Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bible in a Year: Genesis 23-45

I'm reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters
divided by 52 weeks), and taking notes on the readings. This week, we have the remaining chapters of Abraham and Sarah's stories (23:1-25:18), the "Jacob cycle" (25:19-36:43), and the Joseph narrative, which is 37:1-50:26 but this week I'm stopping at the stories' climax, chapter 45.

This is the end of Abraham's stories, though the beginning of the long story of God's promise to him. In 23:1-20, we read of the only part of the promised Land that Abraham actually owned by legal contract: the tomb and field where he will bury Sarah. Abraham and the Canaanite Ephron strike a deal, and there Sarah is buried, and eventually Abraham (25:1-18) and later Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah. If I remember correctly, this is the last time we meet Ishmael in the story, when he joins Isaac in burying their father.

I remember reading in one of Brevard S. Childs' Old Testament studies, that the paucity of Isaac stories raises the question of whether there once was a cycle of his stories as long as those of his father and son. I also remember reading, in Torah: A Modern Commentary, that Isaac seems passive in the stories: things happen to him, rather than him taking initiative. He goes along with the near-sacrifice in chapter 22, and with the selection of Rebekah in chapter 24, and is sadly victim to his son's and wife's scheming in chapter 27.

The long chapter 24 gives of the story of the wooing of Rebekah, where the servant of Abraham helps gain her as Isaac's wife. We have a series of rich interconnections in these chapters. The Harper's Bible Commentary author notes that chapter 24 is structured similarly as Abraham's call in chapter 12, with the repeating of key words "bless" and "go," and chapter 24 also forms a frame for the chapter 12 promise. Rebekah, after all, is essential for the promise and enters the family as Isaac's wife. (Sadly compare the expulsion of Hagar in chapter 21 with the acceptance of Rebekah, though Ishmael's descendants are provided a genealogy, 25:12-18). The initial "barrenness" of Rebekah (25:21) also provides a narrative connection back to Sarai/Sarah.

The Harper's commentary points out other connections. Conflict and deception are themes through the Abraham stories and now both the Jacob and Joseph cycles---mostly familial strife, though Jacob contends with the mysterious challenger in 32:24-32, and we can remember Abraham's verbal contention with God over the fate of Sodom in chapter 18. Not to mention, chapter 26 has the story of Isaac, Rebekah, and Abimelech, where (like his father's two deceptions about Sarah) Isaac does not want it known that Rebekah is his wife, and in the meantime gains substantial property (again, similar to his father's experience in chapter 12, and Jacob a bit later).

The fraternal twins Jacob and Esau have trouble right away, with Jacob pushing Esau to despise his birthright (chapter 25), and the more elaborate deception of chapter 27. The Harper's commentary makes an interesting point: that the resourcefulness of Rebekah to ensure her son's future is similar to the story of Moses' mother in Exodus 2:1-10. There are other interesting connections, like Jacob's outrage at Laban's deception--he who was the deceiver has now been deceived---and Laban's own deceptive advocacy of his daughter Leah, which echoes Rebekah's advocacy of Jacob (chapter 29).

We can also make connections to the sacred place of Bethel, the site of Jacob's dream of the ladder/stairway and God's retelling to Jacob of the promise to Abraham. Bethel was an alternative sacred place (1 Kings 12:26-33, Amos 7:1-13) while Salem/Jerusalem (Genesis 14) became the city of the Temple and the southern kingdom. Another significant place for Jacob is the location in Genesis 32 where he wrestles... who? An angel? A human adversary? Although the sacred site is given the name Penuel, the more significant change is Jacob's, who gains the name Israel, "one who contends with God."

I always love the story of Jacob meeting Esau, because how many times have I anticipated something with deep dread but it turned out alright, and even very well! Sometimes it takes years for situations to work themselves out. Although many of us turn our troubles over to God, we always should remember that we may not get quick answers and easy solutions---but God does hear our prayers! Although Esau is used as a negative example in Hebrews 12, here he seems open and magnanimous toward his deceitful brother and welcomes him as a brother.  We learn of Esau's descendants in chapter 36, and as the Harper commentary tells us, we find later references to those descendants ("Edom") in 2 Sam. 8:14, 1 Kings 11:14-22, 2 Kings 8:20-33, and elsewhere.)

