Sunday, February 2
Genesis 33: One is struck by Jacob's great deference to
his older brother, whom he had severely wronged a couple of decades earlier
(verses 1-4). It was not necessary to conciliate Esau. Even without his
primogeniture inheritance and the blessing of the firstborn, Esau had done
very well for himself and appeared not to hold a grudge against his brother.
Evidently the blessing that Isaac pronounced over Esau was very potent
Esau meets the rest of the family (verses 4-7), and all manner of
politeness is exchanged (verses 8-11). Stress is laid on the great wealth of
each of the brothers, in terms that may remind the reader of Solomon later
on (1 Kings 10:14-25).
Esau is concerned for Jacob's safety as he traveled with considerable
wealth but with no adequate military escort. Jacob moves on, however, and
settles down for some time at Succoth (verses 12-17). He eventually goes to
Shechem (the modern Nablus, a corruption of the Greek neapolis or "new
city"). There he builds a shrine (verses 18-20). This shrine is dedicated,
not to "the God of Abraham" or "of Isaac," but to El Elohe Israel, "God, the
God of Israel." This designation reflects Jacob's experience at Peniel,
where he wrestled with the Almighty and received a new name. The Bible's
next story will find Jacob still at Shechem.
So far we have found the patriarchs associated with most of the great
cultic centers of the Holy Land, such as Hebron, Beershebah, Bethel, and
Monday, February 3
Genesis 34: The other inhabitants of Shechem are called
Hivites in the Hebrew text, Hurrians or Horites in the Greek text.
Non-Semites, they did not practice circumcision, and their introduction to
the practice will be something less than felicitous.
Jacob's daughter went a gadding about (verses 1-4) and came to the
attention of a local young man who was evidently accustomed to getting what
he wanted. His name was Shechem too. In spite of the New American Bible's
indication of violence ("he lay with her by force"), the Hebrew wai'anneha
is perhaps better translated as "he humbled her" or "he seduced her."
Subsequent events suggest that this was not an act of violence. As it turns
out, in fact, Dinah is already living at the young man's home. We noted that
Shechem was accustomed to getting what he wanted. Now he is about to be
introduced to Dinah's big brothers, who have some ideas of their own and
also knew what they wanted. This will be Israel's first recorded armed
conflict. As in the case of the Greeks assembled before the walls of Troy,
they will be fighting over a woman.
Down through the centuries this biblical story has been told chiefly for
its moral message. For instance, in the twelfth century St. Bernard of
Clairvaux used Dinah as an example of a gad-about, exemplifying the vice of
curiosity, which Bernard called "the first step" on the inversed ladder of
Jacob and Hamor, the fathers of the two young people, are remarkably
patient, but not Dinah's brothers (verses 5-7). As we shall see in the cases
of Reuben and Judah in the next few chapters, Jacob's sons are not all
models of chastity, but they were genuinely concerned for their sister's
wellbeing and their family's honor. To describe what has happened Dinah,
they employ the word nebelah or "folly," which term rather often indicates a
sexual offense. For instance, this word appears four times in Judges 19-20,
where it refers to a woman's being raped to death. It also refers to Amnon's
rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:12, to adultery in Jeremiah 29:23, and to the
infidelity of an engaged girl in Deuteronomy 22:21. The word is perhaps
better translated as "outrage."
A meeting takes place, as though by accident (verses 8-12). Hamor and
Shechem offer a deal. After all, Dinah is living at Shechem's house. Why not
simply legitimize the situation? Any solution but marriage would make things
worse. Besides, the Shechemites reason, if they were all going to be
neighbors anyway, why not a general miscegenation of the two peoples.
Here we touch upon an important point of theology, because the very
concept of intermarriage might mean that the line of Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob would cease to be distinct; the very notion of a chosen people might
be lost. Intermarriage with these Shechemites would have led to quite
another result than that envisioned in the Bible (cf. 2 Corinthians
Jacob's sons make a reasonable proposal, but not sincerely (verses
13-17). They speak "with guile," bemirmah. This is the identical expression
we saw in 27:35 to describe what Jacob had done: "Your brother came bemirmah
and stole away your blessing." Guile seems to run in this family. Shechem's
family, anyway, agree to submit to circumcision (verses 18-24). Do they
realize that they would thereby be accepting the covenant in Genesis 17?
