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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 ( - 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