Sunday, January 26
Genesis 26: God's choice is now furthered narrowed; the
promises made to Abraham are now made to Isaac, as they had not been made to
Ishmael (verses 1-5). On the other hand, Isaac is clearly a "transition
patriarch," between Abraham and Jacob. There are almost no stories about
Isaac, except in relation to either his father or his sons. Whereas both
Abraham and Jacob traveled in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, Isaac never leaves
the Promised Land.
The story about Rebekah and Abimelech (verses 6-11) is strikingly similar to
two earlier stories about Sarah, and the she-is-my-sister trick is something
that Isaac evidently learned from his father. There are differences among
the stories, nonetheless. In the present case, we observe that the wife is
not actually removed to the other man's house; Abimelech does not go quite
so far on the present occasion. He has evidently become just a wee bit more
cautious; this time it does not take a divine revelation for him to discover
the truth. He simply watches the couple more closely, until one day he sees
them engaged in amorous exchanges (we will not speculate) that reveal that
they are husband and wife. Indeed, as it turns out, Abimelech himself never
admits being interested in Rebekah; he simply explains that he feared that
somebody else might be!
The "revelation" in this chapter happens differently from those in Genesis
12 and 20. In the former two stories, God manifested the truth by a
supernatural intervention easily discerned. In the present story God's
revelation to Abimelech is more subtle; indeed, God is not even mentioned in
connection with it. That is to say, God's intervention and deliverance need
not be spectacular in order to be real. It is sufficient that "all things
work together for good to those who love God" (Romans 8:28).
In the controversy about the wells (verses 12-22), the word "Philistine" is
an anachronism, because the real Philistines, to whom the regions about the
Aegean Sea were native, would not arrive on the coast of Canaan for several
centuries. The mention of them here is something on the order of saying that
"Columbus discovered America." While there may be some disagreement whether
or not Columbus actually did so, no one disagrees that the name "America"
was not in place when Columbus arrived. Similarly here, the "Philistines"
are simply those who lived in the land that would later be inhabited by the
In this story, we observe that Isaac has inherited the peace-loving,
non-assertive disposition of his father. When there is trouble, he defuses
it by meekness. And in his case too, the "meek shall inherit the earth."
The account of Isaac's vision (verses 23-25) links his name to the ancient
shrine of Beershebah, much as Abraham's name was associated with Hebron, and
Jacob's will be to Shechem and Bethel. The account itself is similar to that
in Genesis 17.
The next story about Abimelech (verses 26-33) is similar to a narrative
about Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21:22-32, but there is no controversy
about wells. Isaac is no longer living close to Abimelech.
We recall from Genesis 24 that Isaac was not to marry any of the local
talent, the idolatrous Hittite girls who lived in the neighborhood. A wife
was procured for him, rather, "from the old country." This wife, Rebekah,
sharing the family's dislike of these local girls, is understandably less
than thrilled by Esau's marrying them (verses 34-35). She will determine
that Jacob, her own favorite son, will be spared such a fate (cf. 27:46).
The two final verses of this chapter prepare us for the story in Genesis 28.
Monday, January 27
Genesis 27: The shrewdness of Rebekah (verses 1-13) was
a family trait, which we have already seen in Jacob's snatching of Esau's
birthright. Very shortly we will find Jacob matching wits with Rebekah's
brother, Laban. If we are disposed to judge Rebekah's favoritism too
harshly, it will be useful to bear in mind that the Lord had already given
her a special insight into the matter: "Two nations are in your womb. Two
peoples will be separated from your body; one people shall be stronger than
the other, and the older shall serve the younger" (25:23). Rebekah knew
which son was which, so she knew which son would do the serving and which
would be served. If such was God's plan, Rebekah saw no harm in moving
things in the right direction, as it were. Moved by a mixture of both faith
and anxiety, Rebekah decides to take the fulfillment of prophecy into her
own hands. (We recall that Sarah also did that, when she gave Hagar to
Abraham as a second wife.)
Christians have long been bothered by Rebekah's and Jacob's deception of
Isaac. Their discomfort is understandable, but we should bear in mind that
Holy Scripture is simply telling us what happened. The cunning of the mother
and the mendacity of the son are not being held up for our emulation.
Ultimately this is a story about what God does, not man.
There is no indication that anyone but Rebekah had received that revelation
of God's plan, so we should not be surprised that Isaac is unaware of it.
Thus, his physical blindness becomes a symbol of his inability to see what
is going on, according to God's plan. His favoring of Esau over Jacob
already puts him outside of God's will; that is to say, his preference
between his sons is not that of God. Being outside of God's will, therefore,
he is easily deceived. Acting outside of God's will is a sure step toward
deception. On at least two levels in this account, therefore, Isaac is
The blessing of the promised land, then, goes to Jacob, not Esau (verses
26-29). Isaac unwittingly shifts God's promises to his younger son, Jacob,
and these promises will, in due course, pass to the latter's descendents
(Deuteronomy 7:13-14; 33:28).
The account of Esau's return (verses 30-33) is especially dramatic. The
inspired author is not so preoccupied with the underlying theology as to
lose contact with the human and emotional components of this remarkable
story. Isaac begins to tremble. At once he becomes aware that he has been
acting in ignorance. Yet, that blessing, once given, was the instrument of
the divine will. He had become the unwitting agent of God's purposes, which
were quite distinct from his own. Thus, this is one of the Bible's great
stories of those who accomplish God's will in ignorance and even contrary to
their own intentions. It is not a story about fate, but it does have some
literary similarities to Greek stories about fate. (The story of blind
Teiresias, in the Antigone of Sophocles, comes to mind.)
Especially poignant are the tears of Esau, thus foiled a second time. It was
not that Isaac had only one blessing to give. The really big blessing,
however, the blessing that handed on the promises of God, was already taken
and was no longer available. Esau, the man who had earlier thought so little
of his birthright, was not worthy to receive the blessing of the first-born,
and Holy Scripture shows no great sympathy for him (cf. Hebrews 12:16-17).
Even acting in mistake, Isaac acted "by faith," according to the Epistle to
the Hebrews (11:20). Faith is compatible with a great deal of error,
blindness, and misunderstanding.
Esau's blessing (verses 39-40) does give some reprieve to his descendents;
they will not serve Jacob's descendents forever. Their subjection will
eventually come to an end (cf. 2 Kings 8:20-22; 2 Chronicles 21:8-10).
Tuesday, January 28
Genesis 28: As we saw in the previous chapter, Rebekah
does not want Jacob simply to flee from the possible vengeance of Esau. She
correctly wants Jacob to be send away by his father. There are several
things to be said about Isaac's sending Jacob away (verses 1-5). First,
there is a sense of historical continuity. Isaac is aware that he is handing
on a legacy that he himself received. The current family crisis is not
treated simply as a matter of the present; it is subsumed into a larger
historical picture. Second, there is the prayer and promise of fertility.
The effects of this prayer (twelve sons and a daughter!) show how powerful a
man of prayer Isaac really was (cf. also 25:21). Third, Jacob continues the
tradition of being a "stranger" (verse 4), like his grandfather and father.
This theme will be picked up in the New Testament: "By faith [Abraham] dwelt
in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tends with Isaac
and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise" (Hebrews 11:9).
Esau, having twice failed to please his parents by his choice of wives,
decides this time to choose a bride from within the family (verses 6-9).
Alas, he marries into the discredited side of the family! One sometimes has
the impression that Esau's brow was branded with the word "Loser."
The religious experience of Jacob at Bethel is divided into two parts:
his vision, in which God speaks (verses 10-15), and his thoughtful reaction
within the dream (verses 16-22). This division of religious experience into
the visionary and the deliberative is found in other places of Holy
Scripture, such as the case of Peter in Acts 10:9-17 and several places in
Ezekiel. Jacob's is a night-vision, like that of Abraham in Genesis 15 and
Isaac in Genesis 26; indeed, God says to him (verse 15) much the same things
that He said to Abraham (15:17-18) and to Isaac (26:24-25). Thus, all three
of the patriarchs have visions in the night, and all three establish
shrines: Abraham at Hebron, Isaac at Beershebah, Jacob at Bethel. Bethel
("house of God") is the place where earth and heaven are joined, as though
by an umbilical cord (verse 12). When Jacob rises in the morning, he
consecrates the place, somewhat terrified that he had picked, as his place
to sleep, the very spot where heaven and earth are joined; he was nearly run
over by all the angelic traffic, as it were.
