Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jacob's Journeys

Alice C. Linsley

The biblical record of Jacob's journeys to and from Haran (Padan-aram) reveal a fascinating parallelism that suggests that these accounts have been carefully crafted. For example, both departures represent reactions to the anger of brothers. Jacob flees from Canaan for fear of his brother Esau and he later flees from Padan-aram for fear of his wives' brothers (Gen. 31:1, 2). Consider the following:

Departure from Canaan
  • Departure is precipitated by threat of violence from Jacob's brother
  • Jacob's mother and father deliberate with him about the best course of action
  • Departure is urgent, but well provisioned. In Genesis 32, Jacob says that he left Canaan with only his staff, but this is clearly hyperbole because in Genesis 28 we find that he has oil to anoint the pillar that he set up at Beth-el. His mother would have made sure that her favorite son was well provisioned before his journey. 
  • Another motive for Jacob's departure to Haran is marriage.  A proper marriage would be to a half-sister and/or a patrilineal cousin or niece. Rachel and Leah fit the requirement.
  • Isaac prays that God would make Jacob to become a "company of peoples" (Gen. 29:3 NAS).
  • On the way to Padan-aram Jacob covenants with God and sets up a stone pillar which he anoints with oil (Gen. 28:18).
  • Jacob is fearful of his reception in Padan-aram, but he arrives safely and is well received at the well where he meets Rachel, his future wife (Gen. 29:2-11).
Departure from Padan-aram
  • Departure is precipitated by the animosity of Rachel and Leah's brothers and Laban's change of attitude toward Jacob (Gen. 31:1, 2)
  • Jacob deliberated with his wives about the best course of action
  • Departure is urgent, but well provisioned. Jacob and his wives made sure that they had sufficient provisions for both wives' households/companies before the journey.
  • Another motive for Jacob's return to Canaan is his desire to keep his 2 wives (Gen. 31:31).
  • Jacob returns to Canaan with 2 companies or 2 households (Hebrew: mahanaim), the camp of Rachel and the camp of Leah.
  • On the way to Canaan Jacob and Laban form a covenant and set up stone pillars (Gen. 31:44-46).
  • Jacob is fearful of his reception in Canaan, but he and his 2 companies arrrive safely and are well received by his brother Esau.
The parallelism between Jacob's journeys is striking and invites us to further explore a possible parallel between the two events that don't appear to be connected: Jacob's dream of the ladder and Rachel's confiscation of the Teraphim.  We will now turn to the intriguing question of whether these represent parallel cosmological views.

Teraphim were ancestor statues that belonged to the great Afro-Asiatic kingdom builder Terah. Terah was the father of Haran, Nahor and Abraham. Ancestor statues or figurines are still used in traditional African religions. The ancestor figurines were are not worshiped, but were venerated as they represented great ruler-priests who were expected to intercede for their people after death. This is like the veneration shown by Christians to saints and martyrs to whom they turn for intercessions.[1]

The word Teraphim is usually rendered "images" or "idols" but the word actually means the things pertaining to Terah. The confusion is due to the appearance of the word in 1 Samuel 19:13 where we read that "Michal took the Teraphim and laid it on the bed, and put a quilt of goats' hair at its head, and covered it with clothes." She was attempting to make a decoy for David's sleeping body, so it is clear that this reference is not speaking of a small ancestor figurine such as Rachel was able to hide in a saddle.

The Teraphim and the ladder in Jacob's dream speak of a henotheistic worldview, that is, belief in a creator God supreme over all things who is assisted by lesser powers (baals), dieties, spirits or angels. These lesser powers do not act independently of God's sovereign will. In this view when good or evil comes upon a person it is because God has allowed it. This explains why there is often lack of precision about identifying angels and the spirits of the righteous (deified) dead in the Bible.[2] Both were seen as messengers or agents who could move between Heaven and Earth. 

So it appears that Jacob's ladder and Rachel's teraphim are part of the carefully crafted journey narratives and that Jacob's going to Haran and his return to Canaan are perfectly parallel.

1. There is a darker side to ancestor veneration, observed today in Africa and experienced by St. Paul in Philippi (Acts 16:16-18), where demons are invoked and false prophets declare through demon possession.

2.  In Acts 12, Peter is delivered from prison by an angel.  He knocks at the door where the faithful are gathered and Rhoda tells the gathered that Peter is at the door, but they say that she must have seen Peter's angel.

No comments: