Genesis 50

The great story comes to a close. The previous chapter finished with Jacob’s passing, and this chapter begins in that exact moment wherein “Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him” (verse one). The Patriarch faded, and with him the last of the famous trio who had ventured out, coming and going from the land, with the Promise of home and progeny always hanging above them and away from them, even in those days when they had partially realized it. In our framing here that story is yet to be told (it is of course the tale of Exodus and Joshua; with quite a lot of detail in between!), and we remain frozen on Joseph mourning his father. Permission from Pharaoh to go up to Canaan and fulfill Jacob’s request of a specified burial is asked for and received, and on a scale that Joseph probably could not have imagined. (That is, if we fall into the fiction, suspend our disbelief, and take the character as a person: granting the ability to do this is one mark of an excellent narrative.) The mourning period and the interment completed, Joseph and his immediate family, Jacob’s other sons and theirs, those of Jacob’s household who survived him, and “all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries” who had joined them (verse seven) return to Egypt where the people would of course remain until Moses leads them forth (as the next great saga has it). Here, in its parting, Genesis has one last ethical lesson to teach.

Joseph’s brothers, perhaps rightly, fear that he will hold the past against them and with their father now no longer there to hold him back (directly or indirectly) he will exact his revenge (verse fifteen). Their solution? To lie, to put words into Jacob’s mouth to the effect that Joseph is to forgive them, that these are the “wishes of a dying man” (as it were; this from verses sixteen through seventeen). Joseph’s response is classically him as we have come to know him (the figure of him) throughout these chapters: He first openly displays his deep emotions (17b: “And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him [his brothers with Jacob’s “quotation”].”), and then reminds them of what he has already told them (in 45.5 just after he reveals his true identity and what the brothers took for simply the Egyptian vizier from whom they sought charity transforms into their long-lost sibling), namely that: “although you intended me harm [in selling him into slavery; 37.28], God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people” (verse twenty). Grace, and an expressed trust that despite it all there is a plan in the background, an unfolding. This is a comforting thought — it would have been to its original audience and, I should think, is no less so for us today — and whether we believe it or not (the world can certainly seem a sticky, messy, wholly unjust, brutal and cold place) we too can recognize the beauty of the sentiment. While this metaphysic (of sorts) is probably undecidable for us (we have faith or we do not), emulating Joseph’s act is well within our reach if we make sufficient effort.

As his father had, Joseph requests to be laid to rest in Canaan (verse twenty-four) — it is rather odd that he is reported as asking this of his brothers since as the second to last born of the lot one would think many of them would already have passed away before him; such details are ignored in the text but I cannot be the only curious reader — and the extended narrative has this done by no less a personage than Moses (Exodus 13:19). Thus the final verse in the chapter, the very last in the book of Genesis reads:

50.26: “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.”

We have come a long way. From the creation of the cosmos through the grand sweeps of pre-Abrahamic history in chapters one through eleven, to the journeys and legacy of Abraham and his family in chapters twelve through the first half of twenty-five, and then the focus narrows on only one part of Abraham’s descendants (let us not forget the eldest Ishmael and those who came after Isaac) as we have a brief accounting of Isaac and thereafter the focus on Jacob and his children in the remaining chapters. The stories we have read have struck us as alternatively incredible, moving, disturbing, provocative, motivating, dreadful, and awe-inspiring; and always, always deeply human as they have swung between the axes of exploring the relational nexuses between the divine “above” and we here “below” (up and down only conceptually, of course) and the plateau of person-to-person. On a last analysis this may well be one of the books in our received literary canon that best uses the fantastic to communicate the everyday, the sublime to teach the necessary, the larger-than-life to express just that: Life, with all its warts. May our reading — and our thinking it — never end.

Genesis 49

Jacob, the character who tends to dominate every storyline he appears in, calls his sons (excepting his adopted “sons” of Joseph: Manasseh and Ephraim) together and delivers a final farewell to each. That some of what is spoken is quite positive while other portions very negative should perhaps not surprise us given everything we have encountered from Jacob heretofore, but the reader is advised to remember that whatever the setting given in the first verse of the chapter may be, these are words about the tribal units within the context of the (narratively later but contemporaneous for intended listeners/readers) nation of Israel, and we must also think that the highs and lows – as it were – of these comments likely also at least somewhat reflect the conditions prevalent at the time of the text’s closing editing and redaction. Reuben, for instance, which group became quite insignificant in the larger politico-economic scheme, has that reduced position explained in verses three through four: although Jacob’s first born and hence traditionally set for leadership, the founder/progenitor figure’s (whether a person who actually lived or not) misdeed in consummating a physical relationship with his father’s concubine (as described in 35.22) dooms the descendants in that lineage to subservient status. Similarly in verses five through seven Simeon and Levi are censured for what is almost certainly a reference to another legendary deed: the revenge attack on Hamor, his son Shechem, and the whole inhabitants of the city ruled by Hamor (see Chapter 34: there the area is called a “country” in verse two, a “town” in verses twenty, twenty-four, and twenty-seven, and a “city” in verse twenty-five). Following that act Jacob, so the tale goes, rebuked both brothers (34.30), and here in our chapter he now states that they will be “divided” and “scattered” (verse seven). The tribe of Simeon was to become part of the tribe of Judah, and Levi of course transformed into the priestly tribe that had no lands of its own and instead provided succeeding generations of Temple workers and others engaged in performing and managing religious rites and rituals. Thereafter Judah is highly praised (verses eight through twelve; and verses ten through twelve have often been interpreted messianically), and we know that it grew into the most important of important tribes: producing the famous King David (and again, whether empirically real or not the meaning-generative and association-laden symbol of the man is “real” enough) and forming both the core of the eventual Southern Kingdom and of the people who were to survive the Babylonian exile, return and rebuild, or remain and/or travel elsewhere to begin new communities in other lands. These examples should suffice for how the sayings of Jacob might be taken in this chapter. They are interesting, but possibly for us with so many years in between and far outside of the socio-political context in which they were recorded (and redacted, edited, et cetera) not terribly evocative.

Note, however, Jacob’s closing remarks and last wish (verses twenty-nine through thirty-two): He asks to have his remains taken back to the ancestral burial cave where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and his own wife Leah were laid to rest. He does not want his body to remain in Egypt after the breath has left it. This is quite poignant, it is very human, and it is touching in the way it forces us to consider our own mortality and that of the people we love and hold dear. The argument could be made – and it has, often enough – that it does not matter one bit what happens to the body after death since the person has ceased to exist; yet this is not how we usually think. Perhaps there is something like a universal intuition of post-mortem continuation that even the most ardent of materialists find it hard to overcome when confronted forcefully enough by the reality of cessation that it is no longer able to be thought about merely in the abstract. The Jacob figure of our stories is naturally no “ardent materialist”, and his fervent desire is to join those in his lineage who preceded him in that passing which we all face. This gives us pause, and here at the cusp of Genesis’ own ending we are made to meditate on the temporality of the individual and the continuity of the connections made and genealogies contributed to during a lifetime (whether through children, through influences, or otherwise). Nothing human will last forever, and the most well-established families eventually fade, but here in the days we have with those who surround we ask what was and might have been; and hopefully in our reflections prove a little more generous than Jacob.

Genesis 48

With Jacob back in the storyline the character is given center stage in this chapter. Joseph is told that his father is ill and goes to visit him along with his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. As the reader knows these children bear the names of two tribes of Israel, and this is of course not only knowledge that we who today have the complete Tanakh are aware of, but also would have been part of the lives of the historical hearers and, to a lesser degree, readers of Genesis at the time it was entering its final form with the editors and redactors of the Priestly layer of the book. In the current section, indeed, scholars think that verses three through seven might be an interpretative insert by those last textual workers of the so-called P source. This makes much sense for two reasons: Firstly the portion is a neat explanation of why the two eponymous juveniles who were Jacob’s grandsons and not sons should be included in the namesake tribal units made up supposedly of Jacob’s direct progeny (Jacob is made to state that he adopts them as the children of himself and Rachel, and to stipulate that any further issue Joseph and Asenath might have (or Joseph and another I suppose, but anyway no additional offspring are ever listed for us) will be associated with his name and not Jacob’s; in the process of this he calls both boys by name and predicts great futures for them); and secondly because it returns the focus to the land of Israel (the land that would come to be the nation state of Israel) with which the chapter also ends when Jacob has Joseph promise to return his body to be buried in the ancestral grave in Canaan after he has passed away. There might also be a hinting here that the exogamous marriage of Joseph needed to be “repaired”, and especially given the standing of the linked tribes at the period of Genesis’ finishing touches that might have seemed socio-historically necessary. Such would be troubling from an ethical standpoint (as if those born of mixed marriages were somehow “less”), but it would not be outside of the thinking of many ancient cultures and even some modern ones. Nevertheless, purely with regard to the reading experience, if we accept this analysis then I think we might engage the chapter without those verses, and if so I find that as a narrative it reads much more smoothly. Framing the insert (if such it is) are verses two and eight:

48.2: “When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to see you,’ Israel [/Jacob] summoned his strength and sat up in bed.”
48.8: “Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel [/Jacob] asked, ‘Who are these?’”

