Abide: Genesis 28-33

  • Readers of the Tanak or Old Testament see that The Lord marks Israel as a chosen people. Modern Latter-day Saints identify with being a “peculiar people.”  But what does it mean to be a chosen people? And how does one’s peculiarity mark boundaries of values, identity, and peoplehood? Chosenness does not mean a life without disappointment or despair, but it does bring comfort in recognizing the divine power of our Heavenly Parents’ love for all of their children.

    In today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast, we dive into Genesis 28-33 to explore Chosenness in three ways: covenant relationships, expectations, and longing as it affects the ancient Israelites and modern Saints alike.

  • Readers of the Tanakh or Old Testament see that The Lord marks Israel as a chosen people. Modern Latter-day Saints identify with being a “peculiar people” as well as a chosen people. But what does it mean to be a chosen people? And how does one’s peculiarity mark boundaries of values, identity, and peoplehood? Chosenness does not mean a life without disappointment or despair, but it does bring comfort in recognizing the divine power of our Heavenly Parents’ love for all of their children.

    In today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast, we dive into Genesis 28-33 to explore Chosenness in three ways: covenant relationships, expectations, and longing as it affects the ancient Israelites and modern Saints alike and much, much more.

    Stuart: My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the public communications specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute, and each week we will be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, rather hit on a few key things from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-Day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today we are also joined by McKay Bowman, a pre-business major freshman here at BYU from Layton, Utah. After McKay graduates, he plans to attend law school. Welcome McKay to Abide.

    Bowman: Thanks guys.

    Stuart: Glad to have you here, and Kristian as we begin, what’s going on in Genesis 28-33?

    Heal: In this section we see the establishment of the House of Israel, which was no easy task. It’s filled with strife, trickery, deceit, love, yearning, birth, death, betrayal, blessings, and reconciliation. The future of this house was unclear when Jacob fled his homeland in fear of his life. He took with him the birthright and the blessings of the firstborn, but also the knowledge that he had deceived his father and betrayed his brother to acquire them. Fear of Esau’s retribution still troubled him when he returned home twenty years later. Just as fear of retribution would cloud another reunion of brothers at the end of Jacob’s life. Still, Isaac blesses Jacob before he leaves, reiterating the blessings of the firstborn that Jacob would acquire with his mothers help. The scene must have been bittersweet. Rebekah knew that God’s purposes had been fulfilled, but would as far as we know, never see her beloved son again. And even as Isaac blessed Jacob, he knew at the spare and pain of his favored son, Esau. However, it seems that this apparent eagerness to send Jacob away to marry within the clan, may have brought Esau to himself. Perhaps started him on the path that would see him from going to want to murder Jacob to prospering and welcoming Jacob back in the future. So it is with families. The course is not always straight, the need for prayer is constant. And there is nothing more lovely than reconciliation and the return of the lost son. As Jacob begins his journey to his mothers family alone in the wilderness, perhaps anxious about his future, he learns in a dream that God’s will had indeed been done. This is the first recorded dream in the Old Testament and it begins a series of dreams that we find in Jacob’s family with his children. The image of Jacob’s ladder is justly famous, but what is described in the dream is something more like a Mesopotaminan ziggurat than a ladder. The dream is still enigmatic, but the message is clear. Jacob was heir to the covenant of Abraham. Jacob goes forward from that newly renamed spot, confident in God’s promises. In quick succession he meets Rachel, the love of his life, agrees with his uncle, Laban, to work for her for seven years, is tricked into marrying her sister, and so works for another seven years to marry Rachel too. Each daughter entered the marriage with a handmaiden, and the four of them, Leah and Zilpah, and Rachel and Bilhah, are the mothers of the tribes of Israel. Actually, the four of them and Asenath, the Egyptian wife of Joseph, who we’ll meet in the future. These are the mothers of the tribes of Israel. Unlike Abraham, who sent his children by concubines away, Jacob embraces all of his children and keeps them with him, though it will take tragedy and the universal famine to eventually bring them together in harmony. Where Rebekah was wily for the Lord, as it were, her brother, Laban, was wily for profit. With the Lord’s help, however, Jacob eventually leaves this corner of Mesopotamia with his wives and his children, and a goodly portion of Laban’s flock as payment for twenty years of hard shepherding. The Lord once again appears to Jacob, as he returns to the land, wrestles with him and renames him Israel.

    Stuart: Thanks for that recap, Kristian. McKay, in going through this block of Genesis, we learn a lot more about Jacob and his relationship to the Abrahamic covenant and the blessings that come from the covenant. Where is Jacob at in the beginning of this section?

