The Bible: Betrothals Tweaked

Last week we began a discussion about the betrothal genre in the Bible  with some basic guidelines laid out. Then we examined the first betrothal – that of Isaac and Rebekah – setting the conventions in place.

The second betrothal is also found in Genesis but features a few tweaks to the guidelines – for a purpose.

Jacob, Isaac’s son, left his home and goes to a foreign land. There was no surrogate this time; Jacob was fleeing his brother’s wrath after deceiving him.

But the convention remains. Jacob went to the well to find his uncle Laban and there met Laban’s daughter, Rachel.

She was unable to draw water because of a stone blocking the well. So Jacob moved the stone for her and then watered the sheep. This slight variation on the convention could foreshadow the difficulties Jacob must overcome to actually marry Rachel- and even her difficulty in bearing children for him.

But the convention continues, for Rachel, after meeting Jacob, runs to her home. He eats a meal with the family and the betrothal is secured.

Although we were told immediately that Rebekah was beautiful, in this story we don’t learn of Rachel’s beauty until later – when she was compared to her sister Leah. The convention flexes here to give us understanding about the coming strife between the two sisters.

A third betrothal follows in Exodus when Moses, fleeing Egypt after murdering an Egyptian, arrived in a foreign land: Midian.

There he met the seven daughters of a Midianite priest – at a well where they had come to draw water. Moses had to drive off hostile shepherds before drawing water for the sheep, as the convention requires.

The girls hurried off to tell their father. Their father, Reuel, invited Moses to a meal and Moses was given Zipporah as his wife. All within the convention.

Next week we’ll look at a surprising betrothal story that used the betrothal conventions to an unexpected conclusion.

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The Bible: distant connections

Biblical authors sometimes use connections between the Old Testament and New Testament to help pry open deeper meaning than at first reading.

An example is found at the end of John 1 where Jesus talked to some new disciples. They were impressed because he told one of them when he was sitting under a fig tree, before he came to to Jesus.

Jesus almost pooh-poohed their awe and said, “ “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

Jacob's dream (c. 1639), by Jose de Ribera, at...

Jacob’s dream (c. 1639), by Jose de Ribera, at the Museo del Prado, Madrid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He was referring to Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28. Jacob, over 2000 years earlier, was on the run from his angry brother when he had a dream that a ladder extended to earth from heaven. Angels were going up and down the ladder.

God spoke to Jacob in the dream, making several promises to him including the pledge to stay with him.

Jacob awoke and set up a stone as a symbol of God’s presence, naming the place Bethel. Bethel means house of God.

Jacob’s Bethel was the place where heaven and earth met.

Jesus chose that event to declare that heaven and earth again met.  This time, the presence of God wasn’t limited to a stone pillar. This time, Jesus was preparing his disciples for this connection of heaven and earth  – which would be seen in him. Jesus was the new Bethel, the new Temple.

By connecting to an ancient story, John the author provided a deeper meaning.

The Bible: motifs

A literary technique that biblical authors use extensively is the motif. A motif is a recurring theme or distinctive feature woven through a literary text.

A common motif in the Bible is the barren women.

Esau and Jacob Presented to Isaac (painting ci...

Esau and Jacob Presented to Isaac (painting circa 1779–1801 by Benjamin West) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We first encounter this motif in the story of Abraham and Sarah found in Genesis. In that story, Abraham is promised a son who will become the first of many descendants: a great nation.

The problem is that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is too old to bear a child. She has never had a child. She is barren.

However, following the promises of God, Sarah becomes pregnant and delivers Isaac. Isaac in many ways has a significant role on the Old Testament story line. He is the father of Jacob who is the father of twelve sons who become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

A significant man is born from a barren woman.

The motif continues in Isaac’s life, when his wife, Rebekah, is unable to conceive until he prayers for her. Then she delivers twins. The reader is ready to see if the barren woman motif is incorporated in this story – and it is. One of the twins is Jacob.

Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, also is unable to have children while Jacob’s other wife, Leah, is prolific. But eventually Rachel produces two sons. The oldest is Joseph, who ends of as second in command in Egypt.

From there, he provides protection for his family during a devastating famine. The family of Jacob moves to Egypt and, during their time there, grows from a family to a nation.

So we have three barren women – Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel – all delivering men significant to the history of Israel.

The motif continues with stories of Samson’s mother, Samuel’s mother, and Obed’s mother (Ruth, who had been married for 10 years without offspring). In each case, the son born to the formerly-barren woman had great significance.

Samson became a judge who helped the Israelites overcome Philistine oppressors. Samuel was the last of the judges and the man who anointed King David. Obed was the grandfather of David.

The motif continues into the New Testament. John the Baptist, the last prophet before Jesus, was born to Elizabeth, a barren woman. Each barren woman conceived through a miraculous touch of God.

Consider the birth of Jesus, born to a virgin who conceived through a miraculous touch of God.

In the Bible, the son born in a miraculous way will become a man of significance. Biblical texts use a motif – in this case, the barren woman – to highlight the theme.

The Bible: dialogue matters

When we read biblical narratives, we need to pay close attention to the dialogue. That’s where the action is, so to speak.

Esau Selling His Birthright (painting circa 16...

Esau Selling His Birthright (painting circa 1627 by Hendrick ter Brugghen) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dialogue carries most of the punch of the story. Biblical narratives are tightly written with no extra words. Every sentence does heavy lifting in terms of the message.

Let’s take a look at some dialogue between two brothers. Here’s the piece we’ll examine:

Once, when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”

Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”

But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.

Gen 25:29-34 (NIV)

We almost have what writers call a “talking heads” situation with a little action and a lot of talking.

Because characters are developed through the dialogue, what does the dialogue tell us about Jacob and Esau?

Esau is dramatic and driven by his stomach. He overstates his situation. Is he really about to die?

He also doesn’t value his birthright compared to the immediate need: hunger. So he’s not a guy who looks ahead. Right now is what matters for Esau and his own desires trump anything noble.

Jacob, on the other hand, is a guy who sits at home while his brother is out in the field. Was Esau hunting? Working in the field? We’re not told but he was not sitting at the fire cooking stew.

Jacob’s greed keeps him from ladling up the stew for his hard-working brother? Instead, he proposes an unequal exchange: food for birthright.

Jacob’s conscience doesn’t weigh in, even when Esau agrees to the lopsided deal. In fact, Jacob wants the deal locked in with an oath. Jacob is not a man to be trusted.

In a short exchange between brothers, we get a vivid picture of the character of each man. As Genesis unfolds, we see the consequences of Jacob’s greed and craftiness. He becomes a deceiver, a man of lies and crooked deals. And his first deal comes when he swindles his brother.

Jacob’s transformation from deceiver to father of God’s nation is made more amazing in light of this early exchange between Jacob and Esau.

Biblical dialogue carries forward rich meaning and it’s important to read it carefully.