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Friday Bible Blogging - Genesis 21 to Genesis 30

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

BibleThe stories in Chapters 21 through 30 of Genesis are fairly well known, but not as familiar as the stories from the beginning of the book. Probably the mast famous (infamous) story from these chapters is the one where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac (Chapter 22).

Genesis, Chapter 21

This chapter started out with Sarah having a son just as the Lord had promised, and Abraham named the son Isaac. Somewhat paralleling Chapter 16, Sarah again had Abraham exile Hagar, this time because Sarah didn't want Isaac to share his inheritance with Ishmael. Abraham was at least upset at Sarah's demand, but God himself told Abraham, "whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you." So Abraham sent her away with nothing but "bread and a skin of water". After wandering in the wilderness for a while and being on the verge of death from starvation and dehydration, God finally "opened her eyes" so that she could see a well. Then, in two short verses, it says that God stayed with Ishmael as he grew up.

That entire set of verses seems so callous to me. First, there's Abraham's abandonment of his own son. And God's only justification to Abraham of why it was okay was "it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you," as if carrying on the family name is more important than caring for your children. Then there was the manner in which he exiled her, kicking her out in the wilderness, without enough supplies to survive. Sure, God eventually came along and saved them, but it was only after they'd suffered enough to be on the verge of death. And the way God saved her was that he "opened her eyes". Is this implying that God was closing her eyes to the well before? That God was the one causing her suffering?

After that, King Abimelech made a pact with Abraham since Abimelech recognized that Abraham was blessed by God. There was a little bit of arguing about wells, during which Abraham gave Abimelech livestock, including seven ewe lambs "in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well."


Genesis, Chapter 22

This chapter will always hold a bit of special significance with me, because it was when listening to it one Sunday at church that I realized I was on the path to leaving Christianity. This chapter contains the story where God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham took a small trip with Isaac and a few men to the land of Moriah. Once he saw the mountain where the sacrifice was to take place, he told the men to stay behind, while he and Isaac went on. He even had Isaac carry the fire wood that was going to be used for the burnt-offering. When Isaac started to get suspicious and asked where the lamb was that they were going to sacrifice, Abraham lied and told his son that God would provide the lamb. Once they reached the mountain top and built the altar, Abraham bound up Isaac, and had the knife in hand, poised to kill his own son. It was only then at the last second that an angel of the Lord stopped him and revealed a ram caught in a thicket that he should sacrifice instead.

This story was supposed to show Abraham's utter devotion to God, "Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore." But when I was sitting there in the pew that Sunday years ago, I thought to myself that this story would have been much better if Abraham had refused God's command. It would have shown true love and devotion to his son to go up against impossible odds trying to defy a god. As it was, it was a horrific story. Thankfully, it's almost surely just a myth, but just imagine it from Isaac's point of view if something like that had actually happened, to be tied up by your father, and to see him coming at you with a knife.

One final point on this story, after God promised to make Abraham's descendants as numerous as the sands of the seashore, he then promised, "And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies..." It just struck me as a bit violent. It was also in keeping with the theme I mentioned last week, that God in Genesis seems very provincial. If God was the creator of everybody, that would presumably include Abraham's enemies. Why would a creator be so uncaring of those particular people, allowing them to be conquered?

The chapter closed with a bit of genealogy listing the children of Milcah, both those of his wife and those of his concubine. This theme of multiple wives and concubines seems to be pretty common.


Genesis, Chapter 23

Sarah finally died at the ripe old age of 127 years old. Apparently, she and Abraham were no longer living together, because the previous chapter put Abraham in Beersheba while Sarah died while living in Kiriath-arba. One of the things that struck me about this was where the Biblical authors decided to focus their attention. I mean, in the previous 22 chapters leading up to this one, the book of Genesis hasn't been particularly detail filled. The first creation story, describing the creation of the entire heavens and earth and everything in the universe, took place in just one chapter. This was a whole chapter devoted almost solely to Abraham haggling with the Hittites over the cost of the land to bury his wife. It just seemed a bit odd.


Genesis, Chapter 24

In this chapter, Abraham sent his servant on a journey to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac from his kindred as opposed to the Canaanites. To bind the servant with an oath, Abraham told him to "Put your hand under my thigh 3 and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth..." There's actually a bit of a question on what this means. According to Yeshiva.org.il, some people think this is translated accurately and it really does mean his thigh. Other people think instead of the thigh, it means the 'organ of circumcision'. That's because an oath had to be sworn while holding something sacred, and a circumcised organ was considered sacred.

