54. Genesis 29 – 30

III. C. continued

4.  Jacob with Laban (Genesis 29 – 30)

God does not always gift wrap blessings. Jacob the deceiver – and worse than a deceiver, a hypocrite – was sent away to a man who could out-deceive him, his uncle Laban. Laban was Rebekah’s brother in ethics as well as parentage, a crafty man, a schemer. Laban doubtless remembered how when he was young the rich servant of Abraham had visited them and taken away his sister. Now he was old, more than a hundred years old, and though he was rich, he had found it to be true that the rich are never rich enough. It would seem that his children ran to sons (as Jacob’s would); Leah and Rachel may have been his only two daughters in his old age. Perhaps his greed for more was the result of his property being split into many pieces when he died and  it was the welfare of his sons that worried him.

Though he might not be able to share his sister’s and nephew’s wealth directly, Laban was a very superstitious man. He could tell that God Most High had been with Abraham and Isaac, and was presumably with Jacob as well. Like many superstitious men, he did not care about God or the gods, but if he could manipulate the people the gods blessed he could siphon off some of that divine influence. If he couldn’t share the wealth directly Laban figured he could stand near enough to the blessings to skim off a bit for himself. I do not mean Laban was a particularly evil man; he was most like a modern business man with a bit of magic and spiritual susceptibility thrown in. He was a superstitious version of the woman who reminded Jesus that even the dogs eat the crumbs from under their master’s table. Laban didn’t see Jacob as a master, of course; rather he saw him as a dog to whom some Master was throwing a lot of bread. Like so many, Laban’s faith was a form of mercenary allegiance, a belief that tried to exploit God’s kindness to others for his own profit. Compare Laban’s faith with Abraham’s faith, the faith which was counted as righteousness. Abraham trusted God, in a rudimentary way he loved God, and he seems never to have particularly sought material blessings at all. Laban loved himself and sought to use the gods as a business asset. It never occurred to Laban that he could or should get to know God directly, or that there were other than material blessings that were desirable.

It had been a hundred years since Rebekah had left Laban. Jacob told Laban all that had taken place since Rebekah had left with Abraham’s servant, nearly a century of catching up, including his own personal history. Jacob the deceiver was so naive; it never occurred to him that other men might be as deceitful as he was. Laban knew he had had an argument with his brother and was not eager to go back home for a while. So after the customary month of feasting it was natural for Laban to offer Jacob a job. Now that Jacob was independent of his mother for the first time, a month with Laban was enough to show Jacob what he really wanted. He would work seven years for Rachel, and those seven years seemed like nothing to him with the prospect of marrying Rachel at the end.

It seems that Jacob sincerely loved Rachel; she was probably the first human being besides himself that he had genuinely loved – his love for his mother would have been a selfish kind of love, not a matter of the heart; in fact, his love for his mother was probably quite strained, with a large dose of resentment and anger mixed in. Possibly Jacob was merely falling for the first pretty face he met, having escaped his mother. It may have started that way, but it does not seem to have continued that way. Seven years of living in Rachel’s household had not dimmed his desire for her and it would have, had the attachment been mere infatuation. Rachel would not have known Rebekah, of course, but doubtless knew of her. Being unwed and the younger daughter, Rachel was probably not much more than a teenager, sixty or more years younger than Jacob as I count the chronology, but such a marriage would not have been as unusual then as now.

It is difficult to imagine Jacob not recognizing that it was Leah who was brought to his tent on his wedding night, but that is because we are used to lights everywhere we go. Also, Jacob had been drinking a lot of wine, no doubt. Even so, the deception that Laban and Leah together perpetrated on Jacob should certainly go down in history as one of the most astonishing. It certainly beats the deception Jacob had perpetrated on Esau by a long shot. It is also difficult to see how they could have deceived Jacob without Rachel knowing it. It seems most likely that she was kept in the dark until the last minute and that Laban restrained her somehow. In Leviticus 18:18 we see that the marriage of Jacob to both Leah and Rachel would be forbidden under the laws of Moses, so Jacob is yet one more of the patriarchs who would not have measured up to the moral code of the Law.

How humiliating it must have been for both Rachel and Leah. Leah had been waiting in the wings for seven long years, unwanted, while her younger sister was betrothed. Laban had certainly been seeking other opportunities for her during those seven years; it is not plausible that he had planned to substitute Leah all along. If another viable marriage opportunity had presented itself during those years, surely he would have taken it. Though Laban could afford a decent dowry by the standards of the time, though he was rich enough that he would have made a good connection, by the end of the seven years no such marriage opportunity had come up. And why not? Laban must have been the sort of man that his neighbors did not want to be connected with. Would marrying Leah have seemed like marrying into a crime syndicate? Something kept Leah, the daughter of a rich man, single and it wasn’t merely her “weak eyes”. Laban estimated Jacob’s character shrewdly and correctly. The scheme that finally occurred to him had a strong financial appeal, a way to marry off both daughters without even the cost of a normal dowry and get more out of Jacob at the same time. The excuse that Leah was the older was lame, but Jacob was at a disadvantage.