Bethel is a type and prefigurement, of course, of the real house of God,
where heaven and earth are joined, Jesus Christ our Lord (John
1:43-51).Christians since the second century have regarded Jacob's ladder as
the ladder of Christ. For this reason, Jacob poured oil (chrisma) on the
stone, making it a "Christian stone" (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With
Wednesday, January 29
Genesis 29: At about noon (verse 7) Jacob arrives at
the city well of Haran, where he finds three shepherds that have already
assembled with their flocks (verse 2). They are waiting for other shepherds
to arrive, so that there will be enough man-power to remove the very heavy
stone that covers the mouth of the well (verses 3,8). It says a great deal
of Jacob's physical strength that he is able, all by himself, to do the job
(verse 10). (And we recall that he was the weaker of the twins borne by
Just as Jacob begins to inquire about Laban, his mother's brother, his
interlocutors point out to him that Laban's daughter, Rachel, is
approaching. Thus, like Abraham's servant in Genesis 24, Jacob is promptly
blessed by the arrival of a young woman who proves to be a lady of destiny
(verses 6,9-12). Once again like the servant in the earlier case, Jacob
tells the whole story, "all that happened," to Laban (verse 13).
(It is useful to note that Laban calls Jacob "my brother," whereas Jacob is
really his nephew. The reader should bear in mind that the words "brother
and sister," when used in Holy Scripture only rarely mean what we ourselves
intend when we employ those same words today. The reason for this is very
simple: the Semitic biblical languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, have no other
way to designate relatives in general, and this Semitic usage has spilled
over into the Greek parts of the Bible as well. "Brothers and sisters" is
simply the common way of designating relatives in Holy Scripture and
throughout the languages of the Middle East. Most of the time in the Bible,
then, the expression "brothers and sisters" designates simply "male and
female relatives." Whenever, therefore, these expressions appear in Holy
Scripture, they should be understood only in the general sense of
"relative," unless the context indicates otherwise. There are earlier
instances of this idiomatic usage in Genesis, such as 13:8. The identical
expression appears again, almost immediately, in 13:11 ["separated
themselves, each from his brother"], though the expression is unfortunately
disguised and even distorted in some English translations, such as the KJV
["the one from the other"] and the NAB ["from each other˙]. Twice more
Abraham's nephew, Lot, would be called Abraham˙s brother [14:14,16]. Other
biblical examples abound. This usage is commonly known among historians and
linguists, but modern readers tend to forget it when they come across the
"brothers and sisters" of Jesus in the gospels. Contemporary readers need to
remember that the entire Christian tradition without exception was aware of
this idiomatic usage, including all the Fathers of the Church, both East and
West, all the medieval theologians, and all the major Protestant Reformers,
such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli; all of the above, consequently,
explicitly denied that Jesus had any physical brothers and sisters born of
the same mother.)
Immediately Jacob falls in love with Rachel, whose physical appearance is
contrasted with that of her older sister, Leah (verses 13-30). Jacob's
preference is clear, and he agrees to work the seven years that his cunning
uncle required. For Laban, however, Jacob's preference in the matter posed a
bit of a problem. While there would be no difficulty finding a husband for
Rachel, Laban was less certain about Leah's prospects. During those seven
years, no one had sought the hand of Leah. (The medieval Jewish commentator
Rashi speculated that Leah was afraid that, if Jacob married her younger
sister, she herself would have to marry the older brother Esau, and she
wanted nothing of that!) Laban determined, therefore, to look out for the
fortunes of his elder daughter. Accordingly Laban pulls a rather mean trick,
a trick rendered possible because the bride was veiled (verses 21-25). It is
not hard to figure out the wily Laban, who does not shrink from taking
advantage when he can. He studies situations carefully, spots weaknesses in
his associates, and consistently uses people. There is a special irony in
the account, as well. Jacob deceived his father in Genesis 27; now he is in
turn deceived by his new father-in-law; in each case it was a matter of a
Laban then makes the "magnanimous gesture" of offering Jacob both daughters
wives (verse 27), which procures the wives' father, of course, another seven
years of service from Jacob. (This sororite marriage will later be forbidden
in the Mosaic Law; cf. Leviticus 18:18). Laban has clearly thought this
whole plan out ahead of time. This procedure is Laban's way of keeping his
property in the family. He has now procured this apparently dumb nephew, an
energetic worker that will do whatever is required of him. This dumb nephew
will be married to both of his daughters. All of their children will be
Laban's; all the property will be his; everything will be his (Genesis
31:43). From this point on, the story becomes a rivalry of wits between
Jacob and Laban. Jacob will prove more than a match for him.
