February 2010

Top of This issue Current issue

         JACOB, JOSEPH, AND GENESIS

                  By  Sy Schechtman subtlesy@comcast.net

       

        We left young Jacob somewhat in fear and trembling at a vision  of God and angels and  his tentative  promise to obey God’s path if only he is successful.   Jacob is about 17 and is on his way to Haran, an adolescent fleeing his brother Esau’s         rightful wrath.   Once Jacob reaches distant Haran, where his mother”s kinsman, Laban, lives  with his family, events seem to unfold successfully.   He immediately comes upon Rachel, Laban’s very attractive daughter,  at the town water well,      and helps her roll back the very heavy stone over the well  so that she can water Laban’s many sheep.    Most providentially Jacob has just learned from a bystander that  Rachel is Laban’s daughter, and he kisses her and breaks into tears.   “Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, that he was Rebekah’s son, Jacob.  Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him and took  him into his house.   He told Laban all that had happened, and Laban said to him, “You are truly of my bone and flesh.”   However it was twenty years before  Jacob was able to return home,  although a wealthy herdsman and head of a household  of  two wives, Rachel and Leah, two concubines,  twelve sons and one daughter (Dinah) and other dependants  comprising a retinue  of about 60 people,  and several noteworthy  negative events along the way.

         There was almost epic duplicity along  the way, however,  and frustrating fertility problems,  as   with Sarah, Abraham’s wife, before the ultimate birth  of Isaac.  In one instance biblically  quoted,  Rachel, beautiful but barren, bargains away  her  connubial rights for sleeping privileges with shared husband Jacob for a time, in exchange for much heralded mandrake roots, which one of rival Leah’s sons had acquired.  These roots were thought to be a a prime fertility enhancer at that time.  But the prime duplicity was that of the   fraudulent bride!  Instead of Rachel,  Jacob  under false pretenses,  is married to older sister Leah instead.   “When morning came there   was Leah!  So he said to Laban, “What is this you have done  to me?  I was in your service fof Rachel!  Why did you deceive me?”. Laban said, “It is not the practice  in   our   place to marry off the younger before the older.   Wait until the bridal  week of this one on is over and  we will give you that one too,  provided     you serve me another seven years…….And Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed he loved Rachel more than Leah. … And he served him another seven years.”

        That explains why even in orthodox weddings now a joyous but  still ceremonially  involved group of  young male friends of the groom dance playfully up to the seated  and veiled bride   and gently remove her face  covering  to make sure that the true beloved is the one to be wed and bedded that  most eventful first marital night!!

           There was active distrust,  it not fraud, between Jacob and Laban in the matter of wages to be paid Jacob for his strenuous work as chief shepherd of Laban’s flock. Jacob did not want pecuniary reward;  merely  the right to the dark  off color sheep and goats.   Jacob had devised a sort of visual stimulation influence with wooden darkened color saplings  and sticks  while the sheep and goats  were mating.   These flecked  and darkenened sticks was an evidently successful photo synthesis method  Jacob used successfully;     Laban used  a time tested method not quite as subtle or  nature oriented.    From time to time he and his help sneaked through Jacob’s  thriving flocks  to  steal some of the thriving mixed color flock Jacob had. 

        Also there was domestic discord.  We learn that on Jacob’s death bed  not  all the children received equal amounts of tender reflection or approbation.  Most receive favorable attention from languishing Jacob,  but some are roundly condemned.   Reuben, his first born,  had “mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!..”  (Reuben had sex with Jacob’s concubine). Simeon and Levi are essentially outlawed for the atrocities we shall discuss below, but Judah is praised  and the rest of the twelve brothers are confidently  foretold strong futures.  The climax of Jacob’s career is the successfully organized flight from the Laban household  with his entire retinue intact,under the implicit order of the Lord---“Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and    I will be with  you”.    With great haste  Jacob  gathers up  his family and possessions and  flees but Laban and his group pursue and the climax is the scene after a seven days catch up.   After much heated discussion peace is restored.  Laban finally calms  himself.   “I have it in my power to do you  harm; but the god of your                                                                                                 father said to me last night ‘Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad’.  Very well you had to

leave because you were longing for your father’s house but why did you steal my gods?”   
And Jacob fatefully vows that  “I was afraid that you would take your daughters from me  by force.   But anyone with  whom you find your gods shall not remain alive…….Jacob, of course, did not know that Rachel had stolen them.”    Laban searches diligently all Jacob’s tents, finally Jacob’s own personal tent, where Rachel was sitting on the object of the frantic search.  “Let not my Lord take it amiss that I can not rise before you, for the period of women is upon me.”  Rachel’s deception worked splendidly at the time,  allowing Jacob to forthrightly stand his ground and inadvertantly spare his guilty wife.   Very soon after that Rachel is in great difficulty  with  the birth of   her second child, Benjamin,  Joseph’s brother, Jacob’s favorite child.   Rachel does not survive,  and a deeply mourning Jacob buries her on the roadside nearby.    Some later sages wondered if her death at this time was divine punishment for her duplicity with the alien gods and her father’s fruitless fervent search.  Certainly she was still a very nubile woman and seemingly eager to compete with alternate wife Leah for Jacob’s affections and attention.    