The rest of the chapter told of how the servant found Rebekah. Nothing too noteworthy here - he asked God for a sign (a pretty mundane one at that), and God gave him the sign that Rebekah was the girl for Isaac. He paid her family the appropriate gifts and took her back to Isaac. "Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death."


Genesis, Chapter 25

This chapter started with a very brief description of Isaac taking another wife and his descendants through her. That section ended with what has been the standard tradition through what I've read so far in Genesis - where one son is promised his father's entire inheritance, and all the other children, especially those of the concubines, are sent off, this time with gifts.

A brief mention was made of Abraham's death and burial alongside Sarah, before getting into more genealogy, including a very brief mention of Ishmael's death.

After that, the chapter began the story of Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac and Rebekah. The start certainly seemed mythical - they were struggling against each other already in the womb symbolizing the struggle that would come later, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger." Esau, the elder of the twins, was described as very hairy and "a skilful hunter, a man of the field." Jacob was described as "a quiet man, living in tents." Esau was Isaac's favorite, while Rebekah favored Jacob.

The close of the chapter was the story of how Esau gave away his birthright to Jacob. Coming in from the fields extremely hungry, he found Jacob with a red stew. After Esau asked him for it, Jacob only agreed to share if Esau would give away his birthright. Esau, being impetuous, declared that since he was about to starve anyway, he had no need of a birthright. This story was also where Esau acquired the alias, Edom, which means red, in reference to his request for the stew.


Genesis, Chapter 26

Chapter 26 began with some strong parallels to Chapter 20, where just like Abraham, Isaac went to Gerar, and told King Abimelech that his wife was actually his sister. This time, however, nobody married Rebekah. They were found out when Abimelech "looked out of a window and saw him fondling his wife Rebekah." After that, Abimelech warned his people not to marry Rebekah, and Isaac settled in the land. However, after becoming too successful, the Philistines became envious and King Abimelech sent him away.

This was followed by some more parallels to Abraham's story, with Isaac arguing with the Philistines over some wells. After that, in a brief blurb of only three verses, Isaac was visited by the Lord and told that he would be blessed, so he made an altar at the location to commemorate it. This was followed by another parallel to Abraham, where Isaac made a pact with King Abimelech.

The chapter closed with Isaac marrying two more women.


Genesis, Chapter 27

This chapter contains yet another story from the Bible that appears odd from a modern perspective. Isaac was old and blind, and knew he was not much longer for this world. So he called his favorite son, Esau, and told him to go out hunting to catch him some of the wild game that he (Isaac) liked to eat, and that he would bless Esau upon his return from the hunt. Rebekah overheard this, and decided she would use this information to help her favorite son, Jacob. She made the type of "savoury food" that Isaac liked, and put furs on Jacob to mimic his brother's hairy skin. Then she told him to go into his father's tent and pretend to be his brother to get his blessing. The plan worked, and Jacob stole Esau's blessing. When Esau showed up at his father's tent, both he and Isaac realized what Jacob had done, but it was too late. When Esau asked for a blessing of his own, Isaac told him that he had no blessing left to give, "Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing." Esau was understandably upset about all this, and started talking of killing his brother once he got a chance after Isaac died. Rebekah heard of his plans, and sent Jacob away, not to return until Esau had calmed down.

There were a few points about this story that struck me. First was the deceitfulness from one of the heroes of the Bible, Jacob. In fact, in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) that I have, they specifically likened this story to the trickster motif.

What struck me more, though, was how somebody could steal somebody else's blessing. It really seems like magic, like Isaac only had so much power, and he used it all up on Jacob, leaving nothing for Esau. But what's really strange from a modern Christian perspective is that Isaac asked God to bless Isaac. Was Isaac so powerful that he could demand God to do things? And shouldn't God have known of the deception? It seems a bit silly to think that a few furs and old clothes would have been able to fool the Almighty into giving you a blessing that belonged to somebody else. Or if God was the one doing the blessing, then why would it have mattered how many people had been blessed previously? Shouldn't God have had the power to bless as many people as he wanted?


