Sibling Rivalry, Slavery and Subterfuge

Today’s reading: Genesis 37-38.

Whether your Bible version reads “coat of many colors” or “richly-ornamented robe,” it’s clear that the garment Jacob made for Joseph was special. And his twelve brothers were jealous of the special love their father had for him.

So when seventeen-year-old Joseph had a couple of seemingly-prophetic dreams that showed his family bowing down to him, and a teenager’s wisdom in sharing it with them, his brothers threw “that dreamer” into a pit or dry cistern out in the wild. Rueben – perhaps weary and wary of further bloodshed after violently avenging his sister Dinah against Shechem’s clan – talked them out of killing Joseph outright. He had hoped to come back and rescue Joseph. While Reuben was away, his co-leader in that raid – Judah – had the bright idea to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing Midianite caravan. We don’t know who got the money.

Then, painting his torn robe with the blood of a slaughtered goat, they showed it to their father and let him draw the conclusion that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” So his father wept for him. Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. ~ Genesis 37:34-36

“All his sons … came to comfort him ….” Even the ones who had conspired to sell their brother as a slave. Swell family, huh?

It gets worse.

Judah, old enough to be married to a Canaanite woman and have two sons of marrying age plus a younger one, lost his firstborn because the son “was wicked in the Lord’s sight, and the Lord put him to death.” Wanting his firstborn son’s clan to continue – Er gave Judah no grandchildren – Judah gave his second son Onan to Er’s widow Tamar. Onan didn’t mind sleeping with her, but didn’t want her to bear his children for Er. And, “what he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight, so He put him to death.”

Tamar, tired of waiting for the third son to be given to her – even though he was old enough, dressed up like a shrine prostitute with her face veiled. Judah, not recognizing her, negotiated payment for sex with her at one young goat and gave her his seal and cord.

When she became pregnant, Judah was told and – not knowing the child would be his – was ready to burn her alive. She sent the seal and cord to him with the message that they belonged to the father. Judah, with all of the patriarchal wisdom of the head of a kingly tribe, morally decided, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah” and spared her.

She gave birth to twins who – like their grandfather Jacob and great uncle Esau – jockeyed for first place in the womb, and Perez beat Zerah.

So these two chapters come full circle, right back to the theme of sibling rivalry.

But – as LaGard Smith notes in his commentary – Perez would eventually become one of the all-too-human ancestors of the Promised One, the Messiah.

In this study so far, God continues to work His will through these thoroughly messed-up families, through sin and slavery and shame and murder. It’s a pattern that continues in the Bible for generations of history, right up to the point where the Promised One is sold for the price of a slave, shamed before those who loved Him, and murdered for the forgiveness of sin.

Can God still work His will through completely flawed people like you and me? In spite of – but still using – our sin, does He even teach us the reason to avoid it by experiencing its consequences – then provide a costly Way of escape from it to buy us back from slavery to it?

Does He see our future as He saw Joseph’s, and give us glimpses of what it can be through a dream of revelation that awaits us at the close of scripture?

Names, Names, Names and More Names

Today’s reading: Genesis 36.

There are passages of scripture which try men’s souls. (And women’s.)

There are others that just try our patience. (And our agility at attempting to pronounce early Hebrew and Aramaic names if we somehow get stuck reading them out loud and in public.)

I like to think that a genealogical list like this was as exciting to the people who originally wrote such scriptures as baseball or football statistics are to a live-feed researcher at ESPN. It sure isn’t to me. (Neither are baseball or football statistics, though.) When I’ve tried yearly Bible reading plans before, I usually didn’t get far enough to get Bogged Down in Leviticus. I’d hit one of these genealogical tables and immediately put it aside as a cure for some future night of really bad insomnia.

However, my mom loves genealogy. I enjoyed a quick visit with her yesterday and the night before, and a whole lot of our conversation was centered around ancestors she had been recording in a “My Family” book that my daughter left with her months ago – and also ancestors and family in the updated version of the genealogical book that she and I published for a family reunion on her side (Ellmore) of the family … in 1984.

She sent them both with me. Even though the technology I used to set the type for the reunion book probably doesn’t exist anymore – so I can’t update it to match – I will keep them safe for future generations. Someone will find them interesting – maybe because they reflect something of how times, names, and hairstyles have changed.

For the most part, both of those books name and describe people with about the same gender balance that you will find in real life: around 50%-50%.

The names, names, names of Genesis 36 are the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, who moved away from Jacob/Israel’s clan for a lack of supporting resources for all their flocks and herds, and later became a nemesis for the expanding nation of Israel. Most of the names are male.

