Friday, 19 October 2012

THE HOUSE OF JACOB. Pt.1 (Genesis 25, 11-50, 25). By FATHER FELIX, O.M.Cap., L.S.S.

This booklet will study the history of the Old Testament from the death of Abraham until the death of his greatgrandson, Joseph; in other words, the history of Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve sons of the latter who founded the twelve tribes of Israel. For twenty years Isaac and Rebecca were without children, until at the prayer of Isaac, God granted them twin sons. The first of these twin children is described as "hairy like a skin." (25, 25)—a phrase which denotes a phenomenon known in science as hypertrychosis or an excessive growth of hair. This condition occasioned his name, Esau, which in Hebrew means veiled or covered. Owing to the peculiar and prophetical circumstances of their birth the second son was called Jacob, a word which in Hebrew means 'one who holds the heel' hence a supplanter. And in the event the younger did supplant the elder and secure the right of primogeniture which normally should have gone to Esau, the first born.
When these twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca grew up they showed marked differences in character. Esau took to hunting for a livelihood and lived in the open; Jacob was of a quiet, home-loving disposition. Also they divided the affection of their parents, and this had far-reaching results: Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his hunting: and Rebecca loved Jacob." (25, 28). This is good psychology. "Predilections often arise from contrasts. The gentle Isaac loved Esau. The energetic Rebecca loved Jacob." 
One day Esau returned ravenously hungry after a long period out of doors to find Jacob with a "pottage (or gruel) of lentils." (25, 34) cooked and ready to be eaten. Esau asked his brother for some of "this red pottage" (25, 30) to ease his hunger. Jacob's guile showed itself at once, and he justified his name—'supplanter.' He offered Esau the food provided that the latter would cede his first birthright in return. Esau, weak with hunger, reckoned little of the privilege of the first born for the moment, and offered to barter it for the meal of lentils. Cleverly Jacob required that he make this bargain under oath; thus it would be irrevocable. Again Esau readily complied, and so "for one mess (i.e. meal) sold his first birthright." (Hebrews 12, 16), little concerned at the time about the folly of his transaction.
Famines were always of frequent occurrence in Palestine because of the uncertain rainfall. On the occasion of one such famine Isaac went to Gerara, the Capital of the Philistines. Here God appeared to Him; forbade him to go into Egypt; and renewed to him the promises which He had made to Abraham.  Isaac had the special protection of God. His flocks and herds increased; his crops were very abundant; he became a wealthy man. This aroused the envy of his Philistine neighbours, and they stopped up all the wells which he used for watering his flocks—wells indeed which his father, Abraham, had sunk. This envy was found even in the Philistine king. He came to Isaac and curtly ordered him to depart, making no secret of his motive for so ordering. Isaac removed to "the torrent of Gerara" (26, 17), but with the same result as before. Then, following the valley of this stream, he finally put himself out of range of the Philistines' molestation. Later he moved thence to Bersabee where he was favoured with a second revelation and a renewal of the divine promiee of special protection. Here he built an altar, pitched his tent, and made a permanent abode. After this "the king of the Philistines” with his chief adviser and the leader of his soldiers came to Isaac. For all his former opposition Abimelech had come to recognise that Isaac was specially favoured by God. As such he was not a man to be antagonised, and so the Philistines made a formal alliance with him. From this point Isaac fills only a small role in this history. He is altogether an insignificant figure in comparison with Abraham, his father; while his masterly and astute wife, Rebecca, seems to have completely controlled the fortunes of the family. He never travelled beyond the boundaries of Palestine, and in Sacred History he plays a pathetic part, exciting sympathy rather than admiration. The remainder of the Book of Genesis may be divided into the history of Jacob and his twelve sons—the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel (chapters 27-35); the history of Joseph, son of Jacob, in particular (chapters 37-45); the migration to Egypt of Jacob and his family—a real turning point in the history of the Hebrew people. (chapters 46-50).
Esau and Jacob grew to manhood in time; and the former, at the age of forty, married two wives—Hittite women and heathens, who "offended the mind of Isaac and Rebecca." (26, 35). These evil marriages, and his former rashness in ceding his first birthright to Jacob showed plainly that Esau was unworthy to inherit the promises made to Abraham. And yet for all that he retained the affection of his father. Rebecca, however, had her own plans. In the meantime, with the advance of years, Isaac's sight failed, and he began to think of death. So when he was now a hundred and thirty seven years old he decided to bestow on Esau the patriarchal blessing by means of which the Messianic inheritance was transmitted. With this in view he ordered Esau to take his weapons of the chase and to procure and prepare a meal of "savoury meat." (27, 4). Rebecca overheard him; and she promptly sent Jacob to kill two young goats which she would make into a meal for Isaac, Jacob presenting himself for the patriarchal blessing. Jacob protested that his father, though blind, would yet know him from his brother on account of the smoothness of his skin. But the artful Rebecca provided against this by covering Jacob's hands and neck with the skins of the kids. Then, dressing him in Esau's garments, she sent him with the meat to obtain Isaac's blessing.
