Following Abraham’s death, God reveals to Isaac’s wife
Rebekah that she will soon give birth to two sons who will represent
two nations, one stronger than the other. When Rebekah delivers,
Esau is born first and is extremely hairy. Jacob, who is smooth
skinned, is born immediately after, grasping the heel of his brother.
Isaac’s two sons grow to be opposites. Esau is a hunter and a brash
man. Jacob stays at home, soft-spoken but quick-witted. One day,
Esau comes home famished, demanding to be fed, and agrees to give
Jacob his inheritance rights in exchange for a bowl of soup.
Like his own father, Isaac prospers in Canaan
and, despite occasional errors in judgment, enlarges his property,
making alliances with area rulers and continuing to erect monuments
to God. One day, when he is old and blind, Isaac instructs Esau
to catch some game and prepare him a meal so that he may give the
elder son his blessing. While Esau is gone, Rebekah helps Jacob
deceive his father, preparing a separate meal and disguising the
younger son with hairy arms and Esau’s clothing. When Jacob presents
Isaac with the meal, Isaac—smelling Esau’s clothing and feeling
the hairy body—proceeds to bless Jacob, promising him the inheritance
of God’s covenant and a greater status than his brother. Esau returns
to discover the deception, but it is too late. Isaac, though dismayed,
says that he cannot revoke the stolen blessing.
Jacob flees in fear of Esau, traveling to the
house of his uncle Laban in upper Mesopotamia. En route, Jacob dreams
of a stairway leading up to heaven, where angels and God reside.
In the dream, God promises Jacob the same covenant he previously
made with Abraham and Isaac. Jacob arrives at Laban’s house, where
he agrees to work for his uncle in exchange for the hand of Laban’s
daughter, Rachel, in marriage. Laban deceives Jacob into marrying
Leah, Rachel’s older sister, before marrying Rachel. The two wives
compete for Jacob’s favor and, along with their maids, give birth
to eleven sons and a daughter.
After twenty years, Jacob heeds God’s urging and leaves
to return to Canaan, taking his family, his flocks, and Laban’s
collection of idols, or miniature representations of gods. Rachel,
who has stolen the idolic figurines from her father, hides them
under her skirt when Laban tracks down the fleeing clan in the desert.
Unable to procure his belongings, Laban settles his differences
with Jacob, who erects a pillar of stone as a “witness” to God of
their peaceful resolution (31:48).
Jacob continues on and, nearing home, fears an encounter with Esau.
Jacob prepares gifts to appease his brother and, dividing his family
and belongings into two camps, spends the night alone on the river
Jabbok. Jacob meets God, who, disguised as a man, physically wrestles
with Jacob until dawn. Jacob demands a blessing from his opponent,
and the man blesses Jacob by renaming him “Israel,” meaning, “he
struggles with God.”
The next morning, Jacob meets Esau, who welcomes his
brother with open arms. Jacob resettles in Shechem, not far from
Esau, who has intermarried with the Canaanites and produced a tribe
called the Edomites. Jacob and his sons prosper in peace until one
day Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is raped by a man from Shechem. Enraged, Jacob’s
sons say they will let the Shechemite marry Dinah if all the members
of the man’s family will be circumcised. The man agrees and, while
the greater part of his village is healing from the surgical procedure,
Jacob’s sons take revenge and attack the Shechemites, killing all
the men. Isaac and Rachel die soon thereafter.
Jacob’s sons grow jealous of their youngest brother,
Joseph, who is Jacob’s favorite son. When Jacob presents Joseph
with a beautiful, multi-colored coat, the eleven elder brothers
sell Joseph into slavery, telling their father that Joseph is dead.
Joseph is sold to Potiphar, a high-ranking official in Egypt, who
favors the boy greatly until, one day, Potiphar’s flirtatious wife
accuses Joseph of trying to sleep with her. Potiphar throws Joseph
in prison, but—ever faithful to God—Joseph earns a reputation as
an interpreter of dreams. Years pass until the Pharaoh of Egypt,
bothered by two troublesome dreams, hears of Joseph and his abilities.
Pharaoh summons Joseph, who successfully interprets the dreams,
warning Pharaoh that a great famine will strike Egypt after seven
years. Impressed, Pharaoh elects Joseph to be his highest official,
and Joseph leads a campaign throughout Egypt to set aside food in
preparation for the famine.
