Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bible commentary Part 1 of 4 Jacob's children

I am going to write an important commentary regarding this section of scripture from Genesis. First I am going to post the passages, and then in a separate post at a later time I will make my commentary. The scripture relates how the sons of Jacob avenge the defiling of their sister. By way of background Jacob (Yaqoub in the Qur’an) is the father of the twelve sons who are the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. The story regards the children that were born by Jacob’s first wife Leah. Leah had borne, either personally or by adopting, six sons when she gave birth to a daughter named Dinah. The sons of Leah in the order of their birth were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Gad (born via Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah), Asher (also via Zilpha), Issachar, Zebulun, and then Dinah. By way of explanation about the custom of those times, after Leah had her first five sons, she entered a period of infertility. She begged her husband Jacob to lie with her handmaiden Zilpah so she could have more children and adopt them, which in the bible is called “to give birth on one’s knees” (Referring to a custom of a father acknowledging a newborn child by placing it in his lap). So after Zilpha bore two children on behalf of Leah, Leah found that she was fertile again and was able to naturally bear Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah.

Having children was absolutely vital to Leah because while she loved Jacob, and was his first wife, she knew that he did not love her. And so her children were not only her source of validation as being the mother of his children and heirs, but also her only source of love. For Jacob loved Leah’s younger sister Rachel, and took her to wife after Leah. Genesis 29:31 When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he made her fruitful, while Rachel remained barren. This is important to understand as one of the many Biblical statements that children are the source of love and gifts from the Lord. In fact, after Leah was secure and had the first six children, the Lord also heard the prayers of Rachel and she was able to bear children naturally (she had had two, Dan and Naphtali, via her handmaiden, adopting as did Leah hers via Zilpah). Genesis 30:22 Then God remembered Rachel; he heard her prayer and made her fruitful. She conceived and bore a son, and she said, “God has removed my disgrace.” So she named him Joseph, meaning, “May the Lord add another son to this one for me!”

She did get her wish and bear another son, but ironically died in childbirth, while Jacob’s entire family and flock were traveling from Bethel to Ephrath. Genesis 35:18-19 With her last breath-for she was at the point of death-she called him Ben-oni; his father, however, named him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died; and she was buried on the road to Ephrath [that is, Bethlehem]. The insertion calling Ephraph Bethlehem is called a “gloss,” which means it is not in the original and is added by someone at a later date in order to add “extra information.” However, this gloss is an error, and an example of how Biblical scholars must understand that human hands do make errors in the scripture, whether of translation, in lettering or transcription, and also, as in this case, believing a tradition that is not actually true.
Catholic Bible Study Edition footnote 35, 19 page 44 “Bethlehem: the gloss comes from a later tradition that identified the site with Bethlehem, also called Ephrath or Ephratha. But Rachel’s grave was actually near Ramah, a few miles north of Jerusalem, in the territory of Benjamin."

I include all this information as a prelude to the scripture that I want to cite in order to make several points. One I’ve already made above, which is that if one reads the Bible with compassion and care, one can discern where true love, family and compassion are found, especially in love of children, and that God does not forget either the unloved adult, or the adult who is loved but who does not have children and thus a household and heirs. Another point is that as I commented in previous posts, all of the Biblical personages are “witnesses” to the workings of God and the events of the time, even if all that we have are their names recorded in the Bible. Here you can see how Rachel was a real woman, who bore a real son named Benjamin, who became a patriarch of one of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel, who had a territory named after him that one can find on a map, where his family and tribe settled, and where his mother, who died in giving birth to him, is buried, near a town that one can locate in even in modern times. These are real people who lived in real times exactly as described in the Bible (and mentioned in the Qur’an) and they are witnesses to God and his works as they were the primary participants, there in those times and places.

Remember, by the way, that “witnessing” as defined by God and taught to the patriarchs means that one is able to personally attest to the truth of a matter. Some modern day evangelicals abuse that term, using “witness” as a word meaning that they attest to or testify to their faith, but obviously “they weren’t there to witness Biblical events” so they are not using the term "witness" the way God taught humans to use it. To be precise they really should stick to the other popular traditional term which is “to give their testimony.” One can give testimony about the real impact that the real God, through Jesus Christ, has had on one’s life. But when people use the term “witness” I cringe because it is more difficult for people like me to teach what witness actually means Biblically, as the term is now diluted, yet it is an essential concept.

For example, the Apostles, disciples and all who knew Jesus personally (even the many nameless and faceless in the crowds who heard him speak, saw him, or were cured) are “witnesses to Jesus.” Everyone who hears from witnesses of Jesus and those who believe as a result can now “testify.” I’d not be so strict on this matter if moderns had not gotten so sloppy in melding their own experience of faith with that of the people in the Bible who were actually and in truth there. This makes it more difficult for people who are Bible and Qur’an scholars to explain the intellectual foundation of their faith, which is that the people who were there and who saw with their own eyes are “witnesses.”

Witnessing, as I’ve written before, is a technique that is given by God to humans when the Law was given about how to attest to the truth of a matter, and obviously it involves the actual people being present and truthfully seeing what happened in front of their eyes. So it is easier to explain the intellectual belief in the Bible and the Qur’an to those who are questioning and questing for better understanding if one can use the term “witness” as God originally intended humans to use it, as stated in scripture. This is how I’ve had fruitful dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters, as they also have witnessing in the Qur’an. So I’m not nitpicking, but trying to correct some very squishy and unhelpful use of the term “witnessing” by evangelicals, and suggest they stick with “testimony” and other like terminologies.

Having put this introduction forward, in the next post I’ll cite the scripture that I wish to provide commentary upon.