Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 30:25 - 31:55

This time around we find some rather odd labor negotiations, we see Jacob up to his old tricks again using sympathetic magic to make himself rich (or maybe not), we have some fun at the expense of two thousand years worth of Bible commentators, and finally we witness a treaty that stood meaningless for a millennium.

Genesis 30:25-28
Jacob, now pushing ninety, has decided that it's time to leave his uncle Laban and go back to his home country where his hairy, red, and ever-so-slightly-older brother has hopefully cooled off. He tells Laban to send him on his way. Laban, however, has learned through practicing divination that Yahweh is only blessing him because Jacob is working for him and he admits as much to Jacob. He really wants Jacob to stick around so he tells him to name his price. This is very conciliatory of him and probably wasn't the most advantageous way for Laban to begin labor negotiations. This sort of thing isn't even close to being the oddest thing in this passage, though.

Genesis 30:29-30
Jacob responds to Laban's request for him to just name his price by reminding Laban of how rich he has been made through Yahweh blessing him on Jacob's account. Um. Yeah, Jacob. That's what Laban just said. Your boss just admitted that he is well aware that you have made him rich and he told you to name your price. This is the part where you do that. He just handed you the high ground in the negotiation. If you had an agent, your agent would be grinning from ear to ear. Now you're going to tell him what he just said and then whiningly ask, "How long must it be before I do something for my family too?" Uh, not long, dude. He just asked you to name your price. Were you not paying attention?

Taking note of these details that have "puzzled the commentators" for centuries, the Oxford Bible Commentary relates that the oddities in the dialogue are, "no doubt due to glossators who themselves did not fully grasp what was happening but attempted to set matters right." Basically, the reason why it's difficult for current commentators to figure out what's going on is that the terms of Jacob and Laban's relationship was unclear even to those ancient glossators who altered the text. They couldn't seem to figure out if Jacob was supposed to be merely a free man working for his uncle on a purely relational and quid pro quo basis, or if he was some kind of slave. Keep in mind those editors would've been overlaying their own understanding of the law in their time on top of whatever the actual political climate was between Aram and Israel during the original composition of this story and the two are working centuries apart from one another.

Or, you know, we could take the traditional view and just accept that Moses meant to make Jacob look like he wasn't even paying attention to what his uncle was saying. Perhaps Jacob is just exhibiting some odd ancient custom of negotiation wherein one would make oneself look like a total ass and it just looks funny to modern readers. Either way it's certainly amusing.

Genesis 30:31-34
Again, Laban asks Jacob straight out what he wants. This time Jacob says, "You don't need to give me a thing." LOL. What? At this point I suspect Laban has to feel a bit like Mugatu.
Jacob then follows that statement with a suggestion that Laban pay him with spotted, speckled and striped livestock. He proposes that Laban let him walk among the flocks that day and cull the blemished animals for himself. That way in the future they will be able to tell each other's flocks apart. Laban agrees and an evil plan begins to form in the untrustworthy Aramean's mind.

Genesis 30:35-36
Seizing the opportunity to once again swindle his unsuspecting nephew and further playing to the audience's stereotypes of Arameans, Laban removes all the multicolored and dark colored animals from his flock. He then gives them to his sons and puts a good three day's journey between them. Note the totality. There isn't a single solitary striped, speckled, spotted or dark-colored animal of either sex left in the bunch. Our storyteller has gone to great pains to show that the shifty Aramean has completely stacked the deck against Jacob here. Jacob, however, is about to get the last laugh and beat Laban at his own game.

Genesis 30:37-43
Here's where it starts to get really weird. Jacob uses a bit of ancient superstition involving sympathetic magic to flip the script on his uncle. The thinking was that fetuses would take on the characteristics of things represented in front of their mothers at the moment of conception. Take note, guys. According to the Bible, if you want your kids to look like you, you'd better do it missionary style and make sure your woman looks you in the face.