Jacob entered, bringing the cooked meat; and when Isaac asked who he was, Jacob replied: "I am Esau thy firstborn." (27, 19). Isaac expressed surprise that he could have procured the meat so quickly; but Jacob parried this by saying: "It was the will of God that what I sought came quickly in my way " (27, 20). Still suspicious of his identity Isaac summoned him closer and felt his neck and hands. But the goat-skins confused him: "The voice indeed is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau" (27, 22). Again he enquired if he were Esau; and again Jacob affirmed that he was Esau. Then Isaac ate the meat and drank the wine which Jacob had brought, and he blessed Jacob praying God to prosper him and prophesying that peoples and tribes and "his mother's children" (27, 29) would be ruled by him. Jacob had only just left his father when Esau entered prepared to receive the blessing. Isaac now realised that he had been deceived; but it was too late to revoke what was done. Esau, angry and grieved, insisted that he also should receive a blessing. Isaac blessed him, but it was a different blessing from Jacob's "Far from the fertility of the earth and the dew of heaven will thy blessing be . . ." (27, 39-40), i.e., Esau would live outside the Promised Land of Chanaan in a bleak country; he would live by the sword; he would be subject to Jacob, but in time would free himself from his brother's power. This prophecy was fulfilled in Esau and his descendants who lived in the barren country of Edom, were later subjects of King David—a descendant of Jacob (2 Kings 8, 14), and eventually shook off the dominion of Israel. When the Messias actually came Herod the Great was king of Palestine (40-4 B.C.). Thus the sceptre had passed from Juda; Esau ruled Jacob.
Here a word must be said on the age-old question: Did Jacob tell a lie? Much ink has been used on it; and it would be well if a glance through the history of this question were taken by those who wrongly think that the discipline of the Catholic Church unreasonably restrains intellectual freedom or cramps one's style. Origen and St. John Chrysostom admitted that Jacob lied, but sought to justify him in doing so. St. Augustine went into the question at great length, and he gave as his solution that Jacob's deceit was "not a lie but a mystery"; the goat-skins signified sin and Jacob wearing them was a sign or figure of Christ Who carried not His own, but others' sins. This explanation was accepted for centuries; even St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas accepted it. Dun Scotus and Nicholas of Lyra called it in doubt; but it was only in the seventeenth century that it met with determined opposition. In the eighteenth century St. Augustine's theory was almost entirely abandoned. Modern commentators on Genesis almost unanimously assert that Jacob lied. A lie is speaking contrary to what one thinks whether by words or by signs. In a lie there are three things: the will to speak falsehood; speaking contrary to the judgment in the mind; deceit of one's neighbour. These three elements are found in Jacob's action above. Whether Jacob sinned is a different question. In itself objectively a lie is always and essentially sinful—venially sinful, if it is simply a violation of the truth; gravely sinful, if it involves a violation of justice or of charity in a grave matter. Some would excuse Jacob entirely from formal sin on the ground of ignorance; but this is not feasible. A good case, however, can be made for excusing him from grave (or mortal) sin on the ground that he did not violate justice or charity: Esau had already freely sold his first birthright for the meal of pottage; hence it was only an officious lie, sinful but not mortally sinful.  That deceit and lying are foolish policy as well as being sinful is shown from the subsequent career of Jacob. Esau was so enraged at the events above narrated that he planned to murder Jacob. Rebecca again came to the rescue, and sent Jacob into Haran to her brother, Laban. She won Isaac's consent to his going by pleading the desirability of Jacob's taking a wife from among their own people after their sad experience of Esau's wives. She intended that he should not remain long from home; but in the event Jacob's exile lasted over twenty years (27, 41—28, 10). About fifteen miles north of Jerusalem on his way from Bersabee to Haran, Jacob had a consoling vision. In his sleep he saw a ladder which reached from heaven to earth. Angels ascended and descended by this ladder; and the Lord leaning on it spoke to Jacob and renewed the Messianic promises and the promise of His special Divine protection. This ladder was a symbol of the good Providence of God exercised by the ministry of His angels, who bring to heaven the prayers of mankind and to earth God's graces. When Jacob awoke in the morning, his mind full of the vision, he took the stone which he had used as a pillow and set it in position as a "title" (28, 18) or monument to commemorate the vision. He consecrated it with oil and he called that place Bethel—"the house of God." (28, 22).
