Genesis Means Origins

The first book of the Bible tells of the origins of the world and of a very interesting family eventually known as the children of Israel.

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Two nations struggle to be born in Rebekah's womb, Israel and Edom, represented by her sons Jacob and Esau, respectively. Eventually the bookish younger son Jacob, "a man of the tents” will supplant his older brother Esau, "a man of the fields," by bargaining for the latter's birthright and taking advantage of their aged father's failing eyesight to secure the blessing intended for the firstborn. Then, afraid of his older brother's understandable wrath, Jacob will go to Beersheva. In Beersheva, Jacob will meet and fall in love with Rachel. He will labor for seven years for his prospective father-in-law Laban, only to be tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah. After another seven years' labor for Laban, he will finally marry the younger sister as well. On the road [back to Canaan], he encounters and wrestles with a mysterious being who turns out to be a messenger of God. As the morning light begins to glimmer on the horizon, the messenger defeats him by dislocating his hip, then rewards him with a new name, Israel, and a restatement of the covenant that God had made with his grandfather.

The ethics of Jacob's behavior toward his father and brother are trou­bling to modern sensibilities, to put it mildly. To our eyes, it looks like Jacob has in essence perpetrated a fraud upon his own father to secure a blessing not rightly his, and held his brother to an absurd bargain to obtain a birthright he doesn't deserve. The sages of the rabbinic period had no such problems. To them, Jacob was clearly the son favored by God, the one who studied Torah (although it hadn't been written yet!), the one whose line would become the Israelite people. There are numerous midrashic texts that describe Esau variously as an isolator and killer, one who disdained his birthright and the responsibilities of the covenant.

Such ex post facto explanations do not satisfy modern readers; they smack of special pleading. But there is another fact to consider. Jacob suffers the most of any of the Patriarchs for his legacy. If he purchases the birthright cheaply and the blessing illicitly, he pays for them soon after with the coin of physical pain, fear for his life, some fifteen years as a fugitive, indentured servitude, a shattered family, and death in exile. It is worth noting that, as Professor Joel Rosenberg points out, punishment from God in the Torah almost never comes immediately after the transgression (with the notable exceptions, I would add, of Adam and Eve in the Garden and Lot's wife); rather, it may befall the malefactor much later, perhaps even in a later generation.

The story of the disruption of Jacob's family, the tale of Joseph and his brothers, is the most extended narrative in the book of Genesis, being told over four sidrot (weekly portions). Joseph has a knack for interpreting dreams, his own and those of others, a skill that gets him in trouble with his brothers but gets him out of Pharaoh's prison in Egypt.

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George Robinson

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism, is the recipient of a Simon Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Jewish Week, and The Detroit Jewish News.