Sons were very important to the nomadic families of that era. Daughters, apparently, not so much. (I don’t know whom they thought would bear all the children that those sons would father. Maybe Middle-Eastern people of that time just had more of a “Y” chromosome predisposition.) But it was a prejudice that may go back as far as the phrasing of Genesis 6:4 and it yielded a custom – only males inherit – that remained universal in Western civilization until only a couple hundred years ago. Males became patriarchs. Males became chiefs. Males became kings. (Well, some slaveries to bloodline-determined royalty ended that custom, and far longer ago. The “Y” chromosome does not always triumph!)

Having a lot of boys probably meant that you had more strong arms (yet see the unnamed woman Judges 9:50-53), and wise leaders (but see Deborah, Judges 4), and willing shepherds (though see Rachel, Genesis 29:9) and capable warriors to defend the women and children (however, see Jael, flipping back to Judges 4).

Somehow or another, Jacob and Esau both got twelve.

That’s the main thing I get from this nominal chapter: there was balance. There may have been a saying later that “Jacob have I loved and Esau I have hated,” but God pretty much evened out between them the material blessings that counted at that time: flocks, herds, possessions, wives, sons. (Okay, Jacob had one wife more than Esau’s three.) Esau fathered twelve chief-kings. Jacob fathered the heads of what would become known as the twelve tribes of Israel.

But it was God’s sovereignty that determined which of them would be the ancestor of His Promised One; there could only be one. It was Israel.

The Promised One would be the King who would put an end to male-female hierarchy in His kingdom (Joel 2:28; Matthew 19:4; Acts 2:18; Acts 21:9; Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, etc.).

Maybe we’re not quite civilized enough that we’re there yet. But we’re inching toward it (remember, suffrage is still less than 100 years old in the United States), and there are still some Deborahs and Rachels and daughters of evangelists named Philip among us.

Thank God for them.

And let them speak of the Promised One of Israel.

Rape, Revenge, and Isaac’s Demise

Today’s reading: Genesis 34-35.

Rape is never right. It can’t be made right by speaking tenderly to the victim afterward or falling in love with her, and Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite discovered that the hard way.

He violated Jacob’s only daughter Dinah, tried to woo her, and evidently held her hostage until she acceded.

Jacob, hearing the news, keeps it to himself and is willing to hear Hamor explain his son’s actions. The eleven boys, however, were coming in from the fields – probably with their flocks and herds – and heard what happened. They were “filled with grief and fury, because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel … a thing that should not be done.”

So there was – at least among some of Abraham’s descendents – the beginning of a code of conduct, and rape was clearly a violation of it.

The Bible is full of gender bias. There, I’ve said it, and I have no intention of repenting of it. It’s true. But it’s a merely human assumption that scripture approves of gender bias. What it does – like those straight-news reporters of the 1950’s and 60’s hoped to do – is tell The Story accurately, about God’s people building their own culture, right or wrong.

There was no law. God hadn’t given it yet.

So while Hamor pleaded on behalf of his son and Shechem offered any dowry for Dinah to be given to him in marriage – perhaps trying to make the best of a bad situation with his neighbor Jacob; trying to make things right – “Jacob’s sons replied deceitfully as they spoke.” They put the price of the dowry at the circumcision of every male in Hamor’s clan. Since this would cost them nothing in terms of wealth – and they said to themselves “Won’t their livestock, their property and all their other animals become ours?” – they agreed.

And in the third day of their pain after surgery, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi, stormed Hamor’s city and killed every unsuspecting and virtually defenseless male in revenge for the crime against their sister. The other brothers joined them, looted it, “seized flocks and herds and donkeys and everything else of theirs.”

Jacob tried to upbraid them, and warn them of the consequences: the surrounding Canaanites might unite against the family and exterminate them in a preemptive strike to protect their own families. But he had no answer to their question: “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”

Then God directed Jacob to move to Bethel and build an altar there.

This reminder of God’s presence was enough for Jacob to tell his family to clear out all the idols, and wash the memory of sin from their clothes before they left for Bethel. There, God reminded Jacob that he was no more Jacob, but Israel … and He confirmed once again the Abrahamic promise. Jacob built the altar as God had directed.

Moving from Bethel to Ephrath (Bethlehem), Rachel went into labor with the last of Jacob/Israel’s sons, Benjamin. She had difficulty in delivery, and perished in childbirth. Israel set up a pillar to her memory at her tomb, and moved on. Hot-headed Reuben slept with Bilhah, the mother of some of his brothers, and Israel heard of it.