Probably not, but the question is moot anyway. Circumcision is simply part
of a deceitful plan in this instance.
The sin of Simeon and Levi (verses 25-29), in addition to its cruelty, has
about it a touch of deep irreverence. God gave Abraham's sons the rite of
circumcision as the sign of a special covenant. That is to say, circumcision
was God's chosen sign for blessing. By their actions in this chapter, Simeon
and Levi distort that sign, turning it into an occasion of violence against
their enemies. They take something sacred and transformed it into the
instrument of their own vengeance. Their action in this case points to the
danger of using the blessings of God against our fellow man.
Tuesday, February 4
Genesis 35: Jacob revisits Bethel (verses 1-7), a story
that continues the tough "reform" mentality of the previous chapter. Bethel
represents, after all, Jacob's acceptance of personal monotheism: "There is
only one God, and He is my God." The washing and changing of clothing is
symbolic of Jacob's sense of the holiness of the place (Exodus 19:10), and
those ear-rings are crescents dedicated to the Semitic moon divinity. Verse
8 is a sort of parenthesis; that is, the author, when he comes to speak of
Bethel, suddenly remembers that the nurse of Jacob's mother was buried
there. Otherwise, this verse seems to have no connection at all to the
narrative at this stage.
The promises of the covenant are renewed for Jacob (verses 9-10). The
scene is reminiscent of similar covenant scenes with Abraham (15:5,7) and
Bethel had been the scene of an earlier "stage" in Jacob's religious
growth. His return there (verses 13-15) indicates that that earlier stage
must now be incorporated into the larger picture. Jacob goes back to rethink
and to rededicate that earlier event. In a sense, he is not longer the same
man who first went to Bethel. Yet, that earlier event was an essential
component of what Jacob has now become.
Finally we come to the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel (verses
16-20), Jacob's favorite wife. Benjamin is the only one of Jacob's sons to
be born in the Holy Land. His mother's choice for the boy's name, Benomi,
meant either "son of my strength" or, more likely, "son of my affliction."
The name Benjamin means "right hand son." This could mean something close to
our own metaphor of "my right-hand man," or it could simply mean
"southerner" (for an "oriented" or eastern-facing person). If this latter
signification is what is intended, it may mean that Benjamin was born the
furthest south of all the sons of Jacob. Whatever the specific meaning, the
reader should not forget that we are reading here the partial genealogy of
the Apostle Paul (cf. Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:3-4).
Another domestic scandal ensues (verses 21-22), this time respecting
Reuben. The latter will later come in for a rather unfavorable mention
because of this incident (49:3-4), and in fact the tribe of Reuben will
never amount to much in Israel's history. In due course it wull be absorbed
by the Gadites and the tribe of Manesseh, and Reuben would be left with only
a sandwich named after him.
In the patriarchal list that follows (verses 27-29), the author of
Genesis is telling us that the foundation has now been laid for the rest of
the biblical story. The patriarchal roots are now in place. We may compare
this "list of the Twelve" with the four Gospels and the Acts of the
Apostles, which early provide lists of the Twelve Apostles. In all these
cases, as here in Genesis, we are dealing with a patriarchal institution.
Finally, we come to the death of Isaac (verses 27-29). Isaac thought he
was dying back in Genesis 27:4, but here he is, still alive, up to the end
of Genesis 35. Isaac was already 60 years old when the twins were born
(25:26) and a hundred years old when Esau first married (26:34), and another
eighty years have passed since then (verse 28).
Wednesday, February 5
Genesis 36: Rather than studying the descendents of
Esau, who are listed in this chapter, this may be a good occasion for
considering the general career of Jacob in the context of the history of
literature. In this respect I propose to compare Jacob to the Greek hero
Odysseus, who represents in classical Greek literature a place analogous to
that of Jacob in the Hebrew Bible.
