Genesis 38:1–7

38  1 It was about that time that Judah went down, away from his brothers, and settled alongside an Adullamite named Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua, and he took her and came in to her. She became pregnant and bore a son, and she called his name Er. She became pregnant again, bore a son, and called his name Onan. Once again, she bore a son and called his name Shelah. She was in Chezib when she gave birth to him.
     Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, a woman named Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the eyes of YHWH, and YHWH put him to death.

The story of Judah and Tamar (Chapter 38) comes as an interruption of the story of Joseph. Since it doesn’t fit any better anywhere else, given its 20-year length, we might view it as a parallel line of inquiry into leadership within a family. We have heard several short stories about Reuben and will listen to a much longer story about Joseph. For now, the focus is on Judah. It may be helpful to consider this an antecedent to Joseph’s story that brings background information, rather than an interruption.

It is first noted that Judah “went down” from his brothers. This is the same designation that is used for going to Egypt even though it is used here to designate going from the highlands to a lower elevation. It is the separation from family that is at issue here. All along, there is a question of the purity of the family line and whether or not to assimilate.

Away from family, Judah settles by a Canaanite. The danger is that Judah will lose track of his brothers, which is the very appeal he makes to save Joseph from death at the hand of his brothers.

We do not hear of Judah taking a wife, only that he took an unnamed woman (known only as her father’s daughter) to bed. Readers do not hear a reason for Judah’s relationship with Shua’s daughter, like that of Jacob’s appreciation for Rachel’s loveliness nor of Shechem’s power over Dinah.

All we know is that Shua’s daughter bore three sons to Judah—Er, Onan, and Shelah.

In keeping with the difficulty evidenced by firstborns, Er is described as being inherently and thoroughly evil. YHWH puts Er to death for no given particular but a state of being such as the pre-Flood people. [Note: Er’s name returns as the name for a son of Shelah as a way of carrying on the family (1 Chronicles 4:21). Somehow multiplication redeems an unfruitful son and returns him to the genealogy.]

Er is not so labeled until after Judah arranges for Tamar to become Er’s wife, and there are no offspring. With Er’s death, the scene is now set for an investigation of Levirate marriage to carry on a family’s “seed”—an extension of the overriding expectation to multiply and to be fruitful.

Genesis 37:29–36

37  29 Reuben returned to the pit and was surprised to find that Joseph wasn’t in it—he rent his clothes. 30 Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy’s gone! And I—where am I to go?”
     31 His brothers took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a hairy goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood. 32 They sent the ornamented robe and had it brought to their father, and said, “We found this. Can you see if it is your son’s tunic or not.”
     33 He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph is torn, torn to pieces!” 34 Then Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son for many days. 35 All his sons and daughter arose to comfort him, but he refused to be consoled, saying, “I will go down to my son in mourning, to Sheol.” And his father wept for him. 
     36 Meanwhile, the Midianites had sold him into Egypt, to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s courtier, commander of the palace guard.

Reuben has been away with his plotting to advance his position with his father and brother, Israel and Joseph. While away, his other brothers, led by Judah, changed plans and sold Joseph to a caravanner headed toward Egypt.

Reuben’s plan, thwarted, leads him to mourn. He may not even know he had silver pieces coming to him.

When next with his brothers, Reuben moans, literally, “He is not.” This statement can mean either dead or missing. The ambiguity of this statement becomes how the brothers will present the absence of Joseph—setting a scene for Israel to misinterpret.

With no transition, even a short visit to enjoy the pleasures of Dothan, readers find themselves back home with Israel. Joseph’s fancy tunic was smeared with the blood of a slaughtered kid and presented to Israel. Readers can wonder if Israel remembered how a slaughtered kid and coverings were used in his deceiving of Isaac when he was still known as Jacob.

After identifying the tunic as Joseph’s, he chooses the “dead” option of Reuben’s ambiguous statement upon finding his plan had gone astray. Jacob wails his perceived loss—his favorite son, son of his favorite wife, has been torn to shreds, is no more. Rachel is now even further away.

Jacob rent his clothes, wore sackcloth, and mourned and mourned some more—was not comforted by his children, sons and daughter—refusing consolation. Jacob claims he will go to his death mourning Joseph.

A brief echo of the sale of Joseph returns to close this episode—Joseph sold, Jacob mourning.

