Sisters, sisters… (Genesis 28-31)
December 14, 2010
I’m having an interesting time with Genesis. I had thought it was a book I’d really get on with, that I would relish the search for deeper meaning in the epic tales of God’s power and purpose. Turns out I feel like that about bits of it. From creation to Noah is fab for me, lots that I’ve thought about before, lot’s to work with. After that, not so much. Until (unless I’m unpleasantly surprised in a few weeks) the story of Joseph, which I love love love!
I know, I know, I’ve written about playing favourites with Scripture before, but this is how it is with me right now. I mean, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all have their moments – entertaining or wrestling with angels is pretty darn cool – but when I’m reading 3 or 4 chapters at a time these moments seem rather fleeting; flickers of light between negotiations for land and goods or, worse by far, questionable treatment of women.
I am referring, in the instance (see precious posts for more), to the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, right in the middle of Genesis 28-31. The meeting of Jacob and Rachel, echoing the story of his mother’s meeting with his father, is quite romantic really. He sees her, he waters her flock (which she keeps herself, by the way, girl power!), he kisses her and weeps. All very promising. So he meets her father, who seems nice at first but turns out to be a bit of tricky so-and-so. Jacob agrees to work for Laban (daddy) for 7 years in return for his daughter, but when he finally gets to spend the night with her he wakes in the morning to find it’s her older sister Leah. Downer! Laban says he can have Rachel too, as long as he works another 7 years! Well, how generous of him.
Now, there are ways of reading good intentions into all this. Jacob does not shame Leah by putting her away, but honours their marriage. If you can call marrying her younger sister as soon as he could ‘honouring’! But really, he worked hard to earn the love of Rachel, and we see the lovely line “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (29:20). He obviously cared for and valued her above money, because, it seems, he chose her over 7 years of wages, which is nice. And Laban, although revealed to be mighty slippery in later chapters, may simply have been looking out for the dignity of his eldest daughter. How would she cope with the stigma of being unmarried while her younger sibling went off to play happy families? So perhaps their intentions weren’t enitrely dishonourable.
But 29:31-30:24 is the passage that really leaves me sad. It’s probably best if you just read the whole thing, but the general gist is that rivalry for Jacob’s love and for status seems to be fought over via the ability to produce sons. Leah produces heirs first, indeed we’re told that God opened her womb because she was unloved (29:31). When Rachel cannot conceive she gives her maid to Jacob and Leah follows suit. All the time there is a sense of tension, of competition between the sisters. We see this in it’s most extreme and bizaare expression the strange exchange about mandrakes in 30:14-18. Any one know the esoteric meaning of mandrakes??
Is this spirit of desperation and competition really that in which the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel were conceived? Great! It’s just all a bit uncomfortable, isn’t? Not just uncomfortable, but almost tragic. Leah is such a tragic figure to me. She who is given into the bed of a man she does not want her, let alone love her. We hear her voice constantly in these passages saying “now this time my husband will be joined to me” and “surely now my husband will love me” and even after the birth of all her sons “is it a small matter that you have taken my husband away from me?” This level of desperation breaks my heart as I read.
But what do I expect? For the Bible to provide me with flawless role models, perfect in the sight of God? Or amazingly functional families? What planet am I on? If the Bible teaches us anything it is that people and societies aren’t perfect. So there will be bitterness and rivalry and double-dealing. But the question is where is God in this?
Where is God for Leah? He is the one answering her cries. In the midst of these mixed up people, who feel their loves and rivalries so strongly, God is there. And God’s role in this story is in birth. He is bringing hew life, hope to both women. He is fulfilling the promise to Jacob and his forefathers to make his ancestors as numerous as the stars. God is creating, moving, producing. And whatever rubbish is going on around it, new life is coming into the world. An apt idea to reflect on this advent; that God brings life and hope in the midst of our dysfunctionality.
Is this good enough? Does it take away my discomfort with these passages? Not really, I’ve still got many a rant about the subjugation women and ‘land rights’ up my sleeve. But it does help me see past the brain stuff into the heart stuff. The thought of Leah’s joy at her first born child, in the midst of all her misery, is enough to inspire and edify me.
P.S. for those of you who read my last entry: I know it’s after midnight, but this still counts as Monday’s post, and I’m promise it wasn’t a rushed job!