Sunday, March 25, 2007

Gen 25:12 - 30 -- Patriarchal Attitudes


After Abraham, the action in Genesis follows his son Isaac only very briefly before moving on to his grandson, Jacob. Isaac's role seems mostly to be a prop in other people's stories. At the beginning of his life, he is the beloved son that Abraham almost, but not quite, has to kill. At the end of his life, he is going to be deceived by his slippery son. The romantic journey in search of his wife is conducted, as we saw last week, not by him but by his nameless servant.

Everything else about Isaac is covered in Genesis 26, and it is the now recognizable business-as-usual for a local leader in this time and place. Neighbors are befriended or antagonized, stakes are pulled up and moved when the neighborhood gets unfriendly, and an occasional conversation is held with God in which he promises anew that he intends for this family to become very large indeed, and to hold title to truly impressive land tracts. There are also some interesting squabbles over wells that remind us that all of this is taking place in a desert, where water rights are critical.

And, not surprisingly, there is an episode where Isaac makes Rebekah, his wife, claim to be his sister. In this case, however, she does not get farmed out to the local king, and in fact they eventually get found out due to an indiscreet Public Display of Affection. So in his marriage, as in other aspects of his life, Isaac seems perhaps a little happier than his dad or his son. Maybe being the obscure one isn't so bad.

I haven't been able to find a good image of Isaac where he isn't either a boy trussed up for slaughter, which I've already used, or an old man about to be deceived on his deathbed, which I'm about to use. So, here's a picture of the pioneering science fiction author Isaac Asimov.


Jacob is another major Old Testament character who gives me issues. Are we expected to think well of these guys? Are they supposed to be moral exemplars? Because Jacob is definitely not the kind of guy you would want to buy a car from. He is tricky and deceitful, pulling off three major scams during the section of his life covered by this week's reading.

The first is the famous "birthright for a mess of pottage" episode. Jacob's twin brother Esau, who is elder by a few seconds, comes home from a long hike in the bush. He is extremely hungry -- he says he is about to die (25:32) -- and asks if he can share the lentil stew that Jacob is making. Jacob makes a deal: he'll share his lunch, on the condition that Esau give up his birthright. Esau gives in, and there is a suggestion that he is the bad guy of the story, a fool who has shown contempt for his station in life. We are perhaps supposed to admire Jacob's shrewdness, but it's tough for a naive reader like myself not to think badly on a man who won't lift his finger to feed his hungry brother without exacting an enormous price.

The years pass. As Isaac is on his deathbed, Jacob takes the opportunity to punk Esau again. (He's egged on by his mom, who is scandalized that Esau married a local girl instead hooking up with one of his first cousins like a respectible person). He impersonates his brother before their dying father, who is tricked and bestows his blessing on the wrong son. Once given, this kind of blessing apparently just can't be taken back, and even though Isaac and Esau figure out Jacob's duplicity almost immediately there is nothing to be done for it. Jacob ends up having stolen not only Esau's birthright, but his destiny as well. He'll get riches, nations, and people bowing down to him, while Esau only gets to live by the sword and serve [his] brother. (27:40)

In the third episode, Jacob moves on to swindle his father-in-law, Laban. Having arranged that he will be given all of the striped or mottled lifestock in Laban's herds, he makes charms out of tree limbs, stripping away bark so that they look striped and mottled. He has the best of the beasts mate in the presence of these charms, and their offspring come out striped and mottled. Eventually, he ends up walking away with all of Laban's best animals. I'm not sure if I could make this trick work, myself. Nor does it make me feel like Jacob is a patriarch I'd want to do much business with.

Good Old-Fashioned Family Values

To be fair, Jacob has a legitimate grudge against Laban, who is not only his father-in-law but also his father-in-law. And, of course, his uncle. Let me explain. Rather than marry outside of the family like his uncouth brother, Jacob goes off to seek a bride at the compound of uncle (great uncle, really) Laban. There, he falls in love with the lovely in form (29:17) Rachel, and agrees to put in seven years of labor in exchange for her hand in marriage. But after seven years, Laban pulls a bait-and-switch of his own and offers the near-sighted (and apparently less lovely in form) Leah, Rachel's big sister. "If you take this one and put in another seven years, though, you can have them both" offers Laban, so in the fullness of time Jacob has both of the two sisters as wives.

