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Published Date: January 30, 2007

Published Date: January 30, 2007

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Hearing God’s Voice in the House of Israel

What does it mean to be founders of a nation chosen by God? Power? Privilege? Pride? Jacob’s blessing of his first four sons, recorded in Genesis 49:1-12, paints a different picture of God’s ideal. This article will trace themes of alienation and identification to show that the integrity of the sons of Israel is challenged and ultimately identified by the voice—or the lack of voice—of a grieving concubine (Gen. 35:16-22), a disgraced sister (Gen. 34), and a widowed daughter-in-law (Gen. 38).

Who will receive the special blessing?

1Then Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.

2Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen to Israel your father.” (NRSV)

The Hebrew word for blessing (berakah) is virtually an anagram of the word that means both birthright and firstborn (bekorah). Although the firstborn son was entitled to a double portion of his father’s inheritance and a special blessing, in the blessing Jacob pronounced for his sons, the right of the primogenitor is dispersed according to the degree to which each son demonstrated covenant love to others. At the point Jacob assembles his sons together, Joseph had already received the double portion.1 The recipient of the special blessing had yet to be determined.

The alienation of Bilhah and Reuben from the house of Israel

3Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might and the first fruits of my vigor,
excelling in rank and excelling in power.

4Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel
because you went up onto your father’s bed;
then you defiled it—you went up onto my couch!

Reuben’s blessing begins with an acknowledgment of his status as firstborn. He is described as “excelling in rank and excelling in power.” Unfortunately, Reuben’s excellence was attained at others’ expense. Genesis 35:22 reveals the “other” whom Reuben violated for his own gain: “While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.”

In sleeping with his father’s concubine, Reuben symbolically usurped Jacob’s authority.2 Reuben chose to make his move at a time when Jacob was most vulnerable: the death of his favored wife, Rachel. It is likely that Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, grieved her mistress’s death as well. Bilhah is first introduced as Rachel’s maid (Gen. 30:3-10) and, even after she was given to Jacob as a surrogate mother when Rachel could not conceive, her primary association was with Rachel.3 After Rachel died, Reuben’s violation intensified her alienation.

Reuben’s violation disqualified him as a candidate for Israel’s blessing and ultimately ensured his own obscurity in the house of Israel. The tribe of Reuben settled before crossing over into the promised land and was quickly integrated into the transjordan tribe of Gad.4Before Israel left the wilderness, Moses’ blessing indicates that Reuben was already dwindling: “May Reuben live and not die out, even though his numbers are few” (Deut. 33:6).

The alienation of Dinah, Simeon, and Levi from the house of Israel

5Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.

6May I never come into their council;
may I not be joined to their company—
for in their anger they killed men,
and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.

7Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob,
and scatter them in Israel.

The blessing of the firstborn should pass to the second born son if the first is unable (or unworthy) to receive it. However, Jacob’s second and third sons received curses rather than blessings. The Hebrew word for “Cursed be” in verse 7 is the same word God used to curse the serpent in the account of the Fall (Gen. 3:14).

Jacob’s “Cursed be . . .” also closely parallels Noah’s “Cursed be . . .” in reference to his son Ham in terms of language and consequence: the cursed sons are assigned the lowest position relative to their brothers (Gen. 9:25).5 Indeed, the language suggests that they have been excluded from the house of Israel altogether: “May I never come into their council . . . may I not be joined to their company . . .” This curse recalls their key role in a destructive period in Israel’s development: the rape of their sister Dinah and the slaughter of the Shechemites.

The rape of Dinah is recorded in Genesis 34:2 :”When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region, saw her, he seized her and lay with her by force.” Many commentators draw a parallel between Shechem’s rape of Dinah and Amnon’s rape of Tamar (2 Sam. 13). However, compare the responses of these men to the women they violated: After Amnon raped Tamar, he was “seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get out!’” (2 Sam. 13:15, emphasis added). After Shechem raped Dinah, “his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, ‘Get me this girl to be my wife’” (Gen. 34:3-4, emphasis added). Amnon’s lust became loathing, while Shechem’s lust became love.

After pursuing Dinah and seizing her illegitimately, Shechem pursued her through legitimate means. Shechem’s father, Hamor, made an offer that would unite the two nations in exchange for Dinah as his son’s wife: “Make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You shall live with us; and the land shall be open to you; live and trade in it, and get property in it.” He offered to pay whatever price was required. When they required only one condition of him—
circumcision—Shechem was eager to comply.

