LEARNING BIBLE TODAY
From Creation to the Conquest of Canaan
by Michael J. Prival
THE FIRST ISRAELITES
CONTENTS OF CHAPTER II:
II - 1. ABRAHAM AND SARAH, THE PROMISE FROM GOD
[Genesis 11:24 - 13:3]
Noah and his wife had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Yaphet. Now, one of the descendants of Shem, after eight generations, was a man named Terah.
Terah lived in the city of Ur of the Kasdeem. He had a son named Abraham, who married Sarah. The other sons of Terah were Haran and Nahor. Haran had a son named Lot.
And Terah took Abraham his son, Lot his grandson, and Sarah the wife of Abraham and they went forth together out of Ur of the Kasdeem to go to the land of Canaan. They went as far as Haran and they stopped and settled there. The length of the life of Terah was 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.
And Yahweh said to Abraham, “Go out from your father’s house and move to the land that I will show you. I will make your family a great nation there, and bless you, and make your name great. I will bless those that bless you, and curse those that curse you.” So Abraham left Haran, as Yahweh had told him to do. Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran. He took with him his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and all of the wealth and the people that he had acquired in Haran and went to the land of Canaan. And Yahweh said to Abraham, “I will give this land to your descendants.”
There was a famine in Canaan. The crops would not grow and there was not enough food to eat. So Abraham and Sarah went down to Egypt.
When they came near to Egypt, Abraham said to Sarah, “I know that you are beautiful to look at. When the Egyptians see you, they will kill me so that they can have you for themselves. Please tell them that you are my sister so that I may live.”
And the Pharaoh in Egypt saw how beautiful Sarah was and took her into his house. And Pharaoh treated Abraham well because of her, and Abraham acquired many sheep and oxen and slaves and camels.
But Yahweh brought down plagues upon Pharaoh’s house. Pharaoh sent for Abraham and said, “What have you done to me? Why did you tell me that Sarah was your sister so that I would take her to be my wife? Now, take your wife and leave this land.” So Abraham returned to Canaan with Sarah and all of his possessions.
1. This is the story of the beginning of the Israelites. According to the Bible, Abraham and Sarah were the people who started the family that became the Israelites. They are given this privilege because Yahweh made an agreement with Abraham. Yahweh said that he would give Abraham many descendants (the Israelites), and these descendants would possess and live in the land of Canaan if Abraham would follow Yahweh's rules. This agreement between Abraham and Yahweh is called a “covenant,” or, in Hebrew, a “b’reet.”
2. It must have been very difficult for Abraham and Sarah to move from Haran to Canaan. They were already old and enjoyed a good life in Haran. Remember, they had to travel by walking or by riding for many days on animals; there were no cars or trains or airplanes at that time. Why do you think they agreed to move? Do you think it was a good idea? Why do you think Abraham believed that he was really talking directly with God?
3. Do you think that Abraham was right to tell the Egyptians that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife? What else could he have done? Why do you think the Bible writers would include a story like this in which Abraham tells the Egyptians that Sarah is his sister so she then became the wife of Pharaoh even though she was already Abraham’s wife?
Yahweh brings down plagues upon Pharaoh’s house. Has Pharaoh done anything wrong?
4. The Bible contains many interesting stories about Abraham and Sarah. Some of them are given in the next few chapters of this book. It is unlikely that there ever really were people named Abraham and Sarah who did any of the things in these stories.
Although the Israelite legends about Abraham and Sarah seem to be fictional, there may be some facts contained in them. For example, the story says that Abraham and Sarah came from a place called Ur. Now Ur was a real city near the areas that were once called Babylonia and Sumer. (The “Kasdeem” mentioned in the story were, in English, the “Chaldeans” – the people who ruled Babylonia when this story was written). The whole region is now in the country of Iraq. The original people who became the Israelites, and many of the stories that became the legends of the Israelites, probably really come from that area. For example, the story of Noah and the Flood, which we read earlier in chapter I-5, is very similar to the story of the flood in the Sumerian legend known as the epic of Gilgamesh. The story of the Tower of Babel is based on a real ziggurat in Babylonia. So by saying that Abraham and Sarah came from Ur, the Bible may really mean that the Israelites and the stories they told came from Ur and places near Ur.
According to the Bible story, Abraham and Sarah are the first members of the family that become the whole Israelite people, which later became the Jewish people. The early Israelites, like Abraham, worshipped Yahweh. But, there is nothing in the Bible that says that Abraham believed that Yahweh was the only real god. The early Israelites worshipped Yahweh because he was the special god that protected them, but they also believed that the gods of other people were real. Many of them even worshipped these other gods in addition to Yahweh.
Many centuries after the Bible stories about Abraham and Sarah became well known, the religion of the Israelites changed. The Israelites developed the idea that their special god, Yahweh, was the only real god. In other words, they believed that the gods that other people worshipped did not even exist. As discussed earlier, this belief that there is only one real god is called “monotheism.”
Since the well-known legends said that Abraham was the father of the Israelites, the monotheistic Jewish religious leaders decided that Abraham must have also believed that Yahweh was the only real god. Although the Bible never says this, the religious leaders began to tell stories about Abraham to show that he also believed in monotheism. These stories about Abraham do not appear in the Bible, but they were written down centuries after the Bible stories were first told.
These legends are like the stories we make up about some of our own leaders, such as George Washington, the first President of the United States. We tell the story about George Washington and the cherry tree to show that it is important not to lie. Of course, George Washington never cut down his father’s cherry tree, but the story teaches an important lesson. In the same way, Jewish religious leaders told stories about Abraham in order to teach lessons to the people.
The Bible doesn’t say anything about Abraham’s early life. Here is a legend, not from the Bible, that the rabbis told about an incident in Abraham’s childhood. The point of the story is that Abraham was a monotheist who believed only in Yahweh, the one invisible god of the Israelites.
Abraham’s father, Terah, sold idols in his shop. These idols were wooden statues of the many gods that people worshipped and prayed to. One day, Terah was ill and asked Abraham to take care of the shop.
Abraham looked at the idols and wondered, “Why do people pray to these wooden statues? They cannot move, or speak, or do anything. Don’t the people realize that the only real god is Yahweh?”
So Abraham took a hammer and smashed all of the wooden idols except for the largest one. Then he put the hammer in the hand of the one idol that remained.
When Terah, his father, returned to the shop he was very angry. All of the idols that he wanted to sell, except for one, had been destroyed. He demanded to know what had happened.
And Abraham said to his father, “The large idol smashed all of the smaller ones with the hammer.”
Terah replied, “That cannot be. The idols are just wood. They cannot move!”
And Abraham said, “If they cannot move, then why do you worship them as gods?”
1. Why does Abraham insist that there is only one true god? The story explains why he does not believe in idols or statues of gods, but it does not tell us where the idea of only one god came from. What is the difference between the way monotheists (people who believe in only one god) and polytheists (people who believe in many gods) look at the world?
One difference is that the belief in one god seems to go along with the idea that there is order in the world. That is, things happen with regularity because the one true and good god set down the rules that govern how the world works – the sun goes down, the sun comes up; the seasons change in the same way each year. If there were many gods, including good and evil ones who were fighting with each other, then the world would be unpredictable – there would be sudden earthquakes and violent storms killing people because a god became angry; crops would sometimes fail and people would go hungry. Of course, in the real world, there is both order and unpredictable catastrophe. The monotheistic point of view easily explains the order as the universe following the laws set down by the one true god; polytheists can more easily explain sudden disaster as the result of an action taken by some evil or angry god.
