Genesis 30

This is a curious chapter; it begins with Jacob more or less being treated like a studhorse by his wives Rachel and then Leah, who each have him sleep with their female servants in order to bear more children in their stead – a very direct procreational competition between the sisters – with the capper that all of the future tribes of Israel save Benjamin make their appearance. (Benjamin is born later – in a heartbreaking scene; see 35.16-20 – and also Joseph becomes two tribes via his own sons Ephraim and Manasseh: Jacob presciently blesses them in an unexpected manner; see Chapter 48). Amongst all these coital goings-on Rachel also bargains away a night with Jacob to Leah, in exchange for some mandrakes that Leah’s son Reuben happened upon (verses fourteen through sixteen; the very matter-of-fact way Jacob is informed of the result of this negotiation in verse sixteen is, I think, a good cause to chuckle). Thus we have Exhibit A of transactional behavior.

The latter half of the chapter concerns Jacob’s dealings with Laban – Exhibit B – both of whom try to outwit the other (or one might be less generous and label this “out-cheat”). Jacob firstly asks for permission to leave Laban, thereby alerting the reader to the knowledge that their relationship had either been undertaken as a more permanent form of servitude or had become that way over the years, beyond the initial agreement for Jacob to work for the reward of being able to marry Rachel (29.18). Laban seems to agree to the request and inquires what he should give Jacob by way of parting – the historico-culturally appropriate way to release a servant – to which Jacob suggests a portion of Laban’s flock: but only the “speckled or spotted” goats and sheep (verses thirty-two through thirty-three). Laban consents, immediately takes all such from out of his animals and gives them to his sons to care for, and then straightaway puts plenty of space between himself and Jacob, who has been left in charge of only the purely colored livestock (verses thirty-four to thirty-six). Not to be outdone, Jacob devises a plan that is apparently based on what was a widespread folk belief wherein the appearance of progeny results from what the animals were observing while copulating. He has the dark goats view branches stripped white while they behave as he had during the opening portion of the chapter, and the white sheep view the dark goats as they do the same. Moreover, he arranges it so that only the strongest specimens have this perceptual organization, leaving the weaker animals to create their own kind (i.e. (weak) dark goats more (weak) dark goats, (weak) light sheep more (weak) light sheep). Lo and behold the scheme works, and Jacob attains a vast flock of mixed colored beasts all of whom are robust and grand (take that Gregor Mendel!; verses thirty-seven to forty-two).

What are we as readers today to make of a set of stories like this? The sisters give thanks to God/“God” in turn (Leah: verses eighteen and twenty; Rachel: verse twenty-three), which one might think is a lesson in piety, but then Jacob seems to take divine favor for granted (telling Laban: “the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned” (verse thirty): i.e. “What you have is thanks to me”), and certainly an attitude like that would not be much of a positive takeaway. Each of our main protagonists does demonstrate worthy patience and resilience in the face of adversity, and indeed there is something to be said for the manner in which they take matters into their own hands to see what they desire come to fruition. Yet on the purely interpersonal level – which to me, being concerned not only with thinking related to the divine-human axis but also the nitty-gritty ethics of the human-human, is paramount – I have difficulty finding much to emulate. In case after case there seems to be a “That’s what you get!” sentiment towards the presumed rival in the background of the actor’s mind, overshadowing compassion and cooperation. We might applaud the successes that are reported here, and it does seem especially natural to feel a kind of satisfaction in Jacob getting the best of Laban given the latter’s duplicity, but on the whole it may be that we can only consider this section as a kind of sometimes necessary prompting to think about how we ought not to treat one another; and, if we are so inclined, possibly too to discover comfort in the prayers heard and answered as expressed by the twin statements “God heeded Leah” (verse seventeen) and “God heeded her [Rachel]” (verse twenty-two), coupled with the sisters’ expressing their appreciation, as mentioned. To simply be grateful is surely a nudging every one of us can benefit from.

Genesis 29

Jacob the wily one starts to get a bit of comeuppance in this chapter. On the run from his brother Esau, from whom he took first the birthright honors and then their father’s coveted blessing, he finds himself in the land of his uncle Laban, where his mother had suggested he hide away until Esau had enough time to cool down and conditions at home were less directly threatening (see 27.43-45). The section opens with a somewhat comical feat of strength by Jacob, who upon seeing his beautiful cousin Rachel rolls a stone cover off a well by himself (verse ten), something that apparently typically required a number of people working together to perform (i.e. see verse eight: “But they [the shepherds Jacob found at the well] said, ‘We cannot [give water to the sheep], until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well [i.e. then only when enough are present to do the rolling] and we water the sheep.’”). This comment on what men will do to try and impress those they find attractive is a nice reminder of the continuity across time and cultures of core human nature.