    Bowman: Well, at this point, like Kristian said, Jacob was fleeing his homeland and you can imagine the feelings of fear and all the uncertainty. He finds himself in the wilderness one night, and this is when the Lord appears to him, or he has a vision, and makes the covenant with the Lord. In verse 15 of Genesis 28, the Lord when He’s covenanting with Jacob says, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And I really like this promise from the Lord to Jacob. I’m sure it was very comforting and the thing that Jacob needed to hear at the time. In response to the covenant that the Lord makes with Jacob, Jacob makes a vow to Him. And vows his loyalty to the Lord. In a commentary by A.F. Herbert, he makes a statement about the vow that Jacob made. And he says, “The vow was not a bargain. It was a recognition of a new relationship, implicit in the revelation. And in obligation on Jacob’s part to render thanksgiving as the divine blessing takes place.”

    Stuart: I really like what Herbert says there because to my mind that makes it not a transaction. Or in other words, it’s not something that’s like for like, it’s saying I vow to do this regardless of the consequences and putting his faith in God that good things would come of it.
    Bowman: It isn’t a transaction, it isn’t a bargain at all. Jacob recognized he wasn’t in a position to bargain or barter or trade with God. Just like none of us are. That’s great. It’s a great reminder to all of us that our relationship with God, and when we make covenants with God it’s not a transaction and that blessings aren’t distributed based on some sort of meritocracy. That would be terrifying. We’re reminded in the scriptures, in 2nd Nephi 31, that we rely wholly on the merits of Him who is mighty to save. This is just evident throughout the entire story because there is quite a bit of deceit and family dysfunction between Laban and Jacob, with tricking someone into marrying a different wife, and stealing crops or flocks, an angry brother. Dysfunction that we can probably relate to, that we experience. And it’s great to see that Jacob continues to be blessed, and the Lord’s promises continue to be fulfilled despite that imperfection, despite all that dysfunction.

    Stuart: Yeah, it makes me think about what Elder Maxwell said about the only gift we have is our choices. The ability to move forward and to put on the altar everything we have, the ability to choose, the Lord can do something great with it. And Jacob is still vowing his loyalty to the Lord, what do you think Jacob did when he put his loyalty to the Lord forward?

    Bowman: Yeah, A.F. Herbert mentioned that, he responded to that question when he said, “Jacob recognized that this new relationship, and this new covenant he made with the Lord brought upon him an obligation to render thanksgiving to the divine.” And so Jacob throughout the story is what he does. He expresses his gratitude, and really just recognizes God’s hand. So it’s not that we don’t do anything, or because God’s promises are not merit based doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. Dale G. Renlund says in his talk Abound With Blessings, “you don’t earn a blessing, that notion is false, but you do have to qualify for it.” General authority, David B. Haite, who said the following, I think this does a really good job of illustrating what that might look like. And he says, “Whenever going to show gratitude properly to our Heavenly Father, we should do it with all of our heart, might, mind and strength.” I really love this idea that us promising our loyalty to God, or our obedience to God isn’t an attempt to repay. But it requires all of us, all of our energy, just to express a level of gratitude that is worthy of presenting to our God.

    Stuart: Thanks for that McKay. I like to think about gratitude as something that we’re not only doing with our hearts and minds, but with our strength and with our energy as well. How did Jacob recognize that God was blessing him in his life?

    Bowman: He does on a couple different occasions throughout the story. In Genesis 31: 5-7 he says things like, “The God of my father has been with me.” Or “that God did not permit him to harm me” talking about Laban, and this is when he’s talking to his wives. This is after years of labor and flocks, and things that he genuinely had to work hard for, but recognized that it ultimately wasn’t his effort that brought him that, but it was God’s hand. And like you mentioned, it wasn’t just verbal expressions of gratitude, but it was labor, physical effort. 14 years of effort for his two wives.

    Stuart: Now Kristian, I always find it interesting how much information there is on the matriarchs, all the women of Israel, but especially the wives of the patriarchs, or the prophets. What can we learn about sisters and mothers from this section?

    Heal: We’re introduced, here, to two wonderful characters, Leah and Rachel. And I’ve got them in that order deliberately, although Jacob seems to have thought of them in the opposite order. Leah’s the oldest daughter of Laban, the one who Jacob accidentally marries first, but Rachel is the object of his heart’s desire. Of what we see with Leah, this daughter who is described simply as having tender eyes, which some commentators think might be a comment on the quality of Leah’s eyes rather than any impairment. E.A. Spizer has said that Leah had lovely eyes, but Rachel was an outstanding beauty. What seems to be important about Leah’s story is that she was not chosen. And in fact was shunned and unloved for much of her life it seems, from the account that we have in Genesis. So because of this, God extends mercy to Leah, and makes her particularly fruitful. So she is able to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant in having a large family. We think all the way back from the first command to Adam and Eve, and through this Abrahamic covenant promise for great prosperity, Abraham sees that partially fulfilled. He has one son who continues the line. Isaac sees that doubled with his two sons, but in Jacob we now have this large family, half of which call Leah their mother, which is really interesting.