Family life in Jacob's household has its share of complications. Jacob doesn't like Leah, but she gets pregnant first. "Surely my husband will love me now," she says when her first son is born(29:32), but like many an unhappy young mother soon finds out otherwise. Nevertheless, she bears him three more sons, giving each of them names that are basically Hebrew puns for "I wish my husband thought of me as more than a contemptable vessel for his progeny."

Meanwhile, Rachel has not produced any bundles of joy and is getting jealous. She has an idea: "Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family." (30:3) So, Jacob goes along with this, and another son (Dan) is born. And Jacob goes along with this again, and another son is born. Rachel (unlike her great-aunt Sarah in similar circumstances) is delighted, and thumbs her nose gleefully at her big sister. Bilhah's feelings about the arrangement are not recorded.

Now it's Leah's turn to be jealous, so she thrusts HER maidservant at Jacob with a knowing look, and two more sons are cranked out.

Then, Leah's son brings her some mandrakes. Rachel wants some of them.

15 But [Leah] said to her, "Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son's mandrakes too?" "Very well," Rachel said, "he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son's mandrakes."
16 So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. "You must sleep with me," she said. "I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." So he slept with her that night.
Another son results. You really have to feel for poor, deluded, squinty Leah. This time, she says, my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons. (30:20) Yeah, sure he will.

Eventually, even Rachel manages to produce a son, at which point by my count the household consists of one man, two wives, two very special handmaids, eleven sons, and a daughter.

Discussion questions:
  • Who all is covered by Jacob's work-based health plan? What if he lives in Masschusetts?
  • Your maid has, according to your instructions, borne two children by your husband. What is an appropriate tip?
  • If your partner traded your sexual services for some mandrake plants, would this have any impact on your self esteem? Explain.
  • When inviting this family to a formal occasion, should you provide seating for 3 adults plus children, or 5 adults plus children?

Heaven.... I'm in Heaven....

One last detail. At Genesis 28:12, Jacob has a vision of heaven -- in fact, a stairway to heaven. It is described as a habitation of God and angels. However, there is no mention of it being a place of the afterlife, which means that 30 chapters into the Bible, there has still been no mention of the idea of life after death.


Jennifer said...

Very nice! I had to be really quiet about laughing some of the time because I'm trying not to wake up the rest of the household, but it wasn't too easy. Great study questions. I'm surprised that the part where Jacob got tricked by Laban didn't get more shrift--at least in the versions I've read, it's not so much that Laban and Jacob come to an agreement as that Laban got Jacob drunk and had the wrong daughter waiting in a dark tent for him and then it was too late. Jacob reminds me a lot of Ulysses, aka Wily Odysseus in his tricks--it's always interesting to me to see how in different cultures tricking people is considered a virtue. Check out Restoration comedy, e.g.

Anonymous said...

I have to pitch the tent of my opinion with Jennifer here. Honestly, how would most of these early chapters have come to pass if there had been more judicious control of the juice and better lighting? Celebration of the trickster does seem to be natural to every culture. It makes me wonder whether the snake in the garden of Eden didn't get short shrift here. Was the snake too honest, "beguiling" Eve only by telling her the truth? If the snake had gotten either of them drunk and caused them to mistake the fruit for something else, would he have been more of a cause celebre?

I have had a couple jobs tending bar, and I have to say that the Old Testament aligns itself nicely with most of the social behavior one witnesseth therein. To wit: tricking someone who is more drunk or stupider than you (typically with deals-to-be-reneged or dares), is not only a means of gaining resources (typically money, but sometimes access to mating)for oneself. It is also a source of good stories later. Likewise, to use the blearing effects of alcohol, poor lighting, and mistaken identity to your advantage is victory indeed. Just as anyone available is beautiful at 2 a.m., I expect everyone is equally attractive between the flaps in the dark desert night.

Given the romantic, economic, and other social machinations of "The OT," I can't help but wonder why it has not been exploited by television in something akin to, say, "The OC." I mean, for sheer throw-down, girl fights, sex and manipulation, this beats Big Brother and several other reality shows.


The Calico Cat said...

This is the portion (more or less - we divide it at 28:10 - 32:3) from which my baby will be named...

While Jacob is not an exemplar...
God does still deal with him with all of his Human foibles... (More that he did for the "innocent" Soddomites & Gommorites. & For those not related to Noah...)

So it gives hope to those of us now, as we are all far from perfection - especially those who voted for Palin....