Arrived in Mesopotamia, Jacob met a group of shepherds at a well, and as he was speaking to these, Rachel, the daughter of Laban and first cousin of Jacob, came with her father's flocks to the same well. Jacob discovered who she was from the shepherds, went with her to Laban's house and remained there for a month helping with the care of the flocks. Laban saw that he was a useful man for the work of shepherd, and he introduced the subject of wages for Jacob. Jacob was in love with Rachel, and he promised to work for seven years with Laban if the latter would give him Rachel in marriage. In the East in those times wives were got by giving a sum of money to their parents (the usage is still in vogue in places), and Jacob was yet a poor man: "With my staff I passed over this Jordan." (32, 10). Laban agreed to this bargain; but when the seven years were ended and the marriage ceremony arranged, in lieu of the beautiful Rachel on whom Jacob had set his heart, Laban substituted her elder sister, Lia, who was blear-eyed, and less favoured with good looks. Jacob was deceived; the supplanter supplanted. Such deceit is possible in eastern countries where the women wear thick veils which cover the whole face. Only on the day after the marriage did Jacob realise that he had been cheated. When he reproached Laban for the deception, the latter pleaded in excuse that it was not the custom of that country to give a younger sister in marriage before an elder, and he proposed that Jacob should marry Rachel also and work with him for a further seven years in return. To this Jacob agreed, and when the festivities of the first marriage were ended, i.e., after a week, Jacob took Rachel as a second wife. This raises a fresh problem now, namely: Was Jacob's marriage with Lia a valid marriage at all? No, because an error about the identity of the person with whom marriage is contracted renders the marriage null, since in the contract of matrimony, unlike other contracts, the person is the substantial object of the contract. Moreover such an error makes the marriage null by the law of nature. From the text of Genesis it seems that Jacob either was ignorant of this principle or else (and more probably) that he knew it but did not avail himself of it on account of the inconveniences that would arise from repudiating Lia. So in accepting Laban's proposal he consented to take Lia to wife also, and thus the marriage became valid from that moment.
Lia had four children, sons, whom she named Ruben, Simeon, Levi and Juda. During all this time Rachel was childless; and envy of her sister's family drove her to resort to a strange expedient, an expedient, however, which was evidently a social institution of those far off times. Rachel gave her female slave, named Bala, to Jacob as a wife of secondary degree, and then adopted as her own the children of Bala—two sons, named Dan and Nephtali. Lia now followed her sister's example, and gave her slave, Zelpha, to Jacob in the same way; and from this union there were two sons, Gad and Aser. Later Lia had two other sons herself—Issachar and Zabulon; and a daughter named Dina. Then Rachel, to her great joy, had a son whom she named Joseph. At this point Jacob demanded from Laban that he be allowed to return to Chanaan with his family. He had long since completed the seven years for Rachel, and for his wages in the interval it was agreed that he should have all the sheep and goats which were either black or speckled. Jacob did not depart at once. At Laban's request he remained in his service. But the arrangement about the division of the flocks came into force there and then, and Jacob now had his own flocks. This time Laban was outwitted. Jacob had the Divine protection to prosper him, and it soon came about that his flocks excited first the surprise, and then the envy of Laban and Laban's sons. Jacob soon sensed the hostility of Laban. Moreover he was ordered in a vision to leave Mesopotamia; so he consulted with Lia and Rachel, who readily consented to go. During Laban's absence from home at the sheep-shearing season, therefore, Jacob collected his family and goods and flocks, and he had gone three days' journey before Laban knew of his departure at all. Laban set out in pursuit and overtook him in Galaad; but he was warned by a vision not to injure Jacob, and the hostilities went no further than mutual reproaches—for Jacob's discourteous departure on the one side, and for Laban's dishonesty on the other. Next Jacob sent messengers to Esau who was now a prosperous sheik in Edom, south of the Dead Sea. The messengers brought back news that Esau was coming with four hundred followers to meet Jacob. Alarmed lest his brother might mean vengeance, Jacob implored God's protection in a very beautiful and humble prayer (32, 9-12). Then he chose out rich presents for Esau. That night Jacob had a vision: an angel wrestled with him until morning, and Jacob was able to resist him. This signified that if he could prevail against God, much more would he prevail against Esau. In memory of this vision God changed Jacob's name to Israel (`God has wrestled'). (32, 38). In the event Esau was friendly. He accepted the gifts and returned home, leaving Jacob to continue his journey in peace. The latter crossed the Jordan, and came to Salem where he bought a portion of land from the local Hevite owners for a hundred coins. His stay here was short, however. The son of the local sheik raped Dina, and her brothers avenged the crime by the cruel and craftily planned killing of all the men of the tribe. This made it impossible for Jacob to remain; besides the Divine command bade him to move southward. He went on to Bethel, where he had another vision; thence southward again till he came to Hebron.