Genesis 37:21–28

37  21 When Reuben heard, he came to his rescue and said, “Let’s not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “We must not strike him mortally! Fling him into this wilderness pit, but do not raise a hand upon him.” This was so he could rescue him from their hand and return him to his father.
     23 When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his cloak, the ornamented tunic. 24 They took him and threw him into s pit, an empty pit with no water in it. 25 They sat down to eat bread. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels carrying balm, balsam, and ladanum on their way down to Egypt. 
     26 Judah said to his brothers, “What gain is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him. Let’s not harm him because he’s our brother; our flesh.” His brothers agreed. 
     28 Meanwhile, some Midianite merchants passed by and hauled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, and they brought Joseph to Egypt.

Reuben made a previous attempt at tribal leadership when he lay with Bilhah in a bid to overthrow his father. Readers can sense the wheels turning in Reuben’s head. Two possibilities came to mind regarding an attempt to rescue Joseph from his brothers. One begins to put Reuben back in Israel’s good grace by caring for his father’s favorite—Joseph. A second might give him an edge with the current favorite for leading the next generation—again, Joseph. Rueben’s attempted rescue seems to arise more from calculation than compassion. It also evidences Reuben’s distance from his brothers. With this making of independent decisions based on what is good for him, not the community,  he will not be able to hold the tribe together.

Reuben’s suggestion effects a shift from a quick death for Joseph to captivity. For Reuben, this may supply an opportunity to rescue Joseph and hie him hence to his father. Points go to Reuben, who may be able to play his father’s game of gaming his father.

Stripped of his cloak of privilege, Joseph finds himself in a wilderness pit without water. We don’t hear Joseph crying out for mercy or help. He appears to be standing by his dreams. After all, his brothers have already circled round him. Now, it is just a matter of time before they bow down to him as he stands upon a pillar rising from the pit to tower over it and his brothers.

Meanwhile, as the brothers share a victory mean, they see a caravan journeying from Mesopotamia to Egypt. 

While Reuben is setting up his plan, Judah raises a mediating voice. Judah, fourth and last born to Leah, consolidates his brothers’ actions. They are not to kill one of their own but to sell him to their extended family, the Ishmaelites. [Note: Ishmaelites and Midianites refer to the same people at different historical times. This confusion indicates a conflation of sources.] This plan will bring immediate gain—two pieces of silver apiece to the shepherding brothers and the trading city of Dothan is right close. [Note: This division presumes Benjamin was still too young to have been away to tend the flocks.]

We don’t know if Reuben is thinking here what Joseph will later claim from Egypt—that acts intended for harm, may yet be transformed into good. Of course, it is easier to see the obverse —the best of intentions can quickly turn into unintended consequences, harm.

Genesis 37:12–20

37  12 Joseph’s brothers went to tend their father’s flocks at Shechem. 13 Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers tending the sheep at Shechem? I am sending you to them.”
     And he said, “Here I am.”
     14 Israel said to him, “Go! See how your brothers are doing and about the well-being of the flock, and bring word back to me.”
     So his father sent Joseph from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. 15 A man found him wandering in the field and asked him, “What do you seek?”
     16 Joseph said, “I seek my brothers. Please tell me; where are they tending the sheep?”
     17 The man said, “They have moved on from here. I heard them saying, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.
     18 They saw Joseph from afar before he drew near to them. They cunningly plotted to cause his death. 19 They said to each other, “Here comes the master dreamer! 20 Now, let’s kill him and fling him into one of the pits! We’ll say a vicious beast devoured him! Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!”

Having sacked Shechem, it is to Shechem that Israel’s flocks find forage. Do the brothers still incite the fear of destruction if they are crossed? Is their presence adding insult to injury for other inhabitants of the area?

Israel is asking the known tattletale, Joseph, to go, gather information, and report back. This carries the potential for bad news for the brothers.

So it was that Joseph went from the heights of Hebron (here called a valley) to Shechem to find Israel’s flocks were not where they were expected to be.

While there is no textual warrant for seeing an unnamed man be the equivalent of visitors to Abraham or a wrestler with Jacob, their function is to forward the tension of the story. Already there is a tale to tattle—the brothers and flocks were not where Israel said they were to be.  The stranger seems to have insider information about the whereabouts of the flocks—Dothan. [Note: Dothan is some 13 miles north of Shechem and on a major trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia—the boundaries of our story.]

With little option than to follow this lead, Joseph went to Dothan and, there, found his brothers and the flocks they were keeping in the fields.