What is a less favorable – but equally valid – example of the same comes a few verses later. Jacob has been tricked by his uncle into sleeping with Rachel’s older sister and thus sealing a marriage to her (verses twenty-three and twenty-five (twenty-four is an aside)), an occurrence that beggars belief since no matter how dark the evening might have been when Laban presented Jacob with Leah (verse twenty-three) he would be unlikely to confuse her with her sister (perhaps he was exceedingly drunk?). Regardless, the tale is no doubt rendered this way to teach the reader, and in thinking on that we should probably also remember that the number seven is often used merely to signify completeness and therefore Jacob working seven years to gain the right to marry Rachel (verse twenty), and then for another seven after having been duped (verses twenty-seven through twenty-eight), might be better thought of as “for a really long time” rather than an actual “fourteen years”. However, as we have repeatedly stressed, these narratives are not history and we need not approach them as such. Let us though return to our “less favorable” viewpoint on interpersonal relations.

In verses thirty-one through thirty-five we have the painful cry of Leah’s heart, a section that turns on the important tone – and potentially troubling theology – of its initial sentence:

29.31: “The LORD saw that Leah was unloved and he [i.e. God/“God” in the traditional but, I deem, unfortunately gendered divine referencing] opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.”

That God/“God” would intervene like this in human relations raises all sorts of issues with theodicy (e.g. of the “Why didn’t (or doesn’t) God/‘God’ help with X?” sort), but taking the text this way I think risks distracting us from what could be found there. On that – and before proceeding – let us also note that the verse does not indicate Rachel is being punished for anything, nor even that her inability to conceive is a result of divine action even if Leah’s becoming pregnant, on the other hand, is presented as a straightforward blessing from God/“God”. Perhaps Rachel’s condition was entirely natural; there is, after all, no reason to think the storyteller would have her be punished the way it appears that Jacob is being (i.e. the trickster himself getting tricked). Hence, I think that this may be understood as God/“God” purely having compassion on the one sister who was suffering; that is reassuring, it is comforting. Nevertheless, Leah’s burdens are not eased: in the following verses she names her sons after the laments she is uttering at her sorrow in failing to attain the love and devotion she wishes to have from Jacob. She continues to feel shunned by him (yet another poor mark for the Patriarch here), and her anguish is visceral. If we recall the generalized “weak” image of the numinous we have been laboring towards, one wherein God/“God” must work with what is at hand instead of conjuring an entirety out of nothing, then we might find another instance of that here. God/“God” – as deeply caring – has pity on the despondent and wishes to aid, but human efforts are needed as well. In this rendering, sadly, the partnering side is not forthcoming since God/“God” does what it can but Jacob does not contribute, and so Leah’s unhappiness continues. There is still a hint of hope on Leah’s part, and this too is a lovely sentiment; in the closing verse (thirty-five) she has another son and states that “This time I will praise the LORD.” This time; things can and will get better, even when they do not: the chapter ends with “Then she [Leah] stopped bearing.” (Yet, lest we ourselves take even that too negatively, this is already her fourth child, and as every parent knows four young ones in the house are more than enough!)

Genesis 28

This chapter, scholars think, is a blending of three sources from differing periods: 28.1-9 (also including the final verse forty-six of Chapter 27) are from the P source (6th century BCE), while the remainder of verses ten through twenty-two are an intertwining of the J (10th century BCE; but possibly much later) and E sources (maybe 9th century BCE). If that is the case then 28.10 picks up where 27.45 left off, with Rebekah warning Jacob to flee for a while from the anger of his brother Esau, whose birthright blessing he had only just – very underhandedly – received from their father Isaac. Taken through a storytelling perspective this makes sense, and thus the alternative reasoning given in verses 27.46-28.5 of Jacob departing to find a spouse are a somewhat odd fit (but are nevertheless rehabilitating of the character: moving from “deceiver” to “obedient son”). If we mentally “table” this interlude there is as well the added benefit of greater narrative tension leading up to the brothers’ reunion in Chapter 33.

