachael complains to Jacob about her barrenness, he responds with, “Am I in the place of God who has withheld from you…” The outcome of this barrenness does not lead Racheal to remember that just as God has provided before to Sarah and Rebekah, so God might eventually provide a child to her. It leads instead to competition between the sisters, with each trying to have more children than the other.
Rachel initiates the competition by using her maid, Bilhah, as a surrogate mother. Rachel instructs her husband Jacob to sleep with Bilhah. Bilhah conceives twice and gives birth to Dan and Naphtali both of whom Rachel claims as her own. Not to be outdone, Leah, who apparently is no longer conceiving (having already given birth to Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah), gives her maid Zilpah to Jacob and this union bears two children as well, Gad and Asher. At this point we might assume that the competition would be a draw, and everyone would be happy. But this is not the case. Leah’s son Reuben, finds some mandrakes (which were assumed to be aids to conception) and gives them to his mother. Rachael, sensing Leah’s plan to have more children with Jacob, negotiates to get the mandrakes for herself, which she does. The result however, is that Leah becomes pregnant twice more, without the use of the mandrakes, and Rachael does not. From this union Issachar and Zebulun are born. Finally, though, God “remembers” Rachel, she conceives, and Joseph is born. This act of “blessing” the barren on, moves us to the second story, which is once again a story of God’s improbable blessing.
Once Rachael gives birth, Jacob decides that it is time to leave Laban’s employ, and move back home. To do this he needs to negotiate his exit with his father-in-law, Laban. Laban, ever the schemer, tries to cheat Jacob out of what he has earned and force him to stay. This struggle leads to an odd story of striped and spotted goats in which Jacob, trusting in God’s help, out-schemes his father-in law. The chapter ends with the typical statement of God’s blessing to the bearer of the Promise, “Thus the man (Jacob) grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys” (vs. 43).
Reflection: One of the major themes of scripture is what some people have called the great reversal. The great reversal is the move of God to turn the world upside down. We can see this in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in which she speaks of God empowering the lowly and bringing low the powerful. While for some people, Mary’s words may appear to be some new way of God dealing with the world, it is not. This is the story of Israel, the smallest of nations, that God raised up to save the world. It is the story of Rachel and Leah; Leah the unlovely and unloved becoming the mother of half of the twelve tribes of Israel. While at the same time, Rachel, the one lovely and loved having to wait years to give birth. It is the story of Jacob and Laban, where Laban the elder, is tricked by Jacob the younger. In other words, this is how God works in the world. God often uses the least likely and the least powerful to accomplish God’s will.
Read Chapter 31
This chapter concludes the story of Jacob’s exile and his interactions with his father-in-law Laban. To recap, Jacob, having stolen his older brother Esau’s birthright and Promise, fled home twenty years earlier to save his life from Esau’s murderous wrath. On his journey, Jacob encountered members of his father’s family whose patriarch was Laban. Jacob married Laban’s two daughters, Rachel and Leah, and together they produced multiple children. As Jacob grew wealthy because of God’s blessing, Laban’s sons began to believe that they were being cheated by their brother-in-law. Jacob, therefore, decided to leave. His exit, as we will discover, is hastened by a dream Jacob has in which God commands him to return to the land of his birth. In terms of the overall story, Jacob’s return to the Land of Promise is necessary since the Promise of God, is for blessing, offspring and land.
The story begins with God taking center stage. To this point, God has been somewhat absent from Jacob’s journey. This changes with God coming to Jacob in a dream and telling him to return home, thus confirming Jacob’s decision to leave. One of the interesting things about this portion of the story is that Jacob does not order his wives to go with him and leave their home. He presents them with his vision from God and his sense that his relationship with Laban is deteriorating. Then he awaits their answer. The answer comes quickly, and they affirm his decision for both reasons, that Laban is turning against them and because God has told them to go.
As is often the case in these Genesis stories, leaving is never easy. Jacob understands the threat he and his family are under and so waits until Laban and his sons are several days journey away shearing sheep, before he leads his clan towards home. He hopes to put enough distance between himself and his father-in-law to be safe. This is not to be. Laban, upon hearing of his son-in-law’s departure, gathers his sons and goes in pursuit. This pursuit does not bode well, but once again God intervenes in a dream. This time it is Laban who has the dream. God comes to him and makes it very clear that he is not to harm, or even speak harm, to Jacob.