Remember from the discussion of “Noah and the Great Flood” (chapter I-5, discussion point #2), that the polytheistic Havasupai Indians explained the sudden destructive worldwide flood as the work of an evil god? The monotheistic Bible writers had to say that the flood was a good thing, since they only had one god to work with, and they believed that their one god was good.
Can you think of any other solutions to this problem faced by the Bible authors – to reconcile the simple fact that the world is filled with both good and evil with their belief that there is only one god and that god is good? This is a difficult problem which philosophers and theologians (people who study religion) have been trying to answer for a very long time. Sometimes people who believe that the god of the Bible is only good will blame the problems of the world on an independent evil being called Satan or the Devil. The problem with this idea is that it requires belief in an independent supernatural power other than the one good god, and is, therefore, a form of polytheism. In order to avoid this problem, you would have to say, as some rabbis did, that God, himself, is the source of evil as well as good. What problems does this create?
Of course, today we explain both the orderly and the chaotic events in the world scientifically. We now understand that the sun comes up each morning and sets each evening because the earth is steadily spinning around on its axis at the same speed. We also now understand that the seasons change in the same way each year because the earth’s axis is tilted, so that when the earth revolves around the sun each year the northern and the southern hemispheres get different amounts of sunlight in a regular and predictable way. The chaotic things that we see like furious storms and earthquakes are caused by movements of the atmosphere and the earth that are so complicated that even the biggest and fastest computers have difficulty keeping track of them. This is why big storms can be predicted only a short time before they occur and why it is not yet possible to predict earthquakes. As scientific understanding of the atmosphere and the movements of the earth’s crust has improved, our ability to understand and predict these seemingly unpredictable events has gotten better, and it will continue to get better as more research is done in these fields.
2. This story was told to show that when Abraham was a boy, he believed only in Yahweh, the one god of the Israelites. He stands up for his beliefs by smashing all of the statues that his father wanted to sell. Then he lies to his father about how it happened. Do you think Abraham was being brave and doing the right thing? Why or why not? How could Abraham have expressed his beliefs without destroying his father’s property and lying to him?
Today, we try very hard to respect the religious beliefs of others, even if they are very different from our own. When people of one religion try to force others to accept their beliefs, people often begin fighting with each other, and even killing each other. We call the respect for the beliefs of others “tolerance.” Tolerance means that we accept the fact that other people are different from us and we do not make fun of them or try to make them become like us. In return, we expect others to treat us the same way. Tolerance is especially important in a country like the United States where there are people with so many different religions.
3. While Abraham’s intolerance in this story may indicate that he was not a very considerate young person, we will see that in later stories from the Bible he shows many wonderful character traits as an adult. Do you think that a child who is as strong-willed and inconsiderate of others as Abraham seems to be can grow up to be a friendly, generous, warm-hearted person?
4. Abraham would not worship the idols because they were unable to move or speak. He thought that other people believed that the wooden statues were gods. Actually, most of the people who worshipped idols did not really believe that they were gods. They believed that they were just statues that looked like the gods. They thought that the gods themselves lived in the sky, or on a mountain, or even under the earth. They prayed while looking at the statue because they thought this was a good way of talking to the real god.
Jews, even today, do a similar thing. When religious Jews pray in a synagogue, they often look at the Torah scroll as they say their prayers. They do not think that the Torah scroll is God, only that looking at the Torah helps them to concentrate on their god. Christians may pray while looking at a cross or at a statue of Jesus; they know that these objects are not the god they are praying to, but just symbols that represent their god.
[Genesis 13:5 - 13:17]
Abraham and his nephew Lot both owned many flocks of birds, herds of animals, and tents, all on the same land in Canaan. They owned so much that the land could not support them both. So there was arguing between the herdsmen who took care of Abraham’s cattle and those who took care of Lot’s cattle.
Abraham said to Lot, “Let there be no arguing between me and you, between my herdsmen and yours. We are of the same family. We should separate rather than get into arguments. Choose the land that you would like, and I will take what land you don’t want.”
Lot looked around and saw that there was a great deal of water in the land near the Jordan River. This water would be good for his cattle and his crops. Lot chose for himself the land near the Jordan River, and so he moved eastward. Abraham stayed in Canaan. Lot went to live near the Jordan River, as far as Sodom. And the people of Sodom were wicked, and great sinners before Yahweh.
And Yahweh said to Abraham, “I will give to your descendants all of the land that you can see, from north to south, from east to west. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth – only a person who could count the pieces of dust of the earth could count your offspring.”
1. This story shows what a generous person Abraham was. Abraham gives his nephew Lot the first choice of where he wants to live. Lot picks the best land, and Abraham does not complain.
What do you think about Abraham giving Lot the first choice of land? What would have happened if Abraham had taken the first choice of land for himself? Would that have solved the problem of the arguing that was going on? Sometimes, the best way to stop an argument is to give something to the person you are arguing with. This can prevent people from becoming jealous and arguing even more.
2. Remember what happened when Cain became jealous of his brother Abel
(chapter I-3). He killed Abel and was punished by God. Now Abraham is very different from Cain. Abraham is not jealous. Instead, he stops an argument with his nephew Lot by being generous with Lot. How does God reward Abraham for this?
3. The writers of these Bible stories were trying to teach people that it is good to be generous and bad to hurt others. They teach this by having God reward the generous person, Abraham, and by having God punish Cain for killing his brother. In real life, we can see that people who do good things are often not rewarded; a good and generous person may still have many sorrows and a difficult life. But even though a generous person may have many problems, he or she will still have the good feeling that comes from helping others. What experiences have you had that help you understand the point being made here?
We also know that sometimes a person who hurts others may never get caught and punished. But this person will suffer simply by knowing that he hurt someone else. Often such a person is very unhappy and afraid because he is always thinking about being found out. Can you think of something that you did even though you weren’t supposed to, and nobody found out? How did it make you feel?
[Genesis 18:16 - 19:30]
Yahweh called out to Abraham, “The people of Sodom and Gomorrah have committed such great sins. They must be punished.”
Abraham said, “Will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked? There may be fifty righteous people within the city. Will you not forgive the city for their sake? Certainly you would not want to kill the righteous along with the wicked! Will not the Judge of all the earth act justly?”
And Yahweh said, “If I find fifty righteous people in Sodom, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”
And Abraham answered and said, “I have dared to speak to Yahweh, though I am only dust and ashes. Perhaps there are only forty-five righteous people in Sodom? Will you destroy the whole city because it has only forty-five rather than fifty?”
And Yahweh answered, “I will not destroy Sodom if I find forty-five righteous people there.”
And Abraham spoke to Yahweh again, saying “There may be forty righteous people there.”
And Yahweh answered, “I will not do it for the sake of the forty.”
Abraham said, “Please do not be angry with me. But there may be only thirty righteous people there.”
And Yahweh said, “I will not destroy Sodom if I find thirty righteous people there.”
Abraham said, “Again I dare to speak to the Lord. There may be twenty righteous people found there?”
And Yahweh said, “I will not destroy Sodom for the sake of the twenty.”
And Abraham said, “Please do not be angry with me if I speak up one more time. There may be ten righteous people found there.”
And Yahweh said, “I will not destroy Sodom for the sake of the ten.”
And Yahweh went away when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his tent.
