Saturday, January 8, 2011

Genesis 26-28

Genesis 26

Abimelech falls for the old "She my sister, not my wife" gag again.  This time with Isaac and Rebekah.

Isaac grows old and feeble.  Jacob makes his move.  Esau gets shafted.

Jacob flees in fear has a dream and finds out the LORD will be his god also.

Question: Why is the LORD ok with Jacob stealing Esau's blessing and birthright?  If so, why?


  1. I read an analysis somewhere that the whole Cain/Abel and Esau/Jacob difference is between hunters and farmers. Cain and Esau gave meat offerings; Abel and Jacob gave offerings of grain. But I read that decades ago and I have no idea why that mattered.

  2. We talked earlier, Jude, about how God could have preferred Abel's offering over Cain's because the Israelites were hunter/gatherers and their enemies were agrarian, and it's interesting to me that now by this time clearly Jacob the homebody, cooker of lentils, is preferred over Esau the hunter.

    Also, I can't help wondering if the whole "she's my sister" thing wasn't just one story that got a few different versions through the oral tradition. I can absolutely see a bunch of storytellers sitting together: "So then Abraham told Abimelech that Sarah was his sister . . ." "No, you're wrong! It was Isaac who told Abimelech Rebecca was his sister!" "You're BOTH wrong! It WAS Abraham but he told it to Pharaoh when they were in Egypt . . . "

    And when it says that Abimelech looked out his window and saw Isaac "sporting" with Rebecca and therefore knew they were married, does that mean he saw them having sex? That just seems odd.

  3. @hdauria: Isaac and Rebekah "sporting" outside Abimelech's window is actually another place where you miss a lot of the meaning without the Hebrew. Isaac's name means "laughter," which he was named because his mother Sarah laughed when she heard that she would have a son. But the word can mean more than just laughter; it can mean playing, or "sporting" (not having sex). What Abimelech saw Isaac and Rebekah doing was "Isaac-ing" - laughing/joking together in some way that made it obvious they weren't brother and sister.

  4. @hdauria:

    I thought that was odd too. The bible version I'm reading said he saw them laughing together. Brothers and sisters don't laugh with each other ? How he knew they were husband and wife escpes me. Perhaps they were kissing?

    I think the idea of multiple oral traditions being woven together is probably true, it would explain the recurring themes we are already seeing.

  5. I've got caressing in ten translations, sporting twice, hugging and kissing twice, fondling, laughing, showing endearment to, holding tenderly, frolicking, playing with, and dallying, after going through all of the English translations of the verse on

    Generally, the meaning is pretty clear, but if you're going to claim that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the translations are just as good as the original, you've got a big problem.

  6. @hdauria
    Isaac "quoting now from MHC") "enters into temptation, the same temptation that his good father had been once and again surprised and overcome by, namely, to deny his wife, and to give out that she was his sister. Observe,
    1. How he sinned, v. 7. Because his wife was handsome, he fancied the Philistines would find some way or other to take him off, that some of them might marry her; and therfore she must pass for his sister. It is an unaccountable thing that both these great and good men should be guilty of so strange a piece of dissimulation, by which they so much exposed both their own and their wives' reputation. But we see, 1. That very good men have sometimes been guilty of very great faults and follies. Let those therefore that stand take heed lest they fall, and those that have fallen not despair of being helped up again. 2. That there is an aptness in us to imitate even the weaknesses and infirmities of those we have a value for. We have need therefore to keep our foot, lest, while we aim to tread in the steps of good men, we sometimes tread in their by-steps."

    The oral tradition is plausible, however i feel father and son committed the same sin in what they did. That in my short life i have seen happen time and time again. Not that i tell anyone my wife is my sister.

    MHC = Matthew Henry's Commentary

  7. I love that whole "sporting" thing. Totally. I mean, we always get the Patriarchs either being, well, *patriarchal*, or sinning in some serious way by sleeping with their daughters or whatever. I completely love this idea of Isaac and Rebecca just laughing and messing around in a way that told Abimelech they definitely were NOT brother and sister.

