September 3, 2012 0

Episode 07 – Jacob Goes A-Wrasslin’

By in Blog, Podcast


In my left hand is a hideous off-brand Looney Tunes mousepad. In my right hand is a bible. Let’s do a show about… THE BIBLE


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Things are moving very quickly now as we continue our journey through Israel’s family album, the ancient scrolls known as the Torah, the Pentateuch, or the Book of Moses. Today we will finish our tour through the book we call Genesis, the first of five scrolls which comprise the Torah.

Last time we explored the life of Abraham, the “big daddy” of Israel and of the Jewish faith. Historically, his life was the foundation for Israel’s identity and national hope. As a literary character he embodied that identity. He was no great hero, but a man who learned to “fear” God, which is a Hebrew way of saying he relied on God’s provision instead of his own cunning. And, by the way, that’s not merely a universal religious platitude, it’s a deeply practical observation about life in Israel, where rain was scarce and relations with neighbors contentious. The easy fertility of Egypt to the south and the religious alternatives of Mesopotamia and Canaan were a constant temptation.

The climactic events of Abraham’s life were the birth of his son Isaac, which gave him the OFFSPRING he needed to extend his legacy, and the burial of his wife Sarah in a field in Canaan, which gave him a claim on the LAND his family was to inhabit. Given all the drama surrounding the conception and birth of Isaac, we would expect his biblical story to be more substantial than it is. But as it stands, he’s really just the means by which the family line is extended so the next generation can come into their own. I guess Isaac is a sort of the maguffin of the Abraham story.

The rest of Genesis is the story of that next generation, of the offspring of Isaac. Here’s an introductory bit from chapter 25, starting in verse 19:

[19] These are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham fathered Isaac. [20] Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. [21] Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren, and the LORD granted his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. [22] The children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” So she went to inquire of the LORD, [23] and the LORD said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb.
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.”

[24] When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. [25] The first one came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they named him Esau. [26] Then his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.

[27] When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in the camp. [28] Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah favored Jacob.

Another typical Hebrew birth story, complete with the barren mother’s womb being opened and the children having puns for names. This is also yet another instance of Israel’s enemies being revealed as relatives. Esau is the father of the Edomites, and his description as “red” and “hairy” is a pun on some geographical references to Edom that Israelite hearers would have understood immediately. As for Jacob, his name means “he cheats” or “he deceives,” a rather unflattering name considering who he will turn out to be…

The brothers are already in conflict before they are born, and we are reminded of the fraternal strife between Cain and Abel several chapters earlier. To make things worse, Isaac and Rebekah play favorites, each honoring one son over the other. The family trouble escalates in chapter 25. Beginning in verse 29:

[29] Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. [30] Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stew to gulp down, for I am famished!” [31] Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.” [32] Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is a birthright to me?” [33] But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. [34] Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau spurned his birthright.

Esau sells his “birthright” for some Dinty Moore. What is a “birthright,” anyway? This concerns a common ancient practice called “primogeniture,” by which the eldest son inherited the full estate of a family. Esau was technically born first, so all of Isaac’s wealth and possessions are legally his. Jacob takes advantage of his brother’s man-sized hunger and questionable intelligence to cheat him out of this privilege. This tells us a lot about the brothers’ characters, but it also carries a message. Just as the Bible goes out of its way to portray polygamy as disastrous and wrong, it also subverts primogeniture at every opportunity. The older son always loses his right to a younger brother. Despite human attempts to manage fertility and order society, Israel insists that their God alone is the director of their lives and their fates. This is an extremely controversial line of thinking for our day and age, but it is essential to understanding these ancient stories.

Chapter 27 is a familiar episode which takes the Jacob/Esau feud to a point which will change things forever. Isaac, blind and dying of old age, is ready to administer the “blessing” to Esau. Even though Jacob stole his brother’s birthright when they were young, Isaac seems determined to follow tradition and bestow his estate – and with it the “blessing” promised by God to Abraham – to the elder son. Jacob and his mother Rebekah hatch a plot to fool the old man, and Jacob steals the whole lot – estate, blessing, and all. Esau finds out and is determined to kill Jacob, so Rebekah cooks up an excuse for Jacob to go to Haran, in Mesopotamia, to stay with his Uncle Laban and find himself a wife.

