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.