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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 37 - Joseph's Story: Rags to Riches (Genesis 41-45)

This lesson focuses upon the meteoric and miraculous rise of Joseph from a prisoner/slave to the second most powerful leader in Egypt.  As we study this, it must be remembered that there are two important facts to this whole story.  First, what Joseph accomplished was by divine guidance and not his own merit - Joseph humbled himself, and God exalted him.  Secondly, it encourages us and reminds us that whatever adversity we may be currently facing, it is only temporary - as Romans 8:28 reminds us, "all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose." I am pretty certain that St. Paul, as an educated man, probably had the story of Joseph in mind as he reflected upon his own situation in the Roman prison he sat in as he wrote those words, and this too serves to remind us that, as my late mentor Fr. Eusebius Stephanou often said, "Man's disappointments are God's appointments."  The person who yields his or herself to God becomes a pliable vessel that God can use for His glory, and the story of Joseph personifies that beautifully.

In Genesis 41:1-36, the story from last lesson picks up.  To recap a bit, Joseph was wrongly accused by Potiphar's oversexed, lonely wife of something he was not guilty of, and he ended up in prison where he won the trust of the jailer and subsequentially came into contact with a butler and a baker who had recently gotten on the wrong side of Pharaoh.  Both of these men had dreams that troubled them, and Joseph, who was gifted at dream interpretation, counsels them by explaining the meaning of what they dreamed.  The butler's dream was good news for him, but unfortunately not so much for the baker, who is later executed.  The butler is restored to his position, and despite Joseph's request to remember him to Pharaoh, the butler goes on about his business and forgets all about what had happened.  That is, until Pharaoh started having dreams that troubled him!  It is at this point the story picks up.

The Pharaoh has two troubling dreams about essentially the same thing, with the same imagery, and he is so perplexed over them that he is trying to find out by any means possible what they mean.  At this point, his butler has a brief moment of memory clarity, and said in essence, "Oh yeah, there was this guy in the jail who might be able to help you out, Your Highness."  Apparently, these dreams were so disturbing that Pharaoh in essence says, "What the heck, why not?   Bring this guy to me and we'll see what he can do."  So, Joseph is brought before Pharaoh, and Pharaoh tells him the dreams.  As Joseph is gifted in this area, he sees almost instantly what the dreams meant, and he interprets them to the detail, even without Pharaoh telling him what they were.


At this point, I want to interject some history into the conversation, because anyone who knows anything about ancient history would understand that a typical Pharaoh would not give the time of day to a foreign slave, especially one who was in prison.   However, this was not just any Pharaoh, but rather he was possibly a leader of an invading Semitic people called the Hyksos who occupied northern Egypt at around this time and established their own kingdom and dynasty.  Although this is a matter of debate among some Biblical scholars, I believe it is plausible that Joseph encountered a Hyksos Pharaoh just by the way events played out.  If so, it also substantiates that God was indeed in control of things and had Joseph in the right place and at the right time, as only a Pharaoh who could to some degree identify with a person like Joseph would take what he said seriously.  God controls the events of history as well, and although He does not order them arbitrarily or robotically, He works through human events to accomplish His purpose.  And, this was one of those events. 



Ancient depiction of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt.

The two dreams Pharaoh had entailed similar imagery - seven lean cows consuming seven fat cows, and seven bad ears of grain consuming seven full ears.   As Joseph interpreted the dream, he notes that there are a total of 14 items in each dream, and the numbers represent years.  For seven years, there would be abundant crops and good harvests, but then a seven-year famine would ensue that would consume the resources that the abundance created.  Joseph then counsels Pharaoh to prepare by appointing a sensible steward to manage the abundant resources while they had them, and in doing so the nation could be spared much of the ravages of the ensuing famine.  By this point, famines and dry spells had become a fact of life, as the primal conditions which existed before the Flood of Noah's day some centuries earlier were forever altered, as was the landscape.  We have seen in the example of Abraham, Joseph's great-grandfather, that bad famines had hit the region before, and like Abraham, people were forced to Egypt as a sort of refuge - this is odd in itself, as Egypt is essentially a desert region after the Flood, with the ever-expanding Sahara to the west encroaching upon the nation more each year.   Therefore, Joseph's counsel to the Pharaoh was prudent and possessed a wisdom beyond Joseph's young years, and this was something that got Pharaoh's attention as well.

Pharaoh was quite impressed that Joseph was able to share this insight with him, and so much so that he basically said to Joseph, "I believe you are the man for the job."  So, Pharaoh essentially makes Joseph the prime minister of Egypt on the spot, and then seals the deal with a ceremony.  First, Pharaoh has Joseph clothed in the fine linen of the aristocracy, which was a custom that the Hyksos adopted as they did many things from their native Egyptian subjects. Pharaoh then confers upon Joseph his personal signet ring, which was a universal symbol of royal authority and in essence the Pharaoh was giving Joseph authority to act on his behalf.   He then confers a title upon Joseph, noted in Scripture as being Zaphenath-Paaneah ("the one who furnishes nourishment of life") which directly corresponds to Joseph's counsel.  He then gives Joseph a bride - a young lady named Asenath, who was the daughter it says of  Potipherah, the "priest of On."  There is some weird logic here, as in the first place the reader of this text may ask, why would God allow Joseph to marry the daughter of a pagan priest?  In looking at the context, On was the city where this priest lived and probably served a temple, and the name Potipherah means "priest of the sun," while On itself means "sun."  As the principle deity of the Egyptians (probably adopted to some degree by the Hyksos rulers) was Amun-Ra, this would make sense as Amun-Ra was a sun deity.  Therefore, Joseph was betrothed to the daughter of a priest of the sun-god, and again there is some ambiguity as to why God allowed it.  There is very little in the Biblical record about Asenath as Joseph's wife, and the only other mention of her is when she gives birth to their two sons later on.  However, in the Book of Jasher Chapter 49, in verse 37 there is a description given of her as being a beautiful virgin daughter of Potipherah, and it was by Pharaoh's decree that she be made the wife of Joseph, perhaps to give him the status and legitimacy he needed to carry out the duties of his office.  Therefore, perhaps God allowed Joseph to be integrated into the Egyptian social order through this marriage in order to carry out the plans He had for Joseph.  Genesis 41:46 notes Joseph was 30 years old when this all took place.

Conferring the authority of the signet upon Joseph

The new Prime Minister.

