Cleaning house

Jacob shook off the disturbing images of his sons’ bloodlust and prayed for some clear direction. God told Jacob to go back to Bethel and settle there. “Make an altar to me,” God said, “at the place where I appeared when you fled from Esau.”

Jacob knew he needed to set his house right before proceeding further. He made a blanket announcement to all who lived in his camp. “Sons, daughters, wives, servants, gather up all your foreign gods, cleanse yourselves with water from the spring, and change into clean clothes. We’re going to Bethel to build an altar to the God who’s had my back since I fled from my brother so long ago.”

For the next few days, everyone brought Jacob their idols. They removed the earrings they wore as symbols of wealth and substance, and they washed in the brook. Jacob took all the objects of false worship, the gods and the jewelry, and he buried them underneath an oak tree near Shechem.

When they left for Bethel, God inflicted a collective paranoia on all the villages surrounding the people of Israel so that no one dared to venture out from their own house to attack Jacob’s caravan.

They arrived safely at Bethel, and Jacob built his altar. God came to him and said, “Your name is Jacob, but from this moment you’ll be called Israel. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac will be yours, and it’ll belong to your children after you.”

Israel brushed off the old altar of stone he’d erected so many years before, and he named the place “El-Bethel,” The God of God’s House.

Soon afterward, Israel left Bethel and traveled toward Ephrath. Along the way, Rachel struggled through the birth of her son.

“Don’t be scared,” her midwife tried to soothe her. “You’re going to have a son.”

But Rachel’s dying words were, “He will be called ‘Benoni’ Son Of My Pain.

Israel buried his wife Rachel in a tomb and marked it with a boulder somewhere along the road. There, he renamed his newborn child Benjamin. Journeying on, he pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder near Ephrath, also called Bethlehem.

While living there near Bethlehem, Reuben slept with Bilhah, his mother’s servant, and father’s concubine. Israel heard this troubling news, but he would need to think carefully about a suitable punishment for him.

Israel and Esau came to Mamre Oaks at Hebron to bury their father Isaac, who was a hundred and eighty years old when he died. From there, Israel and his family went and settled in Bethel. Altogether, Israel’s sons were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin.

Inspiration: Genesis 35

Dinah’s avengers

When Leah’s daughter Dinah went out to visit the women in the area, the prince of Shechem noticed her. After grabbing her in the street and brutally raping her, he decided instead that he loved her. So he helped her to her feet and spoke gently to console her.

Later that day, the prince demanded of his father Hamor, “I want her as my wife!”

Word got back to Jacob that his daughter had been sexually assaulted, but since his sons were working with the cattle, he brooded all alone. When Hamor came out to speak with Jacob, the sons were also returning from the field. When they heard from Jacob what had happened, they were outraged by the offense done to a daughter of Israel.

Hamor tried to bargain with them. “My son longs for Dinah,” he said. “Please give her as his wife. For that matter, why not marry our daughters, and let us marry yours. Our land will be yours in which to buy, sell, and trade freely.”

The prince showed up and offered himself to them. “I come in peace,” he said. “Whatever you ask of me, I will grant it to you. Consider it my wedding gift. I must have her as my wife.”

“Wedding gift?” Simeon stammered. “You’re prostituting our—”

“The price will be impossibly high,” Jacob interrupted. “We can’t give our daughters to an uncircumcised people.”

The prince and Hamor stood silently before Jacob and his sons.

“But,” Levi spoke up, “on the condition that both of you, as well as every male in your town, cut off their foreskins, our sister will be yours to marry.”

“And our daughters will be yours,” Simeon added. “Yours will be ours. We’ll become one people.”

“And these wide, open spaces will be ours to share,” Levi said.

“Otherwise, we’ll take our daughters and move on,” Jacob said, doubting they’d take such audacious conditions seriously.

But the prince and his father Hamor agreed. The young prince was so eager for the love of his betrothed that he had Jacob do the honors right then and there.

Hamor and the prince went to the city gate and relayed to the men of Shechem all that had been discussed with the tribe of Israel. “If we do this thing,” the prince reasoned, “will not their property and livestock be ours?”

Every male who was present agreed to the circumcision by leaving the city gate. Jacob and his sons were on the other side, sharpening their knives.