Jacob's children were (with wife Leah), Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Diana. With maidservant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali. With maidservant Ziplah: Gad and Asher. With wife Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. Of course, these sons became the founders of the tribes of Israel. I found an interesting site that considers the background of Jacob's genealogy: The terrible story of Diana's rape and her subsequent avenging connects to a later story of David's daughter Tamar in 2 Samuel. I recommend the article "Women in Genesis" in the Harper's commentary (pp. 116-118) that discusses the relationship of mothers and children in Genesis; contrasts the voiceless Diana with the resourceful Tamar and Rebekah; discusses the contrasting emotional situations of Leah and Rachel; points out that the rejected Hagar is given a theophany of God; notes the double standards that we find amid the Genesis stories (Lot sins, but only his wife is punished; both Abraham and Sarah laugh, but only Sarah is scolded for her laughter, etc.), and so on.

The stories of Joseph are so well known: we've read them in Sunday school and perhaps can sing along to the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical! They have several parts:

37:1-36, Joseph's relationship with his brothers and father, his brothers' cruel plan first to kill and then to sell Joseph, and his forced journey to Egypt.

39:1-30, Joseph's first experience in Egypt and his unjust imprisonment.

40:1-41:-57,  Joseph gains favor as an interpreter of dreams and becomes a significant official in Pharaoh's government, planning for the anticipated famine.

42:1-45:28, the wonderful stories of Joseph's meeting with his brothers, their failure to recognize him,  the way Joseph "messes" with them for a while, and finally his tearful revelation of himself to them and their reconciliation.

Chapters 46-50 also deal with Jacob and Joseph and the brothers. I'll read those chapters next week.

I love these Joseph stories in part because God is hardly mentioned in them---and I don't mean that in a negative way. God does not appear in theophanies and miracles in these stories, but the providential guidance of God is assumed. To me, this is a very realistic narrative about ways God may work in our lives, though obviously with different life experiences than Joseph's. We, too, experience painful times, suffer injustice, struggle through periods of difficulty but eventually we turn the corner from those periods into times of well-being again. We still have questions for God: why did I have to suffer so long in that situation, and why couldn't God have shortened the pain (as Joseph languished in prison for two years)? But we rejoice when we do, indeed, see (often in hindsight) how God was guiding us all along.

I didn't mean to skip the dark story of Judah and Tamar, which is inserted not the text (chapter 38) just as Joseph is being carried off to Egypt. Tamar, the daughter in law of Judah, loses her husband before she had children. By the laws and the customs of the time, the husband's brother was obligated to impregnate her, but he withdrew before ejaculation---and shortly died! Again, according to the views of the time, semen was considered spiritually unclean outside the body, and he also had declined a serious obligation---for Tamar was a widow with no children, a bad situation in which to be. But Judah refused to offer her his remaining son, and so Tamar deceives Judah into impregnating her instead. There's that theme of advantageous deception that we find throughout Genesis. Like Rebekah, Tamar has twins, Zerah and Perez.

My commentary points out that Judah's first son and also these two sons become important tribes within the larger tribe of Judah---in fact, Judah is the primary surviving tribe following the Exile, and Perez is an ancestor of Jesus himself. Again, the strange providence of God amid very complicated, painfully human circumstances.


In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Chayei Sarah          Genesis 23:1-25:18 I Kings1:1-1:31
Toldot                  Genesis 25:19-28:9 Malachi 1:1-2:7
Vayeitzei                  Genesis 28:10-32:3 Hosea 12:13-14:10 (Hosea 11:7-12:12)
Vayishlach          Genesis 32:4-36:43 Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Obadiah1:1-1:21)
Vayyeshev          Genesis 37:1-40:23 Amos 2:6-3:8
Miqeitz                  Genesis 41:1-44:17 I Kings 3:15-4:1
Vayigash                  Genesis 44:18-47:27 Ezekiel 37:15-37:28

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