We have noticed far too much craftsmanship within Genesis to think that someone would have written it in such a way that Joseph arrives to Jacob’s room with his sons, Jacob calls those same sons by their names and adopts them as his own, and then asks who they are; if, however, we jump from verse two to eight then everything flows quite well. Thereafter in verse nine Joseph informs Jacob who the lads are and Jacob summons them towards himself to bless them. This yields another interesting point to the portion. His eyes are reported to be “dim with age” (verse ten, recalling the same description of Isaac in 27.1: only there this feature allows Jacob to practice his deception and win the first born’s blessing, while here Jacob again is the one who winks and wins (as it were)), and so Joseph assumes that Jacob is mistaken when he crosses his arms in order to place his right hand on the head of the younger (Ephraim; which tribe became the most important in the Northern Kingdom) and his left on the head of the elder (Manasseh; which tribe was geographically large (straddling the Jordan River) but not as influential). Jacob flatly tells Joseph that he knows what he is doing, and that it is the junior who will become greater than the senior (another connection here, this time with the relationship between Jacob and his older brother Esau), with the ending of verse twenty summarizing it: “Thus he [Jacob] put Ephraim before Manasseh.” Once more the theme of reversal of the natural order is placed into our tale, and once more the reader is curious how it will all turn out, whether or not what has been foretold will come to pass (and what a surprise it would be if the writers did not follow up on their own plot leads!). In this too, I think, we can understand the hands of the editors as tying up loose ends and preparing the way to transition into the following book of the Torah. This — like other treasures of our received traditions — is literature of exquisite quality, lending itself to increasing multiplicities the more it is studied.

Genesis 47

As discussed in relation to Genesis 46, in moving to Egypt the burgeoning to-be nation of Israel begins the process of transforming from an extended family into a multitude that would in turn become tribes, thereafter a federated grouping, and finally a monarchy. This is the history that the Tanakh presents, and while from a critical point of view much of what is relayed seems doubtful (many elements of myth but too what are likely actual events, or at least versions of events) our focus is not — and should not, I would argue, if we are to seek what is applicable from a primarily ethical and/or numinous perspective — there but instead it is on what these stories may be trying to relate: the underlying themes and concepts. In that regard this chapter is quite disturbing.

In verses thirteen through twenty-six it is described how, as the famine gets worse and worse, the Egyptians — and let us remember that these are the masses for whom Joseph has taken on the responsibility for their welfare in his role as vizier — first give whatever money they may have had (and we must imagine an impoverished population, as was the case for nearly the whole of every ancient society) over to Joseph in payment for the rations they were receiving. These, it will further be recalled, are sourced from the stored grain that Joseph had previously collected from these same people, during the earlier years of plenty. They were the farmers whose land had given what they were now being sold; perhaps this is simply the way of things in a market economy (then or now), but nowhere do we read that Joseph had paid for the agricultural yield. In 41.47-49 it states that Joseph “gathered” it and “put in each city the grain of the fields around it”, culminating with verse forty-nine: “So Joseph collected produce in very large quantity, like the sands of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.” Joseph’s foresight and administrative skills are on display, and in the context of the story we can think that the starving recipients would have been grateful regardless, but this does not seem quite fair. This is not where it ends.

Following the exhaustion of their wealth the populace is next forced to surrender their livestock, again in exchange for the same reposited fruit of the land that was sourced from their own fields. Finally, as the famine continues and everyone’s suffering only increases, the people once more come before Joseph and pronounce:

47.19: “‘Let us not perish before your [Joseph’s] eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.’”

In this way the entirety of the nation’s acreage (excepting, as is related in verse twenty-two, the priests’, which remained theirs) and its general — i.e. non-elite, non-upper class — natural-born inhabitants all became the property of the state, a condition that politically meant everything and everyone concentrated into the hands of the sovereign: Pharaoh. Joseph declares that henceforth a fifth of what comes from the fields will be a tithe to the government while the remainder is for the people (verse twenty-four), which on the face of things does seem somewhat generous on balance, but in the case of subsistence farming (which we can think this certainly would have been, as again such has been the norm for most of the world throughout our human saga) a percentage of that amount may well have proved extremely burdensome. Finally, what is even more chilling is that the lines (verse twenty-seven) which conclude this process of gradual enslavement seem to either imply, or even to baldly state if read in the most plain sense, that Jacob and his family were exempt from all that their hosts endured: “Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.” During the period when the Egyptians lost their wealth, their husbanded animals, their land, and their very selves, it would appear that through the connection to Joseph the familial clan of Jacob not only avoided the same but actually gained what everyone else was losing. This situation is recorded to reverse in the next book of Exodus, but if there is any actual history to what is being told in this chapter then it is little wonder that resentment would have built up on the part of the Egyptians. Although we have heretofore discerned much from a reading of the Joseph story on the level of individual development and interpersonal relations, this portion details a frightening attitude of us/them that, thankfully, we have learned to recognize as terribly unjust.

Genesis 46

The editors and redactors who completed the text that became our book of Genesis (and indeed the whole Tanakh) certainly seem to be setting the stage for the following link in Israel’s version of its history (leaving aside here, we remind the reader, questions of empiricism: ours is an effort to focus on the stories — taken as stories, but for that no less valuable — and seeking to discover meanings and applications therein): the exciting and irreplaceably central Exodus. In this chapter Jacob and those under his charge and care, or anyway those who would have been under his care at one point but now care for him in his frailty, depart Canaan after a divine message to the Patriarch that all is well and this is the life-path to travel (verses two through four). Leaving everything behind except what could be carried in the wagons that Pharaoh had ordered be provided for them (in 45.19, after the Egyptians serving Joseph had reported to Pharaoh that the men visiting him were in fact Joseph’s brothers), the land of the Promise to Abraham and his descendants is temporarily abandoned in order to establish a new homeland — of sorts — in the Goshen region of the Nile delta. The emigrating group is listed as counting seventy (but this includes Jacob, and Joseph with his wife Asenath and their two sons who, of course, were already in Egypt): a digit that symbolizes completion and perfection. From this beginning would rise the masses who, as the tale goes, grew and grew (Exodus 1.7) during a period of four hundred and thirty years (Exodus 12.40), with very much of it in enslavement. (Maybe nearly the whole? Exodus 1.8 explains that: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” and it is after this when they start to become treated as slaves, as detailed in verses nine through eleven.)

The narrative is not there yet though. After a long listing of parents’ names and their children, father and son are finally brought back together, whereupon Joseph “presented himself to him [Jacob] and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while” (46.29b). Jacob’s response to this is, I think, a quintessential marker of the themes and ethos of the entire Joseph plotline:

46.30: “Then Israel [/Jacob] said to Joseph, ‘Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive.’”

Once more the point is driven home that this is a story of personal development and family, of learning how to be and to be with one another, to orient oneself aright and to accept each other and, what is more, to find peace — and faith — within a world that seems hopelessly out of control. No one could have foreseen the events that brought Joseph to the pinnacle of Egyptian government, second only to the Pharaoh; not his brothers, who purely wanted to be rid of the arrogant young nuisance, and certainly not himself. When Jacob was shown the tunic he had earlier given to his favorite son covered in blood (the cruelty of the deception!) and guessed that Joseph had been killed by a “savage beast” he refused to be comforted, declaring that he would go to his grave still mourning for him (37.31-35). Years passed and we get glimpses here and there of how Jacob seems to be going through the motions well enough, yet as readers we infer that this character still, and always will, carry that grief. Then suddenly this chapter presents the incredible, and it is not the guaranteed sustenance for his entire clan that comforts Jacob (recalling that the famine is ongoing), nor is it the safety of being moved well inside the borders of the era’s strongest country and placed under the personal protection of its monarch; no, merely seeing that his boy yet lives is what brings healing to Jacob. The ethic is an extraordinarily simple one, and perhaps for that reason only too easy to forget, but the way these pictures of our characters weave it together provides charmingly compelling reminders.

Genesis 45

Reconciliation. After all the drama, intrigue, and trials both hidden and exposed Joseph at last reveals himself to his brothers and they — astonished — recognize him for who he really is, although aside from one poignant moment we are not given details of the brothers’ reactions. That glimpse comes first through the full-brother figure of Benjamin, the only one of the brothers to share both mother and father with Joseph, and as we have seen this alone wins him much favoritism (e.g. the extra portions he received at their joint dinner in 43.34). How these two greet one another after Joseph’s announcement of his true identity is described thusly:

45.14: “With that he [Joseph] embraced [a footnote reads: Lit. “fell on.”] his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.”

The wronged brother here forgives, he is the one to initiate the affectionate enclasping, and in the symbolism of that act the entirety of the relational restoration is communicated. Were the other to refuse, to push away or reject, the damage would seemingly be irreversible. That does not happen here, and it did not happen in the mirror situation with their father, when Jacob was the Benjamin and his own brother Esau was the Joseph, the damaged and victimized party who relents and releases any ill will that may potentially have been harbored (this was certainly so for Esau as the narrative tells us in 27.42 that he was planning to kill Jacob; as for Benjamin we are not given a reason to think he may have wished Joseph harm, but as the below will explore the overall context is not entirely transparent). That scene is given in Chapter 33:

33.4: “Esau ran to greet him [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.”

Jacob had used much cunning and deception to obtain both Esau’s birthright and final blessing from their father Isaac, and while we can fault Esau for trading away his birthright so lightly (told in 25.29-34), he bears no blame for the complicated ruse that was played on the elderly and infirm Isaac (on that see 27.15-30). That Esau should forgive is remarkable, and that Joseph should is as well; yet does this parallel hold for Benjamin too? Here we are simply not sure.

