The foundational story of the people who came to be known as Israel begins with the story of Abraham’s family. His only son Isaac (“he who laughs”) was the father of Jacob, who in turn was the father of twelve sons whose names became the identifying names of the twelve tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.
Of course, we are omitting two things.
First, Isaac’s other son, Esau, the twin brother who sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of pottage (Gen. 25:29–34). Again, a patriarch must connive to succeed, he must have in mind his destiny. One of the meanings of Jacob’s name is “leg puller.”
Second, Jacob had two wives at the same time; in fact, they were sisters. One was Leah, who had tender eyes, the other the younger sister Rachel, who was “lovely in form and beautiful” (the full story is in Genesis 29); and at least one daughter. Leah gave him the first six patriarchs, Rachel the second six, plus the only daughter mentioned, Dinah, who is not deemed a matriarch of a tribe. Indeed, Dinah is raped and her brothers avenged her by the sword.
Side elements of the story support the modern scholarly speculation that, contrary to the worst of European prejudices, the people of Israel were a multiethnic nation from almost the very beginning. Dinah’s rapists were men who wish to join the tribe and the brothers set upon them when they are recovering from circumcision.
The story, of course, anticipates many lurid stories of rape and abuse against women, who were essentially chattel. Jacob had to work for Rachel’s father to be able to effectively buy her and marry her. This is, of course, the pre-Mosaic faith before the Ten Commandments.
These are sometimes shocking stories. My own grandmother exclaimed that the Bible was far too lurid a book for a child of 11, the age at which I first received a copy of my own. However, the stories have a common theme found in the name Israel, which means “persevere with God.”