On this last stage of the journey Rachel died in childbirth at Ephrata (later Bethlehem). The sacred writer notes that it was "in the springtime" (35, 16), which shows how keenly the tragedy of his beloved wife's death was felt by Jacob, since every little circumstance was remembered and handed down. The dying mother named her child Benoni (`the son of my pain'); but Jacob changed the name to Benjamin (`the son of the right hand,' i.e., of good omen), probably because the other would be a continual reminder of Rachel's death. She was buried about half a mile north of Bethlehem, and her tomb is still there. Jacob proceeded to Hebron and rejoined his parents. He and Esau met again when their father, Isaac, died at the age of a hundred and eighty years.
We now come to the history of Jacob's twelve sons who founded "the twelve tribes of Israel." Of outstanding interest among them is Joseph, son of Rachel, although in the inscrutable designs of God's Providence not he, but Juda inherited the Messianic promises. Joseph was a favourite with his father both because he was the child of his old age and the child of Rachel, and also because of his keen intelligence, sweet disposition and great virtue. Not so, however, with Joseph's brothers who were ill-disposed towards him. When Joseph, at the age of sixteen, was with Dan, Nephtali, Gad, Aser (the sons of Bala and Zelpha) shepherding their father's flocks he saw them commit "a most wicked crime " (37, 2) (what it was we are not told), and he reported the fact to Jacob. This roused their anger. To their anger was added envy when they saw that their father favoured him, and dressed him in "a coat of divers colours" (37, 3). Again, Joseph had two dreams with a prophetic message in them. In the first he and his brothers were making sheaves of corn in the harvest field, and his brothers' sheaves bowed down and worshipped his sheaves. In the second he saw the sun, the moon and eleven stars worship him. Joseph told these dreams to his father and his brothers, and they were quick to interpret the meaning. In the second especially they saw symbolised by the sun, moon and eleven stars Joseph's father, mother and eleven brothers. His brothers were now fiercely jealous of Joseph. Some time after these incidents Jacob sent Joseph to visit his brothers who were tending their flocks at a distance. He found them in Dothain—four days' journey northward from Hebron. When they saw him coming some of their number plotted to kill him. Ruben was not a party to this plot, and when he heard of it he suggested that instead of taking the boy's life violently they should put him in a disused well which was near, there to die of hunger and exposure. He intended to rescue Joseph later unseen by the others. Ruben's suggestion was adopted. They stripped Joseph of his coloured coat, and thrust him into the well. But soon after, Ruben being absent, a caravan of Egyptian traders passed by, and Juda (to spare Joseph's life) proposed that they should sell him as a slave to these merchants. So they took him from the well and traded him "for twenty pieces of silver." (37, 28). When Ruben returned to the well to his dismay there was no trace of Joseph. Next arose the question of explaining to their father what had happened, and they solved it in a cruel and deceitful fashion. They killed a kid of the flock, dipped Joseph's coat in the blood, and sent the blood-stained garment to Jacob. At once Jacob concluded that a wild beast had killed and devoured his beloved Joseph, and he was inconsolable at the loss of his son. Meantime Joseph was taken to Egypt by the merchants, and sold by them to a certain Putiphar, a courtier of Pharao. Here the narrative is interrupted to give something of the history of Juda. He married a Chanaanite woman, and their first son, Her, was so wicked that God slew him. Her left no male issue, and following a social custom of the time Onan, his brother, married Thamar, the widow of Her. He also was a bad man, and like his brother he was slain by God for the crime still called after him (38, 10). We are then told of the peculiar circumstances under which was born Phares, the twin son of Juda and Thamar. This Thamar is one of the four women mentioned—three are cited by name—in the genealogy of Our Divine Lord in St. Matthew 1, 3.