As Joseph settles down into his new life with his new bride, at some point she bears him two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Scripture seems to imply that these boys were twins, and they were born during the seven years of abundance Joseph had accurately predicted would happen.  The name Ephraim, who was the younger of the two boys, means "doubly fruitful," while the name Manasseh meant "one who causes forgetfulness."  Jasher 50:15 records that Joseph was 34 at the time of their birth, which again implies that the boys were twins.  The subsequent verses in Jasher also document that both sons had instilled in them by their father a love of God, and that he also made sure they were well-educated, and in Jasher 50:17 they even gained favor among the aristocracy for their character that Joseph instilled in them.  If this be the case, something else was happening here too which prefigures what Jesus would do later for humanity as the completion of God's plan of salvation - this essentially could invite the implication that Asenath, Joseph's wife, also came to worship the true God.  That in itself is an act of God Himself, in that the daughter of a pagan priest essentially attained a type of salvation as a result of the marriage to and influence of Joseph.  It also shows that even at the beginning, God's will was that all mankind would be able to have the opportunity of salvation, and this is also part of the Abrahamic Covenant that Joseph would also have been an heir to.  

In due season, the time of plenty ends and the famine arrives.  However, during the previous seven years Joseph had wisely made provision for this happening, and Egypt was prepared for it.  However, it appeared that the famine was not just confined to Egypt, but also extended to the surrounding region, as Jacob and his family began to feel the effects of it in Canaan.  Word has spread fast to the surrounding nations that a wise minister had managed Egypt's resources to create a surplus, and this would also prove fortuitous for the Egyptians too, as they not only had enough grain to feed themselves, but they could also profit from other nations who would be buying from Egypt, which is another aspect of Joseph's plan.  It also proves that Joseph was being used of God not only to save Egypt, but a wider circle of population.  Again, the disappointment of Joseph's mistreatment at the hand of his brothers was an evil God turned into good, and the appointed time of Joseph's arrival in Egypt was all orchestrated by God Himself.  And, as we see, it also impacted his own family hundreds of miles away.

Like many people in the region, Jacob had gotten word that Egypt was offering surplus grain for sale to surrounding nations and his family needed to replenish their supply.  So, he sends his sons (with the exception of Benjamin, who was yet too young) to Egypt to buy grain.  They have no idea that their brother Joseph was used by God to make all this possible, and upon their arrival Joseph recognizes them but they fail to recognize him.  If you recall when Joseph was younger in the previous lesson, he had a series of dreams of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, as well as a bunch of wheat bundles bowing to his bundle, and this was a major bone of contention for his brothers, which is why out of jealousy they sold him down the river.  Now, however, those dreams were beginning to come to pass, as now the brothers were compelled to show Joseph honor by bowing before him and respecting his authority.  Joseph decides to have a little fun with this, since his brothers don't recognize him, and he pretends to accuse them of being spies and has them tossed into jail.  After staying in jail three days, they are released on the condition that one of them has to stay behind and that they have to bring Benjamin back with them.  Simeon volunteers to stay, and Joseph sees the other brothers off with the grain they came for.  In 42:26-38, the brothers begin their journey home, but as they are traveling, they discover that their money is in the sack of grain, and they are mortified over it.  As they inspect the other sacks, more of their money is found, and this creates a panic that haunts them as they return home.  They tell their father what has happened, and he too is concerned and chastises his sons.  In the parallel account in Jasher 51, it gives a somewhat different account of Simeon's incarceration - although Simeon did volunteer, he did so with great conflict as it also seems that he was also left there by a consensus of the other brothers.   Although Simeon's name means "one who obeys," it appears he only did so with great struggle according to the account in Jasher.  Apparently Simeon put up a fight when Joseph's men tried to apprehend him, as he is said in this account to be a man who was very strong and able to resist.   However at some point Joseph's son Manasseh, who is now of age, has had enough of this nonsense from his uncle (whom he did not realize as such at this point), and he essentially whacks him on the back of the head and knocks him cold, and he is able to be apprehended.  After that happens, Joseph then fills their grain sacks and sends them on their way, and it is Levi who discovers in his sack the returned money, and the brothers almost immediately view it as a sign of God's judgment against them for what they did to Joseph some years earlier.  Although a somewhat different account, Jasher correlates with Genesis and also provides more detail to the story.

Any case, the brothers return home, and of course Jacob is concerned that Simeon is not with them, so Judah takes it upon himself to tell his father what happened.  Jacob is not in the least happy, and when Judah tells him what Joseph's stipulations are, Jacob initially refuses.  But, after a certain amount of time, they need to replenish their grain supply, and have to make another trip.  Judah reminds Jacob of the stipulation of this visit, and offers to personally look after Benjamin while there. After some deliberation, Jacob grudgingly relents, and Benjamin is allowed to go with them.

When the brothers arrive, Joseph instructs his deputies to bring them to his house, and considering the money incident on the last trip, the brothers are mortified and confess to Joseph what happened.  Joseph, of course, had planted the money in their bags himself, and he assures them that there is nothing to worry about and all is forgiven.  At this point too he also releases Simeon.  At the sight of his youngest (and full) brother Benjamin, Joseph is overcome with emotion and has to excuse himself so his brothers won't see him express it.  And, he also formulates another plan.  

The brothers are invited to have dinner with Joseph at his house, and while there Joseph has his personal goblet concealed in Benjamin's bags.  He then loads them up with a lot of food and sends them on their way.  When they leave, he has one of his stewards to track them down, and they are to be searched.  Upon doing this search, the missing goblet is found and Joseph, feigning indignation, demands that the one who stole the cup become his personal servant.  Knowing it was Benjamin's belongings where the cup was found, and the devastation their father would feel if anything happened to Benjamin, Judah throws himself on the chopping-block.  In this, we see yet another Christological type - Jesus, who would come through Judah's lineage, also offered Himself in our place, but not as a substitute.  As God Incarnate, the love Jesus has for humanity far exceeds the sinfulness of humanity, and is more than just a substitution - it is propitiation (an exercise of love on behalf of an offending party to appease the wrath of the offended).  Judah embodies a propitiation for his younger brother that our "older brother," Jesus, would do for us as part of the divine economy of the central kerygma of the salvation legacy.  This selfless act on Judah's behalf is also driven by love - a love of his father, as well as a voluntary act of love for his younger brother Benjamin.  This is an important gem to unearth in this story.

All of this finally becomes too much for Joseph, and in Genesis 45 he finally reveals to his brothers who he really is.  It is left to the design of the imagination as to what the initial action of his brothers would have been, as it definitely would have gotten a response from them.  But, the end result was a joyous reunion between Joseph and his enstranged brothers, and the past was left behind.  This is what salvation - and particularly Calvary - does for us;  although we may see God as wrathful and we know we deserve the most severe of judgments, then Jesus reveals Himself and offers Himself in joyful and loving fulness so that we might also be reconciled with Him.  Again, this is a central aspect of the kerygmatic core of the legacy of salvation, and an important lesson for us.  After this revelation and reunion of Joseph with his brothers, Joseph then tells Pharaoh, and being that he and Pharaoh also share a closeness (one gets the impression reading this that Pharaoh not only trusted Joseph with his life, but that he also considered Joseph a friend too) Pharaoh tells Joseph to welcome his family to Egypt to live out the famine, and now the family has the full endorsement of the Pharaoh himself.  