    @colemanglenn - I know I miss so much by not being able to access the original Hebrew. That's the best thing about these discussions - when people point out those problems in translation.

    @Edward - I totally get what you're saying, from the Christian point of view, and I know that you get that my comments were from a secular point of view. When looking at it from the Christian point of view my question becomes why Abimelech doesn't say something like "Hey! Your dad tried to pull the same trick with me. What's with you guys?"

    Oh! Another thing we're getting into is the repetition of events word for word, something that we're going to have ad nauseum in the coming books. Like, the servant meets Rebecca at the well and they have their conversation, and then the servant goes to her brother and tells him the conversation. But instead of saying "The servant told him what had happened at the well" we get the servant giving a word-for-word recitation. If I remember correctly, up ahead there are some sections that tell the same thing over and over and over again. God tells someone in eternal detail how to slaughter the lamb and then the bible tells us word for exact-same word how he actually slaughters the lamb, then he goes to someone else and tells HIM word for word what God said to do and then word for word again about how he actually did it. That's always the point where the OT loses me, so I'll be glad to have you all pushing me through it!

  8. "Why is the LORD ok with Jacob stealing Esau's blessing and birthright? If so, why?"
    1. Jacob did not steal Esau's blessing and birthright.
    Esau had sold that birthright to Jacob. Some have mentioned how they feel Jacob is a bad person, however can you really blame him? Esau had something that Jacob wanted and an opportunity presented itself for Jacob to get it. It was Esau that was careless and sold it. Esau should have thought about what he was doing. So there was no stealing going on.
    2. Why is the LORD ok with it? Because it was His design from the start. In 25:22,23 you can read it all, but this is the main part for this answer
    "Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people and the elder shall serve the younger.
    "Isaac, when first made sensible of the imposition that had been practised on him, trembled exceedingly, v. 33. Those that follow the choice of their own affections, rather than the dictates of the divine will, involve themselves in such perplexities as these. But he soon recovers himself, and ratifies the blessing he had given to Jacob: I have blessed him, and he shall be blessed; he might, upon very plausible grounds, have recalled it, but now, at last, he is sensible that he was in an error when he designed it for Esau. Either himself recollecting the divine oracle, or rather having found himself more than ordinarily filled with the Holy Ghost when he gave the blessing to Jacob, he perceived that God did, as it were, say Amen to it."

  9. @hdauria
    This is not the same Abimelech from what i have read.
    "Abimelech (not the same that was in Abraham's days, ch. 20, for this was nearly 100 years after that, but this was the common name of the Philistine kings, as Caesar of the Roman emperors)"

  10. Why is the LORD ok with Jacob stealing Esau's blessing and birthright? If so, why?

    The author of these stories doesn't seem to worry about YHWH's opinion, so I'm not worrying about it either. The point isn't that Jacob stole the blessing; the point is that Jacob (Israel) HAS the blessing. The fact that he stole it is just a plot point in the story the author is telling.

    The purpose of these two Jacob/Esau stories is to say something about the relationship between Israel and Edom.

    Edom was a tribe/nation just to the southeast of Canaan (Israel), one of several tribes west of the Jordan that were culturally and ethnically identical to the Israelites (i.e. "brothers") but never part of the YHWH club.

    The two Jacob/Esau stories are J texts, from Judah, the southern kingdom of the divided monarchy. Judah bordered Edom south of the Dead Sea.

    The stories are about Israel and Edom, written by and for Israelites. Edom is plainly, unfairly, cast in a negative light. It's propaganda. We can see that the Israelites apparently viewed Edomites as uncouth hunters. (The Cain/Abel story and stories in Joshua contrast nomads vs farmers; Perhaps the J/E dynamic represent a later period, when the Israelites were urbanized, and now looked down on their "backwards" brethren.)