Jacob places striped and speckled sticks in front of the female animals so that while they're being mounted, they'll be looking at stripes, speckles and spots. He removes the wood when the weaker animals come around. Over time all the stronger animals are striped, spotted and speckled and the weaker ones are without blemish. Once again the storyteller repeats the trope of the intuitively lesser (second-born Jacob, second-born Rachel, blemished animals) being preferred over the greater (firstborn Esau, firstborn Leah, unblemished animals).
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
"Jacob Laying Peeled Rods before the Flocks of Laban"

The fact that this scheme worked, yet has no scientific basis, has become somewhat of a problem for modern conservative interpreters of this passage. Note that verse 43 says, "In this way Jacob became extremely prosperous." It doesn't say, "In spite of this nonsense that everyone knows doesn't actually work...." But that's what the current spin seems to be among several interpreters because in the 21st century we know that biology just doesn't work that way.

To see this in action, let's take a look at what J. Ligon Duncan III, pastor of First Presbyterian Jackson, MS has to say about the passage:
This is a strange passage. We have this story of the taking of the trees and the stripping of the various pieces of bark, and the placing of them before the animals. Jacob's plan was based upon current, common and popular superstition. That all the more highlights God's providence, by the way. It wasn't what Jacob did that led to his herd increasing and being strong. It's what God did. Let me read to you what Derek Kidner [Commentary on Genesis, 1967] says: “In displaying the striped rods at breeding time Jacob was acting on the common belief that a vivid sight during pregnancy or conception would leave its mark on the embryo of the animal.” It was just a popular superstition. Jacob, no doubt, had heard it for many years, working in the business of herding. There was absolutely no substance to it. There may be some genetic reasons why he might have prospered in growing mongrel speckled and spotted sheep, but those rods didn't do him one bit of good; not one bit of good. It was the providence of God.
Ah. I see. It was the providence of God. Jacob just thought it was going to work and God just went ahead and played along. Oh, that God. He's such a trickster. Here's the problem, not only does Jacob think his plan worked, but the text also treats this method like it was totally legit. If that's not what the author intended to convey, he did a terrible job communicating that it was merely "the providence of God" and not Jacob's questionable notions about animal husbandry. How do we know he did a terrible job communicating this? Well, let's look at how some folks prior to the advent of modern notions of reproductive biology understood this passage. We could start with rabbinic interpretations that took this at face value, but let's start with Saint Jerome writing around 398 CE.
Now it is not astonishing that this is the nature of female creatures in the act of conception: the offspring they produce are of such a kind as the things they observe or perceive in their minds during the most intense heat of sexual pleasure. For this very thing is reported by the Spaniards to happen even among the herds of horses; and Quintilian, in that lawsuit in which a married woman was accused of having given birth to an Ethiopian, brought as evidence in her defense that what we have been describing above is a natural process in the conception of offspring.
Jerome doesn't seem to have a problem with the legitimacy of Jacob's methods at all, nor does he attribute Jacob's success to "the providence of God." He thinks this stuff actually works and even cites examples to show it's not extraordinary. His biggest concern seems to be that the pagans of his day might think this was some kind of magic, so he argues it was a natural process. OK, well, that's just some Catholic living in the fourth century. I'll bet if we consulted a good Reformation-era expositor who knew a thing or two about the providence of God and how to properly exegete a passage we'd get a more realistic interpretation.
Moreover, as it respects physical causes, it is well known that the sight of objects by the female has great effect on the form of the fetus. When this happens with women, takes it at least place with animals, where is no reason, but where reigns an enormous rush of carnal lusts.  - John Calvin (Commentary on Genesis vol. 2. 1554)
Well, dammit. Calvin seems perfectly fine accepting the story on its face and then throws in some old fashioned misogyny for good measure. He treats this understanding of reproduction as common knowledge. Interestingly Calvin seems to think the biggest problem with this passage is that Jacob isn't called out by the assumed author, Moses, for fraud and deceit. He spends most of his ink trying to justify Jacob's actions on the basis of divine command, i.e. God told Jacob to cheat his uncle, so it was totes OK.