Lot, the nephew of Abraham, lived in Sodom. Two angels, appearing as men, came to Sodom, and Lot insisted that they stay as guests at his house. They told him, “We are going to destroy the whole city of Sodom. Take your wife and your family and get out so you will not also be destroyed.”
The angels led Lot with his wife and their two daughters out of the city and said, “Escape now and save your lives! Do not look back.”
And Lot and his wife and their two daughters ran away from Sodom. And Yahweh destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with a great fire from the sky. Lot’s wife looked back at Sodom, and she turned into a pillar of salt.
And God remembered Abraham, and so he removed Lot from the cities before they were destroyed. Only Lot and his two daughters escaped when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
1. This story seems to be teaching a moral lesson – that a person should speak out against injustice even when the injustice is being done by someone very powerful. Abraham tells Yahweh not to be unjust, even though Yahweh could easily kill Abraham if he wanted to. This story has often been taken to mean that we should not just accept it when innocent people are being harmed.
2. This story may also have been an explanation of something that actually happened. The story talks about fire coming down from the sky. It may be that there was a volcano, an earthquake, or even a large meteorite that destroyed some cities. The story may have been written to explain why these cities were destroyed. The Bible writers seem to believe that only evil people ever get killed, so they thought that the destruction of a city must mean that the people who lived in it were bad people. Sodom and Gomorrah may have been real places, but archaeologists have not found any traces of either of them.
3. In this story, Abraham argues with Yahweh to try to get him to be fair to the people of Sodom. Why does Abraham think that Yahweh is about to do something wrong? Do you think it took great courage for Abraham to argue with Yahweh? Does Abraham seem afraid or does he seem fearless? Why do you think Abraham stops arguing when he gets to ten righteous people? Do you think he should be concerned about even one righteous person?
4. Why is Abraham so concerned about saving Sodom? Do you think it is because his nephew Lot is there, or because he really wants to make sure that no righteous people are killed along with the wicked?
5. Does Abraham succeed in his argument with Yahweh? Does Yahweh save any righteous people? The way the story is written, it seems to say that Lot’s family was saved only because they were related to Abraham. On the other hand, Lot does go out of his way to invite the visitors, who turn out to be angels, to stay at his house; this may be taken to mean that Lot is a generous person, like Abraham, and therefore rewarded by being saved. His wife isn’t so lucky. Why would the story be written to say that she is turned into a pillar of salt?
[Genesis 16:1 - 16:3, 16:15, 17:1 - 17:19, 18:1 - 18:15, 21:1 - 21:7]
The years passed, and Abraham and Sarah still did not have any children. Sarah said to Abraham, “Yahweh has prevented me from bearing children. Go to my Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, so that I can have a child through her. So Abraham and Hagar the maidservant had a son, Ishmael.
When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God said to Abraham, “You and Sarah shall soon have a son, whose descendants shall be nations and rulers of people.” Abraham threw himself down on his face and laughed, saying to himself, “Can a child be born to a 100 year-old man and a 90 year-old woman?” And God said, “You and Sarah shall have a son, and I shall keep my covenant with him and his descendants. You shall name him Isaac.”
And Yahweh appeared to Abraham as he sat at the door of his tent. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. He ran out to greet them and said to them, “Please do not go any further. Stay here and drink some water, eat some bread, wash your feet, and rest under the tree.”
Then Abraham ran into the tent and called to Sarah, “Hurry up and make some bread for my guests.” And he gave the visitors some milk and butter and meat and they ate it under the tree.
One of the visitors said to Abraham, “Sarah, your wife, shall have a son.” Sarah, who was listening at the tent door, heard him and laughed to herself, saying, “Shall I really bear a child when I am so old?” And Yahweh said to Abraham, “Why is Sarah laughing? Nothing is too difficult for me. When I return next year, Sarah shall have a son.” Then Sarah lied, saying “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But Yahweh said, “No, but you did laugh.”
And Yahweh did what he had promised, and Sarah had a son, whose name was Isaac. And Sarah said, “God has made me laugh.”
1. In this story Abraham has two sons. Hagar the Egyptian maidservant, or slave, is the mother of Ishmael; Sarah, the wife of Abraham, is the mother of Abraham’s second son, Isaac. As we will see later, some of the descendants of Isaac become the Hebrew people, or Israelites, who later become the Jews.
2. Since Isaac was the only son needed to explain the origins of the Jewish people, why did the authors of this Bible story write about Ishmael, another son of Abraham? The reason is that the story of Ishmael is used to explain the beginnings of a group of tribes who lived near the Israelites. The people of these tribes were called the Ishmaelites by the Bible authors. We will learn more about them in the next story.
3. This story shows what a generous person Abraham was. When he sees the three strangers outside his tent, he insists that they stay and have something to eat and drink. We have already read about Abraham’s generosity in the story of how he avoided an argument with his nephew, Lot (chapter II-3).
The story about Abraham and the three strangers has been pointed to for many centuries to teach that it is important to be generous, even toward strangers. Abraham is rewarded for his generosity by hearing the happy message from the strangers. When people read this story in the Bible, they would think, “Am I a generous person like Abraham?” and “How can I become more generous towards others?” and “Does it matter if I am not actually rewarded for being generous?” How would you answer these questions?
4. The first story about Abraham and Sarah showed that they were very willing to obey God; they moved all the way from Haran to Canaan just because God told them to. In this story we see that they did not always believe what God said – in fact, they even laugh at God’s words!
Abraham laughed when God told him that he and Sarah would have a son. He laughed because he and Sarah were much too old to have children. Sarah laughed when she heard the visitor say that she would have a son. What do you think Sarah would have done if she had known that the visitors were messengers from God?
At the end of the story, Sarah laughs because she is so happy to have a son. The son is named “Isaac,” which is pronounced “Yitz-hak” in Hebrew. In the Hebrew language, “Yitz-hak” comes from the word for “laugh.” This name reminds us that Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s promise that they would have a son and also that Sarah laughed with joy when the promise came true and Isaac was born.
5. When God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son, Isaac, God also says that he will keep his “covenant” with that son. Remember that this “covenant” is the agreement God has made with Abraham to protect his descendants if they will follow God’s rules. We have already discussed this covenant in the story “Abraham and Sarah, the Promise from God” (chapter II-1). As we will see in the next story, it is important that this promise applies to Isaac and his descendants, not to Ishmael and his.
6. It is interesting that many of the characters in the Hebrew Bible are seen by the religion of Islam as "prophets" who received messages from God and told other people about them. These include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Islam also accepts Jesus (the main character in the story of Christianity) as a prophet and, of course, Muhammad (the central person in Islam).
As discussed in the Introduction to this book, Christianity is based in many ways on Judaism, and Christians accept the complete Hebrew Bible as part of their own Bible.
[Genesis 21:9 - 21:21, 25:12 - 25:18]
Sarah saw Ishmael, the son of Hagar, playing. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slavewoman and her son, for Ishmael shall not share the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Her words upset Abraham greatly because Ishmael was his son. God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset over the boy Ishmael and his mother. Do what Sarah says, for the descendants of Isaac will be known as yours. But I will also make a great nation from Ishmael, for he is your son, too.”
The next morning, Abraham sent Hagar and her son Ishmael away, with only some bread and water. They wandered in the wilderness. When they ran out of water, Hagar put her son under a bush, and sat some distance away, thinking, “I cannot bear to watch my child die.” And she began to cry.