The Greeks were not agreed what to make of Odysseus. A "very versatile
man" (aner polytropos), as Homer called him, expert in ruse and a master of
disguise, this son and heir of Laertes was certainly among the most
interesting and entertaining characters in classical memory. Both sagacious
in counsel and brave in combat, moreover, his role in the routing of Troy
placed Odysseus with the heroes honored in the annals of valor.
Some Greeks, nonetheless, did not feel entirely comfortable with this
cunning warrior, "ever resourceful" (polymetis), never at a loss for the
ingenious plan or the artful word. Even while admiring his various
stratagems - his clever escape from the Cyclops's cave, for instance - they
wondered if all that talented guile was entirely a good thing. Was there not
something rather sneaky, duplicitous, and a tad too fast about it all?
Indeed, might there not be some deeper significance in the fact (proved in
the footrace at the funeral games of Patroclus) that Odysseus was simply
much faster than everyone else?
Even conceding that Odysseus would never have arrived safely back home in
Ithaca except for that wild, wily aspect of his character, was a man of so
much deception to be held up for the emulation of the young? Were the ways
of guile to be regarded as models in education? Would the imitation of
shrewd Odysseus lead to a more virtuous citizenry and the enhancement of
public trust? Doubting it, Pindar and Sophocles expressed their reservations
about Odysseus. Plato, in fact, raised those same questions in the shorter
dialogue between Socrates and Hippias, which contrasted the cunning of
Odysseus with the candor of honest Achilles. In short, the example of
Odysseus was a bit of a problem.
Now, with no possible rival, I think, the Odysseus in the Bible is Jacob.
Truth to tell, the several parallels between the two are striking, if not
always edifying. For starts, both were utter con-men, unscrupulous
deceivers, fluent, even eloquent, in falsehood. The one tricked blinded
Polyphemus by hiding under a sheep, while the other deceived his blind
father by hiding under a goatskin. Both, moreover were blessed by blind men,
the one by Teiresias, the other by Isaac. Each man struck a deal to win his
wife, the one with Tyndareus, the other with Laban. The one took from the
herds of Helios, the other from the flocks of his father-in-law.
Both Odysseus and Jacob, furthermore, were accomplished, wide-ranging
travelers. Whereas Odysseus returned home in disguise, Jacob left home
because of a disguise. In the course of those journeys, the reader is struck
by the attention given to events that happened while the two travelers
slept, whether near Aeolia and at the Bay of Porcys, or Bethel and the ford
at Peniel. Both travelers, likewise, left aging fathers, but even after many
years each returned to find his father still alive. Indeed, the paternal
home was the goal of each man's journey.
Jacob's flamboyant career began even in his mother's womb, where he and his
twin brother wrestled to see who would be born first. Esau won the match,
but Jacob emerged still clinging to his sibling's heel, determined never to
lose again. He seldom did. Many years later he would walk with a limp from
an injury sustained in another wrestling match, that time with an angel.
Jacob won that contest too.
The great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, was once approached by
a woman distressed from her recent reading of Romans 9:13. "I cannot
understand," she said, "why God should say that He hated Esau." "That is
not my problem, madam," Spurgeon replied, "My difficulty is to understand
how God could love Jacob."
But God sees all things, including the future, and He knew how Jacob would
turn out in the end. God foresaw the finishing days of an old man finally
purified by much pain. God foreknew the aging heart chastened by grief for a
lost son and disappointment in the other sons. God saw, already, the latter
exile of Jacob in the land of Egypt, much humbled now, long bereft of the
woman he really loved, and waiting to die on alien soil. God could hear
already the much wiser ancient who told Pharaoh, "The days of the years of
my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the
days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the
years of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage" (47:9).
Thursday, February 6
Genesis 37: Any reader of Genesis with even a little
feel for structure and style will recognize that he has arrived at something
new when he starts through the long Joseph narrative. Although all of the
stories in Genesis are tied together by unifying historico-theological
themes and a panoramic epic construction, there are two very clear points of
style in which this long story of Joseph stands out unique with respect to
the narratives that precede it.
The first stylistic point has to do with structure. The various accounts
of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have what we may call a more episodic quality.
