Genesis 28

This chapter, scholars think, is a blending of three sources from differing periods: 28.1-9 (also including the final verse forty-six of Chapter 27) are from the P source (6th century BCE), while the remainder of verses ten through twenty-two are an intertwining of the J (10th century BCE; but possibly much later) and E sources (maybe 9th century BCE). If that is the case then 28.10 picks up where 27.45 left off, with Rebekah warning Jacob to flee for a while from the anger of his brother Esau, whose birthright blessing he had only just – very underhandedly – received from their father Isaac. Taken through a storytelling perspective this makes sense, and thus the alternative reasoning given in verses 27.46-28.5 of Jacob departing to find a spouse are a somewhat odd fit (but are nevertheless rehabilitating of the character: moving from “deceiver” to “obedient son”). If we mentally “table” this interlude there is as well the added benefit of greater narrative tension leading up to the brothers’ reunion in Chapter 33.

Our chapter of course also contains the exceedingly well-known tale of the “stairway” (or “ramp” or “ladder”) to Heaven (the text actually states: “its top reached to the sky”; verse twelve), part of a dream theophany wherein God/“God” confirms to Jacob the Abrahamic blessing of offspring, land, and that “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.” (Verse 14b, spoken by God/“God” itself.) Much has been made of this passage (a recent and compelling work understands this as a mise en abyme (image within an image, story within a story) of the nation’s travels to, from, and back to the land of Israel; see Yitzhak (Itzik) Peleg, Going Up and Going Down: A Key to Interpreting Jacob’s Dream (Genesis 28:10-22) (London: T and T Clark, 2015)), and so here perhaps we can merely comment that what is often overlooked but potentially quite striking is that the angels in the dream do not actually do anything: they merely traverse back and forth on the “stairway” (or “ramp”, “ladder”; verse twelve again).

Thinking on what the storyarc of the book might be trying to teach in the state it has been handed down to us is an intriguing undertaking. After all, it is not the strong and, as firstborn, natural leader Esau the hunter who becomes the (probably at least partly mythical, possibly mostly or even fully so) founding father, but rather the homebody who essentially scams his way into it (one is reminded of the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first” statements of the New Testament’s Gospels). Yet this was divinely foretold, and in that positively so; we recall Chapter 25:

25.23: “and the LORD answered her [Rebekah, pregnant with her twins],
‘Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.’”

This statement has been interpreted in many ways depending on the exegete’s inclinations and group allegiances, but in the context of the biblical text it is quite clear that we have Jacob, from whom comes the nation Israel, and Esau, from whom comes the nation Edom (see 36.1: “This is the line of Esau – that is, Edom.”): the junior over the senior. Furthermore, following this stunning encounter from which Jacob awakes “shaken” and declares “How awesome is this place!” (verse seventeen), he sets about attempting to make a rather one-sided bargain with God/“God”, promising that if he is protected on the journey, fed, provided clothing, and granted a safe return, then the very deity who has granted him the amazing epiphany “shall be my God…and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You” (21b-22). As if God/“God” needed his crap! Putting ourselves in Jacob’s shoes (sandals?) it is perhaps difficult to find anything other than humor in the pure chutzpah of such a reaction, but what I like about this start to Jacob’s “career” is that we are given such a flawed personage to begin with, one who certainly needs to work on improving himself, and thus someone we can very much relate to ourselves. In this, as we know, Jacob does; and along the way his children and their own tales continue to offer much. Think how boring perfection would be.

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