Thibble Thursday: On the Road Again (Genesis 32:4–36:43)

Eep, hope this doesn’t get to be a habit. I was preparing for travel yesterday and changing the OS on my desktop computer, so that’s my excuse; today I was on the road all day, so this goes up quite late. Anyways, this week’s section is פָּרָשַׁת וישלח (“And he sent” portion). We’re actually moving through Genesis quite quickly!

The quick snarky summary: Jacob wrestles with an angel and meets up with his brother Esau, who in the last couple decades has mellowed out a bit. He then tries to settle his enormous entourage down, but suffers tribulations on account of various transgressive sex acts and the appallingly bad judgment of his sons.

The meeting between Jacob and Esau I have to praise as actually pretty suspensefully written. It’s really quite up in the air as to how Esau is going to take these friendly overtures of Jacob’s: has he forgotten his rage in the intervening decades, or does he still hold a grudge? The initial report, in 32:7, is kind of ambiguous, but those four hundred attendants are a kind of terrifying thought, and apparently terrified Jacob too, since he goes into reflexively defensive mode, dividing up his camp for easier retreat and sends waves of gifts to propitiate his brother. And then, on the eve of the confrontation, the drama shifts abruptly, with Jacob menaced by an unknown antagonist. The actual text of the fight is sparse on details, heightening its mystery: after sending all his possessions across the river, a “man” attacks him, they fight until dawn, and the man injures his thigh. It is only in the popular imagination that this antagonist is explicitly identified as an angel, although there are hints of the supernatural, such as his magical ability to injure Jacob with a touch, his unwillingness to give a name, and his refusal to face the dawn. Whether he is a demon, a ninja, an angel, or, as is strongly suggested by Jacob’s justification for the name in 32:31, God himself, Jacob demands his blessing. That in itself is kind of weird, since Jacob’s already received a shitload of blessings: from God before his birth, from his blind and deceived father, from God again, from Laban. This one is at least a name change, historically a power-up of sorts, giving Jacob the much-cherished name of Israel. It’s worth noting, if we assume a late authorship for the Bible, that this is the definite association of this family line with the Israelites, who were almost certainly known by that name by that time. Curiously, this event also shines light at the very end on a dietary law, although instead of presenting it as a law to the reader like post-Sinai commandments are, it’s simply presented as a curious tradition of the Israelites.

However, other than this peculiar interlude, the show basically goes on, towards the great encounter between Jacob and Esau. The morning’s preparations seem to either support of refute the “two camps” plan of the previous evening, as he places his children and their holdings in a lienar order, with the least valued at the front and the most valued at the back, where presumably they can flee if threatened (this might be an oversimplification, but I’m certainly justified in assuming the children of concubines were regarded as worth less than those of his principal wives, and among those Joseph was most valued. Verse 33:4 finally defuses the tension: the bribe, or long absence, or whatever, actually worked, and Esau welcomes his brother home and they chat about what they’ve been up to. It’s amicable, and touching, and they’re both effusively and openly generous with each other, but all this is slightly soured by the fact that Jacob, in taking his leave, slyly engineers his brother’s continuing on ahead, and then he himself goes somewhere else. Ah well, guess he wanted to see if his brother was still a sap and a dupe.

This chapter closes out with Jacob settling in the vicinity of Shechem, and if you’re familiar with the Bible you might be wincing, ’cause you know what happens next. Interestingly, this is another place where we’re explicitly told that our forefathers bought a parcel of land, which means once again it’s a place modern Jews lay a claim to not so much of right but of commerce. It’s on the West Bank, so its ownership is politically relevant today, but it doesn’t seem like the site of Shechem was one where owning a plot of property would have had critical geopolitical or religious implications at the time, so I’m not sure what to make of this particular point here.

But what went down in Shechem is awfully troubling, to say the least. We’re told that Jacob’s daughter Dinah went out among the native women: presumably socially, or for company in domestic tasks, e.g. all going down to the river to wash together. The instigating verse for all that follows is 34:2, so I sought out a variety of translations, as well as (as best I could) the Hebrew source, since exactly what happened then is kinda relevant. Shechem the son of Hamor did something, obviously, but whether it was forcible is, at least to modern eyes, an important part of the story, as it lets us know whether to treat him as the villain of this piece. Most translations come down on the side of rape, although the verb suggesting force is also variously translated as “to humble”, “to defile”, or “to humiliate”. I am not a Hebrew scholar, so let’s assume that the Hebrew scholars know what they’re talking about and that this was in fact a rape.

Under the circumstances, pretty much every ancient world legal code would label Shechem as a transgressor, although the victim of his crime would probably be mislabeled: in ancient times (and, indeed, until quite recently in most cultures) sexual violence against women was not generally regarded as a violation specifically of her rights, since non-independent women weren’t accorded their own sexual agency. Thus, the transgression was against whoever was regarded as having the legal disposition of the woman’s sexual agency: the father of an unmarried woman or the husband of a married woman.

