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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Jacob Israel

I was struck today as I prepared this lesson on Jacob and Israel, that the title of this blog is "Journey in Faith." Journey is certainly what "Exodus" is all about, but the entire story of this people is a travel narrative.  The Abraham epic is a 'New Beginning' (third creation: 1st Adam/Eve, 2nd Noah, 3rd Abraham and his descendants) centered on "Promise." Most of the various stories circled around the Promise of God--which included children (like the stars) and land. The simple, ancient narratives return to the theme over and again, with different explanations for the name Isaac (laughter). It provided numerous examples of threats on the promise but God's ability to make it all work out.

Isaac, an exception, is a brief transition figure---there is little action or movement in his life which is briefly described. The rabbinic traditions are interesting. Recall, the oral tradition was considered part of God's revelation on Sinai! (Friedman thinks that because Isaac was laid on the altar his life was consecrated.) Isaac has two sons, who come out of the womb struggling. Esau (Edom- red clay, the nation) the ruddy hair one and Jacob the tent dweller and trickster (Gen 27:12). Immediately after their births they are grown men and Jacob asks for famished Esau's birthright in exchange for a bowl of "red stuff" (a stew). In a famine, Isaac is commanded to stay in the land and he is promised, as Abraham was prior, that his seed with be multiplied and be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. The Jews, today, are the most persecuted people on earth. Their history is constant persecution. The "Blessing People" seem to be cursed, it seems. One is reminded of the mystery of the cross when one sees Jesus, when one sees Israel, and it gives pause.

The great deceit, old blind Isaac blessing the wrong son, is instigated, aided and abetted by Rebekah. Jacob verbalizes his fear that his father find out and curse, not bless him, and Jacob's mother utters the words, "Let your curse be on me, my son." We moderns often overlook the reality of blessings and curses, the spiritual power in reality. Isaac gives the blessing but upon learning the truth he "trembles, a very big trembling" and Esau "cried, a very big and bitter cry" (27:33,34) The blessing and birthright procured, Jacob is at risk from his brother, so Rebekah induces Isaac to send him away to find a suitable wife.

Jacob leaves and in a desert place dreams of a ladder to heaven with ascending and descending angels. This is his theophany, and God promises him (and his seed) the land. "I am with you and I'll watch over you," declares the YHWH. Jacob wakens in terror and realizes God had been there, undetected, in the place. In response he makes a conditional covenant: IF God is with me, gives me what I need, and brings me back in peace, THEN YHWH will be his God. And of everything God gives him he promises a tithe. He calls the place Beth-el. We see the character of the man in his approach, more about striking a deal than gratitude.

God's presence is manifest quickly as Jacob encounters his kinswoman Rachel who takes him to Laban (his mother's brother). Jacob loves Rachel and works for the right to marry her and is deceived by Laban and given Leah instead. The text does not say it, but one is inclined to think that Jacob is reaping what he sows: deception. The two girls are rivals and each provides Jacob with sons. Their servant girls do as well. Ironically, Leah, the unfavored wife, provides Levi (and the priesthood) and Judah (the monarchy). In the ensuing narrative Joseph, Rebekah's son, has pride of place, but later, in the books of Samuel and Kings, Judah emerges as key. In Genesis 30 Jacob is bartered away by Rachel to Leah for some mandrakes. It seems fair to think this echoes Esau and his 'red stuff - stew' and the master manipulator is now a bargaining chip for his wives. In addition, his father in law continues to seek to undermine him in the breeding of flocks. We see God blessing Jacob who (based on "ancient genetics"-what sheep see when breeding impacts what offspring looks like). Then the time comes to leave and return home. God tells Jacob to go and God warns Laban not to harm him when the angry father comes in search of his daughters and his idol.

Jacob's return is riddled with anxiety. What response from Esau? As he sleeps at night he is visited by "a man" with whom he wrestles. Jacob proves a match and demands a blessing. From the womb he has wrangled and it is always about blessings. As in the beginning of his sojourn, so here as he stands prepared to return home Jacob's night time experience is a revelation; "I have seen God face to face and lived." However, Jacob is wounded as well, on the inside of the thigh. Soon after Esau arrives, full of generous hospitality. Jacob tells him that seeing Esau is like seeing God's face (note repetition of the theme) and Esau responds "Take my blessing that's been brought to you because God has been gracious to me." The untold stories of the Bible include the hand of God on the "other" seed of Abraham. If the story focuses on Israel, God was able to extend His hand of love and care beyond that nation. The untold stories are for God to know and us to ponder.

The travails of the favored son, Joseph, are perhaps the most noteworthy turn about for the Trickster. Joseph is the dreamer (and interpreter) who has the temerity to share his visions with his siblings. The prophetic quality of the dream--it reveals God's plan--makes it no less offensive. Perhaps Joseph is arrogant or maybe it is jealousy on his brothers' part. At any rate, another display of the "Biblical Model of the family"! Joseph has a special coat (the Hebrew word pas is from the root pasas which means to disappear. some think it means a long sleeve. It is noteworthy that Tamar, the daughter of David raped by her half brother Amnon, is the only other person with such a tunic in the Bible. Like Joseph her cloak is torn and she is ill treated by her brother). The brothers plan to kill him is thwarted by Reuben and Judah, and instead he is sold to a Ishmaelite caravan and to Midianite people (tribes descended from Abraham! Hagar and Keturah are the mothers). Chapters 38&39 contrast Judah (went down) and Joseph (was brought down). Tamar (his daughter-in-law) lays the evidence before him (same verb as used of brothers' laying Joseph's coat before Jacob) and gives birth by him to Perez and Zerah, who have a strange birthing. The following chapters trace the roller coaster ride of Joseph in Egypt. He is faithful in his master's home when his mistress would seduce him (note the language in 39:12 is the same as the young man in the Garden with Jesus at His arrest). Jailed for a time, he rises to a role of leadership again, and interprets dreams, only to be forgotten. When the Pharaoh has a dream no one can discern, Joseph is summoned and supplies the interpretation. In reward he is put "over my house" by Pharaoh. seven years of plenty are stored and in seven years of lack the Egyptian Ruler becomes very rich under Joseph's mastery--or as we know better, the guidance of God.

The long, drawn out interactions with the sons of Israel and their brother do allude to their guilt (42:21). Joseph weeps several times and the negotiations over Benjamin and Jacob create much tension. The trial they endure seems to balance out the trials of Joseph, there is a sense of retribution in all this. God speaks to Jacob in a vision at Beer-sheba (46:3-4) where He promises to make Israel a great nation and to take His people out of Egypt. And Israel is fruitful and multiplies (see beginning of Genesis) and the old man, blessing the sons of Joseph, crosses his arms. Once again, the "wrong" son is the one who receives the blessing, the younger to serve the older. The book ends with Jacob's blessing of each son and his death. The funeral of Jacob concludes and at the book's end Joseph himself dies at 110. The ages of the Patriarchs are reflective of reality.

One thing to note as we conclude Genesis, unlike the literature of their neighbors, the Jews have heroes with human frailties and foibles. The Bible portraits paint a picture warts and all.

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