Then he went home to Mamre, where Abraham and Sarah had lived and his father Isaac was at the end of his one hundred and eighty years.

After Isaac breathed his last and was gathered to his people, both sons – Esau and Jacob – buried him.

In years to come, God would tell His people that vengeance was His; that He would repay. But for the moment, He seemed to be letting them write their own story and discover first-hand why vengeance should be His.

Cornered By Laban, By Esau, By God

Today’s reading, Genesis 31-33, takes us along as Jacob gathers his flocks, herds and wealth (and Rachel steals her father’s household idols) and makes a run for it. Ten days later, Laban caught up with him, and they reconciled – probably only because God had warned Laban in a dream not to say anything to Jacob, good or bad. So Laban pretty much only asked questions. Jacob answered them. They set up a watch pillar – not so much as a point of worship as it was a monument to their mutual mistrust – and if you hear someone using the term “Mizpah” to describe God’s blessing on an affection between two separated by distance … they missed the context.

Jacob pledged an oath “in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.” (His father had reason to fear the Lord.) He offered a sacrifice, held a feast for his pursuing kinfolk, let ornery old Grandpa Laban kiss the kids goodbye.

Then Jacob and Laban parted ways.

As Jacob popped the tentpegs and journeyed on, angels met him. What interaction they might have had with him isn’t shared. But he did sent emissaries on toward his brother Esau, toward whose country Edom he was headed. He sent the message that he had acquired wealth during his stay with Laban and sought to find favor in Esau’s eyes.

The brevity of the response that came back disturbed him: Esau was on his way with four hundred men.

Jacob assumed the worst; that his selfishness and deceit against his brother had not been forgiven, and Esau’s vengeance would be swift.

A general like his grandfather Abraham, Jacob separated the troops so that at least some might survive if Esau thought he had slaughtered them all. And he sent gifts to placate his brother, widely spaced, so that as his brother encountered each party, the gifts would increase and increase and increase. Finally, he sent everything he had (but his family) across the Jabbock ford and remained on the other side, alone. I think it was a last-ditch attempt to save his family; if they told Esau that Jacob was still on the other side of the river, he might not waste time killing them all, but rush past them to get to his brother.

That night, Jacob had a most unusual experience – even more extraordinary than his dream about the angels, the ladder and God’s voice from heaven.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob (“He Grasps”), but Israel (“He Struggles With God”) because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. ~ Genesis 32:24-31

Exhausted, crippled, unable to escape, Jacob/Israel looked up … and there was Esau/Edom.

And the most extraordinary ending came to this part of Jacob’s story.

It’s an epic story. The main character is as much anti-hero as hero. He’s complex. He cheats his brother. He conspires with his mother. He lies to his father. He succeeds. He tries to live and deal honestly with his uncle. He fails. You care about him. He becomes the personification of God’s people, the one for whom they are named: Israel. It’s a fascinating story, well worth deeper study than these few lines can contain.

Several years ago, I wrote a short post about studying scripture that references the surprise ending to the conflict between Jacob and Esau, having no inkling that all these months later I might actually try to blog through the entire Bible in a year:

We don’t study like we used to.

Perhaps it’s bad that we don’t study as much as we used to.

Perhaps it’s good that we don’t study the way we used to: to prove what we already “know” to be true.

We still need, like Jacob, to wrestle with God. We need to have our spiritual hips knocked out of joint once in a while, so that we can’t escape facing what we fear.

Because what we fear most just might be the long-absent older brother we’ve cheated, running with his army to catch up to us and deliver – not vengeance – but a kiss of greeting and an embrace of love.

Love casting out fear: the last thing we expected. ~ “Wrestling With God”

Four Wives, Twelve Kids, and A Lot of Sheep

When you read Genesis 29-30, do you feel like you’re reading the script summary of a prime-time TV soap opera?

In the beginning of the reading, Jacob – apparently penniless, but just blessed by God with a six-fold promise like his grandfathers – entered Haran, where his uncle Laban lived. Meeting some shepherds at a stone-sealed well, he asked after Laban. They knew Laban; in fact, pointed out that Laban’s daughter Rachel was bringing her father’s flocks to the well. Rachel was a babe. (See Genesis 29:17.) Jacob lost no time, rolling the stone away from the well, watering the sheep, and then kissing Rachel and telling her that he was her cousin. So she ran to tell her father.

After living and working with Laban’s family for a month, Laban tried to negotiate terms of payment for his nephew. Jacob wanted to marry his younger daughter, Rachel, in exchange for seven years of work. Laban saw an opportunity, and agreed.

