Thursday, July 20, 2006

Genesis 29:31-30:24

Courtesy of my Genesis Commentary Blog

The Origins of the Tribes of Israel
How to Grow a Large Family
And Still Have Your Family Fall Apart

It seems that Jacob is fairly adept at procreating. Granted, the text does not provide us a chronology during this genealogical breakdown, but Jacob doesn’t have the same issues with childbearing that his father and grandfather did. On the other hand, just like his forebears, the woman he chose as his wife does have the same problems with fertility that Sarah and Rebekah had. Barrenness appears to be a common thread throughout the Story of the Patriarchs, and Rachel is the next in line to experience such heartbreak and domestic turmoil. (Berlin & Brettler, p61)

I don’t know about you, but reading through this selection of verses brings to mind a great many questions, concerns, and queries concerning the details of Jacob’s family and how daily domestic affairs were handled. A cursory examination might lead us to state that things haven’t gotten much better since the days of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. However, when we begin to look deeply into this portion of The Story, we quickly obtain a glimpse of much of the rest of Genesis will bear out, both in terms of Jacob’s generation and that of his children. It is as if the intensity of the effects of Sarah’s desire to subvert God’s plans by pushing Hagar upon Abraham back in Genesis 16 have been compounded and multiplied many times over.

I debated on just how deep I should delve into the finer cultural specifics and details present within this passage. As we see in the course of events between Sarah and Hagar of chapters 16 & 21, a woman, for reasons of procreation, may send her maidservant to her husband and any child born would legally belong to the husband and wife, and not to the maidservant. Moreover, we also learn from those two chapters that a great deal of tension can be easily introduced into a family and the individual lives of the people in that family when infertility and surrogate birthing rear their heads. Nevertheless, on top of the familiar problems Rachel has with bearing Jacob a child of her own, Jacob must face the discordant permutation of Leah and Rachel’s sibling rivalry into marital jealousy. Two sisters fighting over the affections of one man is never a pretty arrangement, and one that I’m surprised hasn’t been made into a major Hollywood teen-oriented movie.

Poor Jacob… At least Abraham and Isaac had enough sense not to marry more than one wife – Jacob has to become skilled at interacting with four adult women in his household. Sadly though, Jacob never becomes proficient with such tactics and diplomacy, because, from the outset of this portion of text, he chooses Rachel above all others, much to the dismay of Leah and the course of his children’s lives. But God proves to possess a rather unusual sense of decency and justice, since, upon seeing how Jacob ignores Leah, God opens up Leah’s womb as Rachel remained barren. “As in the case of Hagar (16:10-12; 21:17-18), God shows compassion to the unloved mate, thus partially equalizing the disparity between her and her co-wife. Barrenness, in some instances a punishment (e.g., 2 Sam 6:20-23), serves in Rachel’s case to place her in succession to Sarah and Rebekah (11:30; 25:21).” (Berlin & Brettler, p61)

Thus, Leah is able to bear children and three sons are the prompt result of God’s blessing – Rueben, Simeon, and Levi. However, in spite of what should be a time of great joy in the life of this family, it seems that Leah is in perpetual angst about Jacob’s lack of love for her and the names she gives to these three boys stands as proof of this. Rueben (see, a son), Simeon (has heard), and Levi (will join) are all evidences of Leah’s pleadings through childbearing for her husband to love her and give her some attention outside of the marriage bed. (Alter, p156-157) It isn’t until the birth of her fourth son, Judah, in 29:35 that Leah’s name-giving turmoil is silenced, but even that isn’t long-lived. (Hamilton, p268)

“When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’” Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’” (Genesis 30:1-2, NRSV)

And, throughout all of this prodigious child-bearing, Rachel, the wife that Jacob does love has remained without a child, much less a son, a fact that plagues Rachel and her plight in life. “In the ancient Near East, one vital measure of a wife’s worth was her ability to bear sons – to tend the fields, herd the flocks, defend land and honor, and carry on the family name. For the woman herself, unable to inherit on her own, sons represented security in her old age.” (Frankel, p 54) Thus Rachel’s torment is two-fold – not only has she not produced any sons from practical reasons, but she feels ashamed that she had not born any sons to the man who does love her, who voluntarily worked seven extra years for her father to earn the right to marry her.

So, she approaches her husband in her anguish, begging him to bless her and give her a child of any kind, but he responds harshly, not truly understanding the depth and breadth of her request. (Frankel, p56) Granted, Jacob is correct in stating openly that he is not the person that Rachel should be beseeching for children, as culture custom and Biblical precedent dictate that she should visit a holy person, talk to God, or hope that God sees her in her childlessness and sends a messenger of God to visit her. (Alter, p158) But while his theological resolve is in the right place, he is relationally unsound. Throughout both women’s frustrations – Leah’s in bearing many sons to a husband who doesn’t love her and Rachel’s in not being able to become pregnant – Jacob seems to either not be present or not paying very much attention to the domestic strife. (Frankel, p56) Thus, reminiscent to Sarah’s thrusting of Hagar upon Abraham, Rachel responds to her husband’s pronouncement that he isn’t God by giving him her servant girl Bilhah to be a surrogate mother, an arrangement that produces two sons – Dan and Naphtali.

