The Ladder of Jacob

The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children

James L. Kugel
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7s06r
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    The Ladder of Jacob
    Book Description:

    Rife with incest, adultery, rape, and murder, the biblical story of Jacob and his children must have troubled ancient readers. By any standard, this was a family with problems. Jacob's oldest son Reuben is said to have slept with his father's concubine Bilhah. The next two sons, Simeon and Levi, tricked the men of a nearby city into undergoing circumcision, and then murdered all of them as revenge for the rape of their sister. Judah, the fourth son, had sexual relations with his own daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, jealous of their younger sibling Joseph, the brothers conspired to kill him; they later relented and merely sold him into slavery. These stories presented a particular challenge for ancient biblical interpreters. After all, Jacob's sons were the founders of the nation of Israel and ought to have been models of virtue.

    InThe Ladder of Jacob, renowned biblical scholar James Kugel retraces the steps of ancient biblical interpreters as they struggled with such problems. Kugel reveals how they often fixed on a little detail in the Bible's wording to "deduce" something not openly stated in the narrative. They concluded that Simeon and Levi were justified in killing all the men in a town to avenge the rape of their sister, and that Judah, who slept with his daughter-in-law, was the unfortunate victim of alcoholism.

    These are among the earliest examples of ancient biblical interpretation (midrash). They are found in retellings of biblical stories that appeared in the closing centuries BCE--in the Book of Jubilees, the Aramaic Levi Document, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and other noncanonical works. Through careful analysis of these retellings, Kugel is able to reconstruct how ancient interpreters worked.The Ladder of Jacobis an artful, compelling account of the very beginnings of biblical interpretation.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2701-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Chapter One JACOB AND THE BIBLE’S ANCIENT INTERPRETERS
    (pp. 1-8)

    One question that troubled ancient readers of the Bible was that of the purpose of the book of Genesis. This first book of the Torah (Pentateuch) was in some ways the most problematic. Those that followed—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—all contain divinely given laws, so their purpose was clear enough: they were written in order to guide people along the proper path in life. But Genesis has no laws or commandments to speak of; it is a collection of stories about Israel’s ancient ancestors, starting with Adam and Eve and leading up to the founders of the Israelite nation,...

  6. Chapter Two THE LADDER OF JACOB
    (pp. 9-35)

    Jacob left Beer Sheba and went off toward Haran. He happened on a certain place and decided to spend the night there, since the sun had set. He took some of the stones from the place and put them down at his head; then he lay down in the place to sleep. He had a dream; a ladder was stuck into the ground and its top reached up to heaven, and the angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing over him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham...

  7. Chapter Three THE RAPE OF DINAH, AND SIMEON AND LEVI’S REVENGE
    (pp. 36-80)

    The story of Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, is contained in chapter 34 of Genesis. The narrative begins with brutal frankness:

    Dinah, the daughter that Leah had borne to Jacob, once went out to visit the [other] girls of the land. But she was spotted by Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of that country, and he seized her and forced her to lie with him.¹ [Afterwards,] being taken with Dinah, Leah’s daughter, he acted lovingly towards her and spoke to her tenderly. Then he said to his father Hamor, “Get this girl for me as a wife.” (Gen....

  8. Chapter Four REUBEN’S SIN WITH BILHAH
    (pp. 81-114)

    The book of Genesis contains a passing reference to a sin committed by Jacob’s firstborn son, Reuben: “When Israel dwelt in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel [= Jacob] heard of it” (Gen. 35:22). If this verse was originally part of some longer narrative, the words cited are, in any case, all that remains; the text then immediately turns to a genealogy of Jacob’s descendants. This fact is surprising in and of itself. For surely one would expect some further details and, in particular, an account of whathappenedafter Jacob “heard of...

  9. Chapter Five HOW LEVI CAME TO BE A PRIEST
    (pp. 115-168)

    In ancient Israel, the tribe of Levi was deemed to have a special connection with the service of God. Numerous biblical texts speak of the Levites asthepriestly tribe and attribute to them certain special functions connected with the worship of God. But why exactly had the Levites been selected for such honors, and how did their selection come about? Several biblical narratives appear to have been designed in order to answer this question. Thus, the selection of the Levites is at one point connected with their zealousness following the Golden Calf incident (Exod. 32:25–29), while elsewhere God’s...

  10. Chapter Six JUDAH AND THE TRIAL OF TAMAR
    (pp. 169-185)

    Judah is certainly a positive figure in the Bible, the one who offers himself in place of his younger brother Benjamin in the story of Joseph (Gen. 44:33) and the son to whom, as we have seen, Jacob in his dying words grants the hereditary kingship in Israel (Gen. 49: 10). Yet, according to chapter 38 of Genesis, Judah’s personal life was not exactly above reproach. He married a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua—clearly an unacceptable choice for a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Gen. 24:4, 27:46–28:1). Later, when their son Er was ready to...

  11. Chapter Seven A PRAYER ABOUT JACOB AND ISRAEL FROM THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
    (pp. 186-222)

    The Dead Sea Scrolls may be, as is often said, the greatest manuscript discovery in history, but assembling the various fragments into readable texts, and then trying to make sense of them, is no easy task. The texts themselves usually come without titles, and in any case the opening column or more is often missing, so that any inquiry into the text must begin, quite literally, in medias res. What is more, even the surviving parts of the manuscripts have usually been eaten away to some extent, so that lines frequently break off in the middle or contain large gaps....

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 223-262)
  13. SUBJECT INDEX
    (pp. 263-270)
  14. HEBREW BIBLE INDEX
    (pp. 271-275)
  15. INDEX OF MOTIFS STUDIED
    (pp. 276-278)