After two days, and while every male of the city was still sore, Simeon and Levi entered the gates in long cloaks. One by one, they raided each house brandishing swords, and they slew their hapless enemies.

“This is for Dinah,” they’d say, as the cold steel cut through each male’s flesh. Finally, they reached the house of the prince, where he and his father were lying in recovery. Simeon and Levi entered, each standing over their victim.

“As our father said,” Levi sneered as both brothers raised their swords, “the price for Dinah is impossibly high.”

After slaughtering Hamor and his rapist son, they collected Dinah and her belongings and left.

The rest of Jacob’s sons came in behind Dinah’s avengers and plundered the city on Dinah’s behalf. They took flocks, herds, donkeys, everything of value, and they captured their women and children for their own devices.

Jacob was distraught by the news of Shechem’s demise. “You’ve made me an enemy to all my neighbors,” he said. “You’ve slaughtered these Hivites. If the Canaanites and Perizzites come together against me, we’ll all be destroyed.”

Simeon said, “You’d rather our sister be treated like a whore?”

Levi muttered under his breath, “Is this not where God first promised this land to our great-grandfather Abraham?”

Inspiration: Genesis 34

Israel’s God

Jacob caught up with his family just in time to see a retinue of men coming toward him. Quickly he divided his children up with their respective mothers and lined them in groups. The maids and their children made up the front of the line, Leah and her children were in the middle, and Rachel and Joseph were at the back.

Then he went on ahead of them all, alone and unarmed. As he approached Esau, he bowed low to the ground seven times.

When Esau recognized his brother, he ran to him and hugged him. Together they both cried. Esau saw the approaching caravan. “Who’s with you?” he asked.

“These are my children, given to your servant by a gracious God.”

As each group drew near, they bowed before Esau. He regarded each of them with a nod and turned again to Jacob.

“What’s the meaning of the endless train of livestock that came before you?” Esau asked.

Jacob took a knee. “To find favor in your eyes, master,” he answered.

Esau offered his hand to his brother and lifted him up. “I’ve got more than enough, brother. Keep your property.”

“No, master,” Jacob pleaded. “If we’re at peace, accept what I offer as a sign. Seeing you after these many years is like seeing God face to face, especially since you receive me with such kindness.”

Esau accepted Jacob’s gift and said, “Let’s go home together.”

But Jacob hesitated. “Master, you know my children are small, as well as the suckling young of my flocks and herds. Please go on ahead, and I’ll travel at a slower pace for their safety. I’ll meet you in Seir.”

Very well,” Esau agreed. “But let me leave some of my people with you.”

“You’re too kind,” Jacob said, “but no, I cannot accept.”

“Very well,” Esau again relented. “See you soon.” And Esau went south and returned home to Seir.

Jacob, on the other hand, traveled west and built a little house with stables for his livestock. That place was named “Succoth,” Stables. Then moving across the Jordan River, he settled outside Shechem in Canaan. He bought a piece of land with a hundred pieces of silver and pitched his tent.

Then he built an altar to God and called it “El-Elohe-Israel,” God, the God of Israel.

Inspiration: Genesis 33

Wrestle mania

In the dark hours before sunrise the next morning, Jacob stirred his wives, their maids, and his children, and he had them cross the ford of the Jabbok with all his possessions. He instructed them to follow the trail of the peace train moving toward Esau, while he stayed behind for a while to wrestle with his thoughts.

An angel appeared in human form and wrestled with Jacob. The encounter lasted until the sun began its ascent on the horizon.

The angel, unable to release himself from Jacob’s grip, said, “Let me go! The morning dawns!”

Jacob would not relent, so the angel dislocated his leg at the hip joint.

Wailing in agony, he cried, “Bless me first.”

“What’s your name?” the angel asked.

“Jacob.”

The angel said, “Jacob, your spiritual name is “Israel,” Strives With God, because you’ve wrestled with the divine and have won.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

“Why do you want to know that?” the angel asked. “You’re blessed through the way of the promise.”

Jacob named the place “Peniel,” Face of God, wholly in awe that his life was spared after the holy encounter.

The angel disappeared. Jacob lifted himself off the ground and limped toward the direction of his family.