As the only two sons of Rachel we assume that these brothers shared a different bond from what they had with their other half-brothers, and the text reinforces this image in numerous places (no less in how Jacob describes his own feelings for Benjamin by reference to Joseph; e.g. 42.38: “But he [Jacob] said, ‘My son {Benjamin] must not go down with you [the other brothers regarding their trip to Egypt], for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol [the underworld, or land of the dead] in grief.’”). What I am curious about, though, is Benjamin’s place vis-à-vis Joseph’s being first thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery by the brothers. We know from 35.16-20 that Benjamin had been born (with Rachel tragically dying in the process) some time earlier, yet as is often the case with the Genesis tales we do not know how much time had passed between then and when Joseph was assaulted in Chapter 37. Numerically Benjamin would have had to be included in the dreams Joseph has in that chapter of his brothers and parents bowing down to him (37.5-10, with “brothers” specified twice (verses five and nine) and their number at eleven once (verse nine)). If these are “brothers” and not “siblings” then their sister Dinah cannot be included, and so in order to reach the total of eleven Benjamin must be there as well. (This despite Jacob referring to “I and your mother” in verse ten (as the sun and moon symbols of the dream); we must therefore think the “mother” is not Rachel, because the only other option is to claim that Chapter 35 is a section out of place and Rachel is still living: since she passed away giving birth to Benjamin that would not solve the number of brothers problem because there would then only be ten.) We are told further that at the time Joseph was seventeen and he used to help tend the flocks (37.2), and moreover that once — the fateful time as it would prove — Joseph was sent alone to check up on his brothers who were in pasture at Shechem (37.12-14). Thereafter the account of the attack and sale of Joseph follows (37.18-28), and the only named brothers are Reuben and Judah. With Joseph still in his teens presumably Benjamin would have been too young to leave the family home and therefore was not present for what occurred, but this is not made explicit. What are we being told in all this?

Benjamin was the favored one, both by Jacob (thinking his previous favorite Joseph (37.3a: “Now Israel [/Jacob] loved Joseph best of all his sons”; but again Benjamin had been born by this point...) had passed) and by Joseph, and so in this scene of reunion and redemption it perhaps makes sense that he should be welcomed first by Joseph despite Benjamin’s (most probably) not having been party to the wrong done him. Note, however, that if Benjamin had simply been absent for the crimes committed against Joseph then we are not yet at forgiveness, but for that we do not have to wait long. Although Benjamin is once more the beneficiary of an abundance not given the others, in the very next verse in our chapter Joseph extends grace to each of them and the scene is complete:

45.15: “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.”

Genesis 44

In this chapter Joseph springs another trap on the brothers, this time by hiding his silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag, having it be found, and then accusing him of thievery (verses one through twelve). The narrator does not inform us directly, but in the mind of the Joseph character this may either have served as a means of having his younger brother Benjamin remain in Egypt, or as a test to see how the other brothers would react. The results, as presented in the tale, are the return of all the brothers to Joseph and an emphasizing of Judah’s leadership role through the relating of his redemption, demonstrated by his willingness for self-sacrifice. (It is probably important to keep in mind that the tribe of Judah was the dominant one amongst the group of tribes which made up the nation during the historical period that saw the fashioning of the final form of the Genesis text (and indeed this position was to last), and thus incidents such as this might have served explanatory roles, or even acted as a kind of just-so story.) This is particularly significant since it was Judah who had earlier been the one to suggest that Joseph be sold into slavery, in Chapter 37.26-27:

37.26-27: “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.’ His brothers agreed.”

Yet I think we must pause and consider the wider context before judging this Judah figure; in going further back we note that the original plan – to which it seems the only objector was Reuben (37.21-22) – was to kill Joseph outright (37.18); if so, was not Judah’s intervention in arguing for Joseph’s sale into slavery rather than murder a form of mercy? His life would at least be spared. (Although again, 37.22 has it that Reuben would have restored Joseph to his father (and see also Reuben's reaction to finding Joseph no longer in the pit at 37.29-30 (had Reuben gone away? the flow is sketchy here); were it not for his inability to act more forcefully perhaps he is the real hero here.) This though is in fact cowardice, or worse. Reuben had already suggested putting Joseph into a pit instead of taking his life (37.22; the aside in the verse alludes to the idea that Reuben was thinking to later return and retrieve Joseph; see again 37.29), which they do in 37.24, and we are further informed that there was no water in the pit and hence Joseph would not drown. Rather than debating his brothers and supporting Reuben’s argument to leave him there, Judah hatches the plan to sell Joseph off at the happenstance occurrence of the approach of a caravan (37.25-28); it is entirely conceivable that in such conditions Joseph might have gotten himself out of the pit (we have no details on its depth), and so instead of an act of mercy by Judah we find that he was fully self-serving and, moreover, greedy. Back now to Chapter 44: How does Judah comport himself in light of Benjamin’s impending slavery and in the knowledge of how their father Jacob will take these developments?

Judah initially offers for all of the brothers to join Benjamin in the punishment Joseph (still known to him only as Pharaoh’s vizier) would mete out, but then – summoning up his courage and exhibiting a mettle that testifies to significant personal growth, as well as a deep concern for his aged father – shifts that to one wherein he alone will suffer. This now is surely an ethics worthy of respect, contemplation, and introspection: a profound challenge to the reader (/listener). This change is most noticeable between verses sixteen and thirty-two through thirty-three:

44.16, 32-33: “Judah replied [to Joseph, after the silver goblet was found in Benjamin’s bag], ‘What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. [Might the narrator have been intending this Judah personage to be remembering their earlier dealings with Joseph as he said this?] Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found.’ … ‘Now your servant [Judah is again speaking to Joseph in these verses] has pledged himself for the boy to my father [Jacob], saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.” Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.’”

There, in the very last words of the statement, we discover both Judah’s transformation into someone with the bravery and humility to suffer on behalf of an innocent other(s), as well as his cleverness in re-framing the situation from one where the entire group of brothers takes the blame for Benjamin into one where he alone does. As we came to appreciate in our examination of Chapter 42, the Joseph saga is a relating of individual ethical development, a learning of how to place others before oneself, and how to accept that over which one simply has no control; here in this mise en abyme (which in a way almost replaces Judah for Joseph in the grand arc of character maturation) that process is described in miniature form, but for that it is no less impactful, and when considered from the wider lens of the whole of the latter half of Genesis (from 28.10 onwards the book is essentially only the story of Jacob and his immediate family) we find it is a repetition of the same strands of devotion and doing the good, of becoming the person one might be, however many (narrative) years such may require.

Genesis 43

Two aspects of this chapter stand out to me: An acceptance and an assurance. The surrounding events are largely a repeat of the previous portion, in which Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to seek relief from the effects of the famine that is still causing much suffering throughout the wider region. Once there they are met by Joseph, who appears severe but inwardly is struggling to control his feelings in the charged atmosphere of the reunion of which only he is aware (verses thirty through thirty-one have him hurrying out of the room to avoid bursting into tears and washing his face to regain composure before returning). Again the brothers are treated handsomely – served from Joseph’s own table (verse thirty-four) – enjoying the kind of hospitality one would expect to be reserved for guests of far higher ranking than foreigners asking for handouts. Narratively we might describe all this as a repetition of storyline with a heightening of emotional tension.

Note, however, Jacob’s (referred to here by his “earned” name of Israel; see 32.29) important background role in these happenings. He had never wanted his second son by his beloved Rachel to make the journey south, worrying that he too might be lost in the way which (he thinks) Joseph was (42.4: “for Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, since he feared that he might meet with disaster”), yet now he is faced with a demand delivered vicariously through Judah that unless Benjamin too undertakes the errand it will not be successful (verses three through five). Jacob’s initial response is to blame the brothers for having loose lips:

43.6: “And Israel said, ‘Why did you serve me so ill as to tell the man [i.e. Joseph, whom everyone thinks is “merely” the Egyptian vizier] that you had another brother?’”

Confronted by circumstances beyond his control, and having it emphatically explained to him that without Benjamin all will come to naught, Jacob quickly assents and comes up with a plan that he thinks will improve the chances for a favorable outcome. What is interesting here is that although on the surface of things Jacob simply leaves the matter up to fate, he does try to tip the balance (as it were) with the inclusion of a number of delicacies as gifts, and double the original money to replace what was earlier returned to them (see 42.35) along with the amount for the present (hoped for) procurement. Is this faith on Jacob’s part, or does he think his back is to the wall and there is nothing for it but to try and hope? Is there really a difference between those two options? Does not very much of life call for just such a response? These are the words placed in the mouth of the Jacob character:

43.13-14: “‘Take your brother too; and go back at once to the man. And may El Shaddai [intriguing to now find this earlier moniker, last seen in 35.11 although it will appear again; the appellation is self-applied by the divine in speeches to both Abraham and Jacob in 17.1 and 35.11, but Isaac uses the term too in 28.3] dispose the man to mercy toward you, that he may release to you your other brother, as well as Benjamin. As for me, if I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved.’”

Assurance now; and this comes from quite an unexpected source. The brothers are told that they are to be brought into Joseph’s house and become terrified at what might be in store for them, even thinking they could be arrested and enslaved (verse eighteen). They decide that the best course of action is to come clean to Joseph’s house steward, outlining everything that occurred on their last trip concerning the money they had tried to use to pay for the food they received which somehow (!) was returned to them, and moreover how they have sought to rectify this with what they brought down on this occasion. The steward – presumably a regular Egyptian like everyone else in the tale save Joseph and his brothers – proclaims an announcement of another sort of faith, one that is not grounded in the perception of difficulty but rather in perfect peace, stating:

43.23a: “He replied, ‘All is well with you [i.e. the brothers]; do not be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, must have put treasure in your bags for you. I got your payment.’”