Wait. I know. How about Matthew Henry. This guy was writing in the early 18th century, so he will know his stuff, right? He won't be fooled and will surely figure out the obvious intent of the passage:
Now Jacob’s contrivances were, 1. To set peeled sticks before the cattle where they were watered, that, looking much at those unusual party-coloured sticks, by the power of imagination they might bring forth young ones in like manner party-coloured, v. 37-39. Probably this custom was commonly used by the shepherds of Canaan, who coveted to have their cattle of this motley colour. Note, It becomes a man to be master of his trade, whatever it is, and to be not only industrious, but ingenious in it, and to be versed in all its lawful arts and mysteries; for what is a man but his trade? There is a discretion which God teaches the husbandman (as plain a trade as that is), and which he ought to learn, Isa. 28:26 . When he began to have a stock of ringstraked and brown, he contrived to set them first, and to put the faces of the rest towards them, with the same design as in the former contrivance; but would not let his own, that were of one colour, v. 40. Strong impressions, it seems, are made by the eye, with which therefore we have need to make a covenant. - Matthew Henry (1706)
Drat. Henry doesn't pick up on it either. I should point out in fairness that he does say that God had a hand in this and sort of accelerated the process. He even uses the word "providence," but he still recognizes this method as a legitimate way for Jacob to go about achieving his goals and even embarrassingly praises him for his industry and knowledge of his trade. John Wesley, writing about sixty years later, pretty much just copies Matthew Henry almost word for word in a more truncated commentary. Incidentally, that the founder of Methodism totally ripped off Henry isn't really surprising since he was an admitted plagiarist.

Writing in the mid 18th century, the English Baptist minister John Gill gives us perhaps the most amusing take on this passage found among any of our commentators prior to the 20th century:
And the flocks conceived before the rods at them, and in sight of them; which had such influence upon them through the force of imagination, and a divine power and providence so directing and succeeding this device, that they brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted; such as Jacob was to have for his hire; and, though there was no doubt a more than ordinary concourse of divine Providence attending this affair; yet there have been many strange things brought about in a natural way by the strength of imagination, as may be observed in those marks which women are said to mark their children with, while with child of them; as also in conceiving and bearing such like unto them they have fancied, as the woman that bore a blackamoor, through often looking at the picture of one in her chamber;
Did you laugh out loud when you read that last line? I certainly did the first time I came across it. In case you didn't pick up on it, Gill was apparently aware of a story in which a white woman had a brown baby and blamed it on the fact that she was inadvertently looking at a depiction of a brown man in her bedroom while her husband was having sex with her. People like Gill totally bought it, probably thanks in part to the support offered by this story of Jacob and his uncle's flocks found in the inerrant, infallible word of God. Kudos to either this woman or her cuckolded and embarrassed husband for coming up with that little ingenious excuse to save face.

"Would you believe this is your fault for making love to me in the middle of a televised presidential address?"

Even by the late 19th century some of the most notable expositors around were still apparently taking Jacob's methods at face value:
There are many varieties of the hazel, some of which are more erect than the common hazel, and it was probably one of these varieties Jacob employed. The styles are of a bright red color, when peeled; and along with them he took wands of other shrubs, which, when stripped of the bark, had white streaks. These, kept constantly before the eyes of the female at the time of gestation, his observation had taught him would have an influence, through the imagination, on the future offspring. - Jamieson, Fausset & Brown (1871)
Did you catch that date? That's 1871. We've got two thousand years of rabbinic and Christian exposition that just takes for granted that the Bible is right and that a female looking at stuff while having sex makes an impression on the fetus. We have to get to the 20th century before commentators finally leave behind this nonsense on the basis of science's ever-expanding understanding of biology. Faced with this, people like Ligon Duncan have to abandon thousands of years of Christian and Jewish interpretation and instead posit that God was just playing into Jacob's pre-scientific knowledge of the world around him.

I'm picking on Duncan for a reason, by the way. I could've selected any number of his contemporaries, but I wanted to use him because he was one of the contributors to a book I read a few years ago called The G3n3s1s Debate. In that book, Duncan and his fellow contributor David Hall argue against other evangelicals like Hugh Ross and Meredith Kline who are in favor of a less literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis (Day/Age and Framework views respectively). Duncan takes a hard line on standard, young earth creationism. His argument relies almost solely on two things: exegesis that takes the text at its word and the collective weight of the historic Christian position on the creation accounts in Genesis.