But what was Leah feeling when she went along with her father’s plan? How Leah must have suffered during those years; by the end of that time she was getting embarrassingly old to be still unmarried. It could not have been satisfying to her to marry someone who didn’t want her, to marry by guile rather than honestly. And yet if she hadn’t gone along with the plan she would have had to face her father alone. No one would have been there to help her. All she had before her were either dismal prospects of a miserable home life and the slim hope that she would eventually win Jacob’s affection, or else a father who had failed to find her a husband and who could not be trusted to have her interests at heart. And what was Leah’s problem, besides a scheming father, that made her undesirable? She “had weak eyes”; it is not clear what the passage means by those words, but with no glasses available she probably had to squint to see anything; perhaps she had a lazy eye or her eyes were crossed and there was no way to treat the condition. Societies from ancient days have been very harsh in their treatment of women, and our own culture is no kinder.

And so the foundation of a truly dysfunctional family was established. There now began a time of intense competition between Jacob’s two wives, these sisters, whose marriage to Jacob had transformed them from sisters to rivals. Jacob’s clear preference for Rachel only made Leah’s resentment worse. Jacob’s family, as it grew over the next seven years, had conflict built into it, saturating it, from the beginning. Naturally the politics between the wives was handed down to their children. This family was a psychologist’s nightmare and takes “dysfunctional” to a whole new level. Nonetheless, it was this family that God chose as the foundation of the future nation of Israel. God’s choice of this family as His own family outweighed all the damage and dysfunction. Reflecting on the very poor prospects that Jacob’s family had for any happiness and goodness on the human level should give us some hope regarding ourselves. Things are bad with us, with our families, but God is merciful and can draw out grace from the most hopeless of situations.

Considering the culture of that time and place, the rivalry between Leah and Rachel naturally expressed itself in the production of children. The value and status of a wife was determined by the number of male children she bore, and so Leah and Rachel were both eager for this tangible sign of their worth. And God became a player in the game as well. It is so like God that He would bless Leah because she was unloved, because she was judged for a simple defect without regard to her character or humanity. There is no indication in the passage that Rachel was at fault, other than the fault of being born with more beauty. Still, God is the Equalizer, who raises up what is lowly. He does not like to see people treated badly for no good reason – the poor, the lame, the blind, the deaf, the orphan, the widow – and that attitude extends even to those who fail to measure up to some arbitrary standard of beauty or worth or romantic preference.

Jacob had agreed to work another seven years for Rachel; Laban had judged his nephew’s desire for Rachel rightly and he fully meant to keep Jacob doing his work as long as the Lord would bless it. During the second period of seven years the rivalry of Leah and Rachel resulted in eleven sons and a daughter. At first Leah was the clear winner with four sons in rapid succession: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Indeed for all eleven sons to be born in this seven-year time frame, everything must have been done in rapid succession. Leah must have borne them during the first four years, and this was rare in itself. The long period of nursing was a natural form of birth control that tended to spread out the time between births. Childbirth was dangerous at that time and births in rapid succession more so.

But when Rachel saw that she was having no children, she gave her maid, Bilhah, as a wife to Jacob, just as Sarah had given Hagar to Abraham. Bilhah then bore two sons, Dan and Naphtali, in rapid succession, probably while Leah was still bearing. As the fifth year wore on and Leah did not get pregnant again immediately as usual, she resorted to the same scheme and gave Zilpah to Jacob as a wife. Zilpah then bore Gad and Asher in rapid succession. Asher was probably born as the second set of seven years were ending.

But shortly after Leah gave Zilpah to Jacob a curious thing happened. Leah’s son, Reuben, was out in the field; he was perhaps four years old. Whether he was sent by Leah to look for them or not, Reuben found some mandrakes. In the ancient Middle East, the roots of mandrakes were believed to be an aphrodisiac; they were sometimes called “love apples”. It could be that Leah had shown Reuben how to recognize them and sent him out looking for them thinking they might help her get pregnant again. When Rachel saw the mandrake roots, she also wanted them. That night Rachel knew Jacob was coming to her tent. Probably more often than not, Jacob slept with Rachel because he loved her. Rachel was thinking that the mandrake roots might help her finally conceive. Leah was not willing to share with her husband-stealing little sister, but Rachel offered to trade the night with Jacob for the mandrakes. She could delay being with her husband one night if it gave her an advantage when she did have him.