In 42.25, where it is described how Joseph ordered the money to be put back into each of the brother’s bags, we are not told by whom this was done; was it the house steward or another servant? Had Joseph given the house steward money from his own holdings to keep the appearance of the brothers having paid? Would a person in Joseph’s position in the ancient world ever personally handle or deal with money? (After all, royal families in our own day typically do not, and although Joseph was not royalty he was reportedly second only to Pharaoh.) The reader is left with these questions, but in the context one gets the impression that the house steward is winking; or perhaps his is a mind (/heart) that goes beyond culture and recognizes providence wherever it is found.

Genesis 42

Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt in an attempt to procure some food for themselves and those others of Jacob’s family who remain in Canaan, waiting and suffering during the widespread famine. By this point in the saga Joseph has become the vizier (verse six), essentially in charge of everything, and evidently so assimilated to his forcedly adopted home that he is unrecognizable even to his own kin (verse eight: Joseph knows them but they do not know him). The brothers bow low in humility and Joseph’s first dream of Chapter 37 comes true directly, while his second dream (including the “sun” and “moon”: i.e. father and mother) might also arguably be understood as having been fulfilled indirectly since, while not physically present, the beseeching of the parents is surely included in the siblings’ petition. Joseph thereupon sets something of a trap, but also something of a prolonged and somewhat convoluted reconciliation underway: he grants his brothers both the sustenance they need and even returns the money they had paid for it (verse twenty-five), but then also keeps one of them (Simeon) as hostage to force their return with the absent Benjamin (his only brother with whom he shares Rachel as mother) in tow (verses eighteen through twenty). Beyond wanting to see this last brother (or only “full” brother) the text does not tell us what the narrative character Joseph may have had in mind and so we are left to wonder; it does, however, inform the reader of the depth of Joseph’s feeling for all his brothers, and surely too the nostalgia and melancholy that must have been summoned in him at the unexpected reunion. Note how Joseph is portrayed as the brothers speak amongst themselves:

42.23-24a: “They [the brothers] did not know that Joseph understood [i.e. comprehended their conversation, which was being conducted privately but within his hearing], for there was an interpreter between him and them [used, no doubt, by Joseph in order to camouflage his identity]. He [Joseph] turned away from them and wept.”

The story gives us Joseph: an arrogant or at least very naïve young man who dreams of his brothers and even parents prostrating themselves before him, actually tells this to the people concerned, finally upsets his brothers so much that they wish to kill him but instead sell him into servitude, he is taken to Egypt and after an initial rise and fall is made to rise again to astonishing social heights yet remains alone and separated from his birth kin. Those same brothers then come to where he is, begging for assistance and, in the knowledge that they are unaware of who he really is (indeed, they think him dead: see Reuben’s regretful lament in verse twenty-two), Joseph is overcome with emotion. This, naturally, is small wonder: thinking ourselves (as well as we might) into a setting like this we may marvel at Joseph’s self-control in not immediately blurting out everything. Why he does not is another point that the narrative withholds from us, but based on his actions in providing a great amount of nourishment for them to take for distribution to the family in Canaan, and additionally even giving their money back, it hints that Joseph has thoroughly forgiven the violent act which started him on the life journey he is now travelling. (I should add that some find the inclusion of the money bags in the provisions as an entrapment set far in advance à la the goblet incident in Chapter 44.1-17, but that is another situation distanced by both time and immediate context from the current one; moreover, in the overall flow of the events it is hard to imagine that Joseph could have foreseen such in the moment (even if the writer(s) picturing the literary figure did in constructing the tale).) In the wholly unanticipated – and probably not even remotely hoped for it seemed so impossible – happening of his brothers appearing before him and seeking his aid, Joseph opens his heart, gives abundantly, does not begrudge, and is pierced through by the sight of them. The novella of Joseph is one of a person growing ethically, acquiring the skill to place the other centrally and the patience to allow events to unfold with a grace that accepts and adjusts, who learns how to do what he can to effect the betterment of the surroundings wherein he finds himself; the present chapter demonstrates each of these points beautifully.

Genesis 41

The cupbearer from the previous chapter finally remembers Joseph before Pharaoh (verses nine through thirteen), and this being the smoothly built story that it is such happens at precisely the right moment. Pharaoh himself has had dreams which need interpreting, dreams which are in line and of the nature of the previous Joseph-related dreams: weakness superseding strength (his brothers’ sheaves bowing down to his; the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him: 37.6-7, 9), ill following good (the cupbearer being restored then the baker being killed: 40.20-22). Like those, Pharaoh’s visions relate through the symbols of gaunt cows consuming healthy ones and thin ears of grain swallowing full ones (verses two through seven) that firstly will be blessings and thereafter want and much need. On hearing the details Joseph – summoned for the task thanks to the cupbearer – again gives credit to the divine (verse sixteen) before explaining what kind of agricultural conditions may be expected for the next fourteen years. (Incidentally, this being a piece of well-told and positive fiction nothing of the sort happens, but imagine if Joseph had been wrong and the famine never came: would Pharaoh have been pleased to not need the emergency relief, or angered that so much had been stored away? At least the supply side economics made possible would have kept inflation down! And Joseph would have had a good long ride of it before being called into question.) What occurs after this, however, is to me the most intriguing aspect of the tale.

Joseph had been brought in to explain the content of Pharaoh’s dreams, that and no more. The scene is an exquisitely constructed one: The foreigner, fresh from prison, suddenly placed in the Egyptian court – the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth – thanks to nothing more than the happenstance of the cupbearer being reminded (after two long years of Joseph’s languishing!; see verse one) of his own experience with a puzzling dream; anyone would be beside themselves in such a situation. Yet how does Joseph respond? He listens, finds the similarities between the pair of dreams (in fact they are the same dream, as Joseph states in verses twenty-six and thirty-two), and then duly gives to Pharaoh what he wanted: the meaning. Well and good; but Joseph does not stop with merely that: and this now is astonishing. The young, insignificant, outsider nobody in the presence of the most potent authority on the face of the planet keeps talking far beyond what was required of him, and not only does he continue he does so in the form of giving advice on what Pharaoh ought to do (verses thirty-three to thirty-six). This is some chutzpah! In reading these lines we recall that what we have received here from tradition is some form of myth (whether grounded or not – in whatever way – in a person who did exist, or instead in a figure that was completely made up, is largely irrelevant: in either case I do not think we can claim this as a historical account in the way we now reckon history), and so we should not be overly surprised that instead of being hauled away or even executed for his insolence, as indeed the baker had been for who knows what offense (Chapter 40 gives us a picture of Pharaoh as exercising his limitless rights quite arbitrarily), Joseph is granted the benefit of every doubt and not only carefully listened to but believed. That in itself is something of a miracle. What might we take from this tale told so beautifully?

One of the primary lessons that Genesis may be imparting to us through these extended Joseph vignettes (Chapters 37 and 39-50 are all centered on him) may at first appear to be along the lines of the importance of having self-confidence, but it is perhaps a rather more nuanced trait than that. It is not so much that Joseph believes in himself – as certainly he does appear to – but that he believes in what God/“God” has given to him and purposed him with in life. Initially were his dreams of Chapter 37 – as above – that caused him to wrongly take on a kind of arrogance (telling one’s older siblings and parents that they would prostrate themselves before one is not the humblest family position to take!) and which pointedly do not mention deity. The dreams told to Joseph which he deciphers, on the other hand, are each preceded by acknowledging God/“God” as the source and foundation for whatever ability Joseph is about to demonstrate (40.8 and 41.16). Joseph has learned not to trust in himself per se, but to rely on that which he has been invested with, and moreover to find in that a function and aim to fulfill during the days that he has. Like ourselves, he is filled with ignorance as to the whens and the whys – and certainly with regards to the hows and the how longs – but he recognizes an opportunity and seizes it, based in that same assurance and trust. The world is a sticky and messy place and a great many things can go wrong, but what I think Joseph – and much of Genesis – encourages attitudinally is that whatever might eventuate, it is the human place to act for the good of others in a faith that such might truly transpire.

Genesis 40

The capacity for dreaming may not be solely a human animal trait, but the tendency to place great significance into possible meanings – and great efforts at arriving at those meanings – surely must be one. Our dreams haunt us, and whether we place stock in them or not, I would be quite surprised to meet someone who did not think on their own dreams at least a little if such were remembered. The vividness and feel of a dream can even at times excel that of waking life, and given the vastness of the mind’s pre-aware (or “subconscious”, although for technical reasons I dislike that term and find it misleading) data processing abilities who is to say that we cannot learn something from dreams which otherwise would go unnoticed in the busyness of our days? Yet the future? Well, let us leave the door to mystery pleasantly open and simply smile agnostically.

In this chapter the plotline of the Joseph saga moves inexorably forward and we are given hints and foreshadowings for how the story will develop. Our man is in a prison of some sort, and judging by the apparent freedom of movement within it that he has, and that his fellow inmates are two servants of the royal court (the chief cupbearer and the chief baker), one would think that by the standards of the time it was not an altogether unpleasant holding house. (I am reminded of the treatment offending members of the samurai class received in Edo Period Japan: they were placed in apartments within the compound and had servants assigned to them; but that is many worlds away from our narrative.) These other prisoners each have strange dreams which trouble them and whose (presumedly important) meaning they should like to learn; we of course are immediately reminded of Chapter 37 and Joseph’s dreams regarding himself. The details of each are interesting, and the personal connections demonstrated make them seem like the sort of nighttime vision a person could have; Joseph – appropriately giving credit to the divine – assures the other men that answers can be found. Such are, and on telling them Joseph asks for a good word to be put in with Pharaoh on his behalf. What was predicted comes to pass as surely as Bet follows Alef, and the cupbearer goes to his reward while the baker goes to his punishment (execution, most unfortunately). However, and how very like life, the chapter ends with this:

40.23: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.”

