Bible and Western Culture
Mr. Sean Ross
Week 4, Class 1:
Jacob's story is a story of struggle.
• “Few and hard have been the years of my life”
• Struggle with life, with Essau, with God.
The younger is preferred
• Recurring theme of sibling rivalry/antagonism between siblings:
o Cain & Abel
o Jacob & Essau
o Rachel & Leah
Ideology continues with Jacob and Essau.
• Jacob is the chosen son.
o “The elder shall serve the younger”
o His descendants are the Israelites
• Edomites come from Essau
o Traditional enemies of Israelites
o When Babylonians destroy Jerusalem, it is said the Edomites participated in this
o Even Haman (traditional villain, book of Esther) is said to be a descendant of Essau.
Jacob&Essau are used to explain political feelings.
• Denigrate/Insult enemy by associating them with characters.
During Roman imperial rule:
• Rome is associated with Essau.
• When romans destroy the temple of Jerusalem, it is stated as just another manifestation of
the rivalry dating back to this original story in genesis.
o Jacob suffers, but comes up on top.
o Jews hope same will happen to them.
Irenaeus, latin theologian:
• States Christian (the new religion) are like Jacob (the new son, not first‐born)
o Essau sells "value" which he does not understand to Jacob.
Sells his birthright • Jews did not understand the value of Christ.
o Rejecting Christ enabled gentiles to take what has traditionally been the Jews'
o “Jacob suffered the plots and persecutions of a brother, just as the Church suffers the
selfsame thing from the Jews”
Both groups are doing the same thing, just in opposite directions:
• Use biblical story to understand/explain strife in contemporary age.
• Relate themselves to Jacob
In the Christian tradition, some characters are sometimes viewed in a negative light:
• Moses can be viewed negatively because of his firm associations with Jews.
• Jacob takes what is not his.
o Used as a symbol for economic exploitation of Christians by Jews.
o Shakespeare: Shylock worships Jacob, uses him to justify his own moneylending
Sometimes biblical heroes are singled out and negative traits are emphasized.
Reversal of Abraham's exile:
• Jacob goes backwards, leaves Canaan, retraces Abraham’s steps.
o Returns to Abraham’s land, exiled from Canaan.
• Gen 28
• God repeats promise made to Abraham, promise made to Isaac.
o Renewal of the covenant.
William Blake painting
Jacob’s Dream: Angels ascending and descending on a stairwell. The canvas is filled with light.
• How does the author approach the text?
• What does he add, what does he remove?
• Where does the focus lie, which details are emphasized?
• The artist needs to decide how to represent details from the story, what to concentrate on.
o The Biblical stories are relatively short and devoid of detail.
o The Bible is open to interpretation.
Jusepe Ribera, Jacob's dream:
• No detail
• Sober Colours
• Dream itself is not illustrated
o We only see a sleeping Jacob. Mark Chagall:
• Several representations.
• In one, he copies Ribera returning all the details.
o Draws a figure touching Jacob, God.
o Symbols at the top of the latter:
Hebrew letters spelling out God's name – Yahweh
• Blue Jacob's dream painting:
o Crucifix, Akedah
o At the ladder you see the latdder from the "deposition of the Cross"
o Ladder by which Jacob went up to Heaven becomes the ladder used to take the dead
Jesus down from the cross.
Chagall was a Jew
• Used painting as a symbol of the condition of Jews during his time.
• Juxtaposes Jacob’s ladder with a ladder from the story of a political execution of a Jew.
o Jacob's ladder becomes a symbol of Ascent to heaven.
o Cross serves as a spiritual ladder. Return to heaven through Christ dying on the cross.
We are climbing Jacob's ladder.
Combines the story of Jacob with Christian tradition.
Used by African Americans as a theme for overcoming hardships.
Women in Genesis:
• There are many women in Genesis.
o However, some are not even named, while all sons are listed by name.
• Most storylines are tied into reproductive status.
o Sarah: Cannot have children
Annunciation to Sarah is a common theme in art.
Associated with annunciation to Mary.
o Rebeccah and Rachel struggle with barrenness.
o Book of Judges: Hannah struggles with barrenness
o New Testament: Elizabeth struggled with barrenness
Mother of St‐John the Baptist.
Rebeccah is represented with a jug.
• Intact jug is a symbol of purity and virginity.
• Traditionally, Rebeccah is interpreted as falling off camel out of awe for Isaac.
o Later, she enables Jacob to trick his brother, bringing unhappiness.
• Portrayed as a strong figure that can get what she wants for herself and her son.
• “The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt might portray Isaac and Rebeccah.
Leah is rejected by Jacob, but she is chosen by god.
• Becomes mother to a significant portion of Israelite history.
• Her whole story is tied up with Childbirth.
Rachel's story is also tied up to childbirth.
• She is miserable, cannot have children even though is Jacob’s favourite.
o Later, she finally conceives and lives happily from then on.
Tamar: (Judah and Tamar)
• Judah (one of Jacob's oldest children) takes Tamar as a wife for his son, but the son dies.
• Tamar is left all alone.
o She wants children.
o It is the responsibility of one of the other sons to give her children.
o However, Judah’s other son, Onan, will not honor these obligations.
“Pulls out” and dies.
• Tamar tricks Judah by disguising herself as a prostitute.
o (This is an intro to latter Jewish law)
o The bed trick!
When a woman will disguise herself as another woman so she can have sex
with a man who has an obligation to her.
Ex: if your betrothed runs off.
Onan wants to have sex with Tamar, but redraws because he doesn't want to have children on
behalf of his dead brother.
o God strikes him dead.
o Onanism: now means masturbation, even though the original story does not mention
o Later on, masturbation is viewed as a health risk!
Justified by the story of Onan.
“"neither the plague, nor war, nor small‐pox, nor similar diseases, have
produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of
o Interruption of the reproductive element of sex viewed as Onanism.
Joseph and the amazing Technicolor Dream Coat
• Written by Andrew Loyd Webber
o Wrote technicolor dream lobretto (Story of Joseph) for children.
o Said he wrote it after spending a few minutes with a children's bible.
• No actual connection with God.
o God is never mentioned in the musical • Moral:
o You need a dream, a dream is important, gives you hope, something to strive for.
• Pottifer's Wife:
o Wants sex with Joseph, he runs off.
o Joseph is sent to prison cause she accuses him of trying to lie with her.
• Musical changes the story line:
o Portrays her as evil, constantly catting around.
o A vixen who seduces Joseph
o The idea of rape is eliminated.
12 Tribes of Israel:
• Each son of Jacob becomes the progenitor of a tribe.
o Each tribe grows into a large people.
“12” Tribes of Israel:
• Reuben • Naphtali
• Simeon • Gad
• Judah • Asher
• Issachar • Benjamin
• Zebulun • Joseph (Ephraim & Manasseh)
• Dan • Levi
Week 4, Class 2:
Story of Israel, Egypt and the decedents of Jacob, which have fallen into slavery.
• The escape from bondage in Egypt
• The reception of the law from God at Sinai
• Most of the book is devoted to the Jews' hardships
o God's anger
o Conflict with surrounding tribes
• Story is continued throughout four books:
o Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy
Deal with the liberation of Jews and their journey to the promise land:
• Canaan (Israel)
Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy
• Israelites are ready to enter the promise land (Joshua)
Titles of books in Torah are taken from the Septuagint
• Greek translation of the Hebrew bible
Exodus concentrates on Laws.
• A new covenant!
• One with Noah, two with Abraham, and now we see one at Mount Sinai
o People of Israel will be a special kingdom to God, and they will be o