Even though they are integrally tied together by theological motifs and
theme-threads indispensable to their full meaning, often they can also be
read as individual stories, each with a satisfying dramatic anatomy of its
own. For example, while the more ample significance of Abraham's trial in
Genesis 22 doubtless requires its integration into the larger motif of the
Promised Son and Heir, that chapter is so constructed that it may also be
read as a single story with its own inherent drama. That is to say, it is
an episode. Part of its literary quality consists in its being intelligible
and interesting within itself and on its own merits. Similar assessments
are likewise valid for numerous other patriarchal stories, including the
rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, the courting of Rebekah, Jacob's theft of
Esau's blessing, and so forth. While parts of a larger whole, each of these
narratives nonetheless forms a good, satisfactory dramatic tale by itself.
There is nothing similar in the Joseph narrative. Hardly any scene of the
Joseph narrative could stand alone and still make sense. It is one and only
one story. No one of the parts is of interest without the rest. The Joseph
epic forms one long dramatic unity, characterized by the careful planning of
particulars, sustained irony, a very tight integration of component scenes
within a tension mounting to a dramatic denouement, followed by a more quiet
sequence that calmly closes Genesis and systematically prepares for the Book
The second stylistic point that distinguishes the Joseph story from the
earlier Genesis stories is the quality of its interest in the dominant
character. The sensitive reader of Genesis will note right away that Joseph
appears to have no failings nor faults, in sharp contrast to the earlier
patriarchal figures. Both Abraham and Isaac, for example, acting from fear
of possible rivals, go to some lengths to suggest that they are not married
to their wives (12:11-19; 20:2-13; 26:7-11), a precaution that seems, at
the very least, to fall somewhat short of the ideals of chivalry.
Similarly, Jacob's intentional deception of his father in Genesis 27 is
scarcely edifying, while the cunning brutality of Simeon and Levi in Genesis
34 is lamented by Jacob himself. The Bible is obviously making no attempt to
glorify those men; it simply portrays them as mixtures of good and evil,
very much as we should expect from any accurate biography.
There is a perceptible change of attitude, however, when we come to
Joseph. Genesis offers, I think, no parallel example of such a sustained
interest in describing the moral shape of a specific character. Joseph is
pictured as a flawless or nearly flawless man. He seems almost a type of
perfection, a veritable saint right from the start. The Fathers of the
Church could thus hold him up as an example of humility, chastity, prudent
foresight, and inner discipline of thought. He was "that very man of God,
full of the spirit of discretion," wrote St. Gregory the Great. Likewise,
Joseph's ability to discern the future makes him the Bible's earliest clear
example of a prophet. In his patient suffering, moreover, his endurance of
betrayal, his confidence in God's guidance and his forgiveness of those who
wronged him, Joseph seemed to the Church Fathers to embody the highest
ideals of the Gospel itself.
This "hagiographical" approach is rare in scriptural narrative, the other
few examples that come readily to mind being only Jonathan, Nehemiah,
Daniel, Tobit, and perhaps Stephen. Most of the biblical personalities,
after all, are composites of good and bad, mixtures of strength and
weakness, with which most of us more easily identify our own experience:
Abraham, Jacob, David, Jeremiah, Jonah, Peter and the other apostles, and so
forth. It is understandable we find ourselves more in sympathy with these
latter figures, and their use throughout the history of Christian ascetical
literature amply justifies our doing so. Nonetheless, it seems important to
observe that the more idealized picture of the "saint" also has biblical
roots. For example, the "cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 11 is sufficiently
cloudy to leave out all mention of the weaknesses and failings of it
numerous characters, instead concentrating entirely on their faith. Such a
hagiographical disposition is already at work in the Genesis narrative of
Friday, February 7
Genesis 38: Although this last section of Genesis
centers on Joseph, the text does not lose sight of the bigger picture, the
bigger picture here understood as the entire biblical message. In that
bigger picture, Judah plays a more important role than Joseph. Ultimately
the descendents of Joseph, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, pertain to
the Ten Lost Tribes, whereas the tribe of Judah will provide the royal house
of David and the Messiah (49:8-10; Matthew 2:6; Revelation 5:5). It is
ultimately Judah will give the "Jews" their name.