    Stuart: I find that interesting as well because there is so little in Latter-Day Saint theology on the question of not being able to have children. We recognize that not everyone will, but it’s still something that has not been spoken of by very many Latter-Day Saint leaders, if any. So I always appreciate in these stories when there are experiences that folks in scripture are encountering that we aren’t necessarily hearing a lot about in general conference. And while there’s some interesting historical work that’s been done around the ideas about children, I think that it’s important for us to sit and think with Leah and with Rachel, what is it like to maybe be envious of what someone you love has received from the Lord.

    Heal: Yeah, that’s lovely. These were sisters that had grown up together, but suddenly thrust into this situation of competition as it were. And their value is connected to their fruitfulness, to their ability to give birth to children. So we see two interesting things happening. One is the idea of vicarious motherhood, the handmaidens become the mothers of these children and to look at it another way, Leah and Rachel become secondary mothers to adopted mothers of these other children. So this is a beautiful idea of adoption which is modeled here, I think through these women. I think it’s one of the great themes of the Old Testament, and in fact for me, of the entire plan of salvation. God loves, I think, the idea of the law of adoption and uses it to save His children. And so that’s important. The other interesting thing is Rachel enjoys this stage of being loved, or being beloved. But in her belovedness finds suffering. She finds suffering in being barren, she finds suffering ultimately in dying in childbirth with her second son. Even the name of her first son is interpreted to mean, “give me another son,” “let me have more.” So this sort of desperate need, this eagerness to fulfill this desire to be a good wife is seen in these sorts of terms. And we learn very little about other aspects of them as mothers to Israel. There is one lovely story about Rachel which came out of my study of the Syriac Joseph texts, and this is the story of Joseph when he goes down to Egypt, taken with the merchants, stopping at the site where Rachel gave birth to Benjamin and was then buried, and asking the merchants if he could stop and bid farewell to his mother. And these are the words which we have from this ancient Syriac text, “Rise up, Rachel, from within the tomb and behold Joseph. But behold he has been sold from freedom into slavery for twenty pieces of silver my brothers sold me to the Midianites and behold, they are bringing me to be a slave in the land of Egypt. Behold, I am about to be separated from your grave, o blessed mother. Farewell, but behold I am departing to the place of strangers.” This constant refrain to behold see me, “see me” Joseph is saying to his mother. And he hears a response that comes in the voice like his mothers, “Would that I had legs that I might stand and eyes that I might see you. Then I would go on with you, my beloved son, to the place of strangers. Go in peace and do not be sad because of what happened to you. For the Lord will prepare the way before you according to His will. For everything that shall come is from God, and it is He who gives hope, and life, and salvation of the soul. Let sadness depart from your mind and do not be sorrowful, for your Lord shall also be sold and redeem creation.” That’s what we find in this retelling, reimaging of the story of Joseph. This lasting encounter with Rachel, with an imagined Rachel speaking up from the grave, giving some comfort to her firstborn son.

    Stuart: I think this is a great companion text to Doctrine and Covenants 121 where the Lord says, “My son, peace be unto thy soul,” essentially saying, “I hear you, I see you, it’s going to be ok.” And in my life, I can tell you how important it’s been to be able to talk to someone who cannot fix my problems, either because they’re not fixable or that person can’t do it, and be able to say, “It’s ok. I see you. I love you. The Lord is going to take care of you.”

    Heal: I also love the way that these voices can come to us from scripture. As we imagine ourselves into scripture, as we see ourselves, as we see Rachel as our ancestral mother, that she can speak to us, as it were, in this act of scriptural imagination. And so use scripture, our own scripture, our own relationship to the scriptures can be developed.

    Stuart: I’m also struck by the idea of handmaidens and thinking about how among Latter-Day Saint polygamists in the 19th century there was often a family order, or an established way of understanding one’s position within a family based on which wife that you were born to, or in what order you were married. And I wonder, is there anything similar with that in the Old Testament that you know of?

    Heal: I think there’s definitely a sense here of a pecking order, of a structure in which the first born of the first wife has priority, but interestingly God is constantly destroying that structure. And arranging for the unexpected to happen which I think is wonderful. So all of this sort of jostling for position that can happen in families, the desire to be the favorite, the sense of who is that, I think God sort of undoes that in sort of such wonderful ways. And so we see our own efforts to establish priorities and to establish hierarchies are constantly undone by the work of God.