Thursday, January 30
Genesis 30: This chapter describes two tests of wills:
between Rachel and Leah, and between Laban and Jacob. In fact, this is an
important chapter in the mounting tension and conflict of the Genesis story.
We began with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. Then came the conflict
of Isaac˙s household, between Esau and Jacob. After the present chapter it
will continue in the accounts of Jacob˙s family, eventually leading to
Joseph˙s being sold by his brothers into slavery. Among the patriarchs there
seems to have been precious little domestic tranquility. I f one is looking
for something along the lines of "The Secret to a Happy Family Life,"
Genesis is generally not much help.
At the end of Genesis 29 the competition between Leah and Rachel was
going strongly to the favor of the former. She has four sons to Rachel˙s
none, as Genesis 30 begins. Growing rather desperate (verses 1-2), Rachel
resorts to a tactic earlier employed by Sarah; this legal fiction is well
attested in the extant literature of that time and period, specifically the
Nuzi Tablets from excavations near the Tigris River. Rachel˙s plan, which
effectively gives Jacob a third wife, works to her advantage (verses 3-8).
Two can play that game, thinks Leah, who promptly follows the same tack
(verses 9-12). Now Jacob has four wives and eight sons. Very quickly,
however, the two sisters go beyond the niceties of the law. Leah resorts to
a fertility drug (verses 13-21) and bears two more sons and a daughter. At
last Rachel has a son (verses 22-24), whose story will dominate the final
chapters of Genesis.
The relationship between Laban and Jacob has been something of a domestic
business arrangement all along. For all legal and practical purposes, Jacob
has become Laban˙s son and heir. Meanwhile, however, everything still
belongs to Laban. When Jacob asks to have a little something for himself
(verses 25-34), he appears to be requesting a mere pittance, because in the
Middle East the sheep are normally white and the goats normally black.
Speckled and spotted animals are the exception. Laban, however, takes steps
to eliminate even that pittance (verses 35-36). Meanwhile, Jacob, having
grown a great deal smarter, has plans of his own (verses 37-43). In putting
three days distance between his own herds and those shepherded by Jacob,
Laban intends to keep the speckled goats and the dark sheep away from him.
This plan backfires, because it permits Jacob to have a three-days jump on
Laban when it came time to leave!
Friday, January 31
Genesis 31: When Jacob wanted to leave in the previous
chapter, it was his own idea. As we commence the present chapter, however,
the initiative comes from God (verses 1-13). Jacob summons his wives away
from the tents and the ears of inquisitive servants who might report the
discussion back to Laban. His argument is twofold, both earthly and
heavenly. In purely earthly terms, he is fed up with working for Laban. As
regards the heavenly, Jacob has heard from the God who had revealed Himself
earlier, the "God of Bethel," El-Bethel. That God had earlier promised to
bring him back home (28:15), and now He is fulfilling that promise (verses
It turns out that Laban's daughters are none too happy with their
father's treatment either. In his injustice to Jacob, Laban has also been
unjust to his own flesh. He has treated them, not as daughters, but as
outsiders. He not only sold them to Jacob; he has already used up the money
he got for them! Leah and Rachel do not agree about much, but they do agree
that it is time to start thinking of the welfare of their own children
(verses 14-18). They flee (verses 19-21).
