Today, I’ve got a bit of writing about these chapters in General, and then an article I wrote in the past on Genesis 38. (Translation: this looks like a short post, but it’s actually quite long.)
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. God is approximately 250x “merciful/kind/loving/loyal” than he is punitive. (It’s hard to translate chesed. See this excerpt from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, “Love.”)
However, let’s take a different tack. Some have looked at the first verse sociologically; 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 enacted by 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 live off of the sacrifices and offerings that are brought), 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.
- NIVAC, Genesis.
- 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 known and transformed it, gave it new significance, with it becoming the sign of the covenant among the Israelites.