However, the tables turned on trickster Jacob, who had cheated his brother out of his birthright and deceived his own father into giving him Esau’s blessing as well. After working seven years to get Rachel – which seemed only like a few days to him, he loved her so much – her father sneaked older daughter Leah into the honeymoon tent, and Jacob was none the wiser till morning.


Jacob confronted Laban, who explained that it wasn’t his custom to give away his younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Jacob ended up agreeing to work another seven years to pay the dowry for Rachel. At the end of a honeymoon week with Leah, Laban approved his engagement to Rachel.

After working out the second seven years, Jacob took Rachel as his wife and became a bigamist, just like his grandfather Abraham.

“… and he loved Rachel more than Leah.” ~ Genesis 29:30b

Never, ever a good idea.

It got worse. Seeing that Leah was not loved, the Lord blessed her with four sons by Jacob. Rachel, not having children, became jealous and gave Jacob her maidservant Bilhah to be his wife (just as grandmother Sarah had done with Abraham and Hagar). They had two sons together. Three wives, six sons. Then Leah gave Jacob her maidservant Zilpah, and they had two sons. Four wives, eight sons. Then Leah and Rachel got into a fuss over some plants of some undescribed value, and in exchange for the ones Leah gave Rachel, she got Jacob for a night. They had a fifth and sixth son together: Four wives, ten sons. Plus a daughter named Dinah.

Finally, the Lord had compassion on Rachel and enabled her to have a son named Joseph (“May He Add”), hoping that she might have another.

Can you imagine God choosing to work His will through one of the families in a television soap opera?

Four wives, twelve kids. All that in seven years.

Because when the seven years of Rachel’s dowry were over, Jacob went to Laban to settle accounts and start his own shepherding empire back in his own homeland, the land God had promised to him. Jacob asked only for the dark and color-speckled sheep among Laban’s flocks – by far the minority – and Laban agreed. But the very next day, Laban – the old cheat – separated all of the dark and color-speckled sheep from his flocks and gave them to his sons, sending them three days’ journey away to graze.

Jacob, perhaps through long and close association with the flocks as an on-site shepherd of at least fourteen years, had figured out a way to affect the color of the wool of the flocks. So he spent the next mating season arranging for the birth of dark and color-speckled sheep … building his own young, strong flock.

And he prospered as a result, accumulating large flocks, many servants, plus camels and donkeys.

Nice family.

Should they have prospered as they did, tricking each other and making deals and trying to get ahead; get their own way? They did. Is that they way God planned for them to get ahead?

Or did He allow them – in the absence of a law or other moral code – to experience the fact that through those “dealings,” you can get ahead … but only at the cost of others; of relationships that should have been dear to you, trust that you should have built on, and love for others that you should have felt?

Was He hoping that they would call on His name and ask Him what to do and how to live and what He wanted?

Was He waiting to see if they would build their own ethic?

Maybe the most important thing to note is that throughout the deceit and cheating and bigamy, His promise toward this family never changed, from one generation to the next. He confirms it with each patriarch in turn.

And while His choice may be inscrutable to us, it is as sure as daytime and night-time, seed-time and harvest.

Lies, Disguise and a Ladder

Today’s reading: Genesis 26-28.

When God speaks prophetically, does He reveal the future that He wants to happen, or just the future that will happen?

Back in Genesis 15:13-14, God told Abraham in the dreadful darkness:

Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.

Ten chapters later, He told Rebekah:

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” ~ Genesis 25:23

Are those events that He wanted to happen and would cause to happen … or did He just know for certain that they were going to happen, and He would work through them?

As Isaac aged, his eyesight and energy dimmed. He sent firstborn – by moments – Esau to snare and prepare him some tasty wild game (did it trigger an unpleasant memory for Esau of a deal made over red stew?) so that he could receive his father’s blessing.

Rebekah, overhearing the request, waited until Esau left and told Jacob to dress in his brother’s outdoorsy-smelling clothes and pad his less-hairy arms with goatskin. It was all a lie to fool his father and receive the blessing that went with the birthright he had cheated away from Esau in a weak moment over that red stew. He would pretend to be his brother. This time, though, she would cook – and accept the responsibility for any curse that might come from being discovered.

Before I became a dad, I couldn’t understand how such a transparent ruse could have worked. But now as a dad, I do. You want to think the best of your children. You don’t want to think that they would deceive you, lie to you, steal from one another, conspire with their mother against your wishes. So, even though Isaac can’t rely on his eyes and doubts his ears (“The voice is the voice of Jacob …”), he trusts his fingers and his nose. He blesses the slightly-younger son with abundance and power and security.