    I think the actions of the other characters and the morality of Jacob's actions are irrelevant to the point the author was trying to make. Obviously he alluded heavily to the Cain and Abel story, with Isaac playing preference to his son's offerings just like YHWH did. But what can we really say about Isaac's preference for venison? I think it's just an ironic twist. If Isaac liked lentils and gave Jacob the positive blessing right off... it wouldn't be a very interesting story.

    Keep in mind this is only the beginning of a longer story; the rest of Genesis (the J and E text, at least) is a magnificent novella about Jacob and his sons in Egypt. Esau continues to play a role. Does he get his justice? (I don't remember...)

  11. Not to belabor the point, but looking at the sources Abimelech is not falling for the same ruse again. This is from the E source while the Abraham/Abimelech story is from the J source. That way nobody ends up looking stupid, that is until the sources are stitched together with very conservative editing. The fact that the editors decided to err on the side of inclusivity here means we get more for our money.

    We will see the value of conservative editing as opposed to what they could have done when we compare the Deuteronomistic history (Joshua-2 Kings) to the Chronicles. The Chronicler repeats the same story as in the DTR-history but excludes anything that is problematic or wouldn't have shown Israel in a completely positive light (you can bet the rape of the concubine didn't make the cut). This kind of reminds me of the American history textbooks that never quite mention what happened to the Native Americans that used to live on the land. The extra stories that we get in the DTR-history are awesome. bettterthanesdras is doing a great study of those books right now on his blog, so we should get great insight when we get there!

  12. @esdras: I agree that this is probably about Israel-Edom relations to a great extent. The is similar to the Moabites and Ammonites with their figurative origin in the Lot/daughters incest story. OT scholars often stress the importance of the fact that these peoples were later incorporated into the Davidic/Solomonic empire. To the Israelites at the time of the empire it would have said "Even though these people seem a little weird to us, Yahweh intended for them to be part of us because they're related." Conversely, the nations that the Patriarchs have negative relations with, such as Egypt, are the ones that don't get incorporated.

  13. It is apparent Israelites were intended to be blessed, in population and land. The repetitive nature of the narrative, concerning the covenant and the multiplication of their tribe, appears to drive the point home. It's as if they are saying "One day we will be great, and it is Gods will. Even though it may not look like it now, we have a covenant with God." I wish we had more specific data from when the original text was written. To me, it seems these story's could have been used, or passed down, to keep moral up, during a famine, or captivity. Cultural/ethical oddities aside, I think there is a larger literary picture beginning to form here.

  14. bettterthanesdras is doing a great study of those books right now on his blog, so we should get great insight when we get there!

    Hah! If by "great" you mean "messy, boring, pathetically speculative".

    I noticed a huge one-day jump in traffic when I started posting here and then absolutely nobody stayed. I know its a strange niche project of mine. I do plan on circling back to Genesis->Deut, eventually.

    BTW I'm a girl, but I guess that was a secret unless you can read Hebrew.

  15. Another quick note on sources: From Gen. 26:5 "Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws."

    This is from the E (Northern) source and emphasizes the conditional nature of the covenant. During the divided monarchy, the Northern kingdom saw the covenant as conditional, while the Southern kingdom saw it as an unconditional promise. This will be something to watch for when we get to Northern and Southern prophets.

    @esdras: Speculative? I guess insight is another word for speculation that's better informed than my own. At least in your reading of Judges, you came up with plenty that I wouldn't have. I'm looking forward to getting to Joshua etc., I love that part of the OT.

  16. It is apparent Israelites were intended to be blessed, in population and land.

    It's apparent the Israelites thought they were special and awesome so they wrote some stories about why they were more special and awesome than their neighbors. It's called nationalism.

    I wish we had more specific data from when the original text was written.

    For the main sources, the date with probably the most certainty is the final compilation of Deuteronomy (and the Deuteronomical Histories), sometime around 622 BCE with changes made after 587. But that doesn't give us the dates of the texts used to form the histories. Some of the old poems date from like 1100 or some crazy shit.

