December 9, 2016 § 1 Comment

Did Jacob deserve what happened to him?

Last week, we read how Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing intended for his brother Esau. Jacob dressed in Esau’s clothes, brought his father a dish such as he liked, and repeatedly insisted that he was his brother Esau.

When the trick is discovered, Esau vows to kill him as soon as their father dies. So their mother Rebekah makes up an excuse to send Jacob away.

Penniless, homeless, and alone, Jacob flees his father’s house, hoping to be taken in by his uncle Laban.

As he arrives at his uncle’s household, he is relieved to be among family again. He bursts into tears when he realizes that Rachel is his cousin; when he is brought back to the house, “He told Laban all that had happened, and Laban said to him, ‘You are truly my bone and flesh.’”

I imagine that Laban recognized his sister’s handiwork and understood precisely what had happened. So he stays with his uncle for a while. At first, it appears to be a mutually-beneficial arrangement:

“When he had stayed with him a month’s time, Laban said to Jacob, ‘Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ Laban said, ‘Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me.’ So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.”(the JPS translation is used throughout)

It’s a lovely idyllic story up to this point. But Jacob is not one to recognize his family’s patterns. He is not savvy about how he might be manipulated against his will. When the time comes to secure his reward, it turns out that Laban tricks Jacob into marrying the wrong daughter.

Laban tricks Jacob into working for him for 14 years in exchange for both of his daughters in marriage. The trick, of course, was that Jacob only wanted to marry one of them. But Laban arranges for a substitution of one sister for the other, neatly reversing the trick that Jacob pulled on his father: in the blindness of night, the older is substituted for the younger, to create a new reality that cannot be undone.

Did Jacob deserve what happened to him?

He has made some poor life-choices up to this point. His mother has dominated him for all his life; it is not a surprise that he has no defenses against his uncle’s trickery. He does not see it coming.

And when his two wives engage in a desperate battle of fertility, he does not have the personal resilience needed to navigate that rivalry. When Rachel confronts him with the evidence that he has been giving Leah son after son, he shrugs off her sense of hurt, saying, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

And when Leah ‘buys’ his services with a crop of mandrakes, he is perfectly willing to go along. He is not one to rock the boat, or to object when others make decisions for him. He is happy to go along and get along.

In many ways, Jacob had been inheriting his family’s patterns: in his family, it has always been better to invent a lie than face the truth.

And this set of truths about Jacob – that he is non-confrontational; that his is unwilling to force an issue; that he would rather trick someone than admit the truth – are what make his later actions so surprising.

Eventually, Jacob figures out how to rise above himself, to move past what had been holding him back.

Jacob realizes that Laban is taking advantage of him and makes a plan to leave. Rather than taking action unilaterally, he realizes that he needs to talk to both wives together, to get their support as well. One gets the sense that this conversation is a difficult one for him to have:

“Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field, where his flock was, and said to them, “I see that your father’s manner toward me is not as it has been in the past. But the God of my father has been with me. As you know, I have served your father with all my might; but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again. God, however, would not let him do me harm. If he said thus, ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks would drop speckled young; and if he said thus, ‘The streaked shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks would drop streaked young. God has taken away your father’s livestock and given it to me.”

He has not ever been honest with them about his relationship with Laban. It is not clear to him how they will respond. One gets the impression here that they have never had a conversation like this one before.

As it turns out, his wives have their own grievances against Laban. They are all for leaving Laban’s household. They are so much in favor, in fact, that they speak as one:

“Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely, he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just as God has told you.’”

What does their speech mean? How have they been cheated here? As the daughters of a tribal head, they each should have been given to Jacob in marriage with a dowry.

If Laban had been trustworthy, if he had negotiated in good faith, then Jacob would have paid a bride-price to marry each woman and then all (or at least some) of that bride-price would have been put aside for his new wife. The purpose of the dowry was to give her alimony: it would be used to pay for her support if he were to divorce her.

So, instead of giving his daughters as wives, it turns out that Laban cheated them as well. Laban sold them as concubines rather than giving them the full status of wives. He pocketed Jacob’s wages instead of doing the right thing by his daughters.

It is a rare moment of truth for this family, and it pushes them to grow in ways they had not thought possible. Jacob will leave, go back to face his brother, and gain the new name of Israel. And his wives, in turn, will stop engaging in their baby war, each seeking to outdo her sister in status. They will grow from this experience.

We learn quite a bit from this story, from their failings and their attempts at redemption: first, we learn that the task of living is to learn how to transcend ourselves, our lives and our limitations, in order to leave a worthy legacy for the next generation. It is both the hardest possible task – and the most necessary. There is no truth without growth, and there is no growth without truth. But even more importantly, we learn: sometimes the hardest conversations are the best ones to have.

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