The Complete Book of Genesis

Jacob Gets His Comeuppance
What's really in the Good Book.
May 24 2006 11:19 AM

The Complete Book of Genesis

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Chapter 31
So, I guess that whole "one God" concept hasn't really taken with the patriarchal families. When Jacob and his family leave Laban's house, Rachel steals her father's "household idols," which Etz Hayim describes as "household gods who ensured the well-being of the family." How does the Lord feel about these teensy domestic rivals?

Chapter 32 and 33
Jacob wrestles with and defeats the angel and forces it to bless him. The wrestling match wins Jacob a new name (Israel), but it also gives him a new identity. Until now, Jacob has been the mama's boy. Esau went out hunting; Jacob stayed home cooking. Esau was hairy and manly, an animal. Jacob's hairlessness suggested weakness. Esau was strong; Jacob was cunning. Yet here he crushes the angel. The angel wrenches his hip, yet Jacob fights through the pain, forcing his opponent to submit. He's the original Tough Jew.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

The wrestling match occurs just before Jacob's reconciliation with Esau. As Jacob approaches his estranged, wronged older brother, he is worried that Esau will attack him. When last seen, after all, Esau was vowing to murder Jacob. So, Jacob masses every defense he has, both human and divine, to ward off his brother. He prays to God to protect him. He divides his livestock and followers into two camps, so that if Esau attacks one group, the other would escape. He sends hundreds of animals as a gift to Esau, explicitly hoping to buy him. But none of this is necessary. Esau, proving again that he is the mensch of the family if not the brains, sees Jacob and immediately runs to his brother, embraces him, and kisses him. Jacob insists on giving Esau the animals, and it's clear that Jacob views this as buying back his brother's good will. But the present doesn't seem to matter to Esau, who granted forgiveness for nothing. Even so, between Esau's morality and Jacob's strategy, it's obvious which God prefers.

Chapter 34
I wrote about my revulsion at the Dinah story in my introduction, but let me add two points. A Christian friend has since told me that, when she was a girl, she was taught the story of Dinah as a cautionary tale about proper female behavior. The first sentence of the chapter declares that Dinah went out to "visit the daughters of the land." That sentence, my friend said, was a red-light warning: Dinah should never have gone cruising with those loose, idol-worshipping Canaanite girls. She was asking for trouble. I also realized that I was a too kind to rapist Shechem and his father, Hamor. Shechem may indeed love Dinah, but the chapter makes clear he and his father are pursuing marriage with Dinah so they can seize control of Jacob's land, animals, and women. They're deceitful, just as Jacob's sons are.

Chapter 35
So, Jacob, at least, is getting the hang of monotheism. He orders his family to hand over all their "alien gods," and he buries them.

First-born son, Reuben (one of Leah's boys), sleeps with Jacob's concubine Bilhah. This is an obvious "screw you" to Dad, but Jacob doesn't resist. His powers are fading. A chapter earlier, Jacob had stood by while his sons murdered Shechem and Hamor's family. Now he doesn't even react when his oldest son steals his mistress.

Riddle me this: Isaac was blind and near death when Jacob stole the blessing, eight chapters and more than 20 years ago. Yet he only dies in this chapter.

Chapter 36
Esau's genealogy occupies the whole chapter—verse upon verse of children and grandchildren, kings and queens. This is, of course, one of many vast tracts of "begats" begun earlier in the Torah. Why are they here? It's true that the rhythm of the genealogies is entrancing, and the names have an otherworldly loveliness—"Jeush, Jalam, and Korah" or "Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz." And at the time they were put on paper, the lists may have served a kind of historico-anthropological purpose—a way of explaining where tribes came from and why they lived where they did. But besides this, what's their purpose? They are so irrelevant to the main story of the Torah: Why do they occupy so much real estate?

Chapter 37
The biggest, nastiest fraternal rivalry of them all: Joseph versus his 10 elder brothers in a no-holds-barred battle to the death (or slavery). I had forgotten that Joseph is actually the instigator. He tattles on his brothers, sending "bad reports of them" to Jacob. Then he lords it over them by telling them his dreams. He recounts one in which he and his brothers are sheaves of wheat, and they bow down to him, and then another in which they are stars and bow down to him. (A question for you scholars out there: Is this the first literary account of dreams? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all described as having dreams, but their dreams are actually just visions of God. Joseph's dreams are recognizably sleep-dreams, odd, symbol-filled, metaphorical.)

Jacob's response to his sons' strife makes you wonder if he learned anything from his own life. Of all people, he knows how favoring one son rips a family apart, but he can't help it. Joseph is the first son of his beloved, now dead, Rachel. He smiles on his darling Joseph; he gives him the special present of an "ornamented tunic." Given Joseph's obstreperousness and Jacob's favoritism, is it any surprise that the older brothers "could not speak a friendly word to [Joseph]"? Can you blame them?

The scene of the near-murder of Joseph is pure adrenaline. The brothers say to each other, "Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, 'A savage beast devoured him.' " Whose idea is it? We know first-born Reuben isn't to blame, because he immediately tries to stop them. The next two brothers in age are Simeon and Levi. There is an ugliness to those two: They had orchestrated the slaughter of Shechem and Hamor—presumably it's they who seek to murder Joseph, too.

Judah, the fourth-born son, comes up with the idea of selling him into slavery instead. "After all," Judah says, "He is our brother, our own flesh." What a line! This is the Genesis philosophy of brotherhood: He's our brother, so let's not kill him—let's sell him into slavery instead. (They get 20 pieces of silver for Joseph. Even I know that Judas sells out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Another New Testament borrowing?) As in the binding of Isaac, the victim here is oddly silent. Joseph doesn't complain or fight back, which is curious, given his feisty nature.

The brothers show Joseph's tunic smeared with blood to Jacob. This, I suppose, is Jacob's long-due comeuppance for the identity trick he played on his own father. It's brilliantly parallel—each father is fooled by his own senses. Blind Isaac tasted his son's stew and felt his hairy hands and so believed he was blessing his beloved Esau. Jacob "examine[s]" the tunic and sees the blood, and so believes his beloved Joseph has been killed by wild animals.

Chapter 38
Another interlude of disturbing sexual politics. Judah marries a Canaanite girl, who bears him a son named Er and then another named Onan. Er marries Tamar, but Er is "displeasing to the Lord" and dies. Judah orders Onan to do his duty by his dead brother and get Tamar pregnant. Onan, knowing the child would be treated as Er's and not as his own, "let the seed go to waste whenever he joined with his brother's wife." This annoys the Lord, who kills Onan.

Why is the Onan story read as a condemnation of masturbation? (Onanism, etc.) It has nothing to do with masturbation. It's about birth control. Onan has sex with Tamar, but spills his seed—this is coitus interruptus. Onan's sin before God is not the self-pleasure of masturbation, it's his failure to breed (and to fulfill his fraternal obligation).

Oh, dear, it gets worse! Tamar, now that her husbands Onan and Er are dead, moves back into her father's house. One day, her father-in-law Judah walks by. Tamar, who's sitting on the roadside, covers her face with her veil to conceal her identity. Judah assumes she's a whore and asks to sleep with her. She insists that he leave his seal and staff with her, then obliges him. Three months later, Judah hears that Tamar had "played the harlot" and is now pregnant because of it. With the Near East's usual tolerance for female sexual misbehavior, he orders her burned. Before this happens, she reveals Judah's staff and seal. He revokes the execution order, but doesn't seem the least bit embarrassed or ashamed by what he did.

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