Today, I’ve got a bit of writing about these chapters in General, an article I wrote in the past on Genesis 38, and some useful tidbits
Before talking about the stories in today’s chapters, let’s introduce a relevant principle. When we get to Exodus 20 in a few weeks, we’ll encounter the idea that God is “a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (Exo 20:5). There’s a particular interpretation of this I like, but first let’s counter the context-free “mean Old Testament deity” interpretation by pointing out that in the next verse God is said to “show kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” If we are to understand these as saying that God punishes even the 4th generation of children for the parent’s sin, let us point out that if the parental faithfulness reverberates equally down through not the 4th but thousandth generation. The rhetoric portrays God as 250x more “merciful/kind/loving/loyal” than he is punitive. (It’s hard to translate ḥesed. See this excerpt from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, “Love.”) However, let’s take a different tack. Some have looked at the first verse from a sociological perspective; parental sins and mistakes often echo down through the lives of their children for several generations because children emulate their parents, not because of divine decree.
I’ve brought up this verse in order to take a closer look at the chain of deception initiated by Jacob and how that reverberates through his children and grandchildren. Not all of these examples are direct, but I believe they are included in the text and made literarily significant in order to demonstrate something like Exodus 20:5. “Deceive, and both you and your children in turn will deceive and be deceived.” So who deceives whom, and with what?
- Jacob deceives Isaac into thinking he’s his twin brother Esau, using a goat (both meat and skin) and cloth that smells of animals.
- Jacob is in turn deceived by his future father-in-law Laban as to his wife’s identity, marrying Leah instead of Rachel first.
- Judah (and his brothers) deceive Jacob about Joseph’s death using a cloth torn from his garment and the blood of a goat.
- Jacob’s son Judah is in turn deceived by his daughter-in-law Tamar about her identity, using a cloth (veil) and involving another animal (for payment). That Tamar speaks to Judah the exact same words which Judah spoke to Jacob shows that we are to understand that these two incidents are connected, that this is Judah’s comeuppance in a sense.
- Meanwhile down in Egypt, Potiphar is deceived as to Joseph’s intent by the (mis)use of a cloth garment.
- Judah (and his brothers) are later deceived by Joseph as to his identity, again by use of a cloth (veil)
For Genesis 38, here’s an article I wrote a few years ago in Religious Educator that explains what’s going on and shows a few of the connections to the surrounding chapters. Please read that as the rest of this post. And if you need background on Religious Educator, go here.
- Dinah and Shechem– The retributive violence of Simeon and Levi in Genesis 34 receives mention in Genesis 49:5-7, where it becomes the historical explanation of their later disenfranchisement. The tribe of Levi never receives any land (priests made their living from the sacrifices and offerings that brought to the temple, not farming/herding), and the tribe of Simeon will be absorbed into Judah (Joshua 19:1-9). All of this is likely ex post facto, a later etiology explaining the current situation on the basis of traditions about the past. Note the historical framing of their claim
It is intriguing that Dinah’s brothers are outraged because such “a disgraceful thing [is not done] in Israel.” There was no territory named Israel either in the time of the patriarchs or in the time when the Israelites were in the desert, though during the latter period it would not be unusual to say that something is not done among the people of Israel. This stands as a good example of the author’s use of anachronism.
- Scripture is often meant to prompt questions, not provide answers. Genesis 34 provides an example of this, as
one of the most disturbing stories in the Bible. Many Christians ignore it altogether. It makes people uncomfortable, but it also brings important matters to the church’s attention.
At the outset of this chapter, readers witness a tribal prince rape Dinah. When her father—our patriarch Jacob—learns about it, he does nothing. If his response is appalling, so is that of Dinah’s brothers. They slaughter not only Shechem but also every male inhabitant of his city, grossly distorting the rite of circumcision in the process. If we approach the Bible while assuming we should imitate its characters, we’ll give up on reading it. There’s no one in Genesis 34 whom readers should try to copy. Shechem’s rape, Jacob’s silence, and the brothers’ violence—all of these actions are horrendous. Readers expecting the Bible to contain rosy and inspiring stories are in for a sore surprise.
Similarly, readers wanting the Bible to give them a set of directions will be disappointed. Genesis 34 doesn’t prescribe a course of action. It doesn’t tell readers what they should do in response to the rape of a loved one. It doesn’t end with a tidy solution. Instead, the story closes with an unanswered question. After Jacob condemns his sons for their genocidal vengeance, they reply, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (v. 31 NRSV). The text never offers a response. The story ends with a question mark.