God heard the voice of Ishmael. An angel of God called to Hagar and said, “Fear not, for God will make a great nation of the descendants of your son Ishmael.” God opened her eyes and she saw a well with water, and Hagar gave some of the water to Ishmael. God protected the boy as he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an archer.
Ishmael’s mother found a wife for him in the land of Egypt. Ishmael had twelve sons, and they became heads of twelve tribes that lived in the lands stretching from Haveelah to Shur, which is near Egypt.
1. In the story before this one (chapter II-5), we learned that it was Sarah’s idea for Abraham to have a son with Hagar, since Sarah herself seemed to be unable to have children. Now Sarah is very jealous. She is afraid that Ishmael, the son of Hagar and Abraham, will share the inheritance with Isaac, her own son. So she gets Abraham to throw Ishmael and his mother out of the house even though they have done nothing wrong.
Some people would say that Sarah is just helping God to fulfill his promise to keep his covenant with Isaac, and not with Ishmael. Others would say that Sarah is just a selfish person, concerned only about her own son, with no feelings for other people. What would you say?
2. Abraham agrees to send Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness with only some bread and water. Abraham agrees to do this because God assures him that Ishmael will be okay. Abraham is upset, but he does not argue with God, as he did for the people of Sodom. Why do you think that he is now acting differently from the generous, thoughtful, concerned person we have read about in some of the earlier stories about Abraham?
3. The story of Ishmael is usually not considered to be very important to Jews, but it is of great significance to the Arab people who follow the religion called Islam. Islam is the main religion among the Arabs. The people who follow this religion are called Muslims. Islam today is one of the most important religions in the world. It began almost 1400 years ago with a man named Muhammad (see the time line in the Introduction). Muhammad lived in the area now known as Saudi Arabia. The teachings of Muhammad were written down in a book called the Qur’an, which is the holy book of Islam, just as the Hebrew Bible is the holy book of Judaism.
Originally most of the followers of Muhammad were Arabs, but today Islam has spread far beyond the Arab lands. The followers of Islam believe in one God, just as religious Jews do. They also believe that the Arabs are the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar.
4. Do you remember the legend about Abraham smashing the idols (chapter II-2)? This is a story that the rabbis told to make it seem that Abraham believed that Yahweh was the only real god. The Bible itself never says that Abraham believed that there was only one real god.
There is another Jewish legend not found in the Bible that tells how Abraham went to visit the home of Hagar and Ishmael after he threw them out of his own home. Abraham meets the wife of Ishmael, who is not at all a nice person. Abraham tells Ishmael to get a new wife, which he does. This legend is supposed to show that Abraham was really concerned about his son Ishmael. The rabbis could not change the Bible story, which says that Abraham threw the innocent Ishmael out of the house, so they told this legend to show that Abraham was not such a cold-hearted person after all.
5. Islamic religious leaders also told legends about the Bible characters to fit their own religious point of view. For example, there is an Islamic legend that tells how Abraham visits with Ishmael and Hagar after throwing them out of his home. In the Islamic version of this story, Abraham and Ishmael work together to build the Temple in the city of Mecca. They also decide that this Temple will be a place for pilgrims to come to. (A pilgrim is a person who makes a special trip, called a pilgrimage, for a religious purpose). Since making a pilgrimage to the Temple at Mecca is one of the most important religious acts in Islam, this legend is meant to show that the ideas of Islam began with Abraham. Even if Abraham and Ishmael had been real people, there is nothing in the Bible that even hints that they ever went to Mecca.
6. Many of the characters in the Hebrew Bible are accepted by the religion of Islam as “prophets” who received messages from God and tell other people about them. These include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. In this way, Judaism and the stories in the Bible of the Jews contributed greatly to the establishment of another religion, Islam. Islam also accepts Jesus (the main character in the story of Christianity) as a prophet and, of course, Muhammad (the central person in Islam).
As discussed in the Introduction to this book, Christianity is also based in many ways on Judaism, and Christians accept the complete Hebrew Bible as part of their own Bible. Thus, Judaism provided both Christianity and Islam with many of the stories that became part of these newer religions.
The Jewish religion accepted monotheism (the idea that there is only one god) long before Christianity and Islam existed; then these two religions also accepted monotheism. The number of Jews in the world is now very small compared to the number of Muslims or Christians, but the religions of the Muslims and the Christians took some very important ideas from the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.
[Genesis 22:1 - 22:18]
And God tested Abraham. He called to him, “Abraham,” and Abraham answered, “Here I am.”
And God said, “Take your son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mo-ree-ah, and sacrifice him in a fire on one of the mountains that I will show you.”
So early the next morning, Abraham gathered some wood to make the fire and took his son Isaac to the hill in the land of Mo-ree-ah.
On the third day of walking, Isaac said to Abraham, “Father.” And Abraham answered, “Yes, my son.” And Isaac said, “I have the wood and I see that you have the fire, but where is the sheep that you are going to sacrifice?” And Abraham said, “God will make sure that there is a sheep for the sacrifice, my son.” And they walked on together.
When they arrived at the place for the sacrifice, Abraham arranged the wood and tied up his son Isaac on an altar over the wood. And Abraham reached with his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
And an angel from Yahweh called to him, “Abraham! Abraham!” And Abraham answered, “Here I am.” And the angel said, “Do not harm the boy. Now I know that you fear God, since you would even kill your son for me.”
When Abraham looked up, he saw a ram whose horns were caught in some thick bushes. So he sacrificed the ram instead of his son.
Then the angel of Yahweh called to Abraham a second time from the sky, “Because you were willing to sacrifice your son Isaac, Yahweh will give you as many descendants as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand on the seashore. And your descendants shall conquer their enemies.”
1. This story starts when God decides to test Abraham. What was the test? Did Abraham pass it? What do you think about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son?
2. How do you think Isaac felt about his father’s willingness to sacrifice him?
3. What is this story trying to teach? The lesson that religious Jews have learned from this story for many centuries is that the most important thing in life is to obey the commands of God. Abraham was rewarded because he was willing to obey God, even though it meant killing his own son. What do you think about this way of teaching such a lesson?
4. In ancient times, people would make sacrifices to their gods in order to keep the gods happy. Usually the sacrifice would be some food or some plants or animals that could be used for food. They would often make this sacrifice by burning the food, which is what happens in this story. Some people believed, however, that their gods required more than food for sacrifices. They thought that their gods sometimes wanted them to sacrifice children.
In recent years, some modern rabbis who could not accept the use of this story to teach unquestioning obedience to God have developed a newer interpretation of its meaning. They said that this story taught the ancient Israelites that their god would never ask them to sacrifice children to him. However, there is no reason to believe that the Israelites ever thought of this story as having this meaning or that anyone, either Jews or Christians, interpreted the story this way before the 20th century.
5. Why do you think that Abraham agrees to kill Isaac? We have already learned that Abraham was willing to argue with Yahweh when Yahweh said that he was going to destroy Sodom (chapter II-4). Why didn’t Abraham argue with God about killing his son Isaac, who had done nothing wrong?
One possible way of answering this question could be to say that the different stories about Abraham were written by different people, and these authors had very different ideas about what kind of person Abraham was. Do you remember when we learned that the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Creation were written by two different people? (See chapter I-2, “Adam and Eve, the First People,” discussion point #7). This explained why the two stories in the Bible don’t agree about how the world was made. The story of Adam and Eve was written by someone who always used the word “Yahweh” for the name of the god of the Israelites; this Bible author is called the “Yahwist,” or “J.” The author of the story of Creation was written by the “Priestly author,” nicknamed “P.” These two authors, J and P, also wrote the two different versions that were woven together to create the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood, complete with all their contradictions. We have also learned about a third author, the “Elohist” (“E”), who always calls his god by the name “Elohim,” which we translate as “God.” The authors J and E were the earliest of the Bible authors.