Our chapter of course also contains the exceedingly well-known tale of the “stairway” (or “ramp” or “ladder”) to Heaven (the text actually states: “its top reached to the sky”; verse twelve), part of a dream theophany wherein God/“God” confirms to Jacob the Abrahamic blessing of offspring, land, and that “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.” (Verse 14b, spoken by God/“God” itself.) Much has been made of this passage (a recent and compelling work understands this as a mise en abyme (image within an image, story within a story) of the nation’s travels to, from, and back to the land of Israel; see Yitzhak (Itzik) Peleg, Going Up and Going Down: A Key to Interpreting Jacob’s Dream (Genesis 28:10-22) (London: T and T Clark, 2015)), and so here perhaps we can merely comment that what is often overlooked but potentially quite striking is that the angels in the dream do not actually do anything: they merely traverse back and forth on the “stairway” (or “ramp”, “ladder”; verse twelve again).

Thinking on what the storyarc of the book might be trying to teach in the state it has been handed down to us is an intriguing undertaking. After all, it is not the strong and, as firstborn, natural leader Esau the hunter who becomes the (probably at least partly mythical, possibly mostly or even fully so) founding father, but rather the homebody who essentially scams his way into it (one is reminded of the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first” statements of the New Testament’s Gospels). Yet this was divinely foretold, and in that positively so; we recall Chapter 25:

25.23: “and the LORD answered her [Rebekah, pregnant with her twins],
‘Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.’”

This statement has been interpreted in many ways depending on the exegete’s inclinations and group allegiances, but in the context of the biblical text it is quite clear that we have Jacob, from whom comes the nation Israel, and Esau, from whom comes the nation Edom (see 36.1: “This is the line of Esau – that is, Edom.”): the junior over the senior. Furthermore, following this stunning encounter from which Jacob awakes “shaken” and declares “How awesome is this place!” (verse seventeen), he sets about attempting to make a rather one-sided bargain with God/“God”, promising that if he is protected on the journey, fed, provided clothing, and granted a safe return, then the very deity who has granted him the amazing epiphany “shall be my God…and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You” (21b-22). As if God/“God” needed his crap! Putting ourselves in Jacob’s shoes (sandals?) it is perhaps difficult to find anything other than humor in the pure chutzpah of such a reaction, but what I like about this start to Jacob’s “career” is that we are given such a flawed personage to begin with, one who certainly needs to work on improving himself, and thus someone we can very much relate to ourselves. In this, as we know, Jacob does; and along the way his children and their own tales continue to offer much. Think how boring perfection would be.

Genesis 27

Again, one of the most famous stories in the Bible – and indeed in the Western literary canon – is found here in Genesis: Jacob deceiving his father in order to get the (sociohistorically) coveted parental blessing prior to the patriarch’s passing away. The blessing itself is merely a series of words, but culturally the weight given to such is made clear, and especially by Esau’s heart-wrenching reaction when he learns that Isaac has already bestowed on another what should – traditionally – have been his. The pathos of verses thirty through forty-one, when Jacob’s trickery (and Rebekah’s, although neither Isaac nor Esau are described as realizing her part in the proceedings) is discovered, is astounding, and the cry of “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” (verse thirty-eight) that Esau utters nearly moves one to tears, however later commentators may have attempted to shift sympathy to Jacob as the people’s and nation’s founder. In reading the text as it is we must feel deeply with Esau, thinking on what he has been through and the manner in which Isaac was so summarily duped while Esau was far enough away not to have been able to do anything about it. The entirety strikes as being profoundly unjust, a rotten core buried beneath remarkable beauty, much like the Buddha’s disturbing abandonment of his wife and child when he left his palace home to seek meaning and truth in life. Good can triumph from any sort of beginning it seems – which is reassuring – but how we yearn for a positive start. Such, perhaps, is another great lesson which simply must be accepted.