When Laban and his posse catch Jacob, there is great tension. It is exacerbated by the fact that someone stole Laban’s household gods and Laban wants them back. Jacob swears that whoever has taken them will die, not realizing that his beloved wife Rachel has stolen them. As Laban tears apart every tent, looking for them, Rachel sits on a camel saddle under which she hides the idols. By claiming to be menstruating, she is excused from standing and revealing that she is the god-thief. The result of all of this is that Laban and Jacob set a boundary between them with the promise that neither will cross it seeking to harm to the other. With this, Jacob’s journey home can continue.
Reflection: While there is a great deal of suspense in this story, there is a central theological affirmation that should not be missed. This affirmation has to do with the power of God versus the power of the gods. God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, had the power to bless and protect Jacob and to send Jacob back to his home. The household gods of Laban on the other hand, had no power at all. In fact, not only were they vulnerable to being stolen and used, but they had to be protected by a menstruating woman. It can be a reminder to us that our trust is to be placed not in our national or household gods, but in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Read Chapter 32
This is a chapter about meetings; both having meetings and preparing for meetings. In it we watch as Jacob not only prepares for a meeting with his brother Esau, but also as he meets with an angel and perhaps even with God, with whom he wrestles; a wrestling match which will ultimately transform Jacob into Israel.
The chapter continues the story of Jacob’s leaving the employ of his father-in-law Laban and beginning the perilous journey back home. It is a perilous journey because Jacob’s brother Esau had threatened to kill him when they parted years before. As the journey begins, Jacob encounters an angel of God, which seems to imply that even while being a perilous journey, Jacob does not travel alone; that God is somehow, mysteriously present. And so, Jacob camps in that holy place.
Jacob, ever the relational tactician, prepares for his family reunion in four ways. First, he sends a messenger to his brother Esau, letting him know that he is returning home with a large family in tow. The response is not what he had hoped for. Instead of a warm welcome, Jacob learns that his brother is coming with four hundred armed men. Stricken with fear Jacob proceeds to the second part of his preparation: prayer. In this prayer, Jacob not only addresses God as the God of Abraham and Isaac, but as the one who told him to return home (in a sense, God, if anything bad happens, it is your fault). At the same time Jacob acknowledges that he didn’t deserve all the blessings that God had given him and humbly asks for protection, again reminding God of the Promise (land, children and blessing) that had come to Jacob before he left home. This then leads Jacob to the third and fourth parts of his plan. In step three Jacob divides his family into two groups, hoping that if Esau destroys one, the other will escape. Finally, in step four, Jacob sends a significant number of his servants and animals to Esau as a gift, hoping to appease his brother while he sends his family to what he hopes will be safety.
It is at this point that we read one of the strangest encounters in all of scripture. During the night, Jacob, who is now alone, wrestles with a “man” until daybreak. We are not sure at all who the man is (maybe God?), or why the man challenges Jacob. At the beginning of the match, Jacob is injured but does not give up. As the wrestling continues, each of the combatants tries to gain the upper hand by learning the name of their opponent (knowing someone’s name in antiquity gave one power). While Jacob surrenders his name, “the man” does not. Even so, the man blesses Jacob by changing Jacob’s name to Israel; meaning Jacob the “heal grabber and supplanter” becomes “the one who strives with God and triumphs.” When the sun rose, both men were gone. The heavenly man vanished, and Jacob had become Israel; a new man with a new future.
Reflection: The Jacob/Israel’s story is one that reminds us that we encounter God at our own risk. We see this in that Jacob, the Promise bearer, the one who listened to and prayed to God was changed into his new self only after he “wrestled with God” and was injured in the process. The fact is that God wants to change us. God wants to make us into new and better people. Like Jacob however, we are often unwilling to go through the pain of leaving behind the old and taking on the new. We don’t like the idea of dying with Christ in order to be raised. We like Easter without Good Friday. Yet as Jacob/Israel discovered, there is something powerful and life enhancing that comes with wrestling with God and being transformed into our new selves even if it is painful.
