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!)

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