Jacob, upon the return of his sons and the news that Joseph was alive and in the position of authority, is of course initially confused - it is a lot for an old man to take in finding out a son given up for dead is not only alive, but is prospering!   However, once it all sinks in, Jacob is overjoyed and agrees to go to Egypt, if even only temporarily.  The next lesson, which will also conclude this series, will get into more detail regarding their arrival and settling in Egypt. 




Thursday, October 20, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 36 - Esau's Family, Judah's Sin, and Introduction to Joseph's Story (Chapters 36-40)

As we begin this lesson, from the outset we are going to be skipping around a little as there is a sort of interspersion of parts to this aspect of the story.  Therefore, we will begin this lesson in Chapter 36, then go to Chapter 38, and then revisit Chapter 37 and connect it to Chapters 38-39.  Genesis has been noteworthy for having "intermissions" in the story throughout the narrative, and this one is similar to those as the story of Joseph, which covers pretty much the remainder of the book, is interspersed with a brief genealogy of Esau in Chapter 36 - this will be the last reference to Esau in Genesis - and also a moral transgression by Judah with his daughter-in-law Tamar in Chapter 38.  The structure of this lesson will parse together the parts of Joseph's story that are divided by the Judah account in Chapter 38.

As we begin in Chapter 36, the whole chapter is a genealogy of Esau's family.   After this genealogy, little is said about Esau in Scripture, as he and his descendants have little involvement with the plan of salvation that God is communicating through Scripture.  However, in the extrabiblical texts, Esau is mentioned first in Jasher 56, where he mourns his brother's death and then has a dispute with Joseph over Jacob's burial, as Esau's family is trying to resist the burial.  A battle ensues, and Joseph along with his Egyptian allies, prevail and Jacob is laid to rest.  However, this causes a war that ensues all the way through Jasher 60, when a grandson of Esau's, Zepho, is said to have fled from the Egyptians and somehow becomes a ruler in Italy.  Esau is recorded in Jasher 56:64 as being killed in battle by Dan's son Chushim, and he is decapitated at that time just prior to Jacob's burial.  So, then, it is the extrabiblical sources that record the death of Esau rather than Genesis, but this is understandable as again Esau's lineage plays little part in the overall plan of salvation recorded in Scripture itself (references to Jasher from Ken Johnson, The Ancient Book of Jasher.  Olathe, KS:  Biblefacts Ministries, 2008.  pp. 126-141).  

Returning to the Genesis account, the genealogy of Esau is summarized in the chart below regarding Genesis 36:1-30:


Esau had 3 wives, all of whom are documented in this passage - Adah was a daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah the daughter of a man named Ana, and Basemath is Ishmael's daughter.  The chart above though misdocumented one thing - Eliphaz, Esau's son, had Amalek as a son by one of his concubines Timnah, and the others mentioned are also Eliphaz's rather than Esau's sons.  Amalek would later by the progenitor of his own nation, the Amalekites, who would figure prominently during the era of the Judges later as the early Israelites had to contend a lot with the Amalekites in the land of Canaan.

From verses 31 to the end of the chapter, there are a list of Edomite kings that extends for several generations, and no doubt this was included in the Genesis account to provide background for the later dealings that Moses and his successors would have in Canaan with Edom and others.  It is also worth mention that a later descendant of Esau would rule Judah - during the Hasmonean period many centuries later, as the Hasmoneans began to have internal conflicts among themselves and Rome was starting to take advantage, an opportunist named Antipater seizes the opportunity to court Rome and gain influence over the Judean court, and eventually he even marries one of his sons to a daughter of one of the Hasmoneans.  Antipater was an Idumaean, which means he was from a region east of the Dead Sea called Idumaea, which is a Latinized name for Edom, the land of Esau's descendants.  In essence, Antipater was a descendant of Esau, and his sons, the Herodians, would rule the region for at least three generations.  Although adopting the Jewish religion (at least outwardly) and gaining favor with the Sadduccee caste in Palestine at the time, the Herodians were thoroughly Edomite in origin.  It was one of the few times a descendant of Esau ruled over the children of Israel, but many centuries later.

Proceeding now to Chapter 38, we have the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar.  The story starts with Judah taking a Canaanite woman by the name of Shua as a wife, and she bears him three sons - Er, Onan, and Shelah.  When Er, Judah's oldest, comes of age, he arranges a marriage for him with a beautiful local girl named Tamar.  However, Er is apparently not a nice guy, as the Scriptural account in this chapter records him as being evil, and a course of divine judgment ends his life.  As was the custom, the widow Tamar is then given to the next brother, Onan.  Onan apparently has some scruples about him, and doesn't feel right about the arrangement, and rather than consummating his marriage with Tamar, he instead ejaculates his sperm on the ground.  This action of Onan's is also seen as evil by God, as there would soon be strict commandments against this sort of thing in later Mosaic law as recorded in Leviticus, so Onan loses his life in judgment as well.  Tamar is promised by Judah to the third son, Shelah, but Shelah is still too young yet to marry.  Therefore, until Shelah comes of age, Tamar is sent back to her family.   In the same time period, Judah's wife Shua dies, and in order to cope with the loss and as part of the mourning process, Judah goes to the nearby area of Timnah to sheer sheep with his herdsmen.  Tamar finds out that Judah is in the area, and fearing for her own lack of posterity and the fact that she would be much older than her betrothed, she conspires to seduce Judah into bearing children by dressing up as a prostitute and seducing him.

Obviously, consorting with whores was wrong, and Judah should have known better.  However, he decided to indulge himself of some "pleasure," and negotiates to pay Tamar (whose identity is hidden) a goat in payment for her "services."  Knowing full well what she was doing, Tamar coyly makes Judah pledge on the payment by asking for his signet ring and staff (signs of his authority) as collateral until payment is made, and Judah obliges her.   Judah's tryst with Tamar results in a pregnancy, which was her plan, and this presents a problem.  When Judah tries to pay the supposed whore for her "services" by sending the goat to her, she is nowhere to be found and the local people know of no prostitutes in their town.  However, in due time Judah does learn of the pregnancy, and he initially wants her killed as a penalty for her fornication (since she was legally betrothed to Judah's son Shelah, technically this would have been considered an act of adultery).

Upon demanding the father of the child's identity, Tamar sends to Judah his own staff and ring with a message that they belong to the father.  Judah by this time feels stupid about it, and despite the embarrassment caused by the whole incident, he acknowledges what he did and never "knew" her again.  In due course of time though, Tamar gives birth, and she ends up having twins.  When the first - Zerah - puts out his hand, Tamar ties a scarlet thread around it, but the hand withdraws and the actual first-born - Perez - comes out first instead.  Perez would be the line from which eventually all the kings of Israel and Judah, as well as the future Messiah, would come.