Apart from the initial violation of Dinah, what if Israel had accepted Shechem’s offer? Unfortunately, Simeon and Levi did not consider God’s desire to uphold covenant relationships (whether established legitimately or illegitimately as in the covenant between the Israelites during Joshua’s time and the Gibeonites; cf. Josh. 9). Neither did they consider Dinah’s desire. Instead, Simeon and Levi took matters into their own hands and acted out of outrage, indignation, and pride, just as Shechem had initially acted out of his own destructive compulsions.

Rebecca Chopp describes rape as “the refusal of any sense of covenantal relationship.”6 In other words, the imposition of a covenant sign (sex) outside of the context of the covenant relationship (marriage) represents a serious violation (rape). In this sense, Shechem is also a victim of rape. Thomas Mann summarizes Simeon and Levi’s deceitful response to Shechem as an exploitation of “. . . the sign of the covenant between God and Israel (circumcision) as a device of trickery and bloodshed.”7 The account begins with Shechem’s “seizing” of Dinah and ends with Israel’s seizing of “All [Shechem’s] wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey” (Gen. 34:29).

If God were to speak, what would God’s response be? If Dinah’s voice were heard, what would she say? We can only speculate, for neither one was considered. Perhaps Tamar’s response to Amnon’s rejection offers the most insight: “. . . Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went . . .” (2 Sam. 13:19; emphasis added).

In alienating their sister and her suitor, Simeon and Levi ultimately alienated themselves from the blessings of the covenant they were born into through their ancestor Abraham. Jacob condemned their actions, which had made the entire family “odious” to the Canaanites. History shows that the curse pronounced on these brothers was fulfilled and they were indeed “divided in Jacob” and “scattered in Israel.” Levi’s portion of the promised land was divided among the other tribes due to the priestly function the tribe later assumed. Though the tribe of Simeon settled in the promised land, its territory was quickly incorporated into its more powerful neighbor, Judah.8

The identification of Tamar and Judah with the house of Israel

8Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down before you.

9Judah is like a lion’s whelp;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion,
like a lioness—who dares rouse him up?9

10The scepter shall not depart from Judah,10 
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, 
until tribute comes to him;
and the obedience of the people is his.

11Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
he washes his garments in wine
and his robe in the blood of grapes;11

12his eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth whiter than milk.

The special blessing reserved for the firstborn son was finally received by the fourth—Judah. Judah’s blessing depicts him as a ruler in relation to his brothers and a conqueror in relation to his enemies. Unlike the curses pronounced on Judah’s three older brothers, Judah’s blessing does not allude to a specific historical event. However, Judah did indeed undergo a formative challenge to his integrity when he was confronted by the problem of his childless daughter-in-law in Genesis 38.

Shortly after the time when Jacob’s sons sold their brother Joseph into slavery (according to Judah’s suggestion), Judah moved away from his family and settled in the land of the Adullamites. In choosing to move away from his family, settle in a foreign land, and take a Canaanite wife, his relationship to the house of Israel was threatened. His actions identify him more with his father’s brother, Esau. The birth of Judah’s three sons also suggests a growing distance between Judah and his wife. Judah named their firstborn son, Er. His wife named their second-born son, Onan. By the time their third son is born, Judah is not even present for his birth. His mother names him Shelah.12

If the character of the children is any reflection of the character of the parents, it seems that Judah’s relationship with God was also at stake during this time: “But Er, Judah’s first-born, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death” (v. 7). Er died childless, and his wife, Tamar, was his only connection to the land of the living. In ancient Near Eastern cultures, the souls of the dead were believed to be confined to a dismal place called Sheol, and a man’s heirs ensured the continuation of his name among the living. The cultural mandate of levirate marriage, in which the man’s reproductive powers extend through his brother and his widow, enabled a man to produce an heir to carry on his name in Israel.13 Judah instructed his second son, Onan, to “go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother” (v. 9).

Onan had the option of refusing, but this would result in public humiliation and disgrace. On the other hand, if Onan fathered a child for his brother, he would be prevented from receiving his deceased brother’s inheritance. Onan accepted the levirate responsibility even though he had no intention of fulfilling the duties; instead he practiced coitus interruptus, a primitive form of birth control. Onan’s offense is serious enough that he also dies. Judah had much at stake: if Shelah died, Judah would be left with neither sons nor grandsons. He faced extinction.

When Tamar heard news of the death of Judah’s wife, she decided to make her move. She exchanged her widow’s clothing for the disguise of a prostitute and met Judah on the roadside as he was on his way to sheer sheep.14 Tamar slept with her father-in-law on the condition that he leave his signet and cord and his staff as surety of payment—all symbols of Judah’s identity. This brief bargaining is the first time the voice of a woman is heard in the testing of the integrity of Israel’s sons. The second time, as we shall see, also concerns symbols of identity.