Bible scholars tell us that the story that tells how Abraham argued with God not to destroy Sodom was written by J, the Yahwist, and that the story we just read about Isaac was written by E, the Elohist. This could be an explanation why in one story Abraham tries to protect the people of Sodom, but in another story he does nothing to defend the life of his own innocent son Isaac. Author J thought of Abraham as a courageous person who would even argue with Yahweh himself to protect innocent people; author E was more concerned about showing Abraham’s blind obedience to God, even to the point of killing his innocent son Isaac.
6. The use of the name “Yahweh” was a tradition of the people who settled in the South (Judah); the name “Elohim” was used in the North (Israel). When these two different traditions, along with the writings of P (the “Priestly author”) were merged into one Bible, the editor who did this tried to blend together the stories from the different traditions. However, we can still often tell one author’s writing from that of the other authors.
We said that the story we just read was written by the Elohist, who calls the god of the Israelites by the name “Elohim” (which we translate as “God”). But look at the end of this story. You can see that the angel who tells Abraham not to kill his son is an angel from “Yahweh” rather than from “Elohim” (God). The story up to that point uses the name “Elohim” (God). This fact has led some scholars to conclude that in the original version of the story, written by the Elohist, “E,” Abraham actually kills Isaac. Then a different, and happier, ending was put on by an editor, who used the name “Yahweh” for the god of the Israelites.
7. There are many different ways that we can try to answer the question of why Abraham agrees with God to sacrifice his son Isaac. For example, suppose we ignore the fact that different stories in the Bible were written by different people. We have already learned that Abraham is someone who does not automatically obey God or believe everything that God says. We know this because Abraham argued with God to try to save the people of Sodom (chapter II-4), then he fell on his face and laughed because he didn’t believe it when God told him that he and Sarah would have a son (chapter II-5).
So if Abraham did not always believe or obey God, how can we explain the fact that he takes Isaac up the hill and prepares to kill him? If we wanted to give Abraham a good reason, we could say that Abraham really did not intend to kill Isaac at all – he just wanted to see whether God would stop him before he did it. In other words, while God was testing Abraham, Abraham was also testing God to see if he was a God worthy of following. According to this way of looking at the story, Abraham would never have actually killed Isaac anyway, even if he hadn’t been stopped by the angel. But God passed Abraham’s test by sending an angel to tell him not to kill Isaac, so Abraham’s faith in this God was renewed. What do you think of this explanation?
You can see that there are many different ways of looking at the stories in the Bible. None of them is “right” or “wrong.” It is interesting to try to figure out what the authors of the Bible meant to say with these stories. It is also important to know how religious leaders have interpreted them throughout the centuries. But it is really much more fun to try to find different ways of thinking about these stories for ourselves. We have already discussed the use of modern interpretations in the stories “Adam and Eve, the First People” (chapter I-2, discussion point #3) and “The Tower of Babel”
(chapter I-6, discussion point #4).
[Genesis 23:1 - 23:2, 23:19, 24:1 - 24:67]
Sarah lived for one hundred and twenty-seven years. When Sarah died, Abraham buried her in the cave of the field of Makhpelah, facing Mamreh – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan.
When Abraham was old, advanced in years, Yahweh had blessed him in all things. And Abraham said to the oldest servant of his household, who was in charge of all that Abraham owned, “Swear by Yahweh, god of the sky and god of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell. Instead, you will go to the land where my relatives live to get a wife for my son Isaac. Yahweh will send his angel to you, and you will get a wife for my son from there.” So the servant swore to do what he was told.
Then Abraham’s servant travelled to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And he said, “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, here I stand by the well as the girls from the town come out to draw water. I will say to one of the maidens, ‛Please, tip your pitcher so I may drink from it.’ Let the one whom you have chosen to marry Isaac reply to me ‛Drink, and I will also water your camels.’”
He had not even finished speaking when Rebekah came out with her pitcher on her shoulder. Rebekah was the daughter of Betuel, the son of Abraham’s brother Nahor. The maiden Rebekah was very beautiful. Abraham’s servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your pitcher.” “Drink, my lord,” she said. “I will also draw water for your camels.” Then she ran back to the well to draw water, and she drew enough for all of his camels.
The servant wondered whether this was the girl that Yahweh had chosen to marry Isaac. He asked her if he could stay the night at her father’s house. She said “There is room to spend the night.” He asked her who her parents were. When she told him that her father was the son of Nahor, the brother of Abraham, Abraham’s servant said, “Blessed be Yahweh who has led me to the house of the family of my master, Abraham.”
So Abraham’s servant went to the house of Betuel, Rebekah’s father. He told his story to Rebekah’s father, Betuel, and to her brother, Laban. He asked them if Rebekah could return with him to marry Abraham’s son, Isaac.
Then Laban and Betuel answered, “This is what Yahweh wants. Take Rebekah and let her be the wife of Isaac.” Rebekah and her maids, riding on camels, followed Abraham’s servant.
Isaac was out walking in the fields toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. When the servant told her who he was, she took her veil and covered herself.
Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife, and he loved her. And thus Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
1. This is another story about generosity. We have seen what a generous person Abraham was. Now Rebekah is chosen as Isaac’s wife because she shows such generosity when asked for water by a stranger, Abraham’s servant. Not only does she give him some water to drink, but she runs off to get more water for his camels without even being asked. As a result, she becomes one of the mothers of all the Israelites and, therefore, of the Jewish people.
So far we have met two of these mothers, Sarah and Rebekah, and two of the fathers, Abraham and Isaac. In the next chapter we will meet the third father of the Jewish people, Jacob, and later on his two wives, Leah and Rachel.
Since Rebekah is rewarded for her generosity by becoming one of the revered mothers of the Israelites, the story teaches the importance of being generous, even with strangers.
2. In this story, Abraham decides that he cannot allow his son Isaac to marry a Canaanite, even though they are living among the Canaanite people. Why is this? The Bible presents the Canaanites as great enemies of the Israelites because the Israelites will eventually take the land of the Canaanites for their own. We will see in later stories that Yahweh tells the Israelites that they should completely destroy the Canaanites. Since the Israelites saw themselves as the descendants of Isaac and his wife, they didn’t want to have a story that said that Isaac’s wife was a Canaanite. So the story was written to make sure that no Canaanites are presented as ancestors of the Israelites.
3. Isaac marries Rebekah, who is actually the daughter of his cousin Betuel. Today we know that it is not a good idea for people to marry close relatives because it makes it likely that their children will inherit genes that can cause serious diseases. In fact, in the United States and many other countries there are laws prohibiting close relatives from marrying. But marrying of cousins and other family members was not uncommon among Jews and some other people in the past.
A later story tells how Isaac’s son, Jacob, also marries within the family of Abraham.
[Genesis 25:7 - 25:11, 25:21 - 25:34]
Abraham lived for one hundred and seventy-five years. He was buried with his wife Sarah in the cave of Makhpelah, facing Mamreh. After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac.