Read Chapter 33
We have been following Israel’s (formerly Jacob’s) homecoming journey. We have watched as he escaped the clutches of his father-in-law Laban, who tried to keep him from leaving. We have read the account of Jacob’s wrestling with a “man” (maybe God), being partially disabled by his opponent, yet at the same time becoming the new and stronger person, Israel. Finally, we have watched Israel prepare for the worst in his upcoming meeting with his older brother Esau, who is coming with four-hundred men to meet him.
The writer of Genesis has artfully built the suspense of the moment when the two brothers meet. Will there be war? Will Esau take Jacob’s life as he had sworn to do? Will God protect Jacob and maintain the Promise through him and his children? The answer to these questions comes quickly. As Esau approaches, Israel bows to the ground seven times in an act demonstrating that he knows his place as the younger brother. Esau, will have none of this. He runs to meet Israel, embraces him, kisses him and they both weep. There is reconciliation and not retribution. This is the world of the restored Promise that God longs for.
This reconciliation then begins a sibling dance that has an unexpected outcome. Step one in the dance is Esau wondering about all the servants and animals that Israel had sent ahead of the main company. Step two is Israel telling his brother that these are gifts to Esau in order that Israel might find favor with him. Step three is Esau making it clear that he had been given enough and has no need of the servants and animals. Step four is Israel making it clear that he wants to give these people and livestock as a gift because seeing Esau’s face is like “seeing the face of God” (the assumption is that because Esau was willing to reconcile, he is like God who had reconciled with Israel during their wrestling match). Step five is Esau accepting the gifts and inviting his brother to travel with him homeward. Step six is Israel making excuses why he cannot travel with his brother (his children and animals are slower that Esau and his men). Step seven, is Esau offering some of his men for protection. Step eight is Israel declining the request and then traveling to a location distant from his brother. This step eight is the unexpected outcome because Esau seems genuine in his desire for reconciliation, but Israel still mistrusts him. True reconciliation is not to be.
The chapter ends with Israel and his family settling in Shechem where he buys property, intending to make a new life for them all.
Reflection: Reconciliation is never easy. Broken relationships can leave scars that are sometimes difficult to heal. Often, even when we, like Israel and Esau, desire to restore family or friendship connections, initial goodwill can still give way to doubts and fears. These doubts and fears can get in the way of full reconciliation and never allow authentic relationships to be restored. Granted, sometimes these doubts and fears are valid if the “other” has not really changed or is not willing to work at rebuilding trust. But other times, we end up like Israel, walking away from the possibility of renewed, restored relationships. Perhaps we ought to remember that we are called to be those who work for reconciliation, just as God worked at reconciling humanity through Jesus; that we are called to be the Esaus in the room, willing to forgive and rebuild broken ties.
Read Chapter 34
At the end of our last episode we left Jacob and his family settling in to the area around Shechem, where Jacob hoped to make a home. He had spent his life wandering and now he wants to settle down. Unfortunately, his sons will engage in a horrific act of violence which will make them all a “stink” to their neighbors and thus force them to move.
The drama in this chapter is initiated by a young man named Shechem, the son of the ruler of Shechem. The son sees Jacob’s daughter Dinah, falls for her, then kidnaps and rapes her. Because he is in love with her he wants to marry her. His father, named Hamor, thinks that this is a grand plan. After all, here are the new folk in town (Jacob and family), and wouldn’t it be wonderful to intermarry and share resources. When Jacob finds out what has happened, he is furious. But rather than react immediately he waits for his sons to return from the fields. When they do they are even angrier than Jacob and begin to plot the destruction of the men of Shechem. Their plot is centered around asking the men of Shechem to be circumcised as the bride-price. The men agree, since it will mean, once again, intermarriage and possibly the confiscation of Israel’s assets through those marriages. While the men of Shechem are still recovering from their operation, two of Jacob’s sons attack the town, slaughter then men and take the women and children for themselves. The upshot of this is that Jacob’s family is now a “stink” to the neighbors and they must leave for their own safety.
