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.

No comments: