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Genesis: The Development of the Family

The Torah tells us of a wide range of changes from the beginning of Genesis until the era of the Exodus from Egypt, and they are all connected to the types and meanings of human relationships, almost as if a certain kind of human marriage and family became prerequisites for the Exodus, the events at Sinai, and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

In other words, Genesis is an arc, a progressive story showing changes from beginning to end.

Take, for example, the treatment of women. Before the flood, men “took” wives, whomever they chose (Gen. 6:2). G-d immediately responded by limiting man’s lifespan in an attempt to make men value women more. It was not enough, because even after the flood, women were primarily treated as chattel: Avram “took” Sarai. Sarai even “took” Hagar to present her to her husband. Both Avram and his son Isaac tolerated their wives being taken in turn by other men (such as Pharoah) merely because those other men were more powerful. The “might makes right” ethos of the ancient world clearly dominated.

This ended when Dinah was taken by Shechem – and her brothers stood up and put an end to rape from that point onward; there are no more examples in the Torah of a woman being taken by a man against her will. But even before then, Jacob, unlike his fathers, did not “take” either of his wives or even his concubines; he was given them. Similarly, Joseph never takes his wife; he “comes in” to her. Moses similarly did not “take” his wife – and the verses describing their marriage are followed by G-d recalling the covenant, and starting the process that becomes the Exodus. (Ex. 2:21). Marriage grows from away from violence, and toward respect.

The power of women in the Torah similarly grows as the story unfolds. The women in Noah’s time are not only chattel, but also have no speaking role.[1] Not so as the Torah progresses: Jacob consults his wives before deciding to leave their father’s house. And there is an even more striking contrast when one considers the midwives who, when summoned by Pharoah (Ex. 1:19), lie to his face in order to save lives. These are women of courage and conviction, who accelerate the growth in the population, “and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty” (Ex. 1:20). Moses’ wife, similarly is a woman of action and force, “Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me’” (Ex. 4:25). And when Miriam leads the women in song after the splitting of the sea, the journey is complete: women have a voice, a parallel and sometimes-independent role in the service and praise of G-d. The Jewish people have risen to the level where they could merit the revelation at Sinai.

Families, of course, are often more than just the pairing of husband and wife. Rabbis Sacks has traced the arc of how brothers go from fratricide (Cain and Abel) through every kind of competition and antipathy until Joseph’s sons, the first brothers who are not jealous of the other – and then to Moses and Aaron, the first brothers who are genuinely happy when the other succeeds.

But it is with the treatment of children that we see most starkly how far the world came from Noach until the Exodus. The Torah gives us an indication of how parents invested in their children, from a young age: by how the children were named.

Names before Isaac are given as if they were entirely passive: a child’s name was “X.” Isaac is named by his father, a father who cared a great deal about his son. But Isaac does not in turn name Jacob and Esau – they are seemingly named by others, perhaps the midwifes who called the children after their appearance at birth (Esau was hairy, and Jacob was grasping at his brother’s heel).

It is Leah who changes everything, going back to a custom that had been lost since Adam, Eve, and Seth: parents naming their children by way of reflecting their own relationship with G-d. Eve had said: “And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bore Cain, and said: ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.’” (Gen. 4:1), and then, with Seth, “’for God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel; for Cain slew him.’” (Gen. 4:25)

In other words, between Eve and Leah mankind had somehow forgotten that G-d was a partner in the act of creating children. We no longer credited the ultimate Creator’s role in our own creativity.

Women came first: Eve, not Adam, named their sons. Leah and Rachel both named their sons. The men (with the notable exception of Avraham naming Isaac) did not do so until Yaakov named his youngest, Benjamin. And then, just as with “taking” wives, it is as if a switch was flicked. Joseph names just as Leah and Eve had, in appreciation to G-d:

And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ And the name of the second called he Ephraim: ‘for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ (Gen. 41:51-52)

Fathers do not, of course, as a matter of biological necessity have to be very involved with their children. The Torah is telling us something else entirely: that when fathers connect with and relate to their children, and see their children in the context of the overall relationship between man and G-d, that G-d reciprocates, by in turn being more involved with us.

“ [Moses] called his name Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.’” (Ex. 21:22) is followed, only two verses later, by:

And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them.
The Torah is telling us, through the proximity of the verses, that there is a causal link between fathers loving their sons, and G-d in turn taking an interest in His children. The Exodus from Egypt follows.

Families are complex, and the Torah tells us about all of the various kinds of relationships. There is the nucleus, the relationship and respect between husband and wife, which is connected to whether women are seen as independent voices in their own right. There is the way in which brothers treat one another. There is the way that parents bring G-d into the family, connecting their own biological creativity to G-d’s investment in us. We have touched on all of these.

Lastly there is the desire for generations to be together, to connect across the ages. Terach left his father, and Avraham did the same. Isaac, after the Binding, seemingly separates from his father, going to Beer-lahai-roi, while his father goes to Beersheva. Jacob also left his father, and even when he could return beforehand, he spends years living elsewhere from his father: the Torah does not tell us of a reunification until Isaac’s death.

It is Jacob’s sons who want to live with their father, perhaps in no small part because Jacob was clearly a man who loved: the text tells us that he loved his wives, and his sons. While his love was uneven (which led to no end of trouble), there is no denying the text: Jacob is associated with love more than anyone in the Torah. There is a vulnerability to Jacob’s love: he is devoted to Rachel, a woman whom the Torah never says loved him back. The ability to love in this way made Jacob the father of all the tribes of Israel: children want to be with a father who loves them, and who loves and respects their mother.

It is love that creates the foundation for holiness, just as the word for “love” is found almost exclusively in the first and last books of the Torah: love is the necessary but not sufficient preconditions for a deep and abiding relationship with G-d.

  1. One might be so bold as to suggest that when the angels come to visit Avraham and they ask “’Where is Sarah thy wife?’” (Gen 18:9), it may be reproof: why is Sarai not with her husband? Why is she not also engaged in welcoming guests?

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