Bible study 28 – Genesis 28

Rebekah and Isaac have exactly one condition for their children-in-law: that they not be Canaanite. So it is decided that Jacob will marry one of his cousins in Haran, while Esau marries a cousin born to Ishmael.

One night on his way to Haran after Jacob goes to sleep on the ground, he has a dream about climbing a staircase to heaven and talking to God, and when he awakes he exclaims “How awesome is this place!”, and decides it must be the gate of Heaven.


Bible study 27 – Genesis 27

Jacob has apparently decided to deceive everything he can out of his brother Esau. When their father Isaac decides to bless his favourite son Esau, Jacob manages to get there before him and impersonate his brother. He even goes as far as donning a sheepskin in order to dupe his blind father (Esau had very hairy skin). Jacob succeeds in his trickery, and is blessed by Isaac.

This blessing is apparently extremely important and can only be given once (even under deception), so Esau is infuriated, and decides to kill Jacob. Isaac warns him, and Jacob flees to Haran, where his relatives live.

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Bible study 26 – Genesis 26

Isaac moves from the Negeb to Gerar, where the Philistines live. This is where his father Abraham told everyone that his wife was his sister about a century earlier. Abraham must have told this story to his son, because Isaac employs the exact same tactic to squeeze stuff out of them: He tells everyone that Rebekah is his sister. But good old King Abimelech is suspicious this time, and personally watches the siblings from his window until he sees Isaac “fondling his wife Rebekah.” He gets pretty upset, since things like this easily lead to reprisals from God, but he doesn’t give Isaac anything. He just says that anyone who touches Isaac or Rebekah will be killed.

Nevertheless, Isaac somehow turns really wealthy in the land (almost as if he had abused the royal command to execute anyone who touches him), and Abimelech asks him to leave. He moves to some places where other people already live, but moves on every time he causes trouble. He finally settles in Beer-sheba, south of Hebron, in the northern Negeb, and makes a promise with Abimelech that they won’t be mean to each other again.

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Keep in mind that most of the locations are guesswork. Many place names cannot with certainty be linked with modern locations, and a lot of the time the story is ambiguous as to where the characters actually are. This is the kind of thing Rabbi commentators have been discussing for millennia, and archaeologists for centuries. But most of the events probably never happened anyway, so this should be as good a presentation as any.


Bible study 25 – Genesis 25

Abraham gains another concubine and some sons, before he dies peacefully at age 175 and is buried next to Sarah.

Rebekah, the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac, gives birth to the twins Esau and Jacob. Once, when Esau is hungry, he asks Jacob to give him some food. Jacobs says he’ll give it to him if Esau will give Jacob all the rights of a firstborn (basically the entire inheritance). So the silly and simple-minded Esau says yes and eats his “bread and lentil stew”, while the clever and crafty Jacob rubs his hands in enjoyment. (Guess who’s going to be the ancestor of the Edomites (a barbarian enemy of Israel), and who’s going to be the ancestor of the Jews?)


Bible study 24 – Genesis 24

Abraham needs to find a wife for Isaac, but he is too old to search himself, and wants his servant to go search for one. So he makes the servant grab him by the testicles and swear solemnly that he will definitely not search for Isaac’s wife-to-be among those Canaanites they are living among (who have been nothing but extremely kind to him so far). Instead, the servant is made to travel to Haran on camel-back to get a wife from Abraham’s family, who is living there. (This trip from central Israel through Syria to southern Turkey seems like it would take a while, but Google suggests you can hike there in 170 hours. Considering camels are probably a little faster and sturdier than humans, he could probably get there in two weeks or so.)

The servant leaves with ten camels and many presents. Once he reaches Haran, Abraham’s grandniece Rebekah gives his camels water, a sign from God that she is the One. The servant gives Rebekah some jewelry, and is invited into her father’s house. Here, he repeats almost verbatim everything that happened since he swore an oath to Abraham, left with ten camels, gave Rebekah the jewels, etc. Rebekah’s family quickly recognizes that he is sent by God, and says he can take Rebekah. The servant says that Abraham instructed him not to force her, but luckily Rebekah is fine with immediately setting off on a two week camel journey to marry her cousin, whom she has never met.

Isaac now lives in the Negeb (roughly the modern Negev desert), presumably a little south of his father’s home of Hebron. When the travelling party reaches the Negeb, Isaac meets them and takes Rebekah as his wife.

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Abraham’s servant travels from Hebron to Haran to the Negeb.


Bible study interlude – Notes on geography

A lot of different place names have appeared so far, most of which I have never heard about, and the fragmented nature of the story has made it hard for me to know which places would be of importance later. But things have calmed down now; we are no longer in the fantasy world of the Garden of Eden, the flood has swept over the earth, and our characters are now travelling back and forth between known locations in the Middle East. So I thought it would be useful to summarize their locations throughout the story.

Noah and his family are the progenitors of all later humans, so we will start with them. After making a landing with the ark, they travelled either eastward or westward (the text is ambiguous) to Shinar (Mesopotamia) in present day Iraq. Here they built Babel (Babylon), but God quickly scattered them “abroad over the face of all the earth” – or at least the Middle East, where their names became the names of the places they settled (like Egypt, Nineveh, etc.).

But we will focus on the family line of Noah’s son Shem, from which Abraham came. They were living in Ur of the Chaldeans, which is possibly the same as the historical Ur, and certainly in Shinar. But Abraham’s family left Ur and settled in Haran, which is possibly Harran in south-eastern Turkey. When he was 75, Abraham left Haran with Sarah and Lot to travel to Canaan, which is the general area of modern-day Israel. He travelled through Canaan (Shechem and Bethel), and into the Negeb, but because of the famine there he continued to Egypt. After the business with Sarah and the Pharaoh he went back through the Negeb to Bethel in Canaan. Here he parts ways with Lot, who travels to Sodom in the “plain of the Jordan” (probably south of the Dead Sea), then to nearby Zoar, and finally up into the hills. Meanwhile Abraham moves to Hebron, and this is also where he buried his wife Sarah in chapter 23.

I’ve made two maps to more easily visualize these movements: One that shows the place names in the context of modern country borders, and one that shows the biblical characters’ travels.

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Map of the Middle East, with overlapping ancient and modern place names, and modern country borders. Map image is from Google Earth.

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The travels of Noah and his descendants.


Bible study 23 – Genesis 23

Sarah dies 127 years old (life expectancy has dropped spectacularly since Noah’s time), and Abraham needs to find a place to bury her. He asks the Hittites (the Biblical Hittites , not the Anatolian people that was for some reason named after them) that he lives among in Canaan, if he can buy a cave (supposedly the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron) from them to bury her in, and they eagerly say yes.