When Laban overtakes them (verses 22-32), his complaints seem natural
enough: "I did not get to say goodbye. I did not get to kiss my
grandchildren. I did not get a chance to throw a going-away party. How could
you treat me like this after all these years?" (Note the use of the word
"brother" again in verse 23, by the way.) Somebody in Jacob's party (and the
reader already knows who) has, in addition, pilfered one of Laban's
household gods. This incident does say something about the introduction of
idolatry into the family, a problem that will prove to be chronic in
biblical history. Holy Scripture provides numerous instances of idolatry
introduced into Israel by the wives of Israel˙s kings (cf. 1 Kings 15:13,
To cover her tracks, Rachel resorts to a ruse (verses 33-37), about which
two points may be made. First, the reader is expected to be amused that a
god is being sat upon. Second, there seems to be no end of deception in this
Feeling vindicated by Laban's failure to find the absconded god, Jacob then
upbraids his father-in-law, laying it on pretty thick (verses 43-54). It is
a masterpiece of self-justification, in which the speaker is manifestly
enjoying himself. By ascribing all his success to God, Jacob also intends to
make Laban pause for thought; does Laban really want to be tough on someone
whom God favors? Laban, evidently chagrined at not finding the stolen god,
is at some disadvantage; he is unable to answer Jacob. The two men make a
covenant and call it a day (verses 41-54). Jacob heads for home.
Saturday, February 1
Genesis 32: After taking leave of Laban, Jacob must
think about how to approach Esau, for Esau represents the tricky aspect of
Jacob's homecoming (verse 4-7). Esau, meanwhile, has moved south to the land
of Edom, a dry and inhospitable land that lucidly explains the words of God,
"Esau have I hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage, for the
jackals of the wilderness" (Malachi 1:3).
If Jacob is feeling threatened by Laban, he now feels even worse from the
information that his older twin is coming to meet him with four hundred
armed men. That last part is hardly the sort of detail calculated to allay
anxiety. Indeed, a certain sense of anxiety may be exactly what Esau wants
to inspire in Jacob. If so, the maneuver is successful.
Jacob does two things (verses 8-13). First, he prepares for the worst,
taking certain practical steps with a view to at least a partial survival of
his family. Second, he takes to prayer, certainly the most humble prayer he
has made so far.
Ultimately, after all, this is a story of Jacob's relationship to God. Up
to this point, God is still Isaac's God, the "God of my fathers" (verse 9).
Jacob has not yet done what he promised at Bethel - take God as his own
(28:21). God had also made certain promises to Jacob at Bethel, and Jacob
now invokes those promises.
He continues his preparations for meeting the brother he has not seen in
twenty years (verse 14-23). He sends delegations with gifts, which are
intended to impress Esau. Jacob, after all, knows that Esau has four hundred
men, but Esau does not know how many Jacob may have. Jacob's gifts,
including five hundred and eighty animals, verge on the flamboyant. Jacob
approaches the fords of the Jabbock, at a place called Peniel, or "face of
God" (verse 30). To prepare the reader for this place, verses 22-23 used the
word "face" no fewer than five times. Jacob knows that Esau will soon be "in
his face." He must "face" Esau, which is why he is going directly toward
him. Up to this point, Jacob has been a man of flight, flight from Canaan,
flight from Haran, flight from Esau, flight from Laban. This all must
change. Jacob cannot face his future until he has faced his past.
Even before he can face Esau, however, Jacob must face Someone Else (verses
23-33). This encounter with God, which apparently Jacob has not anticipated,
is far more significant than his encounter with Esau. A millennium later the
prophet Hosea would meditate on this scene. This wrestling match is Jacob's
decisive encounter with God. Everything changes. First, his name is changed
to Israel (verse 29), as Abram's was changed to Abraham in a parallel
encounter with God (17:3-5,15). Second, God is no longer simply "the God of
my fathers." He is now "the God of Israel" (verse 20). Third, Jacob will
limp from this experience for the rest of his life (verses 26,32-33). No one
wrestles with the living God and looks normal and well adjusted. There is a
further irony here. Jacob began life by tripping his brother as the latter
exited the womb. Now Jacob himself will be permanently tripped up by a limp.
Jacob has remained on the near side of the river all night long, not fording
the Jabbock with the rest of his family. When he rises in the morning, he
must limp across alone. Esau and his four hundred men are just coming into