Three months later, when Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom,” Judah’s immediate response was “Bring her out and let her be burned” (v. 24). How convenient for Judah
—finally, Tamar’s “whoredom” is the perfect excuse to get rid of this woman! However, just as she is about to be burned, she “sends word to her father-in-law.” She makes two statements and sends three symbols along with them: “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant. . . . Take note, please, whose they are, the signet and the cord and the staff.”

Although Judah had the “right” and the “authority” to pronounce Tamar’s execution, he hears her voice and chooses to identify himself with her in a striking affirmation: “She is more right than I.” William Brown describes covenant in these terms: “Covenant takes place at the crossroads of the heart and culminates in shared identity and new character.”15Judah’s affirmation of Tamar signals a turning point in his character from increasing isolation to faithful covenant keeper.

The woman who caused him so many problems suddenly became the solution. She gave birth to twin sons, Perez and Zerah—the mark of a special matriarch in the tradition of Rebekah—who replaced the unrighteous sons the Lord had executed. If the character of the children is any reflection of the character of the parents, it seems that Judah’s covenant relationship with the God of Abraham was finally established through his choice to identify himself with Tamar. The voice of the matriarch is heard while the voices of the unrighteous heirs fade into anonymity.

Tamar’s son Perez became the ancestor of a great line of kings and, ultimately, Jesus. Tamar received one of God’s promises to Abraham: “I will make a great name for you,” for she is recorded as an ancestor in the genealogy of the Messiah (Matt. 1:3).

Conclusion: God’s voice and woman’s voice

The stories of Bilhah, Dinah, and Tamar represent some of the most troubling passages in the Bible. Many scholars have tried to justify or explain away the disturbing elements of adultery, incest, rape, and violence, while others are more comfortable excluding these texts altogether. Rather than minimizing or avoiding these stories, balancing them with the curses and blessings pronounced on the perpetrators and their descendants is a better approach.

Where is the voice of God in these stories? The answer is intimately related to the presence or absence of the voices of mother, sister, and daughter. These voices tested and ultimately identified the character of the sons of Jacob:

[T]he covenantal command to love has a radical horizontal component. As the impartial God executes justice on behalf of the orphan and the widow, as well as loves and provides for the stranger . . . so must God’s people (Deut. 10:18-19). This is the essence of Israel’s imatatio Dei: to embody and perform Yahweh’s zeal for justice toward the most vulnerable.16


  1. The challenges the individual sons face are best understood in the context of the challenge the family of Jacob faces in the Joseph cycle (Gen. 37:1-50:26), though I will not develop these connections here.
  2. Cf. 2 Sam. 16:20-22, where Absalom pitched a tent on the roof of the palace and slept with David’s concubines in front of all Israel as a direct challenge to his father’s authority as king. When David returned to the palace, he continued to provide for the women, but he no longer associated with them. They lived the rest of their lives as widows (2 Sam. 20:2).
  3. E.g., Gen. 30:7: “Rachel’s maid Bilhah [as opposed to “Jacob’s concubine Bilhah”] conceived again and bore Jacob a second son.”
  4. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. New International Commentary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 2:647.
  5. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 2:652.
  6. Quoted in Eric Mount, Jr., “The Currency of Covenant,” The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1996): 295-310.
  7. Thomas W. Mann, The Book of the Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch(Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1988), 64.
  8. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 2:652.
  9. Note the inclusive nature of the NRSV’s translation of the three terms for “lion” here as: (1) “lion’s whelp” (2) “lion” and (3) “lioness.”
  10. There is some confusion about the meaning of the phrase “until tribute comes to him” in the next stanza. A literal translation of the Hebrew reads, “until Shiloh comes.” Is “Shiloh” a person, a place, or is this phrase a figure of speech that is lost to modern readers? One interpretation of the phrase has intriguing Messianic implications: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until the one to whom it belongs comes, and the obedience of the people is his.”
  11. In light of Zech. 9:9, some commentators believe that this stanza also contains interesting Messianic allusions; cf. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 2:659-62.
  12. For insightful analyses of the literary clues that point to Judah’s alienation from his family in Gen. 38, see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (n.p.: Basic Books, 1981), 6; John Petersen, Reading Women’s Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2004), 122-24; and Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2005), 38-41.
  13. Susan Niditch, “Genesis,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Ky.: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1992), 21.
  14. Thomas Mann notes the ironic symbolization of Judah’s estrangement from his family in his treatment of Tamar: “Judah has joined in the selling of his brother as a slave, and now we find him buying his daughter-in-law as a prostitute” (The Book of the Torah, 67).
  15. William P. Brown, “The Character of Covenant in the Old Testament,” The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1996): 287.
  16. Brown, “The Character of Covenant,” 287.