    J and E were apparently written down sometime between 922 and 722 BCE, with J probably coming first. But I think they (at least J) used older source material, I'm sure much of which was originally oral.

    P is either just after 722, or hundreds of years later in the 6th-century 2nd Temple period. Who knows?

    The Torah was probably assembled from these sources after the return from Babylonian exile, 6th century BCE. That was when Ezra/Nehemiah/Chronicles was written as well.

    As a reference point, remember that King David ruled circa 1000 BCE.

  17. Well, esdras, I would totally be reading your blog but I know I'd get completely messed up and start confusing things from Genesis with things from the Judges or whatever. I'll read yours when we catch up!

    It didn't occur to me that this could have been a different Abimelech, although it did occur to me that Abimelech would have had to have been very, very old at this point. But with characters still living way past 100 I figured that was possible.

  18. Gen. 28:20-21 seem to be along that same line of "bargaining with God" that Abraham uses to talk God down to needing just ten good people in Sodom/Gomorrah to avoid destroying the city:

    "And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God...."

    Is this just normal human plea-bargaining with God ("if you just let my sister walk again I promise I'll go to church every week for the rest of my life")? Or is it indicative of a different sort of God than the one Christianity tends to envision today?

    I'm fascinated by the indications that the main human players in Genesis seem to be on a much more level playing field with God. Abraham seems to demonstrate an equal or superior moral sense, while Jacob seems plainly in charge of his own worship business ("if you see me through this I will worship and acknowledge you as my God, but not before then"). Both are a far cry from the "submit yourself to God's mysterious doings because he knows way better than you" attitude that seems so prevalent today.

    (FWIW, I think this theme carries through in Exodus - more on that when we get there.)

  19. I don't know that I would state that God was "OK" with Jacob stealing Esau's blessing. In Fact, immediately after it happens Jacob fleas for his life never to see Rebeccah (Mom) again. and Issac Blesses Esau as pleasing a blessing as he can without revoking the previous blessing of Jacob's. As it is with most people who try to force their will on others, it doesn't work out like they planned.

  20. So why is it that YHWH changed from preferring a meat-producer in the Cain & Abel story, to preferring the farmer in the Esau & Jacob story? Does this reflect some change in the social structures from the times when both of these stories were created? Or does he just have something against first-born sons in general?

  21. I think Abimelech means "father is king," so is it possible that this is a royal hereditary title for the Philistine king?

  22. @bananacat1 This is directed at your post about why "YHWH changed from preferring a meat-producer in the Cain & Abel story, to preferring the farmer in the Esau & Jacob story?"
    There was a difference in the offerings they brought. It is expressly said (Hebrews 11:4), Abel's was a more excellent sacrifice than Cain's: either (1.) In the nature of it. Cain's was only a sacrifice of acknowledgement offered to the Creator; the meat-offerings of the fruit of the ground were no more, and, for aught I know, they might be offered in innocency. But Abel brought a sacrifice of atonement, the blood whereof was shed in order to remission, thereby owning himself a sinner, deprecating God's wrath, and imploring his favour in a Mediator. Or, (2.) In the qualities of the offering. Cain brought of the fruit of the ground, any thing that came next to hand, what he had not occasion for himself or what was not marketable. But Abel was curious in the choice of his offering: not the lame, nor the lean, nor the refuse, but the firstlings of the flock - the best he had, and the fat thereof - the best of those best. Hence the Hebrew doctors give it for a general rule that every thing that is for the name of the good God must be the goodliest and best. It is fit that he who is the first and best should have the first and best of our time, strength, and service.
    The main difference
    The great difference was this, that Abel offered in faith, and Cain did not. There was a difference in the principle upon which they went. Abel offered with an eye to God's will as his rule, and God's glory as his end, and in dependence upon the promise of a Redeemer; but Cain did what he did only for company's sake, or to save his credit, not in faith, and so it turned into sin to him. Abel was a penitent believer, like the publican that went away justified(Luke 18:10-14): Cain was unhumbled; his confidence was within himself; he was like the Pharisee who glorified himself, but was not so much as justified before God.

