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.

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