Inspiration: Genesis 32

Peace train

When Jacob had moved to Haran twenty years earlier, Esau had also moved away from his father’s house. He had taken his wives, children, livestock, and possessions, and settled in the hill country of Seir. Now, as Jacob and his entourage drew closer to his brother, he decided to dispatch couriers ahead of them to seek peace with Esau.

When Jacob’s messengers arrived, they said to Esau, “Your servant Jacob has been living with your Uncle Laban until recently. He now has oxen, donkeys, sheep, and slaves, and he sent us in hopes that you’ll receive him on friendly terms.”

“Tell Jacob,” Esau answered, “that I’m coming to meet him with an army of four hundred.”

When they returned and told Jacob what Esau had said, Jacob was terrified. He split his camp into two companies and divided his livestock equally so that half of his estate could still survive the wrath of Esau.

Then he prayed. “O God, O Master, you told me to go back home, and you said you’d be with me. I went to Haran with a shepherd’s crook and a father’s blessing, and now I’m a wealthy man. I’m not worthy of your love and faithfulness, but I ask that you save my family and me from my brother’s anger. You said you’d make my offspring like the countless sands of the shore.”

Jacob continued to pray into the night until he fell asleep. The next morning, he brought out two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, gave them to a servant and said, “Deliver these goats to my brother and say, ‘These are a peace offering from your servant Jacob, and he is coming behind us.’”

Then he took two hundred ewes and twenty rams from his flock. He gave them to another servant and told him the same thing he told the first servant, adding, “Keep space between you and my servant ahead of you.”

Next, he took thirty milking camels and their young, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys, and ten male donkeys. Again he gave each species of animal to a servant and had him form the next drove in a long line of gifts for his brother. “Tell him your servant Jacob comes behind us,” he told each one, “but keep a distance between the drove ahead of you.”

Jacob hoped that by the time he met his brother Esau, his anger would have subsided. In the meantime, he waited for each drove to take its turn toward Esau, and he continued to sleep unsettled for another night.

Inspiration: Genesis 32, 36

Witness pile

“Are you quite finished?” Laban asked after quite the tongue-lashing from his rogue hand. “Your wives are my daughters. Their maids are my property. Your children are my children. Everything in this camp belongs to me.”

Then Laban’s face softened. “But,” he said, giving Jacob’s shoulder a friendly tap, “what can I do? I’ve met my match. Let’s make a promise between us.”

“Gather stones,” Jacob said to his children as he removed a boulder from the side of the hill and rolled it into the middle of the camp. Reuben and his brothers brought stones and made a pile near where Jacob set the boulder.

Laban and Jacob called the place The Witness Pile, each in his own tongue. Laban called it “Jegarsahadutha” in Aramaic, and Jacob called it “Galeed” in Hebrew. They called the boulder “Mizpah,” Watchpost.

Laban said, “God’s watching you and me when we’re apart. If you hurt my daughters or take other wives, God sees what you’ve done. This pile of stones and this boulder are a boundary. Neither you nor I will cross them to do the other harm. As these stones are a witness, may God be the judge.”

Jacob swore by his father’s faith and offered a sacrifice on top of the hill, and everyone from both camps threw an all-night party.

In the morning, Laban got up and loaded his camels, kissed his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, and blessed them. He and his entourage left for Haran.

When Jacob and his family left to continue their journey south to Canaan, he met a company of angels on the way. He named that area “Mahanaim,” Two Camps 

Inspiration: Genesis 31, 32

Hidden idols

After giving a three-day head start, a servant broke the news to Laban that Jacob and his caravan had gone. Laban enlisted some of his close family members to help him give chase. After seven days, they caught up with them in the hills of Gilead.

The night before he was to confront Jacob, God visited Laban in a dream.

“Don’t speak good or evil to Jacob,” God said.

In the morning, Laban caught up with Jacob and his camp and said, “Why’d you steal my daughters as if they were spoils of war? Why’d you sneak away behind my back? I would have thrown you a ‘going away’ party with music and dancing. You didn’t even let me say goodbye to my daughters and sons. I came to take back what is mine and teach you a lesson, but the God of Isaac told me not to speak good or evil to you. Why’d you leave like that?”

