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.

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