Isaac and Rebekah had no children. So Isaac pleaded with Yahweh, and Yahweh responded. Rebekah became pregnant with two sons. And the children struggled within her. She asked Yahweh why this was happening, and Yahweh answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall come from your body. One people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”
The first of the twins to be born was red all over, like a hairy robe. He was named Esau. The second was born holding onto Esau’s heel. This was Jacob.
When they grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter and a man of the outdoors. Jacob was a plain man who lived in tents. Their father, Isaac, loved Esau because he liked to eat the game that Esau hunted. Their mother, Rebekah, loved Jacob.
One day, Jacob was cooking some soup. Esau came in from the fields and was very hungry. Esau said “Give me some of that red, red soup, for I am faint.” This is why his name was Edom. And Jacob replied, “Sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am going to die, so what use is the birthright to me?” So Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob, and Jacob gave him some bread and lentil soup.
1. This is a story about which son will inherit the birthright from Isaac. The birthright was the right to inherit most of the father’s possessions – the son who had the birthright would inherit twice as much money and property as his brother when the father died.
In ancient times, the birthright was always given to the oldest son. Since Esau was born first, the birthright belonged to him. In this story he foolishly gives his rights to his younger brother Jacob in exchange for some bread and soup.
2. One way to look at this story is that perhaps Jacob deserved the birthright more than Esau. It really wasn’t fair that Esau should get more than Jacob simply because Esau happened to be born a few seconds before his twin brother. In this story, Esau doesn’t seem to think that the birthright is very important, he is thinking only of his hunger. Jacob seems smarter than Esau, so maybe he deserves the birthright more; he certainly wants it more than Esau does.
But Jacob also seems selfish and even mean – after all, he refuses to give his hungry brother a little food without getting something extremely valuable in return. In the next story we will see how Jacob really plays a nasty trick on Esau to ensure his inheritance from Isaac. Which brother do you think deserves the birthright? Why?
3. Near the beginning of this story, Rebekah is worried about the fighting of her two children, who have not yet been born. Yahweh tells her that there are “two nations” fighting within her, and that the younger one will rule over the older one. This is called a “prophecy.” A “prophecy” is a prediction about the future, and the Bible is full of them. When a Bible prophecy comes true, that means that the story was probably written after the event which is predicted; that is how the author of the story knew to put the prophecy into it. Looking for prophecies is one way that Bible scholars can figure out when the different parts of the Bible were written.
What does it mean when Yahweh calls Jacob and Esau “two nations”? Well, according to the Bible, Jacob is the father of all the people of Israel, who later will become the Jewish people. Esau is presented in the Bible as the father of the people called the Edomites, who lived in the land south of Israel. He is presented in the story as the twin brother of Jacob because the Edomites were closely related to the people of Israel, and spoke a language similar to theirs. Later on, beginning at the time of King David, the Israelites really did rule over the Edomites. Of course, having a story claiming that Yahweh himself predicted that Israel would rule over Edom was very useful in justifying the conquest of the Edomites by the Israelites. Rather than saying that they were conquering in order to increase their power, or to take money or other valuable things from the Edomites, they could say that they were simply obeying their god. This explains the “prophecy” that Jacob will rule over his older brother Esau. Since this prophecy “came true,” we can be pretty sure that this passage was written after the time of King David, when the Israelites became rulers over the Edomites (see the time line in the Introduction).
It is very common in the Bible for one man to be presented as the father of a whole nation. The nations at that time were more like tribes, with a common language and customs. They seemed like very large families. So the writers of the Bible imagined that the people of any one nation were actually a single family that descended from one person.
4. Why did the writers say that Esau was very red in color? This was probably to help confirm the prophecy connecting Esau and the people of Edom. The word “Edom” is very similar to the Hebrew word “adom,” which means “red.” When Esau asks Jacob for some of the “red, red” soup, the Bible even says that is why he was named Edom – because the word for “red” is so similar to the word “Edom.” The problem is, of course, that he wasn’t named Edom at all; his name was Esau. But such details never seem to bother the Bible authors. If they wanted Esau to be the father of the Edomite people, they just said that his name was Edom. When you read in the story that his name was Edom, rather that Esau, did you think that this was a mistake? As we will see later, Jacob gets the same treatment; his name later becomes “Israel” to prove that he is really the father of the people of Israel.
[Genesis 27:1 - 27:40]
When Isaac was old, his eyes became dim and he could not see. He called to his older son Esau and said “I am old. I do not know when I might die. Go out and hunt some game and prepare a delicious meal for me so I may give you my blessing before I die.”
Rebekah heard what Isaac said. She told her son Jacob about it. She instructed Jacob to bring her two young goats. He did this and she cooked a delicious meal for her husband Isaac.
Rebekah told Jacob to take the food to Isaac so that he could receive the blessing that Isaac wanted to give to Esau. She put Esau’s clothes on Jacob and covered his smooth hands and neck with the skins of the young goats, so that he would feel hairy like his brother Esau.
Jacob brought to Isaac the food his mother had prepared. Isaac asked, “Who are you.” Jacob replied, “I am Esau, your firstborn son. I have done what you have told me. Now eat some of the game I have hunted and give me your blessing.”
Isaac said, “Come closer so I may feel you, so I will know whether or not you are Esau.” Jacob came closer. Isaac felt his hands, which were covered with goat skins. Isaac thought to himself, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the hands are Esau’s.” Isaac did not recognize Jacob because his hands were hairy, like those of his brother Esau.
So Isaac ate the meal that Jacob had brought for him and gave to Jacob the blessing that he meant to give to Esau: “May God give you abundant crops and rain so they may grow. Other nations will work for you and bow down to you. Be a master over your brothers, and your mother’s sons will bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you.”
As Isaac finished blessing Jacob, Jacob left and his brother Esau came back from hunting. He said “Bless me father, for I am your first-born son Esau.” Isaac began to tremble, saying, “Your brother has taken away your blessing.” Esau cried out bitterly “Bless me too, father. First Jacob took away my birthright, and now he has taken my blessing.” And Isaac answered, “I have made him your master with my blessing. But I will say to you that you will serve him, but then you will break free of him.”
1. This story is like the last one in which Jacob takes his brother’s birthright. In this story, Jacob completes the job by stealing Esau’s blessing.
As Isaac lay dying, the old man wanted to make sure that Esau, his favorite and oldest son, would be successful and rule over Jacob. As we discussed before, this did not really mean that Esau the person would be the master of Jacob himself; rather it meant that the descendants of Esau (the Edomites) would rule over the descendants of Jacob (the Israelites). But Isaac tricks his blind father, so the Israelites become the masters and the Edomites are conquered by them.
2. Why in the world did the Israelites tell this story about themselves? This story says that their power comes only from the trickery of their ancestor Jacob. While it makes for an interesting story, it seems to say that the Israelites got their power only because of an act of great injustice. After all, Jacob was certainly not being honest when he tricked both his brother and his old, blind father.
Some people say that Jacob was only obeying his mother, Rebekah, by fooling his father and stealing the blessing. What do you think about this? Do you think it was okay that Jacob lied to his father and stole his brother’s blessing because his mother told him to? Or should each person take responsibility for his or her own actions? Can Jacob, who is no longer a child, blame his mother for something that he, himself, did?