“I was afraid,” Jacob answered. “I thought you’d keep your daughters from me, using violence if necessary.”

“That’s understandable,” Laban said. “But regardless of how badly you’re ready to go home, why’d you steal my teraphim?”

Jacob scratched his head. “You’re mistaken. If anyone stole anything of yours, then I’ll have them put to death.”

Jacob took a couple of steps back and raised his voice so that the entire camp could hear. “Given all these witnesses, show me what I have that belongs to you.”

Laban began a search through Jacob’s camp. He went first into Leah’s tent, turning over pillows and blankets, rummaging through baskets and satchels. Finding nothing, he searched the shelters of the maids and other servants.

“Excuse me,” Laban said, as he entered Rachel’s tent.

Rachel was sitting on the camel furniture where the terephim were hidden. Laban searched the tent from top to bottom but to no avail.

Rachel said, “Forgive me for not getting up, Father. I’m having my blood.”

Laban waved her off, distracted by the task at hand. When he exited Rachel’s tent, he was confronted by an impatient Jacob.

“Tell me what I’ve done wrong,” Jacob scolded Laban. “Give me some justification for coming out here to give me more trouble. You’ve searched my camp and have come up empty.”

Laban stood speechless before Jacob, who wasn’t finished with his tirade.

“For twenty years I have served you. Your flocks and herds never miscarried. I’ve never eaten your rams. Whenever one of your animals was torn to shreds by a wild creature, I took the loss from my stock. I slaved through heat and cold and sleepless nights for twenty long years, fourteen years for your daughters and six years for your livestock, and at every turn, you changed the condition of payment. If God hadn’t been with me, I’d have lost everything by now. So if I were you, I’d take last night’s divine rebuke to heart!”

Inspiration: Genesis 31 

Deceptive departure

Laban’s sons moaned incessantly about Jacob gradually taking all their dad’s property and becoming unreasonably wealthy. Jacob overheard them talking and realized why the sudden change in Laban’s usual behavior toward him.

Jacob spent time meditating on what he should do.

Then God showed up. “Enough of this now,” God said. “Go back to your kin, and I’ll be with you as always.”

Jacob called his wives out to the field where he was watching the flocks and said, “You both know I’ve given your dad the best years of my life. He’s tried to embezzle wages from me ten times, but the God of my dad has kept that from happening. If your dad said he’d give me the spotted sheep in the fold, every flock would bear spotted sheep. If he promised me the striped, then suddenly striped sheep would come from the offspring. Little by little, this is how God has taken your dad’s livestock away, and now it’s become clear that I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

Rachel and Leah looked at each other. “Do we have any reason to stay?” Rachel asked.

“We’re considered strangers here since we were sold,” Leah said.

“And what inheritance comes from a man who’s lost everything,” Rachel added.

Then they turned to Jacob and spoke in unison. “Do what God says.”

Rachel returned to the main house, and while her dad was shearing sheep in the outbuilding, she went through each room and stole Laban’s household gods, his terephim, and wrapped them in cloth.

Without telling Laban of his plans to leave, Jacob packed his bags and all his belongings. In the morning, he and his family rode out on camels for the land of Canaan. Unbeknownst to Jacob, Laban’s stolen property lined the underside of Rachel’s saddle, wrapped in cheesecloth.

Inspiration: Genesis 31

Dueling tricksters

By the time Joseph was born, Jacob had had enough of the deceiver, Laban. “It’s time to free me from service and let me go to my own country,” Jacob grumbled. “Let me take my wives and children, whom I purchased with honest, hard work.”

“Allow me to say, if you will,” Laban answered, hoping to persuade him to stay, “you and I both know God has blessed me through you. If you agree to stay, I’ll pay you whatever wages you demand.”

“A familiar offer, Uncle,” Jacob said. “But I wonder, are you capable of a good, clean deal?”

“You have my word.”

Laban’s word was worthless, but Jacob decided this might be his only opportunity to get the better of his employer.

“Do you admit that my service record is impeccable,” Jacob asked, “and that your livestock has fared well under my management?”

“Absolutely,” Laban agreed.

“Honestly, you were nothing before I came along, and now you thrive. God has blessed whatever I’ve touched.”

“Yes, Nephew, yes.”

