Sunday, March 10, 2013

Genesis 30:1-31:51


At the end of chapter 29, Jacob's unloved first wife Leah presented him with four sons in rapid succession. Here in chapter 30 we find Leah's little sister, Jacob's beloved Rachel, wanting, but unable, to have children, too.

So, Rachel gives Jacob her maid, Bilhah, to serve as her surrogate. On Rachel's behalf, Bilhah has two sons with Jacob. They are named Dan and Naphtali.

Leah, in the meantime, has quite giving birth, but uses her maid, Zilpah, as a surrogate. With Zilpah, Jacob fathers two more sons, Gad and Asher.

Then comes an odd little story. Jacob's oldest son, Reuben, picks some mandrakes for his mother, Leah. Rachel wants the mandrakes which, I've read, were thought to be an aphrodisiac and perhaps to increase fertility. The name for mandrake in Hebrew literally means love plant. We are in the realm of folk medicine here and possibly folk magic. There is a lot of sex and magic in this chapter.

Leah sells the mandrakes to Rachel at the cost of a night with Jacob.Sometimes I begin to feel a little sorry for Jacob, but then I remember that he is not the victim in this story. Bilhah and Zilpah are being used as incubators.

At any rate, Leah has another son, Issachar, and then another, Zebulun. She also has a daughter, Dinah.

Leah is the clear leader in this fertility derby. She has had 6 sons and a daughter of her own, and another 2 sons by her surrogate, Zilpah. Rachel, to date, has had no children, but her maid Bilhah has given birth to two boys on her behalf.

So far, the sons all bear the names of the Israelite tribes that their offspring will become. 

Finally, Rachel has a son of her own, a boy named Joseph. Maybe the mandrakes helped? Not surprisingly, Joseph, like his mother, is Jacob's favorite. His will be another case of God favoring the younger son.

Now that he has a family of his own, Jacob decides to leave his uncle Laban and return to Canaan, his native land. Laban would rather not lose his most valuable worker. He says that by divination (more magic!) he has learned that the Lord has given him prosperity through Jacob. The two strike a bargain: Jacob will stay if Laban gives him, as payment, all of the piebald goats and black sheep from his flocks.

Ever the schemer, and not afraid to rip off a relative, Laban removes all of the piebald goats and black sheep from his flocks before he leaves.

Jacob is not so easily put off course, though. Using still more magic (striped poplar wands) he induces the flock to produce more multicolored animals. Breeding judiciously, Jacob makes sure that his goats and sheep are the strongest ones. The monochrome animals, which belong to Laban, he breeds to be weaker.

And so Jacob enriches himself at Laban's expense.

Chapter 31 begins with Laban's sons angry at Jacob. Jacob decides that it really is time to leave now. Just as he departed Canaan when Esau was angry, now he exits Paddan Aram, when his cousins are fuming. Travel is presumably a more cumbersome process now, as Jacob has acquired multiple wives and children, as well as large flocks, great wealth, and a number of slaves.

As when Jacob left Canaan, God again promises to go with him.

So far Jacob has not shown himself to be trustworthy, and I have to wonder whether he is telling the truth when he describes the dream in which God told him about the striped animals.

Laban is not trustworthy either, and I have to doubt his sincerity when he complains that he didn't get a chance to kiss his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, that he wanted to send them off with fanfare and celebration.

The surprise in this chapter is that Rachel proves to be a thief and a deceiver in her own right. She steals her father's household idols. When he searches for them, she sits on them and then uses her menstrual period as an excuse to keep them hidden. Was she really menstruating?

Even though there is, at this time in the narrative, no prohibition against graven images there is certainly a sly mockery of idols retrojected into the story.

Laban and Jacob make an uneasy peace and erect a heap of rocks as a monument. Neither will pass that point in hostility toward the other. The marker is called Mizpah which means "watchpost."

Pictured above is a set of jewelry called a Mizpah Coin. The two necklaces are two halves of a pendant. Joined together they make the words "The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from another" surrounded by hearts. Parted lovers are supposed to each wear one of the necklaces, thereby maintaining some sort of connection. It's a lovely romantic idea.

The irony is that these words were spoken by Laban when he and Jacob made their pact. They are words that express a deep, and perfectly justified, mutual distrust.

Next: Genesis 32-34.

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