This raises a question. Given the church's historic position on this bit of superstition found in Genesis 30, along with exegesis that takes the text at its word, why does Duncan suddenly feel compelled to abandon the clear testimony of Holy Writ? Why, one might think Duncan is nearly as ready to bow to the fickle whims of so-called scientific evidence as Ross and Kline are when it comes to the age of the earth and evolutionary theory. You know, I'll bet he doesn't even believe the moon emits its own light or that the earth is a flat disc covered by a solid dome with the sun and stars going 'round it. What a lukewarm compromiser he is!

There are other attempts to understand this passage apart from what we saw above in Duncan's dodge. One attempt I read posits some shaky science and suggests that there may have been some combination of various fungi beneath the bark surface that created a protein chain that made it into the water and caused some sort of genetic mutation to occur. Nice try, but the text doesn't say it was because of the water. It indicates it was because the female animals were looking at the blemishes on the wood. This tenuous, ad hoc solution means the author of the story still had mistaken notions about epigenetics, along with nearly all of his interpreters for thousands of years and the Christian god remains a trickster.

The final verse in this chapter indicates that Jacob grew wealthy. However, he doesn't just end up with blemished flocks. He ends up with donkeys, slaves and camels. This is curious for a couple of reasons. It's not at all clear how these items came into his possession simply through his animal husbandry tricks. The other oddity is that domestic camels aren't really something ubiquitous in this period of the Bronze Age. The evidence suggests they weren't widely used until the 10th century BCE, long after the Patriarchs were supposed to have lived. It's certainly possible they were around here and there, but the impression one gets from the Genesis narratives is that they were rather common in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant well back into the second millennium BCE.

Genesis 31:1-9
Witnessing their father's diminishing wealth, the sons of Laban begin to get annoyed. Jacob can tell that he's no longer in the good graces of his uncle, which shouldn't really surprise anyone, considering the events of the previous passage. Yahweh tells Jacob to leave and go back to the land of his ancestors. Jacob calls his wives out to the field and relates how their father has made a fool of him and changed his wages ten times. The story he tells differs quite substantially from the events as related in the previous chapter, in which wages are clearly spelled out and it is Jacob who makes a fool of Laban.

According to the prior telling of events there had been one agreement for payment. Here Jacob seems to indicate that the terms were something completely different and that Laban not only originated the terms, but kept changing them. Perhaps "ten times" is hyperbolic, but even if it's three times, that's still more than we saw in the prior passage.  It's as though that incident never even happened and that instead of Jacob using cunning and ingenuity, this passage is indicating that Elohim intervened on Jacob's behalf to vindicate him and make him prosper. Apparently Laban had told him he would get speckled animals as his wage and then Elohim made sure only speckled animals were born. Then Laban changed it to streaked and the same thing happened, all thanks solely to divine intervention.

This is where contemporary conservative bible expositors looking to escape the embarrassment  of the prior chapter will jump up and say, "See, it was God all along!" Well, no. That's not what the text said in the previous passage and that's not the way Jacob or the storyteller understood the events according to that passage. What we are dealing with here is a completely different account that in no way supersedes the prior one simply because it makes no reference to it. The details of these verses showing Laban coming up with the terms and then changing them, contrary to what we were told in the prior passage, coupled with other variant details, make it abundantly clear that this recounting of events has nothing whatsoever to do with the prior narrative. It's not that it explains those prior events. It treats the incident like it never happened.

Genesis 31:10-13
Jacob recounts to his wives a dream in which Elohim showed him that only the males with blemishes were mounting the females and that this is the way Jacob's flock grew. This isn't clarification of the story from the prior chapter. This is a different story. How do we know? Well, recall that Laban had removed all of the blemished animals and put three days journey between them and Jacob. There were no streaked, spotted or speckled males to mount the females to produce multicolored offspring. This writer doesn't appear to even be aware of that story. What we've got here is a completely different explanation of how Jacob obtained his wealth. This writer doesn't attribute it to Jacob's trickery at all. It was totally the work of Elohim.