There are many ways in which we might take this verse: we could see it as an addition of some tension to the drama, a twisting of storytelling finesse; we could understand it as a part of the history of this figure, a portion of the real (“true”?) Patriarch’s days when things seemed dark and daunting; we could read it as a lesson for ourselves, one that may be applied in any era. There are others as well, of course; in the context of this section of the Book of Genesis though an underlying theme is that whatever events might appear to be on their surface for those (characters) living through them, and too for those observing them (including ourselves as readers (or hearers, historically)), guidance is being provided and God’s/“God’s” design is ineluctably being carried out. It may take time, and it may well eventuate in unexpected ways, but it will happen. This is an extremely comforting faith for those able to hold it, yet it raises terribly difficult – untenable, insurmountable really – questions of theodicy and demands for some explanation for the ills we find around us. Such issues are naturally well beyond the scope of our present efforts, and so we return to Joseph’s being forgotten as a point in itself away from the overarching series of occurrences. Joseph had done this good turn, not wrongly claiming it as from his own power (verse 8b: “So Joseph said to them, ‘Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams].’”), and requested merely to be remembered to the authority most likely to be able to help him. This did not happen. How did Joseph take it? What did he think about while he remained in prison? Was he resentful? Resigned? We are not told; and in that we are invited to place ourselves in his situation and ponder how we might feel and what we might do: an exercise like this can certainly teach as much – if not more than – all that may be gained from wondering on a dream.

Genesis 39

The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (sadly only identified by role and not by name) is very well-known, and is one about which a great many commentaries have already been written: mostly lauding Joseph’s commitment to ethical behavior and fortitude, and also often highlighting how although at first he may have appeared to suffer for doing the right thing in the end that led to great reward. Such is of course the obvious reading of the chapter, and it is a good one insofar as it goes. In our pages though I will neither repeat this traditional reading nor attempt to add to it, and similarly I will not take away from it nor suggest that it has somehow missed the point (which is kind of the default contrarian position). Instead I want to focus on Potiphar himself and what we learn of the man’s tendencies from a single striking – and easy to overlook – verse (actually only the first half of the verse). Consider for a moment the following:

39.6a: “He [Potiphar] left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate.”

What does the text go on to relate? Hereafter we are given the picture of a head of household who is typically not at home, whose wealth, status, and power allow him to leave matters to his many servants, and who evidently does not spend much time with his spouse either, a person herself seemingly bored but – in the reverse of her husband – bound to their shared residence (and this presumably by the cultural customs and sociopolitical realities of the time and place). This is not an altogether uncommon portrait: naturally we can think of a great many literary tales filled with upper-class personages whose luxury affords them time but cannot provide much purpose. Our man here may be one of legion but that does not bother us either, and neither should we care that the teaching imparted could have come from many sources. Rather we turn our attention to where Potiphar is recorded as having done: “nothing save the food that he ate.” In other words, his position had put him in charge of the entirety, and he excused himself from everything save the most core of daily pleasures. Might we really take the following turmoil as only indirectly resultant from this attitude?

I think we may take this fable as a lesson in the dangers of disowning one’s duties. Potiphar did not ask to be born into a rich and high-ranking Egyptian family which supplied him with a life in the royal court, he simply was. It would be only too easy for us, from our contemporary conceptions of individualism and self-directed pursuits, to side with him and think that he cannot be blamed for not wanting to manage the tedious home affairs he had merely had thrust upon him by the seeming accidents of fate. Yet to do so would be to miss that by the very same set of virtues which burdened him with responsibility he was further tasked with the welfare of a great number of others: those who served him and/or lived with him. Putting a capable other (in this case, Joseph) in charge of that which one perhaps may not wish to pursue is indeed a potential method of ensuring the well-being of those servants/cohabitants, but it is an inauthentic and disingenuous means. Potiphar was born with a great deal put upon him; he could have wished things otherwise, he might have resented his place in the hierarchy, he may have yearned for the “freedom” of the peasant (the delusion of underclass romanticizing!), we simply do not know. We do learn, however, that whatever Potiphar’s thoughts and feelings might have been, he disregarded that which he ought to have been engaged in and chaos resulted. He did not ask for his fate – none of us do – yet there he was and, if we follow this line of thought out, he should have taken care for those responsibilities that were placed upon him. Again, if we read the narrative this way, that he did not necessarily seek being “a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward” (verse one; this because such a rank would have been related to inherited nobility) is immaterial. As are also, I think, any excuses that by freeing himself from home issues he was able to focus more on Pharaoh’s (and by extension the state’s) needs; Potiphar should have been attending to each. Looking to ourselves the exact same result is only too easy to see – and equally simple to neglect or to ignore from a modern individualist perspective – wherever we find ourselves in life, we are tied in with others and situations for whom and to which, and asked for or not, we are responsible. Our reading of this verse and its context asserts that we cannot leave this to others without causing harm. Now, whether this tonic to twenty-first century “me, me, me-ism” was intended or not is irrelevant really; what is pertinent is that it is there.

Genesis 38

The setting and story of this chapter contain details of practices that strike us as belonging far in the past (although some modern communities do apparently still follow the levirate marriage procedures hinted at here), but the relations between the characters in this tale are modern enough; or, rather, they are timeless. Since the narrative is some few steps away from the Joseph saga proper it is reasonable to think that it was once a separate entity altogether, placed in the broader context of Genesis by a later editor/redactor. Nevertheless it does “fit”, and interestingly enough the final portion on the births of the twins Perez and Zerah recalls the description of how Jacob and Esau came into the world (see 25.24-26). This is but one more example of the wonderful ways in which Genesis loops back onto itself even as it unfolds forwards.

Tamar the wronged widow teaches Judah – and each of us readers – a lesson on pursuing the right without being unnecessarily confrontational or aggressive about it. To modern eyes we may well find fault with her methods; after all, as the story goes, Tamar pretended to be a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law Judah into sleeping with her, perhaps with the intent of becoming pregnant (which she did, but surely she could not have taken such for granted) and thereby providing an heir for her first husband: Judah’s eldest son with his wife Shua, a son who passed away before he could have had his own child due apparently to moral failings (verse seven: “But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the LORD, and the LORD took his life.”). This duty owed Tamar and the deceased Er, as the text relates (verse eight), should have been accomplished by Judah’s second son, who was culturally tasked with giving his brother’s wife a child to receive his brother’s estate. However he did not: in an underhanded way he avoided this by “spilling his seed” (and hence giving us the English term “onanism”, taken from the character’s name); he too died early as a result of this unrighteousness (verse ten: “What he [Onan] did was displeasing to the LORD, and He [God/“God”] took his life also.”). With two sons gone Judah refused to give Tamar his third boy – which would have been the socio-historically appropriate thing to do – and thus Tamar, when she perceived her chance, engaged in her subterfuge.

Again, by contemporary standards much of this could seem abhorrent; but we cannot simply judge these tales by the same measures we use for those fables currently being produced. Taking a step back, what can we discover? Tamar knows what is due her, she knows what should have occurred but what did not, she knows that none of this is her fault, and she knows that by doing nothing no good will come of it and no wrongs will be righted. She therefore uses the tools at her disposal – quite craftily, we might add – and brings to fruition the end results that should have been. She moreover accomplishes this at great risk to herself, demonstrating an admirable strength of will and evidently a solidly grounded sense of justice. All of this, we note, she also achieved peacefully by herself, seeking neither recourse to the authorities (no boost from the “men in charge” for her) nor to violent means. She was almost executed for her plan (verse twenty-four), but that too she foresaw and had an extraordinarily intelligent response prepared and ready to be deployed (verse twenty-five). To his credit Judah acknowledges and admits his wrong, and thereafter does not repeat it (verse twenty-six), but it is clear that Tamar is the hero of this vignette. We readers do not need to deny that there is objectionable material in Genesis, but if we allow ourselves to focus on what at first blush appears to be hopelessly dated and out of touch with our present time we will miss the remarkable lessons that this text, first penned millennia ago, has yet to impart.

Genesis 37

The Joseph saga begins in this chapter; and with it not only a change in generational and locational foci but also one in storytelling methodology. For most of the rest of Genesis we will follow this character through a series of ups and downs – personal victories and defeats – set against his relations with his family and how that interplay results in further preparing the stage for the next book of the Torah, namely (of course) Exodus. Joseph is also written in a different sense than the three patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His narrative is one that is marked by a developing thread, a plotline that underlies the chapters and grants a certain unity and progress which is subtly distinct from the more episodic nature of the tales regarding the forebears. We also do not find much direct divine interaction: rather God’s/“God’s” “hand” is more of a guiding force in the background to the events than it is a noticeable cause of the events. This is quite intriguing from a theological point of view, and it readily offers up the question of “Could things have turned out otherwise?” to which the answer, it would seem, may declare very much about one’s outlook. If “Yes” then we have a deity – as on the “weak theology” we have been concerned with (see our entries for Genesis 2, 6, 16, and 29) – that needs to work with humanity in order for Its goals and objectives to be met; if “No” then we have a deity that operates – that employs, or establishes – fate as a non-negotiable factor ensuring that not only Its desired ends (broadly defined as such might be) are met but also Its very specific ones (necessarily narrow) as well. In the former the future is far more open even if we might think it gets a “nudge” now and then; in the latter it is closed and predetermined. There are obviously advantages and disadvantages to each of these pictures, all of which are well worth meditating upon.