    The only change is the heart of the person offering the sacrifice.

    With that much said i cannot find the verses where Jacob and Esau are doing the sacrifices. Can you point it out to me. I am sorry i have read from their birth to the departure several times and i must keep missing it.


  23. Everyone notice that 34-35 is the first mention of the In-laws not agreeing with who their son married? :-D And Esau in Hebrews 12:16 is called a fornicator for this act either by marrying two wives together or rather in marrying Canaanites, who were strangers to the blessing to Abraham, and subject to the curse of Noah, for which he is called profane; for hereby he intimated that he neither desired the blessing nor dreaded the curse of God.

  24. I think in general at this time people were aware that you had options in your choice of what God to worship. We live in a time now when almost all believers agree that God is God. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, everyone is worshiping the same named deity. They're disagreeing about what he wants, how he should be honored, etc., but we don't really have active options besides Yahweh. But in the time of the patriarchs there were lots of options. I don't think it necessarily followed that because Isaac followed Yahweh his children would. So the Bible is reinforcing with Jacob the idea that THIS god cares for his people, provides food and shelter, takes an active interest, something that other gods frequently made a point of NOT doing, so he's reinforcing that this is the God worthy of service.

  25. @hdauria "We live in a time now when almost all believers agree that God is God. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, everyone is worshiping the same named deity."

    No we are not. This is off topic and as momof atheists has pointed out should be held in a different forum. If you would like me to write something up on it let me know and i will post a link.

  26. I didn't really know what to make of why the LORD might appear to be ok with Jacob stealing Esau's blessing and birthright. However, in the last week, I peeled off and listened to the first 5 "Introduction to the Old Testament" lectures from Yale (Professor Christine Hayes) as was suggested by Bruce and some of the commenters during the first day or two of this project. I've got to admit that it's given me a more laid-back perspective. Specifically, I've stopped looking to reconfirm my own biases (as they have been since I became un-born-again over thirty years ago) - and started treating the OT as the semi-historical compilation of oral and written traditions that form the basis for three of the world's great religions. I encourage anyone else who hasn't had a chance to listen to Prof. Hayes to do so.

    My take-away on Esau selling his birthright to Jacob and the LORD's apparent indifference to it? It is just more brushstrokes in the background of a developing picture. It still doesn't make immediate sense in the context of these three chapters, but I'm willing to wait.

    It would be exhilarating to find out what the oral traditions were prior to compiling the Tanakh and to know the cultural context that they arose from.

  27. I've read through the Bible three times but this year I'm using Dr. Grant Horner's 10- chapters-a-day method. I generally read from the ESV Study Bible but some good commentaries are always useful.

    Now seems like a good time to mention Paul Copan's new book, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. It is recently out and though I haven't read it yet it looks to address many concerns raised here already.

  28. Wow. According to my annotated Bible, the explanation of "Bethel" @ 28:19 is a folk etymology. It doesn't mean "House of God"- it's the name of a Canaanite deity! (El, of course, is a common Canaanite/Israelite word for God.)

    Class, turn to Jeremiah 48:13

    and Moab shall be betrayed by Kemosh,
    as Israel was betrayed by Bethel,
    a god in whom he trusted.

    (Which is quite an enigmatic line, considering Kemosh was Moab's god. Why was Israel trusting in a Canaanite god??? I'm telling ya, ALL the evidence points towards the Israelites originally being Canaanites.)

  29. Valerie said:
    if you're going to claim that the Bible is the literal word of God and that the translations are just as good as the original, you've got a big problem.

    1) Who claims that the translations are "just as good as the original"?
    2) Why is this a big problem? Please flesh this out.


  30. Nobody said that God was ok with Jacob lying to Isaac. He could of made Jacob a great nation and without that. Still, you can see that Esau did not value his birthright and sold it for some food, and God punished him for that.