    Stuart: As you’re talking about pecking order and thinking about God’s disruption, Jacob and Esau seem to fall naturally into that. What do you see in their story that we can think more about?

    Heal: This is a beautiful and sort of terrible story of brothers and sort of contention within brothers, which reached a point of one brother desiring to murder another. So clearly things have gotten to a boiling point when Jacob is finally sent away. But we think of this, from from the first family of Genesis through to the last family of Genesis, are plagued by this fierce rivalry. By this fierce desire to be on top, which leads to conflict. And it makes me think of the wonderful Jewish Song Hineh Ma Tov, based on the opening verses of Psalm 133. This reads in Hebrew, “Hineh ma tov uma na’im/ Shevet achim gam yachad.” This is, how good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together in the Jewish publication society translation. In another scholar, Joan Goldingays translation, it becomes, “Now, how good and how lovely is kinfolk living as one.” So the Psalm, as Robert Alter notes, is a kind of idol, celebrating a harmonious life together in a fruitful land. The Medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, gives this verse an escehtological interpretation, throwing this ultimate piece into the last days, “when the holy one,” says Rashi, “blessed be he that will dwell in the temple with Israel, all who are called brothers and friends, and he too will be together with them.” And so we have this notion of a long, hopeful, a much desired peace both in communities, in families, between brothers. I keep thinking of this Psalm when I read the book of Genesis. There’s so much brotherly strife, so much conflict. And it just seems impossible for these families to dwell together as one. As one, is what Joan Goldingay renders gam yachad. And we can’t help thinking of this “as oneness” without thinking about Enoch’s Zion joining the Latter-Day holy city, and those lovely verses in the book of Moses that say, “then shalt thou, and all thy city meet them there. And we will receive them into our bosom. And they shall see us and we will fall upon our necks, and they shall fall upon our necks and we will kiss each other and there shall be mine abode and it shall be Zion.” This is that lovely description of people coming together in harmony, and ultimately this final sort of ending point of the story of Esau and Jacob. After 20 years of working through hatred, or fearing the consequences of actions, depending on what’s going on in the brothers mind, finally, in this last moment, they come together and fall on each other’s necks and weep.

    Bowman: I think it really is a special moment of reconciliation between Esau and Jacob. I think part of the romance of this reconciliation comes from the way that’s set up. When Jacob is returning is when he has a wrestle with the angel of God. And so just the night before they meet, he has that wrestle and he says after, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” So there’s this moment of preservation where he sees God, but survives. And then returning to his homeland, Esau comes with 400 other men and Jacob’s thinking this is the end for me. But instead, has that moment, that you just explained, where they fall on each other’s necks. They weep, and he actually explicitly says, “It’s as if I’m seeing the face of God.” He says that to Esau as Esau has mercy on him. Someone that actually really did see the face of God the night before, then compares his brother’s love and mercy to him to God as well. Special moment.

    Stuart: And I really love these stories, but I confess that my family isn’t this way. While we love each other, we’re by no means perfect and I don’t know a single person whose family are all on the same page at the same time. And so I just want to stop and think for a second that there’s this powerful romance, as you said McKay, about Jacob and Esau coming together. And we love to think of the prodigal and the father coming in and welcoming his son, but I don’t think that takes away from the deep hurt or pain that we can feel from estrangement. And so just in thinking about this passage and in thinking about the Old Testament in general, with love there’s always the possibility of pain and heartbreak, and whether it’s our doing or someone else’s choices or a series of circumstances, we need to be compassionate and we need to be aware that family relationships don’t always operate the way that we would like them to.

    Heal: Yeah, this seems to be inherent in being a covenant maker, and thinking about one’s posterity. The necessity, the demand for or simply the experience of longing. Longing for you children who are estranged, or longing for you children who have chosen different paths. While longing for that hope for reunion, my oldest brother is estranged from my family, and I think there’s not a day that goes by where my parents don’t imagine him driving up our drive and coming out to meet him, and come falling upon his neck and reuniting and weeping together. And I think that when we see those experiences in our own lives, and feel that pain in our own experiences, we can finally see the reality, the deep, personal reality of the stories in the Bible. And the potential they have to heal and to give comfort to us, right here and right now.

    Stuart: Let’s work to be the people and the community that people want to return to when the circumstances are right. Have a blessed week y’all.

    Thank you for listening to Abide, a Maxwell Institute podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to this podcast. And follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu.edu. Thank you and have a great week.