We're probably looking at source material from the northern Elohist in this passage, whereas we were looking at southern Yahwist material in the prior chapter. Recall that it was the Yahwist who had Jacob cheat his brother out of his birthright and fool his father. His Jacob is a trickster who beat the shifty Aramean at his own game. By contrast the Elohist wants a Jacob that is a passive innocent who is vindicated by God. Note that Jacob narrates what Elohim has already done for him. Note also that the deity in the Elohist passage appears in dreams and makes specific mention of the consecrated rock at Beth El, the cultic center of the Northern Kingdom. As usual, Yahweh just shows up in person (v. 3) for the Yahwist portion that's held over from the prior chapter, but Elohim appears in dreams in the remainder of the passage.

Genesis 31:14-16
Jacob's wives are ready to completely abandon their father's family and their homeland. Their father has sold them off and squandered his wealth. They bear no allegiance to him. This is interesting because it probably speaks to the complex back-and-forth relations between Aram and Israel in the 10th-8th centuries BCE. They were often both allies and rivals economically and militarily, with frequent incidents of intermarriage and subjugation. Hearing the Aramean Rachel and Leah renounce their father and abandon their homeland to accompany their newly-liberated husband to Canaan may have been something that resonated with the original storyteller's audience, especially by the time Aram's influence in the region began falling with the advent of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Genesis 31:17-18
Jacob places his family on those rare domesticated camels along with everything he can transport and sets out to return to his father. Of course, the last time he saw his father the guy was on his deathbed and twenty years have since gone by.

Again we encounter this trope of sojourning in a neighboring territory, gaining wealth, experiencing the resentment of the locals and then getting the hell out of Dodge. It's been suggested that this should not surprise us, given the fact that the Syrio-Palestinian region was subject to climactic variance. Periods of fertility and stability would be followed by periods of drought and instability. The people would migrate to surrounding areas, often selling themselves into indentured servitude or vassalship. Things would change eventually and they would return. Hence, this trope of sojourn and return is repeated frequently in the patriarchal narratives. One can't help but think there was a strong cultural memory at play here in these folk tales.

Genesis 31:19-24
While Laban is off shearing sheep, Rachel steals his teraphim. Most translations call this "household gods," but people are still trying to figure out what specifically they (or it) were. Of note is that the writer never offers any condemnation of this or any of the other examples of blatant idolatry we've run across in the Patriarchal narratives. Instead the writer contrasts Rachel stealing Laban the Aramean's gods with Jacob stealing Laban the Aramean's heart (the idiom is typically translated "deceived" but literally reads "stole the heart of...").

Laban learns of both the departure and theft after three days and pursues Jacob and his family for seven days until he catches up with them. At that point Elohim shows up (in a dream, of course) and warns Laban to neither curse nor bless Jacob. The reason for the prohibition against cursing should be obvious. The prohibition against blessing is likely because the Elohist doesn't want to give the impression that Jacob's prosperity is in any way related to something Laban did, but that's admittedly just a guess. It makes sense, however, for our writer can't have any of Israel's wealth being attributed to anything those Arameans did. Nope. It was all God.

Genesis 31:25-30
When Laban catches up with Jacob, he confronts him and acts as though he has been greatly wronged. He accuses Jacob of deceit and theft of both his daughters and his gods.  Laban says he has the power to harm Jacob, but he admits that he has been warned by the god of Jacob's father. Laban seems to understand why Jacob would want to return to his home country, but in standard self-abasement/insult formula he concludes with an accusation of the theft of his teraphim.

If we knew more about these things we might be able to figure out why it was such a big deal. Guesses have been made regarding their use in divination or even property rights. I tend to favor the guess that these had to do with fertility and that's why Rachel was the one that took it. That's kind of her thing, you know? She does have another child after this and that child will be the brother that Joseph hides his divination cup in his saddle bags when he accuses his brothers of theft.

Genesis 31:31-35
Jacob explains that he was just afraid that Laban would take his daughters back, which is possibly a veiled insult to Laban's honor. He then tells Laban that he's free to search the party and declares that whoever took Laban's teraphim will not live. Laban searches Rachel's tent, but we are told via parenthetical remark that Rachel has taken the teraphim and placed it/them inside her "camel saddle" and sat on it. When Laban searches her tent, she tells her father she can't stand in his presence to greet him because she's menstruating. One wonders if Jacob's pronouncement that whoever took Laban's teraphim will not live is a curse that finds it's fulfillment in Rachel's death while giving birth to Benjamin.

