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.