Would Joseph dare wear his easily identified, high-fashion cloak into the brambles of the wild? There is nothing so far to suggest otherwise, and so the brothers saw him at a further distance than might otherwise be the case.

With more time to consider what he was doing here—beyond being a spy for their father and knowing their presence in Dothan might not be defensible—their speculations could likely lead to plotting. The easiest solution is to follow Cain’s lead and provide an “accident” for their hated brother.

Blame is a solid first step for a conspiracy requiring drastic action. Is the fault Joseph’s? His brothers? Fate disguised as an unnamed co-conspirator? A setup by his father? Good ol’ G*D? Rachel? The storyteller? Readers needing excitement to stick with a story? Necessity? The stars? Is there any option to blaming?

Genesis 37:5–11

37  5 Joseph dreamed a dream and told it to his brothers—they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I dreamt. We were binding sheaves in the field when my stalk arose and stood upright, while your sheaves circled round and bowed down to my sheaf.”
     His brothers said to him, “Will you mean to be king over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dreams and his words to them.
     And he dreamed another dream and related it to his brothers: “Look, I dreamed another dream. This time, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
     10 When he recounted it to his father and brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What kind of dream have you dreamed? Shall we really come, I and your mother and your brothers to bow to you, down to the ground?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, while his father remembered.

Dreams and messages shift relationships. Arcs of a person’s direction, as well as that of a community, are affected. Those with direct connections with an identified G*D have qualitatively different dreams than those Joseph reports.

Joseph’s dreams are smart interpretations of a given circumstance and often provide the grist of division or the setup for later consequences not immediately discernable.

Joseph’s first dream is about power—his. His unique tunic requires a fitting audience, one that recognizes its worth (Joseph’s worth), one bowed down to.

Joseph’s brothers already hate him for his privileged position in the eyes of Jacob/Israel. When Joseph announces his dream to them, it is recorded that they hate him all the more.

Challenged by his brothers, with no intervening response, the storyteller repeats their hate toward Joseph.

Joseph, not hearing a discouraging word, pushes on to relate yet another dream. It is the same dream with different components—sun, moon, and one star per brother. What was an ordinary intra-family power struggle is raised to a higher level with all of creation (including G*D?) bowing down to Joseph. Today we might equate Joseph with current narcissistic leaders who cannot compute any reaction that does not glorify them. We might anticipate the great fall and disaster that comes from a “See how great I am” way of acting in a larger and larger world.

Not even a rebuke from his primary cheerleader will phase Joseph. Israel, noting Joseph’s lack of listening and learning (humility), can only hold this pattern of behavior in mind, and so should readers.

[Note: A point of confusion enters with Israel’s reference to Rachel, who was dead and buried some time ago.]

Genesis 37:1–4

37  1 Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. This is the account of the begettings of Jacob. 
     Joseph was seventeen years old and tended the flock with his brothers. While he was an assistant to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, Joseph brought an ill-report to his father about them. Now Israel loved Joseph above all his sons because he was a child of his old age. Jacob had made for him an ornamented robe. When his brothers saw that it was he their father loved above all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

After the genealogy of Esau, the story of Jacob’s sons begin out-of-joint. We hear first of Joseph, firstborn of Jacob’s beloved and lovely wife, Rachel, instead of Reuben the physically firstborn of Leah, Jacob’s first wife, though not his first love.

Joseph is first introduced to us as a tattletale, reporting poor shepherding to the master of animal husbandry, Jacob. [Note: The story begins at the human trickery level of Isaac’s son, Jacob, not Jacob’s honorific of Israel.

If not already clear, Joseph is the favored, spoiled, pampered, protected child. These are qualities of Israel raised beyond their bounds. Joseph has also stolen from his younger full-brother the quality of being named as “the child of Jacob’s old age,” which is the name of Benjamin. Just as Jacob stole the identity of his older brother, Esau, Joseph gains the identity of his younger brother, Benjamin.

As Jacob was the favorite of his mother, Rebekah, so he favors Joseph as an extension of his favorite wife, Rachel. Such family dynamics remain through a variety of cultures, down to our own.

It is obvious to all, particularly the other sons, that Joseph was his Daddy’s Boy. He didn’t have to wait for hand-me-downs, but has his own specially tailored tunic made just for him. [Note: Alter describes it as “a unisex garment and product of ancient haute couture” (p. 139)—out there in a shepherd’s wilderness.]

As expected with this beginning description of Joseph, he was well-and-truly hated by those of his generation. There was not a kind word spoken of Joseph (except, presumably, when in the presence of the doting patriarch, Jacob, the too-well loved Israel).