Going back to Chapter 37, we now begin the story of Joseph, which will dominate the remainder of Genesis.  Joseph was first off a dreamer of dreams, and this is something that cannot be underestimated even today.  God often communicates to people, both in Biblical times and throughout history to today, through the imagery of dreams, and it is important not to dismiss dreams when one has them.  Now, obviously not all dreams are words from God - some are the result of too much Chinese food eaten too late, and others are just more or less a representation of things that may be on the person's mind which sort of manifest themselves in dream sequences.  However, there are times when dreams do carry significance, and it is important to maybe pay attention to them because they may be revealing something to us from God.  Joseph was one of those people who not only had the special vocation of being a "dreamer of dreams" but also he had a gift of understanding what he dreamed as well.  It is these dreams which form the impetus of the classic "rags to riches" story of Joseph that we will also continue to read about in the next couple of lessons.

The first part of the chapter shows that Joseph was a favorite of his father Jacob - he was the oldest son of his beloved wife Rachel, and probably a lot about Joseph reminded Jacob of her too.  Therefore, being a younger son and also the oldest of Rachel's, he was also spoiled to a degree too.  One of the gifts his father gave him was a vividly multi-colored coat.  Over the years, as people learned this story in Sunday Schools, it inspired a lot of creativity  - country star Dolly Parton even composed a song called "Coat of Many Colors" that was inspired by this story as it related to her poor Appalachian childhood, and of course megachurches throughout the United States have staged productions of a popular retelling of the story in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.   In the story though, we see a greater typology as many Church Fathers (notably Chrysostom) also observed - Jacob's love for Joseph prefigures God the Father's love for His only begotten Son, Jesus.  Many parallels of Jesus can be seen later in the life of Joseph as well, which will be discussed at appropriate sections of this study. 


Jacob's lavishing attention on Joseph was not lost in sight of his brothers, as they, through envy, grew to hate him.  Fueling this growing resentment further was a series of dreams Joseph had about his brothers and him - dreams of sheaths of wheat bowing to his, and the sun, moon, and stars bowing to him as well.  Even Jacob, despite his love of Joseph, has to rebuke him for such dreams.  In time, however, this would come to a head, and it would lead to a series of events which would shape the history of the embryonic Israelite nation for generations to come.

After some time, the brothers are starting to get to the point that they really hated Joseph, and they conspire to act on this hatred.  One day, Jacob sends Joseph out to the fields to check on his brothers, and possibly to bring them provisions, and they see their chance.  Initially, they want to kill him and stage it as if an animal mauled him to death, but older brother Reuben steps in and stops this before it is carried out.  Instead, they seize Joseph, strip his coat off him, and throw him in a pit.  A little while later, a group of Midianite traders heading for Egypt comes by, and Judah gets the "bright" idea to sell Joseph as a slave to them.   The Midianite Bedouins pay the brothers 20 pieces of gold for him, and they take him off to market in Egypt.  In this we have also a picture of Christ, who was sold for 30 pieces of silver due to the greed of an "older brother" named Judas.   After that transaction goes down, the brothers then kill a goat, dip Joseph's coat in it, and then tell their father Jacob that Joseph was devoured by a wild beast.  Jacob is devastated naturally by this tragedy, but of course Joseph is not dead at all - his story is just beginning! 


In Egypt, Joseph is sold as a slave to a captain in the Pharaoh's guard by the name of Potiphar.  In time, God's favor with Joseph leads Potiphar to trust him completely to run the affairs of his house, but there is a problem - Potiphar's oversexed wife.  Genesis records Potiphar as being a "eunuch," and if that were the case, it means that he probably didn't have any intimacy with his wife, and therefore she had "needs."  Joseph is young, virile, and soon attracts the attention of the lonely housewife, who then proceeds to attempt to seduce him.  Joseph knows this is wrong, and resists her advances, but in the course of that he attempts to flee but she strips his garment, and he runs away naked.  This is not looking good for Joseph at all at this point!   Not happy at being rejected, the lecherous wife of Potiphar plots revenge, and she accuses Joseph of trying to molest her!  Potiphar of course feels both upset and betrayed, and he casts Joseph in jail.  At this point, Joseph's life has hit bottom, but as we see later all of this was for a greater purpose. 

Artistic rendering of Joseph being sold to Potiphar

Painting of Potiphar's wife seducing Joseph

Joseph has hit rock-bottom at this point, but as my late mentor Fr. Eusebius Stephanou often said, this was one of those situations where "man's disappointment becomes God's appointment."  Although in an unfortunate situation in a foreign prison, Joseph displays a great deal of grace and becomes a model prisoner, earning the respect of the jail-keeper.   In time, the jail-keeper even promotes Joseph to look after other prisoners, and two of those other prisoners end up being right out of Pharaoh's palace.  The baker and the butler of the Pharaoh end up in jail because both of them did something apparently that ticked off their master.  At some point after their arrival, both of these men have dreams - the butler dreams of a three-branched grapevine that he harvests, makes into wine, and serves to the Pharaoh, while the baker dreams of having three baskets of baked goods on his head that are being eaten by black birds.    Joseph senses both of these men are troubled, and he asks them what is wrong.  So, they tell him of these dreams, and Joseph, being gifted in this area, interprets them for them.   The butler's dream represents a three-day period in which he would be released and restored to his position.  The baker's dream is bad news - in three days he will be executed by hanging and will himself be scavenged by birds.  Of course, all this comes to pass, and despite Joseph asking the butler to remember him, the cupbearer forgets and goes on with his life while Joseph stays in prison. There are several lessons in the cupbearer's attitude.  First, the cupbearer also forgot the witness Joseph provided of a God who delivered the cupbearer from his misfortune.  Second, the butler (cupbearer) was more enamoured with his own prestige than he was about the suffering of others.   Third, God actually allows the forgetfulness of the cupbearer to be part of His plan for Joseph later, as we see in the next lesson.  This reminds us both of Romans 8:28 - "all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose" - as well as the old axiom "coincidence is God being anonymous."   

The baker's dream

The butler's dream

In closing, there is no doubt God works even in adversity, although often we only see how it all comes together in retrospect.  Joseph's story serves to remind us that even in the midst of trials God is indeed with us, and it is an important lesson for all of us to learn that maybe we should look at a trial as an opportunity rather than a tragedy, and make the most of our situation.   As we will see in the next couple of lessons, this was an attitude Joseph embodies, and it would prove providential for him and indeed his whole family later.  






Thursday, October 13, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 35 - The Story of Jacob Part II (Genesis 31-35)

As with the last lesson and continuing until the conclusion of this study, at this point the narrative becomes more of "telling the story" and will not be so much digging for great theological insights, but there are still some to be found.  At this point we are still looking at Jacob's story, which continues where we left off with him leaving his father-in-law/uncle Laban's place.