Jacob’s sojourn in Mesopotamia is productive, as we’ll see, and the literary structure of the episode is noteworthy. The journey is bookended by two very strange visions wherein Jacob seems to encounter God himself. The first experience comes to Jacob as a dream on the road to Haran. This is Genesis 28, starting in verse 12:

[12] He had a dream; a ramp was set up on the ground, and the top of it reached to the sky. And angels of God were going up and down upon it. [13] And the LORD stood by him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. [14] Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall be blessed by you and your offspring. [15] Remember, I am with you, I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” [16] Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it!” [17] Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and that is the gateway of heaven.”

[18] Early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. [19] He named that site Bethel, but previously the name of the city had been Luz. [20] Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God sticks with me and if he protects me on this journey I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, [21] and if I return safe to my father’s house, then the LORD shall be my God. [22] And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s house. And I will set aside a tenth for you.”

This strange dream – “Jacob’s ladder” – has an unexpected format, but a familiar message. God wants to give LAND to Jacob’s OFFSPRING. The vision of angels moving up and down on a stairway to the sky has been interpreted in many ways, and there are many theories as to where this specific imagery might come from. But at a basic level it’s clear what is happening here: Jacob is given a glimpse of “heaven.”

We’ll talk about this more on a future show, but this is a good opportunity to address this odd topic. In the Bible, despite what Western Christianity has imagined, “heaven” is not a far off kingdom beyond our atmosphere where God lives. The Hebrew words shamayim and eretz are translated “heaven” and “earth,” but this can be understood in two ways. In one sense, they simply describe “sky” and “land,” the physical reality of our world. In another sense, they are the two dimensions of creation. “Earth” being the realm of humans, and “heaven” of God and his reality. (I don’t pretend that this makes perfect sense to me, but still this is closer to the biblical idea than what medieval artists dreamed up and the church has embraced.)

Jacob has discovered a place where the curtain dividing the two realities is pulled back, just for a moment, and he sees “heaven.” God identifies himself as the God of Jacob’s fathers and reiterates the promise of the old covenant. Jacob’s response is in one sense typical – he sets up a boundary marker and claims the territory. But his own personality creeps in and he does what neither Isaac nor Abraham had done: he makes a promise back to God, and a rather pathetic and conditional one at that. IF God will provide for him and protect him, he will perpetuate the family covenant. Jacob names the place “Bethel,” which means “house of God.” Bethel will be one of the earliest centers of religious activity in national Israel many generations later. This explains why Jacob is pouring out oil and talking about a ten percent tithe. Once again we’ve got Israelite behavior long before Israel.

Jacob’s stay at Laban’s in Mesopotamia, beginning in chapter 29, is a complicated series of romantic and parental entanglements. Here’s an abbreviated rundown:

  • Jacob “accidentally” becomes a polygamist and marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel.
  • Surprise, surprise, they are both barren.
  • God “opens” Leah’s womb, and she bears three sons: Simeon, Levi, and Judah.
  • Rachel still cannot conceive and so hatches a familiar plan – she gives Bilhah her maidservant to Jacob and she bears two sons: Dan and Naphtali.
  • Leah wants in on this action, so he gives Jacob her own maidservant Zilpah. She bears two more sons: Gad and Asher.
  • Jacob and Leah get their groove back and have three more children together: Issachar, Zebulun, and a daughter named Dinah.
  • God “opens” Rachel’s womb and she gives birth to her first son: Joseph.
  • This brings the total to eleven sons and one daughter.
  • Jacob strikes it rich breeding sheep, and when it’s time to go back to Canaan, Laban doesn’t want to let him go.
  • After a kerfuffle regarding the “household gods” (another clue that these Hebrews aren’t done being polytheists yet), he rounds up his new family and flees from his uncle.

On the way back to Canaan, Jacob has another strange experience, the defining incident of his life. It is detailed in Genesis 32. We’ll start in verse 24:

[24] Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. [25] When the man saw that he did not prevail against him, he touched Jacob’s hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was strained as he wrestled with him. [26] Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” [27] Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” [28] He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with man, and have prevailed.” [29] Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And there he left him. [30] So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” [31] The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. [32] That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip at the thigh muscle.