Famine eventually plagues the land and, learning of the
Egyptian supply of grain, Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt to purchase
food. The eleven men present themselves to Joseph, who recognizes
them immediately but refrains from revealing his identity. Joseph
toys with his brothers to test their good will, first throwing them
in jail and then sending them back to Canaan to retrieve their newest brother,
Benjamin. They return with the boy, and Joseph continues his game,
planting a silver cup in the boy’s satchel and threatening to kill
the boy when the cup is discovered. When Judah offers his own life
in exchange for Benjamin’s, Joseph reveals his identity. Joseph persuades
his brothers to return to Egypt with Jacob, who, overjoyed, moves
to Egypt with his family of seventy.
As Jacob approaches death, he promises Joseph that the
covenant will pass on through Joseph and his two sons, Manasseh
and Ephraim. However, when Jacob places his hands on the two boys
to bless them, he crosses his arms, placing his right hand on Ephraim, the
younger son. Joseph protests, but Jacob says that Ephraim will be
greater than Manasseh. Jacob dies soon thereafter and, accompanied
by Egyptians, Joseph buries his father in Canaan. They return to
Egypt, where Jacob’s descendants, the Israelite people, grow rapidly.
Joseph eventually dies, instructing his family to return one day to
the land God has promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The division of the world into binary opposites, initiated
with the creation story, dominates the latter half of Genesis. Just
as light absolutely opposes darkness and male absolutely opposes
female in the creation story, Esau and Jacob are diametrically opposed
in everything from their appearance to their occupations and behavior. Rachel
and Leah constitute another pair of binary opposites, struggling
with each other for Jacob’s affections. Oppositions continue, not
only between Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Mannasseh, but with other,
more intangible elements, such as the wrestling match between God
and man, the contrast between abundance and famine in Egypt, and
the decidedly joyful welcome of Esau after Jacob’s expectations
of a violent homecoming. Alongside the motif of opposites runs a
motif of substitution or crossing; Jacob is blessed instead of Esau,
and Jacob himself crosses his arms when he blesses Joseph’s sons,
bestowing the higher blessing on the younger son.
These opposing elements generate both irony and radical
reversals in the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Esau does
not merely receive a lesser blessing because Jacob steals his inheritance
but is actually cursed to serve his younger brother forever, barred
from the covenant entirely. Characters are increasingly tricky or
deceptive in these stories, and their skill at deception usually
earns them praise and privilege rather than punishment. Jacob deceives
Esau, and as a result becomes the founder of one of the greatest
nations in the Old Testament. Laban deceives Jacob, and receives
twice as many years of service from him as a result. Rachel hides
her father’s idols under her dress, and Jacob’s sons murderously
trick the Shechemites. The most interesting deception, on a literary
level, is Joseph’s decision to veil his identity from his brothers.
The elaborate deception builds in suspense over four chapters, as
the narrative does not make it clear whether Joseph plans to enact
revenge or simply to scare his brothers. When Judah offers to give
his life for Benjamin, and Joseph forgives his brothers, trickery
is replaced by the possibility of redemption, foreshadowing God’s
plan to reverse the Israelites’ fortune with a promise of abundance
in a new land.
Joseph plays a game of punishment and redemption with
his brothers, and God plays the same game with the whole of humanity throughout
Genesis. God creates a realm of opposing forces, symbols, and reversals
to suggest a pattern of how and through whom his covenant will be
revealed. The game is in the foreground, while God and his reasons
for playing the game move into the background of the Genesis narrative.
The game becomes literal rather than figurative when God wrestles
Jacob by the Jabbok River. The event is a metaphor for how God conveys
his promise to humankind in the second half of Genesis. Just as
the mysterious man never identifies himself to Jacob, so God recedes
further and further from humankind. Jacob, however, is able to see
past his opponent’s bodily appearance because he is persistent and
faithful, eventually able to wrest a blessing from this obscured
manifestation of God. The giving of the name “Israel” to Jacob not
only commemorates this specific struggle but also commemorates the
struggle of the Israelites with an unseen God. Joseph, the ancestor
of the Israelites, never has an explicit conversation with God,
yet he notes in the final chapter of Genesis that the happy outcome
of the first trick his brothers play on him has helped to save many
lives in Egypt. The experience of Joseph and Jacob shows that God’s
covenant is fulfilled largely through the act of struggling.