In 31:1-21, Jacob actually leaves.  At this point, and as we briefly touched on in the last lesson, Jacob is feeling the "vibes" so to speak of Laban's growing displeasure over his success.   At this point, God Himself gives Jacob the proverbial "green light" to take off as well, and so Jacob makes the preparations.  If anything is to be gleaned from this passage though, it is that God's timing is important, even in our own lives today.  Had Jacob left sooner, he may have ran into Esau, who at this point was still steaming over his brother's deception, and it could have cost him his life.  Had he stayed longer, he would have had a similar issue with Laban, who was growing more agitated with his son-in-law/nephew by the day.  As we see though, God has perfect timing for everything, and He knew the right time to put the plan in motion so that Jacob would be protected.  And, Jacob trusted God. In life, we tend to get too impatient as well with things without realizing that there are reasons for delays, and perhaps by having the delay God is either protecting us from something or preparing the way for us for what He wants.   Unfortunately, we have a tendency to force God's hand, and it can lead to disastrous consequences when God relents and steps back, because then we expose ourselves to unnecessary risks.  In times where situations like that arise, this would be an important story to refer back to.

The next part of this passage is puzzling.  When Jacob gathers his family and servants together, in verse 19 we notice that the wives, Rachel and Leah, have concerns of their own.  After all, their father is pretty wealthy, and they as his children want to obtain an inheritance of that wealth.  So, as a security measure, Rachel actually steals some of the household idols of her father's without Jacob's knowledge, and she stashes them in her belongings as she packs.  We see a sort of issue here that we didn't expect - first, wasn't Laban now suppose to be serving YHWH alone, which is why Isaac and Rebekah sent Jacob there for a wife in the first place?  If that be the case, then what on earth are idols doing in Laban's possession in the first place.  There are a couple of possible explanations for this that I will now explore, one being my own thesis and the other being based on some of the writings of the Church Fathers who have commentary on this passage.  The idols were called teraphim, and as I look at this passage I see something more legally significant than I do religious in the possession of these things, and it is based on the earlier concerns that both Leah and Rachel had about inheriting their part of their father's estate.  These small teraphim were often made of gold and had small jewels on them, and that would have made them very valuable market-wise.  Stealing such items would ensure that some of the family wealth was obtained.  Another possible explanation I noted was something I came across on a website (http://jhom.com/topics/thieves/rachel.htm - accessed October 13, 2016) that documents that these items often conferred property rights and family status, and the one who possesses them would be entitled to a transfer of ownership of family assets.  Perhaps then by Rachel's taking these items, she was also thinking she was doing her husband a favor by indicating that Jacob was no longer in the service of Laban and now had entitlement to Laban's estate.  In that case, these small idols would act more as a sort of deed of title of ownership than they would objects of worship, and that would make perfect sense.  It also reflects the Mesopotamian culture of the time too, in which often the temples of certain deities also served as magistrate courts of sorts, and by "swearing on the gods" the priest/magistrate would issue one of these teraphim in lieu of legal documentation, symbolizing that the action was official.   This would seem to be the most plausible reason for Rachel's absconding with these items.

Examples of teraphim from Sumer


The Church Fathers though had another take on this.  St. John Chrysostom, for instance, states in his Homilies on Genesis that despite the fact that this family now served YHWH, there was still a tendency to cling onto ancestral habits - Chrysostom notes that Rachel went through a lot of effort to steal only the teraphim and didn't seem to be interested in anything else of her father's wealth, and that she did it covertly without Jacob knowing about it, lest he should be upset as idol worship was incomprehensible to him (Mark Sheridan, ed.  The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture - Old Testament Vol II:  Genesis 12-50.  Downer's Grove, IL:  Intervarsity, 2001.  pp. 206-207).  In my estimation, it is possible that both of these were true at the same time, but the religious aspect maybe a little different.  I don't believe that Rachel actually worshipped these teraphim, but her priorities were affixed on her father's wealth, which was in itself a type of idolatry.  She really didn't need to do this, as Jacob was already quite wealthy in his own right as we have seen, yet she does it anyway.  Greed can be a nasty taskmaster, and it is my assertion that this was perhaps Rachel's real motivation for stealing her father's teraphim.  In principle though, the possession of the idols, even if only for a legal reason, would not have been acceptable to Jacob in that their very presence could tempt worship, and they were still pagan idols despite their non-religious purpose.  And, that would explain why Rachel did what she did covertly.

Classic painting depicting Jacob's fleeing Laban

Jacob, having his affairs in order, leaves Haran and heads back south toward Canaan.  After three days, Laban finally notices Jacob is missing, and is not happy about it.  So, he gathers a posse of his servants and attempts to pursue Jacob.   No doubt at this point, and as we see later, Laban was probably upset that those teraphim were missing as well, and no doubt was also determined to recover them by any means possible, as this was his wealth at stake.  However, that night while Laban rests, God comes to him in a dream and tells him to not "speak evil" of his son-in-law, and now looking again at St. Chrysostom's Homilies, we see kind of what this means.   God was, in effect, telling Laban to watch his tongue and not do anything he might regret, yet God also understood Laban's situation too, which is why He allowed Laban to pursue Jacob.  God was, in effect, wanting Laban and Jacob to patch up their differences and part on good terms - this foreshadows the mission of Christ as the Prince of Peace we read about later in Scripture.  And, although Chrysostom believed Laban was still an idolator, he also proposes that God allows His own words to come forth from "the testimony of an infidel" in order to confirm in Jacob's mind that what he was doing was right.  At any rate, by verse 26 Laban catches up with Jacob, and they have some sorting out to do.

Although Laban tempers himself thanks to God's guidance, he is still understandably upset about a couple of things, and he and Jacob actually do have a lively exchange over those.  Laban first wants to know where on earth his teraphim are, and of course Jacob has no idea - in modern vernacular, he would be saying at this point, "What in blue blazes are you talking about?".  So, Laban does a search of his own in Jacob's tents, and the idols are recovered from Rachel's tent.  There seems to be no record here of whether or not Rachel owned up to what she did, but apparently something gets resolved later.  The bigger issue for Laban that he voices is the fact that they left without even a proper goodbye, and this makes Laban upset as well - after all, these are his daughters, and also his grandchildren, so in his mind he should have at least been allowed to see them off for the last time. Laban's indignant rantings on these things provoke a sharp rebuke from Jacob then in verses 31-42, and after they sound off and cool down, they then begin to talk rationally, and this results in a covenant ceremony we see in verses 43-54.  To initiate the covenant between himself and his father-in-law, Jacob first sets up a stone pillar and he then instructs his "brethren" (perhaps Laban's sons that accompany him, his brothers-in-law in effect) to gather stones and make a pile.   Then, Jacob and Laban have a meal.  As a condition of the covenant, Laban makes Jacob essentially swear to not marry other women, nor to pass beyond the heap of stones with ill intent.  Jacob covenants not to do so, and they break bread together to seal the covenant.  In essence, Laban has now given his blessing to Jacob to return home, and what could have been a bad meeting ended up having a good end, despite obviously some initially strong feelings on both sides.  At this point, there is a friendly parting, and Jacob continues on his way.