We are now prepared for the tragedy of Joseph that follows the comedy of Israel, née Jacob.

Genesis 36:1–43

36  1 These are the begettings of Esau, that is, Edom. Esau took his wives from the women of Canaan: Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah the daughter of Anah son of Zibeon the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth. Adah bore Eliphaz to Esau, and Basemath bore Reuel, and Oholibamah gave birth to Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. These are the sons of Esau born to him in the land of Canaan.
     Esau took his wives, his sons, his daughters, persons of his household, his livestock, his cattle, and everything he had acquired in the land of Canaan and went to another land away from Canaan and from Jacob his brother for their property was so great that they couldn’t settle together. The land of their sojourning couldn’t support all of their livestock. So Esau settled in the high country of Seir—Esau, that is, Edom.
     These are the begettings of Esau, the tribal-father of Edom, which lies in the mountains of Seir. 10 These are the names of Edom’s sons: Eliphaz son of Adah, Esau’s wife, and Reuel son of Basemath, Esau’s wife. 11 The sons of Eliphaz were Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. 12 Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esau, and she bore Amalek to Eliphaz. These are the sons of Adah, Esau’s wife. 13 These are the sons of Reuel: Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are the sons of Basemath, Esau’s wife. 14 These are the sons of Esau’s wife Oholibamah, the daughter of Anah, son of Zibeon: she bore to Esau, Jeush, Jalam, and Korah.
     15 These are the tribal chiefs from the sons of Esau: The sons of Eliphaz, firstborn of Esau: chieftain Teman, chieftain Omar, chieftain Zepho, chieftain Kenaz, 16 chieftain Korah, chieftain Gatam, and chieftain Amalek. These are the tribal chiefs of Eliphaz in the land of Edom; they are the sons of Adah. 17 These are the sons of Reuel, son of Esau: chieftain Nahath, chieftain Zerah, chieftain Shammah, and chieftain Mizzah. These are the tribal chiefs of Reuel in the land of Edom; they are the sons of Basemath, Esau’s wife.18 These are the sons of Oholibamah, Esau’s wife: chieftain Jeush, chieftain Jalam, and chieftain Korah. They are the tribal chiefs of Oholibamah, daughter of Anah, Esau’s wife. 19 These are the sons of Esau, that is Edom, and these are their tribal chiefs.
     20 These were the sons of Seir, the Horite, who had settled in the land: Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, 21 Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. These were the Horite tribal chiefs, sons of Seir, in the land of Edom. 22 The sons of Lotan were Hori and Heman, and Lotan’s sister was Timna. 23 These were the sons of Shobal: Alvan, Manahath, Ebal, Shepho, and Onam. 24 These are the sons of Zibeon: Aiah and Anah. Anah is the one who found water in the desert while pasturing the donkeys of his father, Zibeon. 25 These are the children of Anah: Dishon and Oholibamah, daughter of Anah. 26 These are the sons of Dishon: Hemdan, Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran. 27 These are the sons of Ezer: Bilhan, Zaavan, and Akan. 28 These are the sons of Dishan: Uz and Aran.29 These are the Horite tribal chiefs: chieftain Lotan, chieftain Shobal, chieftain Zibeon, chieftain Anah, 30 chieftain Dishon, chieftain Ezer, and chieftain Dishan. These are the Horite tribal chiefs, listed according to their clans in the land of Seir.
     31 These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites. 32 Bela, son of Beor, reigned in Edom and the name of his city was Dinhabah. 33 When Bela died, Jobab son of Zerah from Bozrah reigned as king. 34 When Jobab died, Husham from the land of the Temanite reigned as king. 35 When Husham died, Hadad, son of Bedad, who struck down Midian in the land of Moab, became king and the name of his city was Avith. 36 When Hadad died, Samlah from Masrekah reigned as king. 37 When Samlah died, Shaul from Rehoboth-on-the-river reigned as king. 38 After Shaul died, Baal-Hanan, son of Achbor, reigned as king.39 When Baal-Hanan, Achbor’s son, died, Hadar reigned as king and the name of his city was Pau and the name of his wife was Mehetabel, daughter of Matred, daughter of Me-Zahab.
     40 These are the names of Esau’s tribal chiefs according to their clans, their places, and their names: tribal chief of Timna, chieftain Alvah, chieftain Jetheth, 41 tribal chief of Oholibamah, chieftain Elah, chieftain Pinon, 42 chieftain Kenaz, chieftain Teman, chieftain Mibzar, 43 chieftain Magdiel, and chieftain Iram. These are the tribal chiefs of Edom according to their settlements in the land they held. That is Esau, the tribal father of Edom.