For the moment though we remain with our chapter: Joseph is the “chosen one” (à la the hero motif stretching from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker), the first son of his father’s favorite wife (Rachel), and in true poor parenting form Jacob is not shy about demonstrating this; nor, for his side and in equally true poor sibling form, is Joseph shy about reveling in it. (One wonders if the originators of this tale envisioned their Joseph enjoying a kind of Schadenfreude as he went out of his way to retell the dreams he has had wherein everyone “bows down” to him: verses five through ten.) Inevitably – again, great storytelling here – conflict arises out of this status, and in blinding jealousy Joseph’s brothers conspire to get rid of him: first by dumping him into a pit in the wilderness (verses twenty-three through twenty-four) and then – evidently not having cooled down – by selling him as slave labor to some passing merchants (verses twenty-seven through twenty-eight; never mind the confusing Ishmaelite/Midianite issue, this might be a combination of varying source materials). How they present his absence to their father, however, is cruelty itself:

37.31-33: “Then they [Joseph’s brothers] took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid [young goat], and dipped the tunic in the blood. They had the ornamented tunic [a gift from Jacob to Joseph] taken to their father, and they said, ‘We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?’ He recognized it, and said, ‘My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!’”

The tunic worn by Joseph was both a symbol and a taunt: it advertised that he alone had received such a present from their shared father, its being ornamented indicates that the clothing was furthermore likely expensive and thus strengthened the message of “beloved”, and by donning it so expressively Joseph was essentially throwing his superior status in his family members’ faces nonverbally, just as he had done orally with his dreams. Everyone knew this item; but what do the brothers do with it? Firstly (after setting their trap by bloodying it) they do not take it to their father themselves – “They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father” – this presumably by a servant, and hence cleverly distance themselves. Secondly they ask their father (we may imagine they arrive after or with the servant who is holding the tunic) to examine and identify it – this would be entirely unnecessary – as if it were unknown or undetermined, and thereby force the expression of Jacob’s sorrow which they appear to want to see, perhaps understanding it as their own triumph over both Joseph and Jacob. We are not told but they must have been satisfied with the response they obtained. The seed for all this, let us not forget, lies with Joseph himself in instigating the envy that became the basis for he and his brothers’ relationship. With doughty ethical life lessons like these it is no wonder that Genesis has been read and reread, and will continue to be reread: everything is in it. As for Joseph, moreover, we are only getting started.

Genesis 36

A number of genealogies and details of clans and leaders make up the whole of this chapter, and it has interestingly been placed here between the previous transition of the Jacob cycle and the following opening to the Joseph story line. In that, this section provides another sort of natural division amongst the parts of the text; and while it consists of names and relations the fact that it is solely Esau who is being discussed has, I think, more significance than may appear at first glance.

The promise and the prophecy are of course Jacob’s; as readers we have known that since before his birth (25.22-23; see also our earlier musings on the chapter), and we are familiar as well with the treatment that the figure Esau receives in post-biblical literature and thought, wherein he becomes a symbol of the tragically many powers that have oppressed the Jewish nation and the Jewish people. Yet here preserved in the narrative framing of the Torah and placed just before the larger-than-life Joseph and the journey to Egypt that will culminate in the existential tale of the Exodus (and we may bracket the historicity of that event since whatever the empirical case may be as an identity-defining mythos it is paramount), we have all this attention given to Esau and his descendants. The very brother who has consistently been at odds with our (engagingly flawed) hero Jacob; the person from whom the nation of Edom is said to flow, extending the rivalry beyond individuals and into spheres of statehood; the character who is repeatedly condemned for his exogamic marriages (e.g. 26.34-35, 27.46, 28.6-9): these same couplings and the resulting offspring are listed in full and have been given an entire portion of the foundational back stories that make up Genesis by the later redactors and editors of this book on its journey to canonical status. Surely this is important; certainly this calls for careful consideration of possible “whys?”.

We noted when considering Chapter 27 the sympathetic treatment that Esau at times receives in the text (again, this stands at odds with how tradition was to develop in regards to him), and moreover when he and Jacob reunite in Chapter 33 Esau is the image of grace. He had once wanted to kill his own brother (27.41), but it is clear that time and the vicissitudes life visited upon him changed Esau, and for the better. Would that we each so improve. What I find this chapter to be communicating then – even these many centuries later – is a message of inclusion. Esau is the other, the passed-over-one, the left-aside, the not even could-have-been (prior to coming into the world his fate had already been sealed), yet he is accorded the great honor of literary immortality and generous accordance of space in these pages (/scrolls). If we do not take this as a literal recounting – and again bracketing whether or not there might be kernels of history herein – how may we apply the heedfulness afforded Esau to our own lives now? I suggest that we might understand this decision by the writers, redactors, and editors to indicate a message of universalism and divine care for everyone: there is the promise, but that too – lest we forget – is meant for the full peoples of the world: God/“God” to Abraham in Genesis 12.3b: “And all the families of the earth /Shall bless themselves by you.”, and again in 22.18: “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” These statements could indicate that Abraham’s lineage (via the chosen route of Isaac, Jacob, et cetera) will become the standard by which blessings are invoked, but they could also – and justifiably, in my view – be interpreted to mean that God/“God” shall work with this specific organizing principle (people, group, comportment, way-of-being) in order to communicate and demonstrate that by which humanity might excel. On this reading Esau becomes a symbol for something else entirely: No longer the persecuting Rome or Christendom, but instead the “outsider”, the “stranger” with whom we can somehow relate and in whom we can discover a bit of ourselves, and in that extend a warmer embrace to everyone and everywhere.

Genesis 35

This chapter is something of a hodgepodge, and in the overall narrative flow of Genesis it seems to function as a bridge between the struggles of Jacob with his brother Esau and the coming story arc with Jacob’s famous son Joseph. There are three mortal transitions as well: Deborah, described as Rebekah’s nurse, passes away in verse eight; Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth (to Benjamin) in a moving sequence in verses sixteen through nineteen; and then Jacob’s father Isaac too moves into his final slumber in verses twenty-eight through twenty-nine, but not before Jacob was able to travel back again (verse twenty-seven), and notably Isaac is laid to rest by both his sons, although we are not told when or under what circumstances Esau had arrived.

Jacob is also instructed by God/“God” to return to Bethel (verse one) in order to build an altar in memory of the theophany event that had occurred there (Chapter 28; and more on that below); it will be recalled that previously Jacob had only erected a pillar in recognition (28.18). Oddly enough, verses thirteen through fifteen also contain details of a pillar being set up at a place that is then named Bethel, and this appears to be a different location. The vignette follows on from a very short and far less dramatic re-naming of Jacob to Israel (the same of course happens during the “wrestling” event in Chapter 32) in verses nine through ten (scholars who hold to source ideas of textual construction think this is from the historically late Priestly layer of edits and redactions); it is unclear to me what might be made of this – although its openness is a point to appreciate – but the overall pattern of pillar building to oil anointing/libation of the same to then location naming is an intriguing series, and this act of labeling is itself clearly significant.

We have considered the importance and centrality of names in these pages before, and here in this chapter we have two divine names and a connection to a third. The present pair are:

35.7: “There he [Jacob] built an altar and named the site El-Bethel [a footnote reads: “The God of Bethel.”], for it was there that God had revealed Himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.”

35.11: “And God said to him,
‘I am El Shaddai [another footnote: Cf. 17.1. This verse, by the way, is one of God’s/“God’s” appearances to Abraham, and there the meaning is explained as usually rendered “God Almighty”.].
Be fertile and increase;
A nation, yea an assembly of nations,
Shall descend from you.
Kings shall issue from your loins.’”

The third instance refers back to the Bethel theophany of Chapter 28 with its angels ascending and descending the “stairway” (or “ramp” or “ladder”) and God/“God” suddenly standing next to Jacob (verse thirteen) to give a similar blessing to the one here (albeit with the additional promises to protect Jacob and to be a companion to him), but in that case the Tetragrammaton is used. Such distinctions in style and vocabulary are often employed to segment this and other biblical documents (i.e. source theories as referred to above), and this chapter has clearly had some rather extensive editing and reformulating work done on it; the entirety may even be an insertion of loosely connected and disparate tales put there for the sake of advancing other elements. What I find instructive to think about though is that the fact that these sacred scriptures have had multiple authors and editors over many centuries actually (in my view) does much to add to their worth and value for our lives as readers now. The traditional stance of a single writer (Moses) for the whole of Genesis (and the other four books of the Torah (or the Pentateuch)) could conceivably incline one more towards “divine inspiration” than otherwise, but I would disagree with that thought for the simple reason that if there were a numinous movement behind the formation of these and other scriptures (of whatever lineage) then surely such would not be limited to one person or place. Nor, indeed, need we think the same to no longer be operative; if God/“God” – however understood – was active in the creation of these myths for the purpose of communicating and/or imparting, then even if the canons themselves have been closed there is no reason to suppose the process itself has stopped. It may be that generations from now others will be reading (in whatever form “reading” has evolved into) alternative expressions and explorations of divine-human and human-human interstices: querying, probing, and learning from/into them as we do today. That spirit of “work in progress” is precisely, I find, what these books call for; and it is a challenge ever worth heeding.