“But how do you expect me to provide for both you and my growing household?”

“Name your price,” was Laban’s eager reply.

“Okay,” Jacob said. “Pay me nothing.”

“I don’t follow.” Laban was stumped.

“If you agree to my terms, I’ll keep feeding and protecting your flocks.”

“What do you have in mind?” Laban asked, feeling suddenly uneasy.

Jacob said, “Let me take all your blemished sheep and goats, and you can keep all the pure, white sheep. Only the marked animals will be mine. Further, I’ll insist that you inspect my wages with your own eyes so that my integrity isn’t questioned later. If you find among my flocks and herds a single animal without blemish, you can call me a thief.”

Laban was all too eager to agree to the deal, but before Jacob had a chance to sort all the animals, Laban removed every goat and lamb with the slightest mark and placed them in the care of his sons. Then he distanced those blemished flocks from the spotless flocks by a three-day journey. He put the rest in the care of Jacob.

Jacob was accustomed to Laban’s dishonesty through the long years of toil, and he assumed the man would play dirty, but he was also confident that God would be on his side, no matter the outcome.

During mating season, Jacob pulled out all the stops. He would attempt the ambitious feat of modifying the herds in his favor, using selective breeding techniques, a little primitive magic, and a lot of prayers.

One night, Jacob dreamed that only the male goats with spots and blemishes were healthy and active in the pen. The spotless goats were lethargic and weak. Then an angel of God appeared in the dream and said, “I’ve noticed Laban’s dishonesty. Now notice all the healthy goats, leaping atop the weak, are yours. I am the God of Bethel, the same God who appeared where you anointed the rock with wine and oil and made a vow to me. It’s nearly time to go home and leave this place behind.”

For six more years, God blessed Jacob. Not only did the spotless herd gradually turn speckled, spotted, striped, and black, but any unblemished sheep left were sad and frail.

So after a total of twenty years serving Laban, Jacob grew filthy rich on flocks, herds, camels, donkeys, and slaves, and his desire to leave Laban’s household grew to a fevered pitch.

Inspiration: Genesis 30

Growing family

Rachel seethed with envy over Leah and her children, but she lashed out at Jacob. “I’ll die if you don’t give me children,” she complained violently.

Jacob said, “What do you want me to do, play God?”

As a matter of fact, that might not be such a bad idea, she thought.

Rachel left Jacob’s tent and returned a few minutes later with her maid, Bilhah. “Sleep with Bilhah,” she said, nudging her maid closer to Jacob, “and let her carry my babies.” Jacob took Bilhah into his bed, and they had a son named Dan.

Rachel was overjoyed. “God has weighed everything and has answered in my favor.”

Then Bilhah had another son, and Rachel named him Naphtali.

Jacob’s nocturnal visits with Leah were few, but because her rivalry with Rachel was strong, Leah took a strategy from Rachel’s playbook and gave her maid Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate. Zilpah had two sons for her, and Leah named them Gad and Asher.

During the wheat harvest, little Reuben was playing out in the field and came across a sweet-smelling bouquet of mandragora flowers. He plucked them carefully by the root and brought them to his mother.

When Rachel saw her sister’s flowers and caught their pleasant scent, and believing them to aid in fertility, she wanted some for her own house.

“Please give me some of your mandrakes,” she said.

But Leah, remembering her bitterness toward her rival sister, said, “You stole my husband, and you have the gall to ask me for flowers my child presented to me as a gift?”

“Give me some,” Rachel bargained, “and I’ll give you Jacob for the night.”

“Deal,” Leah said, collecting a handful from the bowl by the door.

Jacob was returning from the herds late in the day, and Leah met him halfway. “You’ll be sleeping with me tonight,” she said. “I bought an evening with you in exchange for exquisite mandrakes.”

Jacob slept with Leah, and she bore two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter named Dinah.

God also answered Rachel’s prayers, and from her own womb, she bore a son named Joseph. “Thanks to God, I’m no longer a disappointment.” Then, as if Joseph weren’t enough, she added, “May God give me another son!”

So all of the bickering among Jacob’s wives brought to fruition the entry point of God’s promise of countless descendants for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Inspiration: Genesis 30, Song of Solomon 7:13