Rather than dwelling on the duplicity here, however, on my present reading I am struck by the recurrence of a single term and what it indicates for the interplay amongst the characters in this masterful storytelling. The word is nefesh and it was originally connected with “throat” or “neck” but then later came to mean “breath” and, perhaps through that association or in conjunction with it, “life force”, “psyche”, “spirit”, or “soul”. (See James Kugel’s wonderful The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (New York: Free Press, 2003); this is discussed explicitly on page 165. Interestingly, “person” can be found listed for this word as well.). In this section it is rendered as “innermost”, and we can see it connected with the “blessing” in verses four, nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-one, and there is moreover a symmetry involved too: 27.4: Isaac-Esau; 27.19: Jacob-Isaac; 27.25: Isaac-Jacob (thinking him Esau); and 27.31: Esau-Isaac. I think we might rightly employ the technical label of chiasmus to this structure (A, B, B’, A’), and in addition to giving the tale balance it meditates on aspects of the relations between parents and children, as well as on those between siblings. Isaac shows favor to his elder son Esau – “soul” favor, the greatest degree possible – Jacob the younger desires the same from Isaac and then receives it (albeit against his father’s will), only to have Esau ask for that which had been promised and instead be forced to settle for a very distant replacement: Family as microcosm for the human condition.

The “soul” desires blessings and not curses, it/we want little more than to be accepted by our mothers and fathers, both in a literal and figurative sense. We wish to belong and to be acknowledged, to have a place and – we think – thereby too a purpose. If that is lost (or given away; one shudders at noticing Esau’s regret and the blame placing he engages in at verse thirty-six: “First he [Jacob] took away my [Esau’s] birthright [as relayed in 25.30-34] and now he has taken away my blessing!”) we become set adrift and in the horror of that respond the only way we know how: by crying out, wailing, helplessly pleading for that which already is to somehow be otherwise. Yet the facts on the ground do not change, and we have no recourse but to try again, to turn (re-turn), and in our best efforts to purely hope that this time things may be different. Will they? It is a toss of the dice, and maybe not even God/“God” is aware of how such will land. There is nothing more quintessentially homo sapiens though then to make that push into the unforeseen; and that, surely, is itself a blessing.

Genesis 26

For the third – and thankfully last – time in Genesis we have a husband trying to pass his spouse off as his sister. (Abraham did this twice in Chapters 12 and 20 and Isaac does it here in verses seven through nine (with Isaac’s lie being found out in a more humorous way than Abraham’s were; compare verses eight and nine in this section with 12.17-18 and 20.3-7).) Isaac is rather short-changed amongst the tales of the Patriarchs, and so it is somewhat disappointing that in this sole chapter where he is given center stage the composition is for the most part a collection of recycled stories: there is the aforementioned business with Rebekah and Abimelech (also a returning character), strife over wells reminiscent of Abraham’s complaints to Abimelech followed by their negotiation in 21.22-32 (also, as here, presented as an etiology for Beer-Sheba as place name), but then there is too the positive repetition of the promise and the portrayal of a direct relating with the divine, and Isaac takes after his father in demonstrating both faith and tremendous generosity with others who might not always be friendly or fair (verses twenty-seven through thirty).

Nevertheless, even within this series of “second time arounds” the lessons of fortitude and constancy are communicated. As with Abraham and Lot being forced to part ways due to an overabundance of livestock between them (Chapter 13), Isaac is asked by Abimelech to remove himself with his household: verse sixteen: “And Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.’” This he does, settling in a new area where he naturally sets about digging wells (and let the symbolism of water not go unnoticed; see our comments to Genesis 21), only to have them be taken away in conflict, to which he responds by establishing another and shortly thereafter is deprived of it too (verses seventeen through twenty-one). Rather than fight though Isaac simply moves again, digs again, and this time is granted peace and opportunity (verse twenty-two).

The reader notes that only after this demonstration of grace, of what we might call “turning the other cheek”, does the narrative shift in Isaac’s favor. God/“God” appears to him in a dream of reassurance, Isaac “invoke[s] the LORD by name” (i.e. personal relationship) and constructs yet another well (verse twenty-five). Abimelech, who has heretofore been either a source of direct, or – via the people he rules and represents, indirect – contention arrives seeking reconciliation and the agreement to a treaty establishing equality and tolerance between their respective groups (verses twenty-six through twenty-nine). Thus although Isaac is perhaps only given to us in the text as a sort of truncated and condensed version of his remarkable father (and ends up paling before what his astonishing son Jacob is reported as doing), he still demonstrates some of the best qualities that these myths seek to impart; and all this of course is additionally set against the background of the famous “binding” of Chapter 22 where Isaac truly showed his mettle. To the ancient rabbinic interpreters every letter of the holy books were filled with significance; we may or may not agree on that, but what is certain is that even in chapters like this – essentially placed only to link the Abrahamic arc with the Jacobean one – there is much to learn and to re-learn on our own repeated visits.