Ishmael’s tribes are twelve (36:12–15). Esau’s tribes are twelve (36:15–19). A pattern is established that prepares us for Jacob/Israel also having twelve tribes based on his twelve sons (35:23–26). Though, there will be a significant wrinkle regarding one of them who will not have a tribe named after him.

One difference that privileges the twelve tribes of Israel is that the mothers are from the extended family of Terah and their slavegirls. The “purity” of the line of mothers is as much a factor as G*D’s preference of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. If G*D is on your side, as well as your mother, that is a hard duo to beat.

Within the list of Esau’s chieftain descendants is Amalek. If he is counted, there are thirteen tribes. Note has been made of his mother being a concubine of Esau’s, not a primary wife or a designated wife through a primary wife. With such a mother, Amalek is subtracted from the list, making it twelve.

From the view of history, the tribe of Amalek became a hereditary enemy of Israel—the Amaleks are consistently antagonistic toward Israel. This is distinguished from the other Edomites (Esauians?) who had a variety of relationships with Israel, depending on the time and situation.

There are echoes in this genealogy (36:6–8) of the separation between Abram and Lot (13:5–12). The separation is not only biologic (mothers) or theologic (G*D’s preference), but economic, (land).

The larger setting of Edom includes other peoples. One of these is the Horites or Hittites, who came from what we would identify as Armenia. Their names indicated their assimilation with others in the land of Edom.

Of interest is the noting of Anah who found water in the wilderness. This indicates values beyond bloodlines may be involved with tribal leadership.

Readers also note here that there were “kings” in Edom before the Israelites begin to have kings over them.

Verses 40–43 appear to be from a different list of tribal leaders. This mixing of records is in keeping with the editorial practices of the time.

Genesis 35:21–29

35  21 Israel journeyed onward and spread his tent beyond Migdal-Eder/Herd-Tower.
     22 When Israel was camped in that place, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. And Israel heard.
     The sons of Jacob were twelve. 23 The sons of Leah were Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. 24 The sons of Rachel were Joseph and Benjamin. 25 The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s slavegirl, were Dan and Naphtali.26 The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s slavegirl, were Gad and Asher. These were Jacob’s sons born to him in Paddan-Aram.
     27 Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, at the city of Arba that is now Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. 28 The days of Isaac were one hundred and eighty years. 29 Isaac breathed his last and died. He was buried with his kin, old and full of days. Esau and Jacob, his sons, buried him.

While Jacob was still in the early throes of grieving the death of his lovely Rachel, Reuben lost no time in taking advantage of an opportunity to claim his firstborn status.

Rachel was buried at Bethlehem. The family traveled on past the Tower-of-the-Flock (Migdal-Eder), which is also located within sight of Bethlehem.

In a sense, the night of the day Rachel is buried, Reuben sexually takes her slavegirl/Jacob’s concubine/the mother of his half-brothers Dan and Naphtali. Readers are left to distinguish between Shechem’s use of Dinah and Reuben’s use of Bilhah. One difference is adolescent lust and adult power. One similarity is the focus on getting what one wants in the quickest way possible.

Reuben’s act of conquest does two things—first, it makes Bilhah culturally taboo for Jacob; second, it lays claim to Israel’s authority as patriarch. Both results enhance Reuben at the expense of Israel.

As in the case of Dinah, Jacob/Israel is silent upon hearing of this violation.

There is a similarity between Jacob’s trickery of Esau and Isaac and Reuben’s taking the firstborn claim on succession. This connection brings readers to a second conclusion of Jacob’s/Israel’s story.

A mini-genealogy names Jacob’s twelve sons and the beginning of their eventual tribes. [Note: Benjamin was not born in Mesopotamia.]

In equally compressed fashion, Jacob comes to Mamre at Hebron that symbolizes all of Abraham’s journeys and Isaac’s holding place in Canaan. After 20 years of frailty and blindness, Isaac dies at 180 years old.

Esau and Jacob (not Israel) bury Isaac. Firstborn Esau is first named even as he no longer carries the blessing of firstborn.

In rapid fashion, Jacob’s story is mostly done with Rachel’s death, a struggle for dominance between brothers is introduced, and Isaac dies. It is time for a last major genealogy in Genesis and moving on to the story of the twelve sons.