          Besides these dramatic domestic events two overwhelming events  happen during Jacob’s family flight from Haran back to Canaan.   Jacob has a peaceful   reunion with his bother Esau after he crosses the Jabbok river after much fearful trepidation; dividing up his ranks so that if Esau attacks one side many will still survive.   Jacob knows that Esau has over four hundred men with him,  while he, Jacob, is defenseless.   During that most eventful pre crossing night Jacob is alone,  having sent his whole retinue across the Jabbok river,… “Jacob was left alone.   And a man wrestled with him until the beak of dawn.   When he saw that   he had not prevailed  against him,  he wrenched Jacob’s  hip at its socket, so that the socket at his hip  was  srained as he wrestled with him.  Then he said “let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I  will not let you go unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?”  He replied “Jacob”. Said he,”Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed......So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, and yet my life has been preserved”.

   Almost on the heels of this overwhelming event comes Esau and his 400 cohort who Jacob had grave doubts about.  But it is a smiling, happy brother Esau who was embracing him, lo these 20 years later!   Meanwhile Jacob was presenting the considerable  entirety of his family,  all bowing low before Esau.  Israel (Jacob) is urging Esau   to accept the gift prepared for him.  “What  do  you mean by all this company that I have met?”  He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.”   Esau said,  I have enough, my brother,; let what you have remain yours.”   But Jacob said, “I pray you  would do me this favor;  if you would do me this favor, accept from  me this  gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God,  and you  have received me favorably…..”   Esau does accept his brother’s gift, out of common courtesy, and they walk on together.   Esau also urges Jacob to join him and his household on Mt. Seir, his regional  abode,  but Jacob makes up polite, plausible  regrets and they part amicably.   They are last mentioned years later together  burying their father Isaac in the ancestral cave at  Machpelah.  Only Rachel of the venerable other  matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah is not there.   Jacob,  most tearfully, buried her hastily while fleeing from her father Laban.

        But our story does not continue cordially in this arm and arm fashion. No “living together happily ever after” scenario.   Jacob has little chance to show the magnanimity manifest in is  new name Israel.  For the Torah immediately interposes the story of the rape of Dinah,   when almost all aspects of bestial  humanity is displayed. Sheer chronologic exactitude can not be the  answer,    as we are  totally unsure of  time frames here.  We do know for certain,  however, that much time    has elapsed for  the Israelites since the Esau, Jacob/Israel meeting at the Jabbok stream.   Jacob’s children are all adults and capable of many problematic adult events! Of which the Rape of Dinah is certainly the most unsettling.  Dinah is “the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob,.. went  out to visit the daughters of the land. “ Shechem. son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.  Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden,   he spoke to the maiden tenderly.   So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “get me this girl as a wife.” 

      As this story progresses it is evident that Jacob’s parental status is not unlimited.   His sons are very angry and use “guile” the Torah says to negotiate this sexual outrage.   The sons insist the union can take place “only  if all the Hivite men are circumcised  and become like us,  then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred,  but if you will not listen to us and become circumcised,  we will take our daughter and go.”  And all the men of Shechem agreed after being exhorted by both Shechem and his father Hamor, chief of the country,  who stressed the economic advantages of the affluent Hebrew tribe in their midst. “And all the males of the town agreed and were circumcised.”

       “…On the third day ,  when they were in pain,  Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each  his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males.  They put  Hamor  and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away.   The others sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town bacause their sister had been defiled.  They seized their flocks and herds and asses. all that was in the houses, all their wealth and all their children and wives they took  as captives and booty.

        Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble  on me, , making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and Perizzites;’ my men are few in number, so if they unite against me, I and my house  will be destroyed.”   But they answered, “Should our sister be treated as a whore?” 

        From here until the end of Genesis “Jacob” and “Israel” are used at different times, most probably to comment on the different moral  levels of the story.   Here the thrust is on the utter immorality involved,  a resounding negative to the searching biblical question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  And Jacob’s answer is  prudent  flight as he leads his flock to more secure territory.  Jacob, who in his more mature years has tragedy as well as triumph  understands the guileful duplicity that his children evidently  inherited from some  his own  prior actions--- such as stealing the birthright.  But he too  has “seen the face of God”  in his brother Esau’s radiant smile of love and forgiveness.  And he is greatly comforted, later on,  by some of his other children, one of whom  does indeed pass the supreme morality  test---a young fellow named Joseph who does splendid things in Egypt for his father, Jacob,  and his family and, indeed, most of the rest of the world  at that time.

          As  we shall see in our final installment of Genesis.