3. This is the third story we have read in which the younger brother is favored over the older brother – the first two were about Cain and Abel (chapter I-3) and about Ishmael and Isaac (chapter II-6). Remember how God notices the sacrifice of Abel, but ignores the sacrifice of Cain, his older brother? Cain gets very angry because of this. In some ways the story of Jacob and Esau is similar to the story of Cain and Abel. God favors Abel by noticing his sacrifice. In the same way, Isaac favors Jacob by blessing him instead of his older brother Esau, although Isaac has to be tricked into doing this. In the earlier story, Cain responds to God’s favoring of Abel by killing Abel out of jealousy. As we will see in the next story, Esau also becomes very jealous of his younger brother, and decides to kill him.
This story is also similar to the story of Ishmael and Isaac. In that story the younger brother Isaac gets the inheritance from his father Abraham. The older brother Ishmael gets nothing from his father.
[Genesis 27:41 - 28:21]
And Esau hated his brother Jacob because of his father’s blessing, and vowed to kill him. When Rebekah heard what her son Esau was planning to do, she told Jacob to flee to Haran, to the home of her brother Laban. Isaac also told Jacob to go to Haran to find a wife from among the daughters of Laban, rather than marry a Canaanite woman.
Jacob set out for Haran. When he came near the city of Luz, he stopped for the night. He used a stone for a pillow, and lay down. He had a dream that he saw a ladder that reached from the ground to the sky. Angels of God were going up and down the ladder. And Yahweh, who was standing above the ladder, said, “I am Yahweh, the god of Abraham and Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground on which you are lying – the land of Canaan. Your descendants will be as numerous as the pieces of dust of the earth, and they shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south. I will protect them everywhere, and I will bring them back to this land.”
Jacob woke up and said, “Surely, Yahweh is in this place. This is the house of God and the gate of the heavens.” So he named the place Beth-El, which means “House of God.” Before that, the city was called Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God protects me on my journey, and if I return safely to the house of my father, then Yahweh will be my god.”
1. Once again, one of the fathers of the Jewish people is told to marry a relative from Haran rather than a Canaanite woman. Remember when Abraham told Isaac to do this (chapter II-8, “Isaac Married Rebekah”)? Now Isaac tells the same thing to his son, Jacob.
2. The story of Jacob’s ladder is another story about the “covenant” or agreement (b’reet in Hebrew) between Yahweh and the Jewish people. In Jacob’s dream, Yahweh repeats the promise that he made to Abraham – that his descendants will be very numerous and come to rule the land of Canaan. In exchange, Abraham agreed to follow Yahweh and accept Yahweh as his god. In this story we learn that Jacob has not yet accepted Yahweh, the god of his father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham. Jacob says he will only accept Yahweh as his god if everything works out for him. The story makes it clear that Jacob may still decide to worship and follow another god if Yahweh does not fulfill his promise to protect him.
3. As with some of the earlier stories, this one may have an additional, purely practical purpose. It may explain why there is a town called Beth-El, which means “House of God.” We might imagine that some child living in Beth-El asked one of her parents one day how their town got its name. The parent might have told the well-known story of Jacob’s ladder, adding on the part about Jacob’s giving the name “Beth-El” to the place where the ladder was. Then, when the child grew up, she told the story to all her friends and her own children. This is how stories like this one can get started. It is interesting to think about how such stories are invented, but there is no way to know how it really happened, since it was so long ago.
What about those Bible authors that we have mentioned several times already? (See the discussion of the four Bible authors in discussion point #7 after "Adam and Eve, the First People," chapter I-2). One of them would have had a particular interest in Beth-El, since this was one of the main religious centers in the northern kingdom of Israel. The Israelite author E wanted to show that God was at Beth-El, so that the people would not think that they had to go to Jerusalem in the southern kingdom (Judah) to worship properly. Bible scholars tell us that the story of Jacob’s ladder is a mixture of passages from the two earliest Bible authors, E and J. The use of the name “Yahweh” is one indication of the passages written by J. The name “El” (as in “Beth-El”), and the similar name “Elohim” (translated in these stories as “God”) shows the influence of author E.
[Genesis 29:1 - 29:30]
Jacob continued on his journey. He came to a well that was covered by a large stone, so that no one could get to the water. He said to some shepherds waiting at the well, “My brothers, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.” Jacob asked them if they knew Laban, the brother of his mother. They answered that they did, and that Laban’s daughter Rachel was coming to the well with her flock.
Jacob told the shepherds that they should give their sheep water from the well. But they said that they could not give water to their sheep until all of the shepherds arrived. Only then would there be enough of them to roll the heavy stone away from the opening of the well.
While they were talking, Rachel arrived with her father’s flock. When Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the sheep of Laban, he rolled the great stone away from the mouth of the well all by himself. Then he kissed Rachel, and told her that he was her cousin.
Laban, Rachel’s father, welcomed Jacob into his house. Jacob worked on Laban’s farm. After one month, Laban said to Jacob, “Even though you are my relative, I want to pay you for your work. How much should I pay you?” Now, Laban had two daughters. The older one was Leah and the younger one was Rachel, who was very beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel, so he said to Laban, “I will work for you for seven years, then I want to marry Rachel.” Laban agreed, and Jacob worked for seven years for Rachel, but it seemed like only a few days because he loved her so much.
When it came time for Jacob to marry Rachel, Laban made a great feast. But that evening, instead of giving Rachel to Jacob as he had promised, Laban gave him Leah, his older daughter. When morning came, Jacob realized that he had been tricked. Laban told him that he had given Leah to Jacob because it was the custom for the older daughter to marry first. But Laban agreed to let Jacob marry Rachel also if Jacob would work for him for seven more years. So Jacob married Rachel, whom he loved, and worked for his uncle Laban for another seven years.
1. This story reminds us of the story of how Isaac, the father of Jacob, finds a wife. Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s wife Rebekah at a well near Haran. Now Jacob also finds his wife at a well near Haran, but he has a much harder time before he can marry her. His uncle, Laban, tricks him into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister, after Jacob has worked seven years to marry Rachel. Then Laban lets Jacob marry Rachel, but only after he agrees to work another seven years.
2. Were you surprised that Jacob could have two wives at the same time? This is not permitted any more in most places, but men can still have more than one wife in some countries in the Middle East and Africa. Jacob also marries his first cousins. As we have already learned in the discussion of the story “Isaac Marries Rebekah” (chapter II-8), the marriage of such close relatives is not permitted any more in many countries. It is interesting that the Bible stories, even those that are about people who probably never existed, show what the customs of people were in the time and place in which they are set.
3. In this story, Jacob is tricked by his uncle Laban. Do you feel sorry for Jacob because he has to work fourteen years to marry Rachel? (Remember how Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of his blessing, in chapter II-10, before you feel too sorry for him!)
[Genesis 30:25 - 30:42, 31:3 - 31:35]
Jacob had twelve sons and one daughter. Leah was the mother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Yissakhar, and Zebulon and of Jacob’s daughter, Deenah. And Zilpah, who was Leah’s maidservant was the mother of Gad and Asher. And Bilhah, the maidservant of Rachel was the mother of Dan and Naphtalee. And, finally, Rachel had two sons, first Joseph and then Benjamin.
Jacob told Laban that he wanted to go back to his own homeland. Laban said, “Let me pay you the wages that I owe you for all the years that you have worked here.” Jacob told Laban “Do not pay me any money. Just let me feed and watch your animals and take every speckled and spotted sheep and dark-colored sheep and every speckled and spotted goat from your flock. These shall be my wages.”
Laban agreed to this. Then Laban removed all of the dark-colored sheep and the speckled and spotted goats from his flocks and gave them to his sons to take care of.