Genesis 35:16–20

35  16 They journeyed on to Bethel, and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and labored hard. 17 When laboring hardest to give birth, the midwife said to her, “Fear not, for this one, too, is a son for you.” 18 As her life slipped away, for she was dying, she called his name Ben-Oni/Son-of-My-Sorrow, but his father named him Benjamin/Son-of-the-Right-Hand. 
     19 Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is now Bethlehem. 20 Jacob set up a pillar on her grave. It’s Rachel’s burial pillar of today.

El-Bethel or Bethel, we seem to constitutionally be unable to stay where we see G*D in the cool of our evening. Like Eden-of-Old, we move on. Here the threat of death after eating of the Tree and the pain of childbirth come together in the beauty of Rachel caught in the ugliness of competition, the extreme desire evidenced in her naming of Joseph.

Laboring the hardest, Rachel learns she is having a second son. As her life ran out, as her beauty faded, she named her son Ben-Oni. This name carries twin messages—“Son of my strength,” who will carry her life-force onward, and “Son of my sorrow,” as she will not prevail over Leah in the bearing of seed for Jacob.

In the Hebrew Bible, it is usually the mother who names the child. In this case, Jacob counter-names this new son as Benjamin, which also carries a double meaning. On the surface, Benjamin is Jacob’s “Son of the right hand”—militarily powerful. [Note: Directions are “handed” in Hebrew, so this might also be “Son of the south,” as Benjamin is the only son born in Canaan/Palestine, south of Mesopotamia.] Alternatively, his name may have more to do with time rather than location. In this case, Benjamin is Jacob’s “Son of old age”—his last son.

Rachel died in childbirth and was buried on the road. Her tomb no longer has the original pillar; it has grown into a pilgrimage site, now surrounded by concrete walls entered by buses with bullet-proof windows. Rachel’s Tomb does have an interesting history you can review on Wikipedia.

The pillar of stones Jacob set in place not only honored Rachel but reminds the Reader of the importance of following the motif of stones throughout the story of those in the line of the “Soil-born.”

Rachel’s death and burial apart from the patriarchs leads us to look again at birth order. It turns out that Leah, a first-born, is not set aside by beautiful Rachel and is buried with trickster Jacob, a second-born. Life cannot be scheduled or run on constructed rules.

Genesis 35:9–15

35  9 God was seen by Jacob again when he returned from Paddan-Aram. 10 God blessed him and said, “Jacob is your name, but Jacob will no longer be your name. Your name shall be Israel.” And God named him Israel. 11 God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Bear fruit; multiply! A nation, even a host of nations, will come from you; kings will descend from your loins. 12 The land I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, to you I give it; and to your seed after you, I give this land.” 13 Then God went up from beside him, leaving him alone in the place where he spoke to him. 
     14  Jacob set up a pillar where God had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured an offering of wine on it and poured oil over it. 15 Jacob called the place where God spoke to him, Bethel.

It was to Paddan-Aram that Jacob was sent to take a wife. It was from Paddan-Aram that Jacob returned with two official wives and two quasi-official wives and came to Shechem. Having now fled from Shechem after his sons destroyed it, Jacob returns to his journey home from Paddan-Aram. The context now is Bethel writ large, El-Bethel.

Shechem, settling, was a trap for a sojourning people East of Eden. With no return past cherubim with flaming swords, there is only onward.

This time through Bethel, Jacob carries more than his family name. Peniel is carried along and, leaving Shechem, Jacob is officially vested with the name Israel that was first heard in the tumult of wrestling on the other side of the Jabbok.

In this formal change of names, we hear echoes of creation (be fruitful, multiply) and Abraham (kings from loins). Israel is not about past and present struggles, but the anticipation of a way yet ahead—What does it mean to be the realized form of a community of creators? There are more floods and slaughters and blessings and quests to come. Of betrayals and reconciliations, there is no end. Image betrays. G*D betrays. Growing together, falling apart, setting walls, breaking same—so it goes.

Though names change, the soil, the land (in seedtime and harvest, flood and fire, in season and out) remains. Conquest and exile, lost and found, are as mysterious out of their box as they were when only potential.

Another pillar is set up and anointed with an extra ritual of spilled wine.

Rather than making more of the name of the place, it returns from El-Bethel to simply Bethel. We return to potential, to the everyday quest—of resting upon promises—to “love these dreams of mine” [lyric from Judy Fjell].