This context, horrifying though it is, is the only way to make solid sense out of the negotiations that follow. From the dominant cultural viewpoint, Shechem’s crime is not against Dinah’s person, but against her utility to her family, and in that context, the insistence upon marrying her was less actively creepy than it would be today. In fact, from a purely political standpoint, Jacob stands to profit tremendously from this outrage: as a resident alien, even a quite well-off one, he could use the support of a well-off native, a role amply fit by this prince with the same name as his town.

So while we might regard the machinations delivering Dinah in matrimony to her rapist with horror, the cultural context of the time made it ultimately the only thing, legally and socially, to be done. And Jacob himself doesn’t even seem all that averse to the idea, but his sons take the matter into their own hands. One detail of the negotiations which jumps out at me is Verse 34:17, where the sons of Jacob seem to be giving Hamor a chance to get out of the deal clean and clear, but I assume this is an offer that was not made to be taken and was part of the intricate web of local polite negotiation elements: there’s an undertone of menace to the offer.

One odd side note of the negotiations is the relationship between a ruler and his subjects. Hamor and Shechem are anxious to draw the incident to an agreeable conclusion (mindful of the wrong they’ve done, perhaps), and make rather generous promises, but one promise doesn’t seem like it’d be theirs to make: in forging an alliance with the Israelites they promise a rather, er, personal contribution on the part of their subjects. Again, drawing a Bronze Age cultural context on all this, it’s a bit less strange: personal autonomy was not highly valued in early city-states, it seems, and in accepting the protection of a powerful leader, you were placing your entire being subject to his whims (sidenote: taking the prince’s own predilections in this light, the big problem would not actually have been that Shechem committed rape, inasmuch as his subjects were his to do with as he liked, so much as that he raped the daughter of an influential non-subject of his.

Up until now, taken through the right cultural lens, this story is almost non-horrific, at least as regards the behavior of the ostensible good guys: Shechem commits a monstrous wrong against the house of Israel, but makes ample recompense, forging an alliance with them. It’s a narrative trend not entirely distinct from the story of Abimelech and Abraham (or Abimelech and Isaac) squabbling over wells. But here it takes a nasty turn, and a nasty turn even ignoring the sexual-assault elements. Simeon and Levi, after getting the residents of Shechem to agree to circumcise themselves, go out and massacre them when their pain and debilitation is at its peak. There is pretty much nothing good to be said about this act. It’s deceptive, brutal, and arguably somewhat misdirected, since only the prince (and arguably his father Hamor) are actually complicit in the crime being avenged.

It’s difficult to know what we’re supposed to think about this episode, reading it millennia later, or indeed what contemporary readers were supposed to think. If you buy ethnic purity as something to be defended at all costs, then the vengeful response to the suggestion of interbreeding can be read as a defense of that doctrine (although on that note, what’s up with seizing the women, as indicated by 34:29), which would have held a lot more traction with xenophobic Hebrews of the time than it would today. Nonetheless, the forefathers of the tribes were supposed to be basically good people: tribalistic and rather insular in their loyalty, perhaps, but genocide through deception wasn’t well-regarded in any culture (wiping out the enemy in war, sure, we can read that as noble, but this wholesale slaughter of the debilitated has generally been frowned upon by all civilized peoples.

“Civilized peoples” apparently includes Jacob, because he finds his children’s impulsive action distressing. Not because it’s a horrific crime, but because it’s extremely unpopular and will turn the natives against him. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

Up next we have a scattering of much shorter and more morally neutral incidents, many of them deaths which aren’t in war. Jacob moves on, fleeing from his evil reputation (dude’s just a beacon of goodwill wherever he goes!), erecting altars and purging foreign idols from his household, a detail suggesting that the early Israelites might not have actually been monotheistic. On the journey, we’re told that Rebecca’s nurse Deborah dies, a rather weird detail since (a) she is never mentioned previously or after, and (b) there’s no good reason for a member of Isaac and Rebecca’s household to be on this journey anyways. This is the first of three deaths in this chapter. The other two are separated out by God deciding it’s time to kick in another blessing, because Jacob hasn’t had enough of them yet. The blessing’s a grab-bag of various things various divinities have already revealed: his issue will grow to become a nation, they’ll swarm and multiply, and by the way, his name is Israel now (which, yes, he was already told once). The repetitiveness of Genesis blessings is rather odd: later in the Bible, prophecies will get much more varied in character, but in Genesis, the line of Abraham’s now been told at least ten times that they’ll become a great nation. The need for constant reassurance is kinda suspicious. Anyways, moving on, Rachel dies in childbirth, bringing the total of Jacob’s sons to that well-known twelve, and Isaac dies as he lived, in as uninteresting a manner as possible.

At the end of this chapter there’s a weird and understated incident of Reuben (who is Jacob’s eldest son) sleeping with his father’s concubine. The low-key presentation of this suggests it’s not actually regarded as a big deal, although these days it’d be pretty bizarre and transgressive. It will come up again later, really.

Finally, this section closes out with a full chapter of apparently unnecessary description of the descendants of Esau, the Edomites. In post-Torah Judaic texts, the Edomites are really the bad guys, so one might expect a litany of evildoers here, but really, they’re a dryly presented lot. One of them discovered a hot spring, a couple founded cities or kingdoms, and none of them did much to merit mention otherwise.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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