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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.