One of the interesting things about this story is that it operates on two levels. The first level is that of a straightforward story about rape, rage and revenge. The second level is one of conflict between God’s people and outsiders; between holiness and uncleanliness. We can see this first, in the representative use of the names Israel (vs.7) and Shechem to refer, not only to individuals (Jacob and the king’s son) but to distinct communities. We can see this secondly in the use of the term “defiled” (vs. 27) and “whore” (vs. 31) which are cultic words associated with ritual impurity (whore here refers to prostitutes who work at local temples). What this means is that the brothers did not see the rape only as a moral evil, but they saw it as religious defilement of their sister, who was made ritually unclean by her attacker. This confrontation between ritual cleanliness and ritual defilement will become a central theme in Israel’s ongoing struggle with its neighbors. The question will always be how much connection God’s people can have with outsiders without losing their identity as a “called out people”. Interestingly though, the Genesis writer, while discussing the issue of purity, does not approve of the vengeance perpetrated by the sons on the people of Shechem. He wants to make it clear that not only the locals saw the family as a “stink” but so too did God.
Reflection: This story shows some of the worst that humanity has to offer; rape, deceit, revenge, slaughter, greed and enslavement. It is a powerful reminder that the effects of the fall (Genesis Chapter 3) continue to be present not only in people outside of God’s family, but inside as well. It also shows us the destructive power of vengeance and revenge; that they can destroy the lives not only of the victims of revenge but of the perpetrators as well. In essence, violence solves nothing and can have lasting, harmful consequences. Finally, it ought to cause us to consider what it means to be in community with those who are different from us. Will we be those who welcome all, or will we attempt to maintain exclusion that can lead to the diminishment of others?
Read Chapters 35-36
With these two chapters we come to the end the Jacob and Esau stories. Chapter 35 deals with the religious reorientation of Jacob’s family and Chapter 36 is all about Esau and his heritage.
We left the Jacob story with two of Jacob’s sons tricking and then slaughtering the men of Shechem and taking the wives and children of Shechem as slaves. This event made Jacob and his family a “stink” to the people around them. God intervenes at this point and sends Jacob and his family to a new location. Along the way God protects them by causing “fear” to fall over the cities they pass. God directs them to Bethel (which will become a major worship/sacrificial center for generations afterward) with the command that Jacob build an altar to the God who appeared to him when he first left home. Jacob prepares for this journey with three significant acts. First, he tells his family to rid themselves of all the family gods that they had carried with them (this is a reminder that the God of Abraham and Isaac had not been exclusively worshipped). The family complies with this command and Jacob buries the idols under a tree. Second, the family members were told to ritually purify themselves. Finally, the family was instructed to change their clothes by putting on new garments before the journey begins.
The chapter concludes with God once again renaming Jacob as Israel (which shows that at least two sources of tradition are at work because this same conversation took place a couple of chapters earlier), giving Jacob the Promise of land, children and blessing. The chapter moves on to the death of Rachel in childbirth (giving birth to Benjamin), an interesting single verse about Reuben, one of Jacob’s sons, sleeping with one of Jacob’s concubines (think of a young male lion trying to wrest control from an older lion), a listing of the twelve sons of Jacob (who will become the twelve tribes of Israel) and finally the death of Jacob’ father Isaac, who is buried by both sons, Esau and Jacob.
Chapter 36 is a fascinating look at Esau’s legacy. As a reminder, Esau was Isaac’s older son who sold his birthright to Jacob and then lost the Promise to him as well. We might expect that Esau, as the one who lost both would come to a sad end. Yet that is not the case and in fact the opposite is true. God gives Esau the same blessings that are given to his brother Jacob. Esau has multiple children, acquires much livestock, produces clans and kings from his lineage and otherwise does well. All of this is to say that the older brother is still honored by God.
Reflection: There are two key takeaways from these chapters. The first, is a reminder that encountering and following God requires transformation. When one engages with God, certain life changes are sought. Central to this change is the leaving behind of the old life and the taking on of the new one. We can see this in the leaving behind of the old gods, being purified and changing clothes. These are physical acts that publicly demonstrate a change of allegiance from the old way of the gods to the new way of YHWH. This taking on the new life is what we do in baptism. Parents renounce the ways of sin and reaffirm their faith in God and their commitment to rear their child in the love of Christ. It is putting off the old and putting on the new.
The second has to do with those outside of the community of promise. Esau is not in the line of the people of the Promise. Yet, God’s blessings are showered upon him as well. We might consider what this means for our Muslim brothers and sisters, since they are descendants of Esau.