Jacob and Laban covenant over the heap of stones

Jacob has now dodged one proverbial "bullet" with his father-in-law, but he now has another issue facing him as he approaches home, and that is dealing with his brother Esau.   Recall, Jacob's name means "deceiver" or "supplanter," and he did exactly that in regard to Esau.   Esau initially wanted to kill Jacob over it once it set in what Jacob had done and what Esau lost, and Jacob knew (and understandably feared) any confrontation with Esau.  In order to offset this a little, Jacob does two things.  First, he sends messages and gifts of his own flocks to Esau as a gesture of goodwill.  Secondly, in case that didn't work, he divides his party up into two groups, sending them in different directions - this would assure that at least some of his group would survive if Esau was still angry.   But, Esau does send word back that he wants to meet with Jacob, and at this point Jacob is sweating bullets!  That night he actually is so distraught that it affects his sleep, and God uses this as an opportunity to teach Jacob a valuable lesson.

At the point Jacob crosses the Jabbok River (known today as the Zarqa River in northwest Jordan) and not being able to sleep, he is outside pondering things when a strange figure appears and attacks him.  Although Jacob holds his own, the strange man touches Jacob's hip and disables it.  Jacob demands that the stranger blesses him when the stranger wants to be released.   By this time, Jacob has figured out that it is God Himself who is there, possibly identifiable with the same "Angel (Word) of the Lord" that visited his grandfather Abraham on so many occasions.  At this point, the stranger (whom we now know to be a manifestation of God) renames Jacob Israel ("May God Prevail") and there are reasons behind this.  First, Jacob has went from being a "supplanter" to being an "overcomer," when he gives over his own issues to God who allows him to prevail. Secondly, it assures Jacob (now Israel) that despite what happens, God is in control of the outcome, and His plan will prevail because His promises are true.  There are important lessons for us in this even today - we face struggles and situations, and yes, we even have our own "fights" with God (I can testify to that many times personally!) but in the end God's will prevails, and it works for our good (Romans 8:28).  It was this lesson that God wanted to teach Israel in this struggle, and it was just the thing he needed to bolster and encourage him regarding the upcoming meeting with Esau that next day.  Mission accomplished, Jacob releases the stranger and then demands a name, and God reveals to Jacob that it is Himself.  The biggest lesson for us to glean from all this however is that often it is in our weakness that God can best use us, as my late spiritual mentor Fr. Eusebius Stephanou often said "Man's disappointments are God's appointments." 

Wrestling with God

After an involved night, the next day Esau and Israel meet, and although Israel was expecting the worst, the meeting actually turned out to be a warm reunion between the brothers.  As it turned out, God had also blessed Esau so much that Esau really didn't need or desire the Covenant inheritance, and I think Esau also came to terms with the fact that this was Jacob's destiny, not his.  At any rate, Esau and Jacob resolve their differences, and for the remainder of their lives they got along nicely it seems.  Having had a good reunion with Esau, Jacob then continues on until he arrives at Salem (Jerusalem) and as was the practice he sets up an altar.  

Jacob's warm reunion with Esau

In Genesis 34, there is an odd interlude.  After Jacob (now Israel) returns home, some time passes and his sons come of age.   Jacob also has a young daughter with Leah by the name of Dinah, and at some point she captures the eye of a young, spoiled nobleman by the name of Shechem.  Shechem is so obsessed with Dinah that he rapes her, and upon hearing of this, his father, a local king of a Hivite city by the name of Hamor, needs to do damage control and goes to Jacob to negotiate a marriage to sort of diffuse a bad situation.  It must be also remembered that generations earlier, Abraham had established his family as a powerful local entity in the area, and many of the local tribes and groups of people knew who Abraham's family were and also were aware of their influence.  Therefore, for a local king's son to act like a pig to a granddaughter of Abraham was quite serious, and Hamor knew that.  Although Jacob appears to at least want to hear out Hamor, his sons want nothing of it, and demand that Shechem needs to be circumcised before he can go any further.  Although Shechem complies, it is obvious Shechem has some sex hangups - he would be similar to a Bill Clinton in our time, in other words, in that he felt no compunction about taking liberties with vulnerable young girls, and his lack of self-control is evident.  Also, his feelings for Dinah were not true love, but rather lust. However, the sons of Israel were not without fault in this either - although they give Shechem this requirement, and he complies, they also have no intention of letting their little sister be married off to such a repulsive character.   Now, if you are a male and have ever been circumcised as an adult, it is not pleasant (having experienced that myself, I can verify that fact!), so Shechem and the other males of his city whom were ordered to have this procedure done were recovering.  Two of the brothers - Simeon and Levi - see this as an opportunity, and while the inhabitants of Hamor's city were vulnerable, they attacked and slaughtered them. When their father hears of it, he is not happy with the boys, and he harshly rebukes them.  However, Simeon and Levi justify their actions as a legitimate defending of family honor, and their response was "shall our sister be treated as a common whore?"  Putting this in the perspective of moral theology, what we have here is an issue of distributive vs. communicative justice.  Distributive justice means simply that justice is dispensed by those in authority to do so, while communicative justice is based on individual retribution.  Aquinas notes that no individual should intend to kill despite whether or not the intention is good, but rather this judgment should be reserved for those in authority to do so - a good intention in this case led to an evil end.   It is also of note that there was not a justifiable reason for this murder either - there was no proportionate cause for the murder since the brothers were not attempting to preserve their own lives (self-defense), and the punishment far exceeded the crime that they exacted upon Shechem (Christopher Kaczor, Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition.  Washington, DC:  The Catholic University of America Press, 2002. pp. 24-25).  It is for this reason that Jacob was a little upset at his boys - he knew too that Shechem's rape of his daughter was wrong, and maybe did not want Shechem in his family either, but he was attempting to resolve it through more licit means. 
The focus of the story is that both parties (Shechem as well as Simeon and Levi) sinned, and this sin is serious in lieu of the action/reaction factor.

Shechem's abduction and rape of Dinah

Chapter 35 finishes out this lesson by covering several things.  First, we have Israel going to Bethel to build an altar as an act of personal sanctification at Bethel - this involves cleansing the idols from his home that some of his servants and even his wives may have been messing around with, and he buries those under a tree near Shechem.  When this happens, God reaffirms to Jacob the name change, that he is now to be called Israel, and this also is a reaffirmation of God's Covenant which was first given to Abraham some decades before.  Beginning in verse 16, we also see Rachel's passing away in childbirth as she gives birth to Benjamin, Israel's youngest son.  At her passing, his eldest son Reuben sees an opportunity to lust after and violate Bilhah, Rachel's maid, and this upsets Jacob.  The anger is understandable, considering what had just happened to Dinah and Simeon and Levi's reaction to that.  These actions may have been what led Israel to do some self-examination of his own household, as evidently there were things that needed to be addressed and fixed with his own sons.   Also, it reminds us of the concupiscence we all unfortunately epigenetically have inherited from our forefather Adam - just because someone is chosen doesn't necessarily imply automatic righteousness, as even the righteous are imperfect and prone to sinful behavior if the temptation presents itself and we are not properly grounded.  