Genesis, Chapter 28

Due to Rebekah's comment to him in the close of the previous chapter, Isaac sent Jacob away to find a wife that wasn't a Canaanite, but rather "one of the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother." I response, "when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please his father Isaac," he went and took another wife, one of the daughters of Ishmael.

One night during his trip, when using a stone as a pillow, Jacob had a dream where he was visited by the Lord, and received God's promise that he would be blessed. So Jacob "took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it," and called the place Bethel.

The part of this story that struck me was Jacob's reaction to the dream, "Then Jacob made 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 clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God..." His acceptance of God was contingent on God first being good to him. This is certainly counter to what I'd been taught many times, that you shouldn't put the Lord to the test. And reiterating a point I've written in previous entries, by saying that "the Lord shall be my God," it seems to be implying that there are other options, that perhaps there were other gods Jacob could have chosen.


Genesis, Chapter 29

Chapter 29 begins the telling of Jacob's relationship with Laban. It started with Jacob meeting Rachel, the daughter of Laban. This story had an air of legend about it. There was a well covered by a big stone. The shepherds of the area would get together to move the stone out of the way to get access to the well. When Jacob saw Rachel approaching with her livestock and asked a few shepherds about moving the stone so that she could water her animals, they said they'd have to wait for more people to show up - presumably because it was too heavy for the few of them there. So Jacob went and moved the stone by himself, demonstrating a feat of superhuman strength.

After the story by the well, Jacob went on to actually meet Laban. Jacob agreed to work for Laban for 7 years in exchange for the marriage of Rachel at the end of his service. However, unbeknownst to Jacob, Laban gave him Leah on his wedding night. Presumably due to her veil and then the darkness, Jacob didn't realize he'd been tricked until the next morning after he'd already consummated the marriage. After being confronted, Laban agreed to give Jacob Rachel as well, but only after Jacob finished out his week with Leah (a honeymoon week?), and only if Jacob agreed to work for Laban for another 7 years. Jacob agreed, got Rachel, and consequently stayed in the service of Laban.

The chapter closed with God blessing Leah because she was unloved and giving her three sons while making Rachel barren.

One thing that struck me about this chapter more so than the previous chapters I've read is the mindset of women as property. Jacob negotiated with Laban on which daughter he was going to marry. There was no mention of either Rachel or Leah's wishes in the matter.


Genesis, Chapter 30

The beginning of this chapter continued the childbearing from the close of the previous chapter with almost a competition between Rachel and Leah. First, when Rachel realized that she was barren but saw Leah giving Jacob so many children, she gave Jacob her maid so that Jacob could have children with the maid. Leah countered by giving Jacob her maid. After that was some bickering between Rachel and Leah, with Leah birthing more children, and then finally, Rachel conceived and gave birth to a child of her own.

After all of that, Jacob approached Laban, saying that he was ready to return to his homeland. But first, since he had spent so many years working for someone else, he needed an opportunity to build up his own household. They made a deal that Jacob could keep "every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats" from Laban's flocks. Being a bit sneaky, Laban went and "removed the male goats that were striped and spotted, and all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in charge of his sons" three day's journey from the flocks Jacob was in charge of. But that didn't faze Jacob, because he had a plan on how to make the livestock give birth to striped, spotted, and speckled babies. He took "fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane, and peeled white streaks in them", and then set those in front of the livestock when they were breeding, which in turn affected the appearance of their babies. Of course, this makes no sense from a modern perspective, but the ancient writers of Genesis had no understanding of genetics and wouldn't have questioned this story.

Jacob did another practice that makes sense if you assume that the branches had the effect the Genesis writers claimed - he only put the sticks out when the strongest of the flocks were breeding, but not when the weaker ones were. That way, he got the offspring of the stronger animals, while Laban was left with the offspring of the weaker ones.

In the last verse of the chapter, we learn that thanks to his creative breeding practices, Jacob became a very wealthy man.

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After sharing my impressions of the Bible in the previous two installments of this series, I don't have much to add this time. These stories don't present a very grand portrayal of Yahweh, and it's pretty clear that what I've read so far is a collection of legends, not an actual history nor metaphors with profound meaning (though some of the stories do have meaning a bit deeper than face value).

I noticed that this week's entry was a bit longer than the previous ones, because I gave a bit more of a synopsis for each chapter. I'll try to be briefer next week.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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