Readers are left to wrestle with the human condition in all its limitations, confusion, and pain: What is the proper response to sexual violence? What should one do when a family member has been harmed and there are no good options for punishing the wrongdoer? How does one exact justice in the absence of possibilities commensurate with the offense? How can we create communities free from rape and violence?
We might prefer to ignore such questions because they involve unpleasant topics. But the Bible refuses to let us do so. It causes readers to recognize how damaging abuse can be and how it can spark incredibly strong reactions. Dinah’s story summons readers to reflect on how abuse can be prevented and how to respond to violence when it does occur. As the text points out, answers may be hard to find—especially in the moment—but that does not lessen the need for communities of faith to reflect on abuse.
[Schlimm then quotes Tikva Frymer-Kremsky’s Reading the Women of the Bible under the heading ] Critiques Rather than Approvals
“Understanding that [the Bible’s] stories are frequently told as critiques of the social situations that they portray rather than in approval of them can lead us to applaud rather than deplore their inclusion in Scripture. Contemporary readers can read with a ‘hermeneutics of grace,’ a method of interpretation that recognizes the basic decency and well-meaning character of the biblical authors.”
[Schlimm then concludes]
The Bible describes a violent world because our world is violent. If we ignore the violent nature of our world, we also ignore victims of violence. And we cannot ignore those who suffer if we are God’s people. [Seems very fitting for this moment in time.]
- Circumcision- As discussed previously, circumcision was not uncommon among the various peoples of the ancient Near East, though the exact procedure varied (full removal, partial removal, or a slit), as did the customs and significance around it. Was it done close to birth (Israelites) or around puberty (Egyptians)? It is significant that, as he does elsewhere, God adapted something already known from the culture and transformed it, gave it new significance, with it becoming the sign of the covenant among the Israelites.
- Joseph’s Robe- I hate to burst bubbles, but the idea that Joseph’s coat was multi-colored or (as the song has it) “red and yellow and green and brown And scarlet and black and ochre and peach And ruby and olive and violet and fawn…” isn’t quite what the Hebrew says, but is later interpretation. The KJV’s “coat of many colors” (note the italics) was based on Greek and Latin interpretations. Now, the effect is the same; the coat certainly indicates favor and status.
“In the ancient world the fabrics, ornamentation, colors, length, and hem all played a role in indicating the position of the wearer. Undoubtedly Joseph’s coat designated authority as well as favor, but little more can be said because the Hebrew word occurs only here and in the passage describing [a different] Tamar’s cloak (2 Sam. 13:19). No cognates from comparative Semitic languages offer any confident clarification.” ZIBBCOT
So other translations read “a special tunic,” “a long robe with sleeves,” “an ornate robe.” There is some much much later Jewish (and LDS) speculative interpretation that sees the significance of this coat as being priestly authority in some sense. Legends of the Jews (Louis Ginsburg) says that this coat refers to a garment in which figures were embroidered. Coinciding with Ginzberg’s “legend” that Joseph’s coat was priestly garment etc., E. Jan Wilson suggests that its Hebrew name derives from pašašu, a Sumerian word applied the priests’ garment, meaning “anointing.” This would change the KJV’s “coat of many colors” to “coat of anointing,” which would make him priestly indeed. (“Inside a Sumerian Temple: The Ekishnugal at Ur” in The Temple in Time and Eternity) Similarly, Jon Tvedntes writes in “Priestly Clothing in Biblical Times”
Joseph’s ‘coat of many colors’ is said in Keli Yaqar, Genesis 37:3, to be the high priest’s tunic, while Dacat and Hadar, on Genesis 30:29-30, indicate that Jacob gave to Joseph the garment of Adam which Esau had taken from Nimrod. Ginzberg explained the reasoning behind this: “####### is a paraphrase of passîm which accordingly is not to be translated ‘a coat of many colors,’ but ‘an upper garment in which figures are woven,’ in accordance with Mishnaic [Hebrew text] Jerome, in his commentary on Genesis 27:16, mentioned the Jewish tradition that Adam’s garment was worn anciently by the firstborn in the family, who performed priestly service before Aaron’s time. Other early Christian sources also state that the garments of Adam and Eve were created before the world;”
Both Temples of the Ancient World and The Temple in Time and Eternity are good volumes, available online from the Maxwell Institute, and increasingly rarely in print.
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