YEAR A: PENTECOST 11
July 24, 2011
Lies and deception are the order of the day for Jacob’s family. Jacob’s trip east from Bethel (Gen 28:10-22 see Pentecost 10) passes quickly and we find him in 29:1 at a well in an unnamed place. The reader with a memory for Genesis 24 will suspect that Jacob has arrived at his distant relative’s homeland, and that a marriage might be in sight. From the men gathered at the well, Jacob discovers his uncle Laban is nearby (29:4-9). Curiously, they have to wait until all flocks are gathered before the stone on the well may be lifted. This delay allows for Rachel’s entrance. Nothing is said about what Jacob thinks when he sees her, but the fact that he then performs the Herculean task of rolling the stone away by himself says it all. At the same time we are prepared for the later feat of great strength when Jacob wrestles with a divine messenger, whom it is suggested is none other than Yahweh himself (32:22-32).
Laban greets Jacob with a kiss (29:13-14), as Jacob did with Rachel (v. 11). Later, Laban will kiss his grandchildren as they depart his land to return with Jacob (31:55). The act of kissing marks both Jacob’s arrival in Laban’s home and his departure. If there is a cycle of Jacob stories which begins with the theft of his brother’s birthright and blessing (Genesis 25 and 27) and ends with his ‘reconciliation’ with Esau (Genesis 33), so there is an inner cycle of stories which tells of his stay with his uncle Laban (Genesis 29-31). Central to this inner cycle is the birth and naming of the first eleven sons of Jacob (29:31-30:24). This, together with the birth of Benjamin (35:16-18), constitutes the fulfilment of the promise of descendants to Abraham (12:2 etc.). The ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel are those descendants. But kissing does not just mark the arrival and departure of Jacob with Laban. Just as a kiss was involved when he stole his father’s blessing from Esau (27:26-27) so Laban’s kiss foreshadows more theft and deception – with Jacob on the receiving end this time, although he will in turn deceive Laban (30:31-43). The motif of deception is only heightened by the narrator reminding us of the family relationship, especially through the use of the word ’ach, brother (vv. 4, 10, 12, 15).
Jacob is invited to stay with Laban and requests an arrangement for wages. The fact that Jacob is kin (‘brother’) might suggest a guarantee against exploitation but we know this family better. A comparison of this story with other ancient Near Eastern herding and shearing contracts shows that Jacob, while kin, is employed by Laban like a free herder or hireling. Jacob’s kinship affords him no special position in Laban’s household. Jacob loves Rachel and asks unusual wages for marrying her. Laban agrees and an arrangement is made for Jacob to work 7 years for Rachel. He is then deceived on his wedding night and ends up with Leah.
There is not a little humour in recounting this trick on Jacob. Leah is the one with rakkuth eyes. The NRSV, New Jerusalem Bible and some others translate the term as ‘delicate, lovely’. However, the Revised English Version translates the term as ‘weak’ (so also RSV). The term can mean either ‘tender’ (Gen 18:17) or ‘weak’ in power (e.g. 2 Sam 3:39). It is ambiguous, although the translation ‘weak’ provides some fault with Leah which contrasts with Rachel’s slender form and beauty. It also gives a reason for Jacob’s dislike of Leah (29:31-35). The thought of Leah’s ‘weak’ eyes also relates to the scene in the dark tent on the wedding night where Jacob is the one who does not ‘see’ until it is too late. This puts him in the same place as his father, Isaac, in Genesis 27, where Jacob deceived him because he could not see well. The final sting in the deceit comes with Laban’s remark after Jacob complains. Laban explains after the event that ‘It is not done in our country, giving the younger before the first born’ (29:26). Why such a ‘minor’ detail was omitted earlier we are not told. In any case, the irony cannot be missed. The whole life of Jacob is built on upsetting the accepted norm.
Just how Leah and Rachel feel about all this we are not told. Are they aware of the plot of Laban, or are they abused and used in the ruse? The narrator only tells us of the Laban-Jacob dynamics. We might get a hint of the women’s views later in the story. Deception also marks the relationship between the sisters (Genesis 30) and in the end Rachel too steals from her father (31:25-42).
So Jacob has to work another 7 years for Rachel. The extension
of time is part of Laban’s ploy to keep Jacob subservient and in Haran
as a hireling. Laban apparently makes no provision for dowry for his two
daughters (31:14-15). Gen 29:21 and 30:26 are not just requests for wages,
but that the marriage contracts be finalised (after all those years!).
That finalisation does not happen until the covenant ceremony at the end
of the Jacob – Laban cycle (31:43-50). The members of this family cheat
and deceive at every opportunity.
Where is God in all this? He is not a character in the story and yet the human characters, especially Jacob, are the recipients of his blessings and promises. Moreover, these characters do not really seem the sort of people we would expect God to mix with. And yet the story has a point to make precisely here. These characters are all intent on using and subverting a system of conventional social and cultural arrangements for their own ends. In this sense they echo the God behind the narrative, whose promise and blessing also subvert conventional social (and political) systems. At the same time we find God’s purposes in the story inextricably bound to various human schemes, sometimes of questionable motive. God’s preference for the younger twin sets in motion the ribbon of deception that runs through the story. It is at times hard to disentangle God’s purposes from the rather dubious, personally motivated human ones. But this is how we find God present with his people as we move on in the story of Genesis. God’s struggle against the corruption of the world (Genesis 6-9) and for the blessing of the families of the earth (12:3) is only worked out through deep involvement in, with, and against the course of human events, conventions and schemes. This is the type of involvement and presence that will not only lead to the cross, but will transform the world through it.
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