Monday, March 11, 2013

Genesis 32:1-34:31


Chapters 1-11 of Genesis were set in a mythic prehistory.They described the origins of the universe, the earth, the human race, sin, languages. The focus of these stories was broad. The characters in these stories were said to live impossibly long lives, less than 1000 years, but not a lot less.

Chapters 12-36, from which we are currently reading, have a narrower focus. They tell the story of the origin of Israel and its neighbor nations. They explain the names of  places, tribes, and nations. Often these names are said to have come from an individual. These chapters tell the stories of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though their lives are long, they don't have the longevity of the mythic characters of the early chapters. They live to be less than 200 years old, but not a lot less.

Chapter 32 begins with a short, strange story in which Jacob, having just left his uncle Laban, encounters some "angels of the Lord." Jacob, saying that this place must be the Lord's camp, names the place "Mahanaim" which means "two camps." Odd.

Next Jacob sends his own angels (in both Greek and Hebrew the word translated "angel" simply means "messenger") to try to curry favor with Jacob's brother Esau. When we last met Esau (in chapter 28) he was still threatening to kill his conniving little brother. The messengers return with distressing news. Esau is coming to meet Jacob and he has an army of 400 men with him. Jacob divides his caravan into two halves, hoping that at least one half will survive should Esau attack. He then sends a series of lavish gifts to Esau, hoping to soothe his brother's temper. It isn't clear from what follows whether these gifts were effective, or whether Esau's temper had already cooled.

At night, Jacob camps alone at a ford of the river Jabbok. River crossings are traditionally dangerous places. This became clear to me when I read Larry McMurtry's novel Lonesome Dove. In that book bad things happen when the cowboys have to drive their cattle across rivers.

Jacob is attacked in his camp and wrestles all night with a man. This story is often called "Jacob wrestling with an angel." It becomes clear, however, that Jacob's opponent is neither man nor angel, but God himself, anthropomorphic once more. In the end, Jacob hangs on and receives a blessing. God gives him a new name, Israel, which means "strives with God." Jacob is also left with a hip injury that causes him to limp.

This is a story describing a national name. Jacob's descendants will collectively be called by the name Israel. Is it also an origin story for a nation's character? Is the nation of Israel a nation that contends, wrestles, and strives with God? Is Israel, the people, both blessed and wounded by its struggle with God?

In chapter 33, Jacob goes alone to meet Esau. His concubines, wives, and children follow him in groups that indicate their ranking in Jacob's favor. Jacob approaches his estranged brother with frightened obeisance. Esau does not attack Jacob, but runs to greet him with a brotherly kiss. There is hugging and weeping.

Today in church we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. I am struck by the similarity in the way the father greets his returning son in that story to the way that Esau greets Jacob here.There is also a parallel to the way that Joseph is reunited with his brothers in Genesis 45. There are distinct themes that run through the Bible. Family reconciliation is one of them.

Jacob urges Esau to accept the gifts he had sent ahead. Esau, at first demurs but, when Jacob insists, Esau acquiesces. I find myself wondering if the whole thing is a pretense, an example of the exaggerated kind of middle eastern politeness that we saw when Abraham invited the strangers to dinner, and again when he argued with God over the fate of Sodom.

I also wonder whether the gifts actually had their intended effect of placating Esau's anger.

Jacob and Esau part with Jacob saying that he will come to Esau's home in Seir. He doesn't follow through. Instead he goes first to Succoth (with another place name origin story) and then to Shechem.

Chapter 33 is ugly. Much of the narrative here is based in concepts of honor and shame that are foreign to my culture.

In Shechem a man named Shechem rapes Jacob's daughter, Dinah. He professes to love her and the narrator of the story seems to think that rape and love are not incompatible. In Bible times rape was actually a way that a man could acquire a wife (cf. Deuteronomy 22). The idea is repellent to me.

Jacob seems remarkably unconcerned about the violence done to his daughter. This may be another indication of women's lack of status in biblical times. Ditto the fact that Dinah's voice is never heard in this passage.

Somewhere in all of this, Dinah is taken or sent to live in Shechem's house. Shechem wants her for his wife.

Lying that they want to establish friendly relations with the people of Shechem, Dinah's brothers convince all the men of the city to be circumcised.While the men are recovering and still in pain, Dinah's brothers enter the city, kill all the men, plunder the place, and rescue their sister.

Like I said, it's ugly.

At the end of the chapter Jacob, still self-serving, expresses his fear that the other peoples of the region will attack and destroy him and his family.

While I love the story of Jacob wrestling with God (much the way I love the story of Abraham arguing with God), and while stories of family reconciliation seem right and godly to me, I find the whole of chapter 34 abhorrent. Is there anything good in it?

What do you say?

Next: Genesis 35-37.

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