Jacob encounters a “man,” and they wrestle all night long. Jacob dominates the man, but the man touches him in a certain area and disables him. The man is revealed to be God himself, though the text keeps that detail somewhat vague. A detail that is not so vague in the Hebrew text is the location of the man’s touch. He doesn’t touch Jacob on the “hip” as most English translations say, but rather on the “groin.” And whatever the nature of this “touch,” it’s enough to leave Jacob limping. What on earth is going on in this story? Like Abraham before him, Jacob is having his fate and his identity altered by an encounter with God, or at least with an agent of God. The name change, to “Israel,” is a play on the struggle between the two men. Jacob has “struggled” with men and with God. And the touch on the groin – the “seat of fertility” – is another reminder of who is in charge of that particular aspect of life.

Jacob returns home and fears an encounter with Esau, but in chapter 33 the brothers are reunited and reconciled. Then we come to chapter 34 and a very interesting account, indeed. This is traditionally known as “the rape of Dinah,” and is usually read as a simple revenge story, but it’s not nearly that easy. A local Canaanite prince, Shechem, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah and her brothers exact revenge by killing every man in the city. That’s the traditional summary, but the text itself tells a different story. First off, the “rape” is not a rape in the sense that we might think, but more of an inappropriate pairing. Dinah and Shechem shack up together, and this forces Jacob to seek a deal with the Shechemites.

His sons, however, are outraged and don’t want Jacob to make peace. They make a duplicitous gesture and invite the Shechemites to join with them symbolically through circumcision. They comply, and while all the males in the city are still sore from the procedure, they swoop in and kill them. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could read this as a case of righteous revenge, but I have encountered strong resistance on this point. In the end, the story interprets itself as Jacob bemoans his sons’ brutal behavior. Chapter 34 verse 30:

[30] Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.”

From the beginning, Israel was supposed to be a “blessing” to their neighbors, not a bully.

In chapter 35 Isaac dies, and then Rachel. But before she goes she bears one more son, Benjamin, bringing the grand total of male offspring to twelve. From this point on that number is officially “symbolically significant.” Then, in chapter 37 the focus of the story shifts from Jacob to Joseph – at least on the surface. As with Isaac, Joseph is really a maguffin for the Jacob story, and his adventures are really about his dad.

The story of Joseph is well known, so all that remains is to summarize it and try to discover its place in the ongoing story. Joseph is the second-youngest son of Jacob, and he is his father’s favorite. His famous “coat of many colors” was most likely a coat of one color, blue, with lots of ornamental tassels and long sleeves. Joseph’s brothers already resent him before he starts interpreting dreams, particularly his own dreams about one day ruling over his brothers. They plot to kill him but end up selling him into slavery to a band of Ishmaelites (their cousins, remember?).

Joseph winds up a slave in Egypt, where his ability to read dreams opens doors and eventually lands him a gig as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. A Hebrew slave becomes the second ranking leader of the world’s biggest superpower. A famine hits Canaan, his brothers come to Egypt to find food, and they are happily reunited. A classic rags-to-riches success story if there ever was one. Except, it’s not supposed to be happy. In fact, it’s a horror story. Even as the text says that God is “blessing” Joseph and his fortune improves, any Israelite hearing the story would know that this is all wrong, wrong, wrong. Egypt is the wrong place. Joseph’s wife – the daughter of a pagan priest – is the wrong girl. And when Jacob finally moves down to join them, the whole family of Israel is displaced and on the wrong track.

We miss all of this when we take the Joseph story in isolation and use it for simple inspiration. The details of the story are very exciting and inspirational, on the surface, but the undercurrent is dark and hopeless. Since this is really Jacob’s story, it ends with the old man blessing Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim (once again, the younger son is given the blessing of the firstborn), and then Jacob dies. There is a glimmer of hope for the future as his body is carried back to Canaan and buried in the same field as Abraham and Sarah (and Isaac, Rebekah and Leah). But the final detail of the Genesis scroll is an unhappy one. Joseph dies in Egypt and is embalmed and buried there in a coffin. By Israel’s traditions, this is an unacceptable way to be put to rest. The future looks grim for the family of Israel…

And that’s a classic cliffhanger if I ever saw one. This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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