Thursday, May 10, 2007

Genesis 32-36: Turning Point

One of my new favorite parts in the whole Bible is coming up in this post.

When we last left Jacob, he was leaving Laban. Now, as he's on his way back home, he hears that Esau is coming toward him with 400 men. Considering that the last time Jacob saw his brother, his brother wanted to kill him, this comes across as really bad news. He gets scared, divides his people up, sends Esau several caravan-loads of animals , and has everybody go on ahead of him while he stays behind for the night to freak out alone.

This is one of the coolest things that ever happens in the Bible: "Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak."

Why did God wrestle with Jacob? Why did Jacob wrestle with God? I kind of get the theological significance of this event, but I still find it odd and interesting that God actually had a fist fight with Jacob all night. I bet it was really good for Jacob though. When I was in high school and my guy friends got mad at each other, they would beat each other up and then they'd be friends again. I wonder if this was like that. I mean, up until now we've gotten a pretty rotten picture of Jacob. He's a liar from a family of liars, a cheat, a swindler, maybe a coward, and whatever other nasty things we can attribute to him. For somebody who's called to father a nation that's supposed to be holy unto the Lord, I'd say he's not doing so well. I'm probably reading things into the text, but when I come across this part I think that Jacob's been avoiding God all this time, and now that he's finally alone, he can meet God face to face. And what happens isn't pretty.

This is the redemptive point in Jacob's life. After this point, as we'll see in a bit, Jacob starts acting different. He doesn't become a really good person (his parenting skills, for example, are . . . well, like his father's), but he does start doing some things right where God is concerned. But I'll get to that in a bit.

So God meets with Jacob, and they wrestle. This is what I do like about Jacob: at this point, he and God didn't have a friendly encounter, but they did have an encounter. Maybe they didn't have a very good relationship, but they had a real relationship. I don't know what Jacob thought about God before this night, but one thing's for sure: God had to have been real for Jacob after this point. It's hard to ignore a God who dukes it out with you all night long, then leaves you with a limp to remind you of it.

Other things I'm wondering . . . why did Jacob win? And why did God dislocate Jacob's hip when He wasn't winning? That's just weird. What did He mean, "You have wrestled with God and men and have prevailed"? How can you prevail against God? I mean, I don't think He was talking just about the wrestling match.

Jacob's name, as we all know, means "deceiver" (or more literally, "he grasps the heel," which is an idiom). Israel means "He wrestles with God." That's a fitting name for the nation-to-be if ever there was one. All of Israel's history can pretty much be summed up in three words: wrestling with God. Huh. Not sure what else I can add to that. Do you guys have any thoughts?

So, moving on. Jacob goes to meet his brother, who isn't mad at him anymore. They talk a little and keep going their separate ways. Short meeting, evidently. At least they're all still alive. Next Jacob goes to this place called Shechem and his daughter Dina gets raped, so her brothers kill all the men in the entire village.

Now, I know that we generally think that back in the day women were considered property, and they probably were, but these brothers don't sound too different from my brothers. I'm not sure they'd go kill an entire town if something happened to me, but then again, my brothers weren't raised in ancient Near Eastern culture either. Either way, the big brother protective streak evidently goes a long way back. I kind of appreciate that they cared about their sister and stuff, but they really should've just not let her wander off in the first place instead of going and killing everybody. After that happened they had to leave (my guess is people in other towns were mad at them now), so they went back to Bethel.

What's cool is that when they go, Jacob tells them to purify themselves and get rid of their false gods and stuff (I assume this means Rachel's dad's action figures too). Nobody in the story has done that yet. The next thing that happens is Jacob renames Bethel, which means "house of God," to El-bethel, which means "the God of the house of God." That sounds redundant, but in a forgotten sermon I wrote some notes in my margins that I'm now going to elaborate on. "El-bethel" is commemorating the God of the place rather than the place. Islam, incidentally, is about a journey to a place. One of the things you have to do as a good Muslim is make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life. Judaism, too, is a lot about places: the promised land, particularly Jerusalem, and more particular the Temple Mount. Christianity, or at least what Christianity is supposed to be, is a journey to a Person. That's why Jesus said whoever wants to worship God must worship Him "in spirit and in truth."

The next thing that happens is that Rachel dies. Okay, and I've got to say something nice about Rachel even though I don't like her, because the other day Justin made a good point that in this culture, bearing children was really the only thing that gave women any worth. So as far as society was concerned, nobody cared that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah; she was worthless because she was barren. So that's why she got desperate and went crazy trying to have kids. But now she dies having Benjamin, which is really sad.

Next there is one sentence about Reuben sleeping with Bilhah, one of those maids from before. It only gets one sentence, but later on it will be important because Reuben was the firstborn and should've gotten all the inheritance. It's important for the same reason that it's important that Simeon and Levi, the second and third born, were the ones who killed the men of Shechem. You'll learn why another time though, because we're not there yet.

The next thing that happens is account of Isaac dying, and then it talks about Esau's descendants. The only thing I have to say about this is that it's nice that both Esau and Jacob were there to bury their dad, just like both Ishmael and Isaac buried Abraham; and that if you read through the descendants of Esau there are a few names you might recognize, like Amalek.

Well, that's probably more than long enough. Next time we'll hear about Joseph.


prayinmommy said...

Justin made a good point that in this culture, bearing children was really the only thing that gave women any worth. So as far as society was concerned, nobody cared that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah; she was worthless because she was barren.

Yeah, not only worthless, but they were considered cursed by God, too. And probably, Leah rubbed it in Rachel's face that Leah had more kids. She wasn't perfect, after all... I feel more pity for Rachel than actual dislike, I think she was the spoiled baby. She was also cheated by her father when she didn't get to marry Jacob right away. Marrying and reproducing was very important to women at that time.

Michal said...

Good thoughts...


Thanks for keeping this up, Zoe.