Genesis 34

This is one of those chapters in Genesis where one struggles to know what to do with it. After his reunion with Esau, Jacob and his family have moved to Shechem (where he even purchased the land they were using, see 33.19) and Jacob’s daughter from Leah, Dinah, decides to go out and make some friends amongst the locals (verse one; as would any of us, really). No sooner does she do so than the son of the town’s leader – confusingly also named Shechem (his father the chief is called Hamor) – forces her to have sex with him. (This is usually considered a rape, although some scholars think the verb used connotes improper sex – i.e. extramarital – and not necessarily rape; this would justify nothing as far as Dinah is concerned, but verse three and four’s description of Shechem as being “strongly drawn to Dinah”, “in love”, speaking to her “tenderly”, and immediately telling his father to negotiate with Dinah’s father so that he might marry her seem to point towards something other than a heinously simple rape.) Thereafter Hamor approaches Jacob to try and arrange a marriage pact, Jacob’s sons get involved and require all the men of Shechem (the city) to be circumcised before any union could take place – note the outright deception in this, made clear by what follows – and then verse twenty-five states that: “On the third day, when they [the men of Shechem] were in pain [from the procedure], 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.” This is followed by verse twenty-seven’s: “The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled.” Thus we have a series of absolutely dreadful and atrocious actions: firstly Shechem’s forcing Dinah to have sex (whether technically a rape or not any “by force” (verse two) is abhorrent), Jacob’s sons lie about their motivations for setting city-wide male circumcision as a condition for Dinah to marry Shechem, Simeon and Levi then murder every one of the enfeebled townsmen while their other brothers loot everything, including carrying off the dead men’s wives and children (verse twenty-nine). To the modern mind it is essentially impossible to find any justice in this tale. (Admittedly some contemporary readers might take this story positively, but my arguments with them would be long and probably exasperating.) Let us therefore not try to make excuses for the text and instead attempt to bring out a pair of perspectives from within it.

Firstly and most importantly is Dinah’s herself: Should she have gone out – evidently on her own – to wander about her new place of residence? Well, why not? If she had no reason to worry about her safety then we can hardly blame her, and in fact we probably empathize; I have done exactly this when moving cities. Perhaps the writer of the narrative wished to comment on the dangers of intermingling (a pro “us”/anti-“them” type of message), but in penning the story this way that both comes across and does not: after all, Shechem is described as falling in love with Dinah at first sight, and then for the most part is depicted favorably in how he seeks to marry her and how his father Hamor more or less welcomes Jacob and his family to live in peaceful coexistence. For her side, Dinah is reported to have been residing in Shechem’s house (verse twenty-six: Simeon and Levi take her from there after their rampage); was she being held or was she perhaps staying by choice? If we think in socio-historical terms she may have decided she was better off with Shechem: no longer being a virgin it would have been difficult to find a husband – having been raped would not have changed that – and since the son of the chief was going to such lengths to marry her she might have thought such was her best option. She would probably have been frightened, angry, possibly (tragically) blaming herself, not daring to hope. What is clear is that no one is given as having bothered to consult her, certainly not her hot-headed brothers. This tale – again we remind ourselves that these traditions are not history in our sense of the term, even if they might contain elements of historical realities – comes from a time and culture now far removed, but in trying to think from Dinah’s point of view we can yet learn much.

Secondly there is Jacob: He has only just made peace with his estranged brother (and from how Chapters 32 and 33 are structured we are inclined to read him as being extremely relieved by that), taken his household to settle in an area and committed to it by buying the land, his daughter is then victimized and his sons forthwith take matters into their own hands, kill the local men, most likely enslave the local women and children (“took as captives” is how verse twenty-nine phrases it), and steal everything in sight. Jacob’s remark that they have made him “odious among the inhabitants of the land” (verse thirty) seems like an understatement. He is right to worry about what possible ramifications there may be from the other people who have been living there far longer than Jacob and his household: he is responsible for everyone’s safety. Jacob has not always been presented in the best light by these myths, but the character is a father and any decent father would be incensed by how Dinah was treated, to say the least; even so one would not suppose that this would gravitate him towards wishing death and mayhem on all around, particularly those many people who had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Heartbroken and heavily burdened, who can guess how he would be torn between grief, rage, and worry for his daughter and every other in his care? He may even have believed his sons were genuine in wishing circumcision as an indicator of conversion; yet now we find that we must pause, because this Jacob is a personage in what is mostly (perhaps entirely) fiction, and the truths we learn herein are ethico-spiritual rather than empirical: and this is something to be grateful for. Trying to see from Jacob’s perspective is unnerving, but so too is it instructive. Here, once more, the book shows us its stunning and hidden depths, provocations to be discovered on each revisiting.

Genesis 33

The chapter opens with a dramatic scene in which Jacob and Esau finally reunite and are reconciled. Esau – the wronged one – is nothing but gracious, and there is the heartwarming (and probably familiar from our own lives) exchange wherein Jacob offers a gift, Esau refuses saying that he has enough, and Jacob in turn insists, asking that it please be accepted (verses eight through eleven): the act of receiving as gift to the giver. Here of course is a lesson for us on being generous, but what comes next is quite intriguing when read within the flow of these narratives as the editors and redactors have arranged them: we find a portion buried here that reaches back to its immediately preceding section, a comment that is easy to overlook but may have great significance, a connection which opens the door to numerous meanings we might read into the text, or alternatively allow to hover tantalizingly, refusing to make up our minds. Here is the pair of verses in question:

33.10 : “But Jacob said, ‘No, I pray you; 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.’”

32.31: “So Jacob named the place Peniel [a footnote: Understood as “face of God.”], meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’”

“To see your face is like seeing the face of God”, and “Peniel [Understood as “face of God.”], meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face’”: One way to view this linguistically linked set is to find in it evidence for the psychological reading of the theophany in the previous chapter, the exegesis that takes the events as a dream sequence of Jacob struggling internally with the upcoming confrontation with his brother: not knowing what to expect he is troubled, worried, unnerved. This is not a necessary conclusion, however, and I think other possibilities may even be more compelling.

Consider, for example, Jacob’s personal trajectory: Just prior to this in preparation for coming into contact with his brother he was feeling so nervous that he divided his camp and sent multiple and excessive gifts ahead of himself to try and “butter up” Esau; he had the “wrestling match” (whatever it was, or was/is meant to signify within the Jacob story arc), something which clearly affected him deeply and would have left a lingering mark on his thought and emotional state, including keeping him from getting much rest that night; and then the text continues with the implicit (but not outrightly stated) next day as when “Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men” (33.1a), the very same entourage that had struck fear deep into his heart (as reported in 32.7-8). The welcome he gets from his brother, though, is (verse four): “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” Imagine the relief this character would be experiencing! Whatever the historicity of the Jacob figure may or may not be, in such a setting it is easy enough for us to empathize. To have one’s fear-provoked expectations overturned in this manner would indeed cause one to see the other as “the face of God”.

There is yet another way we might comprehend the two verses we have highlighted above: We could take the rather large liberty of reading away from – of launching off of – Jacob in his storytelling setting and with the actions and dialogues that have been given to him and apply these terms re-contextually: Rather than Jacob “wrestling” with a “divine being”, or “wrestling” with the thought of a long delayed reunification with Esau, then “actually” meeting him and finding the encounter exceedingly more pleasant and warm than he had dared hope, thereby encountering God/“God” as Other/“Other”; instead of that we could take only the final variable in this equation (or formula; maybe recipe?) and “see” God/“God” in the others who come into our lives: “to see your face is like seeing the face of God” for everyone all of the time. Wherever we happen to set foot, there is “Peniel”, and each instance of living interaction is a chance for generosity and grace.

Genesis 32

This chapter contains one of the best known vignettes of the Jacob cycle, and one which I admit has fascinated me for many years; surely many thousands or tens of thousands along with me. The verses in question are twenty-five through thirty-one: the famous wrestling encounter. In it I think we find not only a pleasantly puzzling – and therefore intriguing – tall tale but one which perfectly captures our human placement vis-à-vis the divine, as well as what surely must be the proper attitude for us to take towards that.

The chapter opens with the final farewell from Laban – who noticeably kisses everyone goodbye except Jacob (verse one) – and then details the situation surrounding Jacob’s upcoming reunion with his brother Esau, the latter’s military muscle (“there are four hundred men with him”: the ending of verse seven), and the extreme vexation this causes in Jacob (verse eight and following, culminating with Jacob’s reasoning in verse 21b that: “If I [Jacob] propitiate him [Esau] with presents in advance [various types of livestock which he sends ahead as peace offerings to meet the advancing Esau], and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.”). The intensity of these preparations has led some scholars to suggest that the nighttime wrestling match which comes hereafter is a dream encounter wherein Jacob’s psyche attempts to deal with the worry and stress of finally coming into contact with Esau again after the years apart. How much of their past would the brother remember? Did he still want to kill Jacob as 27.42b reported? (In the words of their mother Rebekah, to Jacob: “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you.”) That all this might manifest itself psychologically is a reasonable and down to earth suggestion, but perhaps for that it is also somewhat unsatisfactory; particularly if we read on to verse thirty-two which has Jacob quite literally limping from an injury sustained during the exertion. The storytellers seem to be trying to teach us something a bit more concrete – yet fantastical! – through this engagement.