Death of Rachel and Benjamin's birth

In verses 23-26, we have the first listing of all of Israel's sons, and they are as follows:

1.  From Leah's issue - Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon

2.  From Rachel's issue - Joseph and Benjamin

3.  From concubine Bilhah's issue - Dan and Naphtali

4.  From concubine Zilpah's issue - Gad and Asher

Over half of Israel's sons (as well as his daughter Dinah) are from Leah, his first wife.  However, all the sons are equally Israel's despite different mothers, and God would through all of them raise up a chosen nation later which would be fully realized in the generations to come.

This chapter concludes with the death of Isaac at the age of 180.  Jacob and Esau come together one last time to bury him, and there is no indication that the brothers have any contact after that point, although their descendants would interact later.  

Esau and Jacob (Israel) bury Isaac after mourning at his passing







Thursday, October 6, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 34 - the Story of Jacob Part I (Genesis 26-30)

At this point, we have now talked a lot about Abraham, as he figures prominently in the Genesis account as the beginning essentially of the bloodline of the Messiah.  We also began to focus on the brief account of Isaac - generally, Isaac is one of those people who, although integral to the story, has little detail of his life documented in Scripture.  At this point, we now begin to transition to Jacob's story, as there is a lot more to say about him in the next several chapters.

Genesis 26 is one of those inserted interludes in the story that gives an account of Isaac's dealings with Abraham's old friend King Abimelech.  As you read these accounts, you begin to feel somewhat sorry for Abimelech, as Abraham has messed with him on more than one occasion.  In that story, we see in Abimelech's long-suffering a picture of God's mercy toward us as well - although we are chosen people, we tend to treat God shabbily at times, and yet He still loves us and reaches out to us.  Seeing that same long-suffering attitude in Abimelech (and he really has tolerated a lot!) reminds us that God also puts up with a lot from us too, and like Abimelech in the Scriptural accounts, God still gives us other chances even when we don't deal with Him squarely too.  It also is a lesson to us that not all of the "Gentiles" in the Bible were necessarily bad people - at times, they act better than the Chosen do! That being said, we see in Genesis 26 some experience Abimelech has with Isaac, and it proves the point further.

If we look at the first 33 verses of Chapter 26, we see what is going on.  Rebekah, you recall from the last couple of lessons, was an extremely beautiful woman.  At this point in time, a famine occurs near where Isaac lives, and Isaac is forced to seek better pasture land for his herds, and he goes to Abimelech for help.  Abimelech, who had previously been mentioned as being "King of Gerar," is now called "King of the Philistines," and in this account we have the first revelation of Abimelech's nationality, as well as the first mention of a group of people that would later cause the Israelites a lot of problems.  The Philistines, according to the Genesis 10 "Table of Nations," are descendants of Caphtor, who was a son of Ham's son Mizraim.   On a more secular historical note that sort of corroborates with the Biblical record, the Philistines were originally from the island of Crete, and perhaps were part of the same culture that created the earlier Minoan civilization on Crete before the Indo-European Mycenaean peoples (descendants of Japeth's son Javan, according to the Scriptural record) supplanted them later.  Secular sources also note the strong ties that Minoan Crete had with ancient Egypt ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minoan_civilization - accessed  10/6/2016) and this would make sense in lieu of the fact that the Minoans and Egyptians may share a common heritage.

The palace of Knossos, the epicenter of the ancient Minoan civilization on Crete, from which the origins of the Philistines are believed to be.

An early fresco depicting Minoan seafarers, which may explain how the Philistines arrived in Canaan.

Egyptian bas-relief depicting Phillistine POW's.

Early carving of a Phillistine warrior

It would appear that the earliest Philistines, who were seafarers, probably arrived on the coast of Palestine (a name that was derived from them, incidentally) sometime prior to Abraham's arrival in the land.  That being said, it is reasonable to assume that the Philistines probably had an established civilization at an early age, and Abraham encountered them at around that time as well.  This is why Abimelech, who was ruler of the Philistine settlement of Gerar, was such a person of influence.  

The location of Gerar in Abraham and Isaac's time

As we saw in earlier lessons, Abraham had a lot of his own encounters with Abimelech, and although he didn't particularly deal fairly all the time with Abimelech, it appears as if the king remained a loyal friend to Abraham over the course of his life, even allowing Abraham grazing land for his herds in his domain.  It is probable that Isaac was definitely aware of Abimelech (who would have been quite along in years at this point) and perhaps he knew that Abimelech would be able to help him out during this natural disaster of famine that hit his own area.  So, this is why he visits Abimelech.

When he arrives in Abimelech's realm, Isaac falls to the same temptation his father Abraham had, and he attempts to "pimp out" Rebekah to Abimelech as a feeble attempt at self-preservation. Again, Abimelech figures out this ruse, and he demands an explanation from Isaac, who gives it to him - surprisingly, all is forgiven, and Abimelech then orders Rebekah off-limits to anyone else upon penalty of  death. 


But, as fate would have it, another repetition of an old dispute arises when Abimelech's and Isaac's servants conflict with each other over a series of wells. This too is soon resolved, and there seems to be no further trouble between Isaac and Abimelech after this.  


At this point too (vv. 26-33) Abimelech and Isaac also covenant among themselves regarding the well issue, and then Isaac goes to Beersheba nearby where God endows Isaac with the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant (vv 23-25).  At this point, the story then shifts to Esau for a chapter or so.

Esau, in verse 34, is documented as marrying two Hittite (or Hethite, to be more accurate) women, but Isaac is not thrilled about it - still thinking Esau is to inherit the Covenant promises, he wants his son to be pure and to marry a wife of his choosing.  Notice though that unlike in Isaac's case when Rebekah was chosen, in Esau's place God was silent - that silence alone should have alerted Isaac to the bigger issue, although Jacob and Rebekah are now about to enlighten him.

As Chapter 27 opens, we see Isaac as being old and somewhat frail.  Apparently, he suffered from cataracts or some other visual impairment which rendered him almost blind, and he is aware his time is growing short so he wants to take care of last-minute business with his sons.   This being the case, Isaac calls Esau to him and instructs him to shoot a deer and make a stew out of it for him.  I don't think this was a normal mealtime activity, nor was it due to the fact that Isaac just loved Esau's cooking either, but I believe it was a bigger issue.  Esau, by taking the effort to kill and prepare this for his father, is performing a ceremonial act of some sort, as he knows his father is about to die and may be setting his affairs in order.  Therefore, Esau dutifully obeys.  While Esau is meeting with his father, Rebekah (who favors Jacob) is eavesdropping in on the conversation and knows she must do something - she may even be aware at this point of the earlier forfeiture of Esau's birthright, and knows it would be a huge violation in protocol if Esau claimed what he no longer had rights to.  Therefore, she now springs into action while Esau is out hunting, and she instructs Jacob to bring her two goats.  She prepares stew from the goats - one thing about goat meat is that it is remarkably similar to deer in taste - and she instructs Jacob to take it to his father to get that blessing.  However there is a problem that Jacob observes quickly - he is not of the same physical makeup as his brother, in particular the hairiness Esau has.  But, Rebekah has this covered too, as she dresses Jacob with the goat skins and in Esau's clothing.  She then sends Jacob to Isaac with instructions to claim his blessing. 