Between Genesis 37 and 45, some twenty years elapse, and a significant
number of those years are required by the events in Genesis 38. Hence, this
chapter allows the reader to put Joseph out of his mind for a while. It is
something of an interlude, permitting Joseph to become settled in Egypt. It
is a "here and there" style of narrative, inserted to fill in a gap and
convey the impression of the passage of time until the thread of the larger
narrative is taken up again. (Other biblical examples of this technique must
include the narrative between Mark 6: 7 and 30, contrasted with that of Luke
9:2 and 10).
The interest of this chapter, however, is less in Judah as a person than
in Judah as the father of his tribe. In the larger picture this is a story
about Judah's descendents. Since it is the story of his lineage, it must
start by getting him married (verses 1-5). This family too has its problems
(verses 6-11). Once again there is a deception by means of disguise, an
unfortunate characteristic which, as we have seen, tends to run in the
family (verses 12-19). We note that the Bible is not hard on Tamar here; she
is simply trying to get what she has coming to her - namely, children.
Judah, thinking he has managed to avoid Tamar all those years, now discovers
an easy way to get rid of her for good (verses 24-26), but the young lady
turns the tables on him. There is nothing Judah can do but acknowledge his
paternity and get on with life. This story is, in addition, one of the
Bible's great accounts of an underdog getting back at an oppressor. In this
respect, Tamar's story runs parallel with those of Esther and Judith. The
irony of it continues into the New Testament, where Tamar enters the
genealogy of the Savior (Matthew 1:5).
Saturday, February 8
Genesis 39: The story of Joseph is staged in various
ways. For example, Joseph's different changes of fortune are symbolized in
his clothing. His famous and elaborate tunic, which focuses the hatred of
his brothers in 37:3f., is dipped in blood in 37:23-32, thus symbolizing
Joseph's alienation from his family. Then, in verses12-18 of the present
chapter his ill-fated encounter with Potiphar's wife is imaged in the loss
of the cloak used as evidence to imprison him. His eventual release from
prison will again involve a change of clothing in 41:14, and finally a whole
new wardrobe symbolizes his new state in 41:42.
Another element of cohesion in the story is introduced by Joseph's two
dreams in 37:5-10, in each of which his brothers bow down before him. This
double prostration is prophetic, inasmuch the brothers bow before him on
each of their trips to Egypt (42:6; 43:26; 44:14; 50:18), and Joseph
specifically remembers the dreams on the first of these instances (42:9).
The Joseph narrative is one of the Bible's first examples of a story
happening in two places at once. The introduction of the Judah episode in
chapter 38, right after Joseph's departure for Egypt, serves to suggest a
lengthy passage of time, but it also establishes what will become a mounting
"geographical" tension between dual centers of activity, Canaan and Egypt.
The journeys of the brothers to Egypt and their returns to Canaan will
eventually provide the setting for the two conflicting aspirations of Joseph
and Jacob, the former resolved to bring Benjamin to Egypt, and the latter
determined to keep him in Canaan.
How does Joseph survive all those years in Egypt? Surely by his reliance
on the providence of God. This was the secret of Joseph's inner life. It
explains both his patience in tribulation and his ready forgiveness of
enemies. Even as a slave, even in prison, Joseph was an inwardly free man,
said St. Cyril of Alexandria, and Procopius of Gaza wrote that Joseph was
perpetually and prayerfully mindful of the presence of God. While God's
direction of events in the Joseph account consists in the providential
oversight of human activity, we also note a special emphasis on the divine
management, as it were, even of sinful activity, whether that of Joseph's
brothers or of Mrs. Potiphar. The story of Joseph, then, is an account of
Divine Providence. Its clear thesis consists in the proposition that "for
those who love God, all things work together unto good" (Romans 8:28). In
everything that happens to Joseph, God is "with" him (verses 3,5,21-23).
This affirmation of Divine Providence in the Joseph story is not simply
implied in the text but also made explicit by the later pronouncements of
its chief character. Moreover, Joseph's insights into God's working in
history are explicitly regarded as coming from the Holy Spirit (Genesis
41:38), reminding us that the general affirmation in Romans 8:28 is also
contextualized by the theology of the Holy Spirit and especially by the
principle that "as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons
of God" (8:14).