Another explanation common in the literature is that the wrestling episode describes a contest with an angel, noting that the opponent appears to fear the dawn (in verse 27a the other states: “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.”), and that he/it cannot reveal his/its name (using our “it” pronoun to leave interpretative room; the reference here is verse thirty: “Jacob asked, ‘Pray tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘You must not ask my name!’ And he took leave of him there.”), both of which were common elements in angel apparition narratives. This also appears to be supported by Jacob’s judgment in the following verse (31b): “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved”, as well as the prophet’s (truncated) version of these events given in Hosea 12.5a (12.4a in Christian Bibles): “He [Jacob] strove with an angel and prevailed–– / The other had to weep and implore him.” Note, however, that the place name Jacob gives to the location in remembrance is “Peniel”, which a footnote in our NJPS Tanakh explains as: “Understood as ‘face of God.’” This -el suffix is of course the same El that alternates with the Tetragrammaton throughout Genesis in reference to the divinity. (And is moreover one of the primary clues that source critics have used to differentiate the J source (Tetragrammaton employing) from the E source (El, Elohim employing).) We might then choose not to read this as an angel – i.e. a “messenger of God/‘God’” – but rather as God/“God” itself, with the writer perhaps giving us this theophanic myth to impart a lesson about the patriarch’s tenacity which was so impressive God/“God” itself could not overcome him.

This last thought may be disturbing for some from a theological point of view, but even if one does not accept the “weak” portrait of God/“God” that we have been seeking to promote (wherein divinity could or could not be existent per se, while still being existential; wherein God/“God” could “be” only that “call” pushing us towards betterment of self and society; or conversely wherein God/“God” could be Being but cannot/will not do the necessary work itself, relying on human partnership; many other options remain open as well), this need not be a lessening. God/“God” may have wanted to test Jacob and found the response impressive, reacting appropriately: forcing nothing, dealing respectfully. However we interpret this section – and realizing that today’s understanding might well not be tomorrow’s – what is wonderfully instructive is that Jacob simply does not give up. He may not be able to “defeat” (“comprehend”) God/“God”, but that is no deterrent: he keeps at it, struggling on through the dark night, and carrying the mark of his experience(s) with him ever after. The wonderful mystery these texts explore deserves nothing less; may we give it too.

Genesis 31

After the twisting and turning of events that in the first place had Jacob flee his homeland for the region called Haran where his uncle Laban lived (running away from his brother Esau’s wrath after tricking their father Isaac into giving him the dying patriarch’s blessing; Chapter 27), the dream theophany en route (Chapter 28), being tricked by Laban into a double period of servitude in order to wed Rachel – the one whom he desired – following a rather humorous “accidental” consummation-and-hence-marriage to her elder sister Leah (Chapter 29; recalling that often in the Bible “seven” simply means large and so this story might not be communicating a straightforward fourteen years of service (seven for Leah, another seven for Rachel) but could rather only be “a long time” and “a long time”), and the winning of a large flock of livestock despite Laban’s covert efforts to prevent such (Chapter 30), here Jacob finally breaks free. This is the chapter wherein he leaves Haran and sets out to return to Canaan, to where his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham had dwelt, to the land of Promise given repeatedly to his line directly from God/“God”. The narrative is looping back, rotating full circle, transitioning as Jacob himself has done: going from a young man willing to take on his mother’s ideas and deceive both brother and father, to being deceived himself by his mother’s brother, to learning how to deal craftily but more honestly when faced with obstacles (his breeding scheme of Chapter 30 was not outright trickery after all, merely a judicious use of animal husbandry knowledge (never mind its genetic improbabilities) and what was to hand). Jacob has come into his own, and as with many a good mythological tale, the hero has finished his period of testing and is ready to return to face his “enemies” (or “destiny” or “rivals”, et cetera; the story arc is a tried and true one, and it is amazing to think how far back in human history it goes).

Once more it is Jacob’s willingness to take risks (after consulting with his wives he simply sets out) and his skill at interpersonal negotiation that wins the day for him; Laban is essentially handed a fait accompli and simply must assent. This being Laban, however, the writer(s) still have the character try to wrangle something for himself out of it. Within this sub-setting is the portion of the chapter that struck me as a reader (at least on this reading; on my next reading I cannot predict what may appeal to me: this indeed is one of the real gems of reading and re-reading texts like this), comprising verses forty-three through forty-four:

31.43-44: “Then [that is, following Jacob’s presentation of his case and why he felt it necessary to abscond] Laban spoke up and said to Jacob, ‘The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne? Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.’”

What intrigues me here are the thought processes implied by these claims to ownership and what is deduced thereby. Historico-culturally as the older male Laban would have considered himself the “master” of the entirety – even extending to his grandchildren, who could only very remotely be thought of as “gifted” to Jacob by him – yet without warning he finds himself utterly powerless. His daughters have chosen to accompany their husband to a new land, and they did not consult him. He had already made a deal in the previous chapter for the goats and the sheep – with the non-solid colored ones going to Jacob – and thus they were out of his hands by his own doing. Why anyone of any time period might presume to separate one’s grandchildren from their mother (barring cases of abuse or tragedy; the biblical details have both Leah and Rachel pictured as caring and devoted mothers) is hard to fathom. Laban had lost everything by continually trying to get one over on Jacob, and yet he still puts on a brave face and makes a last attempt to strike a deal. How very much like us, and how utterly this extremely old and if not fully fictitious then very nearly so, story speaks to the human condition. It is timeless, as are its lessons. We can find ourselves in each of these characters to one degree or another, from one day to another: the differences in detail only accentuate the similarities in the interpersonal. This is food for thought that is well worth savoring.

Genesis 30

This is a curious chapter; it begins with Jacob more or less being treated like a studhorse by his wives Rachel and then Leah, who each have him sleep with their female servants in order to bear more children in their stead – a very direct procreational competition between the sisters – with the capper that all of the future tribes of Israel save Benjamin make their appearance. (Benjamin is born later – in a heartbreaking scene; see 35.16-20 – and also Joseph becomes two tribes via his own sons Ephraim and Manasseh: Jacob presciently blesses them in an unexpected manner; see Chapter 48). Amongst all these coital goings-on Rachel also bargains away a night with Jacob to Leah, in exchange for some mandrakes that Leah’s son Reuben happened upon (verses fourteen through sixteen; the very matter-of-fact way Jacob is informed of the result of this negotiation in verse sixteen is, I think, a good cause to chuckle). Thus we have Exhibit A of transactional behavior.

The latter half of the chapter concerns Jacob’s dealings with Laban – Exhibit B – both of whom try to outwit the other (or one might be less generous and label this “out-cheat”). Jacob firstly asks for permission to leave Laban, thereby alerting the reader to the knowledge that their relationship had either been undertaken as a more permanent form of servitude or had become that way over the years, beyond the initial agreement for Jacob to work for the reward of being able to marry Rachel (29.18). Laban seems to agree to the request and inquires what he should give Jacob by way of parting – the historico-culturally appropriate way to release a servant – to which Jacob suggests a portion of Laban’s flock: but only the “speckled or spotted” goats and sheep (verses thirty-two through thirty-three). Laban consents, immediately takes all such from out of his animals and gives them to his sons to care for, and then straightaway puts plenty of space between himself and Jacob, who has been left in charge of only the purely colored livestock (verses thirty-four to thirty-six). Not to be outdone, Jacob devises a plan that is apparently based on what was a widespread folk belief wherein the appearance of progeny results from what the animals were observing while copulating. He has the dark goats view branches stripped white while they behave as he had during the opening portion of the chapter, and the white sheep view the dark goats as they do the same. Moreover, he arranges it so that only the strongest specimens have this perceptual organization, leaving the weaker animals to create their own kind (i.e. (weak) dark goats more (weak) dark goats, (weak) light sheep more (weak) light sheep). Lo and behold the scheme works, and Jacob attains a vast flock of mixed colored beasts all of whom are robust and grand (take that Gregor Mendel!; verses thirty-seven to forty-two).

What are we as readers today to make of a set of stories like this? The sisters give thanks to God/“God” in turn (Leah: verses eighteen and twenty; Rachel: verse twenty-three), which one might think is a lesson in piety, but then Jacob seems to take divine favor for granted (telling Laban: “the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned” (verse thirty): i.e. “What you have is thanks to me”), and certainly an attitude like that would not be much of a positive takeaway. Each of our main protagonists does demonstrate worthy patience and resilience in the face of adversity, and indeed there is something to be said for the manner in which they take matters into their own hands to see what they desire come to fruition. Yet on the purely interpersonal level – which to me, being concerned not only with thinking related to the divine-human axis but also the nitty-gritty ethics of the human-human, is paramount – I have difficulty finding much to emulate. In case after case there seems to be a “That’s what you get!” sentiment towards the presumed rival in the background of the actor’s mind, overshadowing compassion and cooperation. We might applaud the successes that are reported here, and it does seem especially natural to feel a kind of satisfaction in Jacob getting the best of Laban given the latter’s duplicity, but on the whole it may be that we can only consider this section as a kind of sometimes necessary prompting to think about how we ought not to treat one another; and, if we are so inclined, possibly too to discover comfort in the prayers heard and answered as expressed by the twin statements “God heeded Leah” (verse seventeen) and “God heeded her [Rachel]” (verse twenty-two), coupled with the sisters’ expressing their appreciation, as mentioned. To simply be grateful is surely a nudging every one of us can benefit from.