Given Isaac's current condition, Jacob easily fools him, although Isaac is a bit surprised that "Esau" has come back so early from the hunt.  As Isaac eats the stew, he imparts the Covenant blessing to Jacob there, and at that moment Jacob becomes the heir to God's plan.  Then, Esau returns!  Esau finds out what happened and is understandably upset about it, and Isaac is now confused, as he basically said to Esau "didn't we do this already?"  Although however Esau didn't get the blessing, he does get a blessing from Isaac, but it still doesn't resolve things in Esau's mind.  Esau, you recall from earlier, was just back from what possibly was a successful assassination of Nimrod, and he was too exhausted at that point to think about what he was doing.  Therefore, the forfeiture of the birthright probably didn't really sink in, or perhaps it slipped his mind about what had happened.  This being said, Esau has a murderous intention toward Jacob, and wants to kill him.  Rebekah, sensing the danger, sends Jacob off to her brother's house.  Isaac later blesses the journey and Jacob is instructed by his mother to go to her brother Laban's house.  In the meantime, Esau is still stewing, and takes yet another wife, this one being a first cousin, his uncle Ishmael's daughter.  

In Chapter 28, we see Jacob on his way north, and at some point on the journey he stops and beds down for the night.  While sleeping, he has an incredible dream of a ladder (or staircase) reaching into heaven, and angels are descending up and down from it.  At the very top of this ladder stands God Himself, and God reaffirms the Covenant with Jacob - his seed will be numerous and cover the entire earth, and he is promised that he can return to the land in due season.  When Jacob awakes, he names the place Bethel ("God's House") and constructs an altar there, making a covenant vow of tithe before he continues on his journey.   This is the source of the story behind the famous Black spiritual song "Jacob's Ladder," which you will remember has these lyrics:

 We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.


I

In Genesis 29, Jacob arrives in Haran, and he meets a bunch of shepherds.  At a distance away, he notices a beautiful girl named Rachel, who herself is a shepherdess, approaching.  Jacob, wanting to be noble, rolls the stone away from the well for her so she can water her flocks, and after the animals are watered, he gives her a kiss and she is so happy seeing him that she weeps in joy.  Her father is Laban, Jacob's uncle, who is also elated to see his nephew arrive.  Therefore, Jacob is welcomed in, and he stays a while with Laban working for him.

At some point, Laban begins to, in a sense, negotiate Jacob's contract.  If Jacob works for Laban seven years, he will have Rachel as his wife.   But, Laban also has interests of his own, as he wants to marry off Leah, his older daughter, first, but he doesn't reveal that yet.  At this point, let me just address something briefly.  It is assumed that for some reason Leah was an ugly sister to the beautiful Rachel, but that may have not been the case.  It is quite possible that Leah looked just fine, but the feeling Jacob had for her sister Rachel was not with her - he didn't love her, in other words.  But, he ends up married to her by finding out at the last minute - his wedding day! - that the woman under the veil was not the one he bargained for!  Jacob was probably not very happy about this, but his wily uncle was shrewd - Laban says, "OK, boy, work for me another seven years and I will let you have her too."  Jacob agrees, and this time does get Rachel.  Again, in reference to this polygamist arrangement, God is in no way sanctioning this happening, as polygamy was never His plan.  He tolerated it for a season, but toleration in no means implicated blessing.  That being said, in addition to Rachel and Leah, Jacob also gets their handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah as sort of concubines.  Sensing there was a problem and that Jacob was ignoring Leah - his first wife - and lavishing his attention upon Rachel, God closes Rachel's womb and opens Leah's, and with her Jacob would eventually have 6 sons - the first four are listed in this passage (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah).  Later in the chapter, Leah bears two more sons  - Issachar and Zebulon - as well as a daughter named Dinah.  

In all this, Rachel begins to grow upset and impatient with Jacob because she doesn't have children, and it sort of exasperates Jacob, who essentially tells her, "What do you expect me to do about it, woman?"  So, taking matters into her own hands much as Sarah did some years earlier, Rachel offers her made Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine (this was not the best idea!) and she bears him Dan and Naphtali.  Leah, not to be outdone by her little sister, likewise offers her maid Zilpah, who then bears Jacob two sons as well - Gad and Asher.  This doesn't seem to solve Rachel's issue, so another incident ensues in which  Rachel tries an old remedy for infertility to increase her chances of children.

The story here involves a plant called a mandrake.  A mandrake is a highly toxic and hallucinogenic plant native to the region that had roots resembling a human figure.  Although highly toxic, it was often used for anesthetic or sedative purposes.  In reading this however, I came to the conclusion that the actual mandrake plant may have not been what was referenced by this passage, as it may have been something else.  Back when I was a kid, a common herb that was often sought out for its value was ginseng, and a productive day of "sanging" could yield high returns, as the Chinese medicine market even today offers sometimes $500 a pound for dried ginseng roots.  Ginseng, unlike the actual mandrake plant, is harmless to humans when consumed, and was believed by many to increase virility as well as acting as a natural aphrodisiac.  The roots also looked similar as well - ginseng roots also resemble human figures.  Rachel, who was probably well-schooled in folk medicine of the time, probably knew what these were used for, and when Leah's son Reuben went out and dug up a bunch of them, Rachel wanted them so bad that she offered to let Leah have Jacob for a night for them.  Leah agrees, and her visit with Jacob is what resulted in the birth of Issachar.  The mandrake story is important because, folk medicine or not, God created all vegetation for mankind's service, and many wild plants do have therapeutic properties.  As we will see now in Chapter 30, something apparently worked, for Rachel finally bears her first son. 

The true (and highly toxic) mandrake plant

Ginseng, the actual "mandrake" in this passage

Chapter 30 opens up with Rachel giving birth to her first son Joseph.  At this point, Jacob is ready to return home, but Laban is trying to negotiate him into staying on.  Part of the bargain involved dividing the flocks up, and the way this took place was by taking a bunch of poplar (as well as almond and chestnut) rods, and placing them about the herds.  As it was agreed, the animals that reflected the pattern in the rods were to be Jacob's, while Laban would retain the solid-colored ones. However, this plan didn't go well for Laban, as Jacob ended up with a sizable herd of his own and it would begin to lead to some serious issues.  It is at that point the next lesson picks up with Genesis 31.