No more had Jacob scurried out of his father’s tent than Esau entered; father and firstborn discern the deception, and the only blessing left for him is what God foretold to Rebekah, plus …

“But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”

Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” ~ Genesis 27:40-41

Rebekah, told of Esau’s threat, urged Jacob to flee for his life and used her dislike of Esau’s Hittite wives to encourage Isaac to send him Haran for a bride among her relatives. Once sent, Jacob went. If he took time to pack provisions, it certainly doesn’t show in the text of the story!

Esau, furious at Jacob, married another Canaanite woman to spite his parents. That made three. Did I already say something about bigamy being a bad idea? Is there such a thing as trigamy? Esau would gain infamy as Edom, the Red Man, and head of the warrior clan later known as the Edomites – yet another thorn in Israel’s side for generations.


But Jacob’s journey took an odd turn. At a place he would later call Bethel (“House of God”), Jacob rested with a pillow for a stone. In a dream, he saw angels ascending and descending from heaven on a sort of ladder or stairway, while he heard God confirm the promise He had made to Abraham and Isaac.

Upon awakening, Jacob was thoroughly awed and upended the stone to become a pillar marking the place of this divine appearance. He made a vow himself – conditional to God holding up His end of the bargain – to recognize God, name that pillar His house, and give Him a tenth (perhaps just as his grandfather had honored Melchizedek).

So was it fair that Jacob – though completely lacking in resources at the moment – should stand to gain from his double deceit (just like his grandfather Abraham did)? Was God rewarding him for doing what we would have expected to deserve punishment?

Or were there consequences yet to come?

P.S. I thought about naming this post “Lies, Damning Lies, and Statistics” – the statistics being God’s accuracy in predicting the future. But I thought better of it, since the statistic is pretty obviously 100%.

Like Father, Like Son – But Not Like Brother

Abraham didn’t have the fertility problem that Sarah did. In today’s reading (Genesis 25-26:33), we discover that he married Keturah some time after Sarah’s death – when he was 137 years old – and fathered six sons. And while he gave gifts to these sons, when he finally passed away at age 175, he left it all to Isaac and was buried in the cave tomb he bought for Sarah.

I don’t know whether the custom of leaving an entire inheritance to the firstborn son began with Abraham or not, but it persisted. I also don’t know whether his choice was based on a preference for Isaac over the others, or the hope that under the patriarchy of a much older brother, they would work together to maintain his shepherding empire.

Ishmael remained pretty much out of the picture. With the wife his Egyptian mother secured for him in Egypt, he fathered the twelve sons God had prophesied.

“And they lived in hostility toward all their brothers.” ~ Genesis 25:18b

That just seems to be a running theme throughout this section of Genesis.

Cain murders Abel. Ishmael scorns Isaac. And, in the verses to come, fraternal twins Jacob and Esau will develop a fraternal rivalry so intense that it eventually becomes the subject of a Jewish proverb (Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:13).

It was so from the start. Within Rebekah’s womb, they jostled each other to the point where she inquired of the Lord, and His answer was:

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.” ~ Genesis 25:23

Esau (“Hairy”) came out first, but Jacob (“He Grasps”) came out ahead.

The rivalry may have begun with their parents:

“The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” ~ Genesis 25:27-28

You know, that’s probably never a good idea. Had Rebekah ever shared God’s prophecy with her husband? Was she secretly backing a winner? Here’s how it played out …

Once, when Esau came in from hunting empty-handed and starved, he found Jacob cooking red stew. Jacob agreed to sell him some in exchange for his birthright, the inheritance. Esau reasoned that if he starved, everything would pass to his brother anyway, and sold it.

Isaac went on to the same kind of maturity as his father. Fearful of his life over his gorgeous wife Rebekah, he lied to the same king (or heir with the same name), Abimelech, about her being his sister (when, in fact, she was more of a cousin). This time Abimelech’s household dodged the bullet of God’s punishment by illness and barrenness (or worse). Abimelech, king of the Philistines, happened to look down from a window and saw Isaac caressing Rebekah – apparently in an un-brotherly fashion – and reached the right conclusion.

Quarrels over Abraham’s wells separated the two, and at the as-yet unnamed Beersheba the Lord confirmed His promise to Isaac.

“Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.” ~ Genesis 26:25

Abimelech came there and made a peace covenant with Isaac – perceiving that God was with him. They swore an oath on their treaty, enjoyed a feast together, and the new well turned out wet. Everything was going along pretty well, except …

“When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.” ~ Genesis 26:34-35

Did I already say “probably never a good idea”?