Jacob saw that Laban had taken away the animals that Jacob was supposed to get. So he took some branches and peeled the bark so that the branches appeared speckled and spotted. He held these branches in front of the goats as they mated. As a result, the offspring of the goats were streaked and speckled and spotted.
Then Jacob turned the sheep so that they were looking at streaked and dark-colored animals when they mated. And the offspring of these sheep were streaked or dark in color.
So most of the animals in Laban’s flocks came to belong to Jacob. Thus, Jacob became very rich.
Yahweh said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers, where you came from, and I will be with you.” So, without telling Laban that they were leaving, Jacob set out for Canaan with his wives and all their children and animals and possessions.
Rachel stole the household idols of her father Laban. These were the statues of the gods that Laban worshipped.
Laban came riding after them. He asked Jacob who had taken his idols. Jacob did not know that Rachel had them, and he told Laban to search for them. Laban searched everywhere. Rachel hid the idols in a camel’s saddlepack, and sat on it. When Laban came to search for his idols, she told him that she was ill, so he would not make her get up. For this reason, Laban never found his idols, and he went home without them.
1. This is another story about people tricking each other. First Laban tricks Jacob by taking those animals that he has agreed to give to Jacob. Then Jacob tricks Laban by making the animals give birth to offspring that will belong to Jacob.
Can you really make a baby animal come out spotted by making its parents look at something spotted when they are mating? Of course not! But many hundreds of years ago, when the Bible stories were being written, people did not understand that the color of an animal is inherited through the genes of its parents, which cannot be easily changed. They thought that the activities of the parents could affect the color or size of the babies.
2. Rachel steals her father’s idols. These statues of gods were very important to Laban because he worshipped these gods. Rachel probably worshipped the same gods as she grew up in Laban’s house, so she wanted to take them with her. This probably means that she has not accepted Yahweh as her god.
[Genesis 32:1 - 33:20, 35:1 - 35:12]
As Jacob got close to Edom, the land of his brother Esau, he became very frightened. Jacob remembered that Esau wanted to kill him for cheating Esau out of his blessing. So he sent messengers ahead with many gifts for Esau, hoping that Esau would not harm him. He sent his brother many animals: goats and sheep, camels and cattle, and donkeys as well.
That night, Jacob was alone. A man appeared, and wrestled with Jacob until the dawn. When the stranger saw that he had not beaten Jacob, he struck Jacob’s thigh and it came out of its joint. Then the stranger said, “Let me go, for the dawn has come.” And Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So the other one said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and also with men and have overcome them.” Then he left Jacob.
Jacob was limping because his thigh was out of joint. This is why the children of Israel do not eat the sinew in the hollow of the thigh of an animal.
Jacob looked up and saw his brother Esau coming with four hundred men. Although he was afraid, he went to Esau bowing his head to the ground seven times as he approached him.
Esau ran up to him and kissed him. They were so happy to see each other that they wept. Esau said, “I have enough things. Please keep the gifts you have sent me.” But Jacob said, “Please keep them. I am so happy that you are pleased to see me. Please do me the favor of keeping the gifts.” So Esau accepted the gifts from Jacob.
Jacob and his family set up their tents in Shekhem, in the land of Canaan. One day, God said to Jacob, go and stay in Beth-El and build an altar to the god that appeared to you there when you were running away from your brother Esau. So Jacob and all those in his household went to Beth-El and built an altar. And God appeared to Jacob in Beth-El and blessed him. God said, “You shall be called Jacob no more. Now Israel shall be your name. And your descendants shall be a great nation. You and your descendants shall have the land I promised to Abraham and Isaac.”
1. Jacob really has some weird things happen to him. A few chapters ago, he dreamed about a ladder with angels climbing up and down it. Now he wrestles with someone who dislocates his thigh and then gives him a new name.
Who is Jacob wrestling with? Even though the story says it is a man, the wrestler is usually thought to be an angel of God, or it may be God himself. This is because he says, after they stop fighting, “You have struggled with God and also with men.” The struggle with men probably means his struggles with Esau and Laban.
2. Why does Jacob get the new name “Israel”? By giving the Israelite people an ancestor named Israel, the Bible authors were explaining their name and the name of their land, “Israel.” The Jewish people are sometimes called the “Children of Israel” (B’nai Yisrael in Hebrew), or Israelites, referring to Jacob’s new name, because the Bible says that they are the descendants of Israel (Jacob).
What does the word “Israel” mean? Notice the ending “-el.” As we have seen, this means “God.” (Remember “Beth-El,” which means “House of God”?) The word “Israel” (Yisra-el in Hebrew) means something like “may God contend” (where “contend” means struggle, or strive, or fight). In the story about the wrestling, the word “Yisra-el” is thought of as meaning “he strives (yisra) with God (el).”
3. Jacob seems to be really happy to see his brother Esau. He is especially happy that Esau is no longer mad at him. Why do you think that Esau is happy to see Jacob after all the problems they have had?
We see that this is another story about generosity. Unlike the stories about Abraham’s generosity, though, Jacob is only generous with Esau because he is afraid that Esau wants to kill him. Even so, one lesson that can be taught from this story is that bad feelings between people may be reduced if one person gives the other a gift to show that he or she is not angry.
4. What is this business about the children of Israel not eating the sinew in the hollow of the thigh of an animal? This is an explanation for one of the many dietary laws that some religious Jews follow. We will learn more about these laws when we read about Moses in later chapters of this book.
There are many different kinds of food that certain religious Jews will not eat because they are not “kosher.” A kosher food is a food that is permitted to be eaten according to Jewish religious rules. This story about Jacob wrestling is supposed to be an explanation for why a certain part of the thigh of an animal is not kosher.
5. At the end of this story, God tells Jacob that his new name is Israel. But the wrestling angel has already told him this. Why is the renaming of Jacob repeated?
Many of the stories in the Bible are repeated, with the two versions usually differing in some important ways. We have already read about several stories that were written by two different authors with different points of view – the story of how life on earth began in the Creation story (chapter I-1) and in the story of Adam and Eve (chapter I-2); the two intertwined and contradictory tales of Noah and the Flood (chapter I-5); and some of the stories about Abraham. Remember the three Bible authors J, E, and P (discussion point #7 after "Adam and Eve, the First People," chapter I-2)? Well, here they are again. This time it is E (the “Elohist”) and P (the “Priestly author”) who wrote the two versions of the story about how Jacob’s name gets changed to Israel.
The author called E wrote the story about how Jacob got his name changed by the wrestler. Why did P think it was necessary to write another version of this story?
As we have learned, P was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem (see the discussion of chapter I-5, “Noah and the Great Flood”). Now, the priests in the Temple wanted everyone to believe that only they, the priests, could act as messengers from the people to God. Because of this, the priests did not like any stories that included angels or any other messengers (except for priests) between God and people. So when the Priestly author, P, rewrote many of the stories that the Yahwist and the Elohist had already written, he made sure that no angels appeared in these stories. This could explain why P wrote a version of the story about the renaming of Jacob in which God talks directly to Jacob, rather than through an angel or some other messenger. Unfortunately for P, stories by J and E eventually got included in the Bible along with his own “P” versions. The two stories of how Jacob’s name was changed to Israel is only one of many examples in which two different versions of the same story appear in the Bible because two different Bible authors, with two different points of view, wrote such stories.
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Copyright © 1995, 2014 by Michael J. Prival
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