And the sad thing is that the birth of these two boys to Rachel, via adopting them straight out of Bilhah’s womb, only produces more domestic strife. It’s as if every single, possible familial disturbance that ever occurred in the prior two Patriarchal generations has been rolled together and greatly magnified in the Love Pentagon that is Jacob-Rachel-Leah-Bilhah-Zilpah. For, as soon as Bilhah bore two sons for Rachel, Leah counters by sending Jacob her maidservant Zilpah, assuming that, in her barren status, she can continue attempting to work her way into Jacob’s heart by siring more children (especially boys). Moreover, these two women were fighting through the naming of their son’s names: 1) Dan – “God has vindicated me”; 2) Naphtali – “I have been entangled in a desperate contest with my sister and have won”; 3) Gad – “What luck”; and 4) Asher – “Women will count me blessed.” (Hamilton, p271-273 & Frankel, p55, 57) Over and over again, the overt infighting being inculcated via the wife-and-sibling rivalry in Jacob’s house sets up the future for the failure, conflict, strife, and pain that will be so prevalent in Joseph’s story in the latter parts of Genesis.

“When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, ‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night. And God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son.” (Genesis 30:16-17, NRSV)

However, the child-rearing competition doesn’t even begin to cease. Rachel observes Leah’s eldest child, Reuben, returning home with some harvested mandrakes, a plant purported to possess a combination of aphrodisiac and fertility-increasing properties. (Berlin & Brettler, p61) Quite obviously, such rumored traits are attractive to both women – Rachel wants to get pregnant and Leah would like for Jacob to love her. (Frankel, p58) With this hope, Rachel proposes a trade with Leah – you give me the mandrakes so that I can increase my chances to become pregnant and I’ll let you sleep with Jacob tonight. There is a bargain here that is undertaken by these women, one that displays the absolute desperation present in both their lives, as Rachel wants a child that is her own and Leah just wants love from a husband that really doesn’t pay her any attention. (Hamilton, p275)

And what happens as a result? Leah bears three more children – another son, Issachar (“God has given me my wages”); her last son, Zebulun (“God has given me, even me, a valuable gift”); and a daughter, Dinah. (Alter, p161 & Hamilton, p275-276) And curiously, in a family rife with the tendency to provide an over-the-top significance for a newborn’s name, there is no explanation given for Dinah’s. However, textual commentators quite enjoy instances like these, as they are able to enjoy the privilege of debating whether the authors are a) intentionally silent due to Dinah’s status as a female (Alter, p161); b) highlighting Dinah’s position as the only female child being born to a family full of boys (Frankel, p58); or c) crafty and alluding to future events (Hamilton, p 276).

“Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’; and she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’” (Genesis 30:22-24, NRSV)

I can hear Rachel scream at this point, “FINALLY!” God finally remembers Rachel, finally heeds her, finally opens her womb, and finally allows her to conceive and bear a child, all privileges and blessings that have been bestowed upon Leah 8 times already (7 sons and 1 daughter). At this event, Rachel loudly proclaims that she finally feels that God no longer hates her and finally desires for her to have a child, a sentiment that she greatly holds in common with the prior two Matriarchs. However, Rachel becomes a bit consumed in her overwhelming need to compete with Leah and declares that, not only has God at long last given her a son, she will be blessed with more children. Now, there’s nothing wrong with hoping and believing – it’s what keeps us motivated and moving forward, even when we don’t want to do so. “Like all of us, Rachel keeps upping the ante of blessing. Although Jacob clearly loves her, she remains miserable without a child. And when she finally gives birth to a son, she immediately longs for another. Why is it so difficult for us to appreciate the birds in our hand?” (Frankel, p59)

Thus, with the birth of Joseph, and until the late-occurring birth of Benjamin through Rachel, we have the chronological and matriarchal breakdown for the children of Jacob. There are 11 sons and 1 daughter – 6 sons and 1 daughter to Leah, 2 to Bilhah, 2 to Zilpah, and 1 to Rachel, the most-and-only-loved. Jacob has proven to be quite the impressive creator of progeny, far more than the other Patriarchs (his father and grandfather) had ever imagined themselves to be. With 11 sons and 1 daughter, it seems that the Promise given originally to Abraham finally has a chance of coming to pass, if only people could/would stop fighting.


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