Jacob’s Wives

Fleeing his brother Esau, Jacob ran into the arms of his uncle Laban. In this man Jacob met his match. One is moved by the romantic way Jacob met his daughter Rachel by the well, reminiscent of his father’s good fortune (Gen. 24), and is led to think that finally something good will happen to Jacob in a natural way without manipulation, without deceit (Gen 29). Justice, however, dogs him, and he himself is deceived as he once deceived. Jacob agrees to work seven years for Rachel but ends up with Rachel’s homely sister on his wedding night. Laban swindles seven more years of free labor out of him for the woman he loved. At the end of the fourteen years, Jacob wishes to return home but has nothing but the wives he “bargained for,” even though his labors made Laban rich. The two cheats try to outmaneuver one another in striking a deal that would set Jacob free with some compensation (Gen. 31). In the end, Jacob resorts to primitive genetics─or more likely, sympathetic magic─to manipulate Laban’s herd to his favor. After six more years Jacob becomes rich, and has got to deal with the jealousy of Laban and his sons. The tension mounts and Jacob makes his break, sneaking off at an opportune time. Laban pursues and catches up with him, and one is left with the impression that things would not have gone well with Jacob were it not for God warning Laban not to harm him. These two men deserved one another.

One can only imagine what life was like for Jacob’s wives. At first glance, it would seem that Rachel’s lot was more advantageous than Leah’s. She was beautiful of form and appearance and became the central object of Jacob’s passions (29:17). Rachel was Jacob’s idol. Yet this status never brought her the happiness she may have once thought it would. She is barren and becomes a rather pitiful creature when she resorts to giving Jacob her maid Bilhah so that she can somehow credit some of his offspring her own (30:3). In her desperation she is reduced to bargaining with Leah for her mandrakes, an aphrodisiac thought to possess powers of conception (30:14ff.). There is a certain cloud over her life: she steals her father’s idols as they fled from him (31:19). Theft and deceit, of course, run deep in her family; her father was a cheat, and her aunt Rebekah was not above deceiving her own husband, robbing the family blessing from her firstborn for her favorite son. If Esau took after Isaac, Jacob took after his mother Rebekah’s side of the family. Jacob and Rachel had much in common─blood, lies, and cheating. The narrator of the story portrays the irony well. Imploring her husband “Give me children lest I die,” (30:1) Rachel dies young giving birth to her second son (35:16ff.). Rachel suffered under the illusions that beauty would bring her the happiness that it promises, and that children would fill the great void within her heart.

Of all those Jacob offended, and they are many, we feel the most for Leah, his other wife. Her humiliating plight is underscored by the fact that her rival sister had the power to determine whether Jacob would sleep with her or not, judging from the deal she had to make with Rachel concerning the mandrakes (30:15f.). Evidently, sleeping with Leah was something Jacob loathed─a practicality done out of necessity for offspring. Tradition says she had weak eyes, and she paid dearly for it (29:17). In her misery, however, Leah is the first in our story to leave her darkness and illusions behind, and ascend to God. Her spiritual journey corresponds to the birth of her first four sons (29:31-35). God saw that she was hated and so granted her the power of conception. Full of expectations after she gave birth to her firstborn Reuben (meaning “See, a son”), she assumed that Jacob would love her now. Things did not work out the way she anticipated, and perhaps out of protest she called her second son “Simeon” (derived from the verb “to hear”), for though God had heard that she was hated, the situation did not change. Holding out hope, she called her third son “Levi” (derived from the verb “to join”), thinking that now at last Jacob would be affectionately attached to her. Something finally happened in her soul at the birth of her fourth son. She let go of her wifely right to be loved and demands on her husband and attached herself to God. She named the child “Judah,” meaning “YHWH be praised.” Her soul was filled with YHWH, the Eternal One, beside whom her husband made a poor idol. Ironically, Jacob’s last request was to lie next to Leah in the family burial tomb which housed Abraham and Sarah, a most illustrious place in Israel (Gen. 49:31). Leah is the first to make the ascend to God in the family.

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