Genesis 31:36-42
Jacob gets angry when the search turns up nothing. He has the moral high ground so he lays into his uncle and recounts how well he served him and how crappy he was treated for twenty years. I mean, those twenty years that he gave his uncle were the best years of his life: his mid-seventies to his mid-nineties. He says that it was only because his father Abraham's god was with him that he prospered. Of note is that Jacob refers to this god as "the Fear of Isaac" or Paḥad Yiṣḥaq. Some scholars think that Paḥad Yiṣḥaq might have been a distinct Semitic clan deity that was later subsumed by Yahweh along with others. Jacob concludes by claiming that Elohim witnessed this oppression and rebuked Laban in his dream.

Genesis 31:43-47
Laban backs off a bit and suggests that a covenant be cut between them and peace made. Jacob has them all bring stones and gather them into a pile as a memorial to commemorate the treaty. They have a typical covenant meal there. Laban names this place on the border between Aram and Israel Jegar Sahadutha, an Aramaic name meaning "this pile is a witness." Jacob gives it the western Semitic name, Galeed, or "witness pile." That's one etiology, anyway. The other is in the verses that follow.

Genesis 31:48-50
In verse 48 it's Laban that says, "This pile is a stone (gal) witness (eed)..." and the narrator of this passage tells us, "That is why it was called Galeed." Wait now. I thought we just learned in the prior verse that Jacob was the one that named it Galeed and that Laban had given it a completely different name. What gives? Well, what gives is that we've switched sources again. Can you guess which one? I'll give you hint. Verse 49 uses the divine name Yahweh for the first time since verse 3 and it adds yet another alternate etiology here, giving the place the name Mizpah or "watchpost." The mizpah may have been a stela (mesheba) and it's possible the word became corrupted over time. 

Genesis 31:51-55
Note that Laban says he's the one that set up the stones and pillar and not Jacob, contrary to what we were told in verse 45. Additionally, something that's lost in translation is that when Laban refers to the "elohim of Abraham" and the "elohim of Nahor" he is referring to at least two separate deities. We know this because he uses the plural form of the verb translated "judge." The Septuagint translators tried to turn this into monotheism by using a singular verb, but the Hebrew text does not reflect this.This problem of scribes and translators trying to make the text more "orthodox" happens a lot. It happens so much in the New Testament that someone could probably fill a book with examples. It really makes one wonder just how much the text was changed in ways we'll never know about.

Something else that's odd in this passage is that this was supposed to be a nonaggression treaty, but it has now turned into a territorial treaty. This marker is being set up as a boundary marker, not as a memorial. Why would they need a territorial marker? Jacob is headed back to Isaac in Shechem. That's way the hell on the other side of the Jordan. Laban is presumably headed back to Haran, some 500 miles away. Do they really need a boundary marker? Well, it just so happens that this is the frontier of Gilead and about the 8th century would've been the time that the Arameans pulled out of this region and Israel moved in, according to archaeologists anyway. But what do they know? A territorial marker would've certainly come in handy during that period, though. That was some pretty good foresight on the part of Jacob and Laban to put up this territorial marker a thousand years in advance. Good thing none of those nasty Canaanites came along and moved any of those rocks during their rather lengthy interval of Promised Land occupation. A lot can happen in a thousand years, you know?


  1. Love your work. I'm a closet agnostic in a Christian educational institution. This blog is like reality therapy.

  2. I was taught in Bible College (A fairly liberal, non-literalist one) that the whole "Menstruating on the household gods" thing was a deliberate joke on the part of whomever authored that passage. Diminishing them and their authority by putting them in a humiliating position from whence they and their followers (Laban) are unable to extricate them.

    It seems likely, as there's a good deal of bathroom humor in the Bible. If so, then I would guess it's probably a fairly late addition to the text, inserted after the Judeans *finally* got it through their heads that idolatry was a no-no.