But then it was Leah who became pregnant even without the aid of mandrake roots. She bore Issachar and then Zebulun, probably just as the second set of seven years was ending, six sons in seven years. This episode with the mandrakes is polygamy at its worst. Sexual politics has ruined monogamous marriages, and it is exponentially worse in a polygamous union. Buying her own husband for a night would have been as humiliating as the wedding night had been, but Leah and Rachel were growing adjusted to their family. Leah might be humiliated by using the mandrakes to get her husband to come to her, but she could boast about her four sons. Rachel might be humiliated by having no children at all, but she could boast about how much her husband preferred coming to her.

It was at this time, at last, as the seventh year was beginning, that God finally blessed Rachel with what she desired most. Joseph was born just as the seven years were ending so in about 1906 b.c. Dinah was probably born to Leah the following year, but there is no way to be sure. 37:35 suggests that Jacob had other daughters than Dinah, but none are mentioned by name. It would not be unusual for daughters to be left out of these old genealogies, but Dinah would have been included because of later events.

Naturally, when Jacob’s time of service for his wives was over he was ready to leave and told Laban so. But Laban had “divined” that the Lord was blessing him because of Jacob. In other words, though he had been well off when Jacob had arrived – Jacob said Laban had little before he came but “little” is a relative term – Laban had become much richer under Jacob’s care of his possessions, so much richer that it now seemed he had been poor before Jacob arrived. Laban could have been satisfied with what he had already gotten out of the deal, which had been greatly to his advantage. Still, Laban was a greedy man and now he was determined not to let the advantage slip away without squeezing the last few shekels from it. He determined to cheat Jacob one last time, if he could see some way to do it.

Later, when Jacob was plotting with his wives to escape from Laban he would tell them that he had had a dream, his second one, from God telling him to ask for the striped, speckled, and mottled among the sheep and goats. Thus inspired, he made a deal with Laban that would have seemed ideal to that man. It was a deal Laban tried to manipulate to his advantage. Jacob was to go through the flocks and separate the multi-colored sheep and goats to keep under his care, but before he could do it Laban had his sons take nearly all of them away to another pastureland they used a good distance away. Jacob would only have the white sheep and goats and, though the science of genetics was unknown, Laban knew that the offspring look like the parents. It wasn’t rocket science. In the normal course of events, Laban knew Jacob would end up with almost nothing.

However, luck, such as it is, was not with Laban; luck, such as it is, is only one of God’s many disguises. The account of how Jacob put the striped sticks in front of the flocks while they were mating is difficult to appreciate. He added to the dream the idea that the sticks would cause the coloring, for the striped sticks were no part of the vision he described to his wives. This was clearly a superstition that Jacob had acquired somewhere, that the presence of the sticks with alternating white and dark bands could affect the color of the lambs and the kids, that the sticks had the power to affect inheritance. Jacob’s grasp of genetics was considerably less than Laban’s, but it was not genetics that was behind the coloring of the flock. Genetics is partly a statistical process anyway and God has always found ample cover in statistical processes.

God did not even try to straighten out Jacob’s ignorant ideas, though Jacob’s insistence on finding a “natural cause” would have competed with God for the credit, at least by the way a modern person looks at things. By blessing Jacob’s activity and causing the kids and lambs to be striped and speckled, God would appear to be encouraging this kind of superstition, but God takes His time correcting our errors. Wasn’t He missing a valuable teaching opportunity with Jacob? Apparently He didn’t think Jacob needed that kind of lesson at that point. For the most part God continues to let our foolishness stand uncorrected. Remember how lenient He is toward your ignorance whenever you are tempted to enlighten your more ignorant brothers and sisters. If God corrected all of our foolishness, how quickly we would grow discouraged under the constant necessity of His reprimands. And if God is so lenient toward our foolishness, maybe we shouldn’t spend so much of our own time and energy trying to correct the so-called foolishness of the world. Perhaps God could give us other priorities.

Clearly Jacob had come a long way in fourteen years in humility and faith in God Most High; a long way but not very far. He had progressed from not caring for God to trying to do God’s work for Him. He was trying to use his own great insight into the way things worked to help God fulfill the promise in the dream. But if he could not help Him fulfill His promises, neither could his help do anything to hinder Him from fulfilling them. I wonder if all the help we sometimes try to give God is equally superstition. How much of what we believe is just silly, regardless of the thin coating of rationality we give it? We think we know cause and effect, but how can we know any causes when the original Cause gets involved? This is a picture of the sum total of human wisdom: putting striped sticks in the ground to make the laws of genetics work the way we want.


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