Sibling betrayal

Israel wanted to hear a good report of his sons grazing his flocks so far away, roughly sixty miles from home in Hebron.

“Joseph,” he beckoned. “Go check on your brothers. Come back and tell me they’re taking proper care of my sheep.”

So Joseph left his father in the valley and set off for the lush fields near Shechem. Once he arrived, he began searching the area, and a man noticed him wandering around, looking lost.

“What are you looking for, stranger?” he asked.

I’m looking for my brothers,” he answered. “They’re around here somewhere pasturing my father’s sheep.”

The man answered, “I overheard them say they were going to Dathan,” and he pointed in that direction.

Sure enough, Joseph spotted them in a distant pasture near where the man had said.

“Look,” Simeon said, while Joseph was still far from them. “The dreamer has come to grace us with his presence.” As Joseph continued to approach, they plotted to cut his throat, throw him in an abandoned cistern, and tell their father he’d been slain by a wild beast. “Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”

Reuben wasn’t keen on killing the boy, though. “Don’t spill his blood,” he said. “Just throw him in the pit where he’ll die of his own accord, and with no blood on our hands.” Reuben secretly planned to come back later and rescue his father’s favorite son.

The brothers grabbed Joseph by both arms, stripped him of his multicolored robe, and threw him into the bone-dry pit. Reuben went back to the field to gather the flocks, and the rest of the brothers sat under a tree near the cistern to have some lunch.

A caravan of Ishmaelites approached from the direction of Gilead, and from the looks of the packs on their camels, they were heading to Egypt to sell their wares.

Judah stood up and said, “What good is our brother dead in a pit? Will his blood not still be on our hands?” Then he ran up to the roadside and waved his arms at the approaching merchants.

“What is this?” the leader of the caravan asked through his coarse beard. “Do we already have a buyer for our gum, balm, and resin?”

Judah held up his hand. “Wait here, sirs.” He went back down the hill where his brothers were eating. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s sell Joseph to these Ishmaelite traders.”

“Good idea, Judah,” Simeon said. “After all, he’s our brother, not a feral animal.”

“Or worse,” Levi added. “A son of Shechem.”

It was unanimous, so while Judah went to the road to negotiate the sale, the others lifted Joseph out of the cistern. They traded their brother for twenty silver pieces.

By the time the brothers had finished their lunch, Reuben had come back with the sheep and looked into the cistern. Seeing that Joseph was no longer there, he tore his clothes in grief.

He said, “Our brother is gone. What do we do?”

Naphtali tossed Joseph’s cloak on the ground, and Simeon brandished a long knife. Taking a goat from the flocks, he cut its throat and spilled the blood all over the multicolored coat. Taking it to their father, Naphtali said, “Look what we found on the path to Hebron. Didn’t this belong to Joseph?”

Israel tore his robe and wept. “A wild animal has devoured my son!” he lamented. “All that’s left is this bloody cloak.” He put a burlap loincloth around his middle and mourned for days. No amount of comfort from his sons and daughters did any good. “I’ll go into the depths of my son’s grave, mourning all the way,” he rasped.

Inspiration: Genesis 37

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

Abram’s call

The brawny shepherd hoisted himself upon the highest hill in Haran and surveyed the modern trading mecca. On the horizon, an imposing castle of great basaltic blocks overshadowed the temple of the moon-god. Here, the old oral tradition rang in his ears.

Canaan will bow to Shem.

From Shem’s family line, the so-called Semites, that shepherd, Abram, had emerged from a Babylonian speck called Ur. He and his wife Sarai migrated north to Haran with his father’s tribe. As he stood overlooking the vast expanse of Haran, God suddenly spoke.

“Take your herds and head south. You’ll settle in a place I’ve designated for you, and for the fulfillment of a promise I’m making to save all humankind.”

Abram listened as God’s voice echoed in his dreams.

“You’ll become a nation of glory,” God told him, “blessed and renowned. Those who bless you will be blessed, and those who curse you will be cursed. Because of your dominion, Abram of Ur, every family in the world will have reason to celebrate.”

Abram took God at his word. When he was seventy-five years old, he straightened his spine, packed his bags, and loaded up his wife, his nephew Lot, their livestock, and all the servants they had acquired in Haran. Together they journeyed voluntarily into dust-swirled chaos.

Traveling through Canaan, they stopped at Moreh Grove in Shechem. God said, “This will be the land of your children.”

Abram had no children and knew his wife was barren, but he built an altar anyway, willing to stretch himself beyond his personal limits, believing that God’s word was His bond.

From Shechem, he and his entourage continued trekking south, living off the fruit and fat of the land. All along the route, Abram would order his surroundings by building one altar after another. His confidence was a magnificent stone castle in its own right, and his resolve to take possession of a new kingdom was fueled by a God who would show up indiscriminately to repeat his promise of wide, open spaces and endless descendants.

Inspiration: Genesis 10-12; I Chronicles 1