February 21, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Jacob returns to Canaan

John F. Fink(Seventh in a series of columns)

From the middle of Chapter 30 through Chapter 35, the Book of Genesis tells about Jacob’s decision to return to his homeland, where his father, Isaac, still lived.

Jacob worked for his uncle Laban, the father of Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, for 20 years. By that time, Laban’s attitude toward Jacob changed and they started to have serious disagreements. God told Jacob it was time for him to return to Canaan.

Genesis tells us how he had to outwit Laban to get away from him, but eventually he, Leah, Rachel and their children made their escape with Jacob’s cattle, herds of sheep, and camels. Laban chased after them, caught up with them, and demanded the return of his daughters and grandchildren. Finally, though, the two men made a pact, Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, and allowed them to continue their journey.

One night, Jacob had a wrestling match with another man, who turned out to be an angel. During the match, the angel wrenched Jacob’s hip socket and, the Bible passage says, that explains why the Jews do not eat the sciatic muscle that is on the hip socket.

Jacob prevailed in the wrestling match, and in the morning the angel changed Jacob’s name to Israel “because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed” (Gen 32:29). Later, God appeared to him and confirmed the name change.

As Jacob and his huge contingent neared where his brother, Esau, lived in Edom, located south of the Dead Sea, he sent messengers ahead. The messengers returned, though, with the report that Esau was coming to meet Jacob with 400 men.

Jacob, naturally, was frightened. He planned to appease Esau with numerous camels, goats, sheep and cattle. However, after all those years, Esau’s anger had cooled and the reunion was peaceful. Jacob and his family continued to Shechem, north of the Dead Sea.

Now Genesis gives us one of many salacious passages in the Bible. During the journey, Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, went to visit some of the women of the land. While she was there, a man named Shechem (the same name as the city) raped her. Then he decided he wanted to marry her and sent his father to negotiate with Jacob.

Jacob’s sons said that they could not give their sister to an uncircumcised man, but would do so if all the men in the village would be circumcised. The men actually agreed, and then, while they were in pain after the circumcisions, Jacob’s sons massacred all the men, sacked the city, and seized all their flocks, herds and women. Not everything in Genesis is a pious story.

During their journey, Rachel was pregnant again. As they neared Bethlehem, she went into labor. She bore another son, Benjamin, but she died in childbirth and was buried there. Today, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem is one of the most popular Jewish shrines, especially for expectant mothers.

Jacob, now named Israel, settled in the land of Canaan with his 12 sons. †

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