Friday, November 25, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 29

In this chapter, Jacob arrives in Haran and marries the two daughters of Laban, his relative.

Having been driven out of the promised land, and having first experienced God while on that journey away from the threat of death, Jacob at last arrives in the land of Haran.  First let me say a few words about biblical shepherding, and then I will focus in on the specifics of this chapter.

I mentioned back in Genesis 4 that there is a transition occurring from nomadic herding to a more agrarian culture in the ME.  This is a broad cultural and social trend, and it impacts the early Israelites no less than anyone else.  As astute readers will notice, Abraham and his children (and parents) are very mobile and are obviously shepherds.  Abraham, for instance, is marked as very wealthy man by the greatness of his herds and flocks.  Abraham and Lot were forced to separate (in chapter 13) due to resource conflicts between their respective herdsmen.  This shows that they were both living off of livestock.  Abraham and his whole family moved before settling in Haran, but then Abraham left there.  Abraham also traveled down to Egypt to escape a famine.  Isaac shows similar mobility, although he ends up staying in the promised land after God commands him, and only then does he sow and reap crops.

Jacob, after returning to Haran, is now assisting Laban with the tending of his flocks, but in a single place so the degree of mobility exercised is starting to go down.

In this time period, then, shepherding is fairly well regarded by the Israelite people.  When it notes that Rachel was a shepherdess, this would likely be a neutral statement, if not slightly positive.  When the Israelites travel to Egypt towards the end of Genesis, it is noted that shepherding was considered detestable by the agrarian Egyptians, which is consistent with what I said before about the intrinsic resource conflicts of agrarian vs. nomadic/shepherding societies.

Importantly, in later times shepherding will be regarded much more poorly by the Israelites, due to their increased reliance on static farming consistent with the "inheritance" culture of father-to-son farming within the borders of the promised land.  By the time of king David, shepherding will be in so little regard that David was the family shepherd as the youngest of seven brothers, being the least respected in his family.  By this time, in spite of the continued importance of livestock in Israelite society, actually shepherding those animals would essentially be the lowest rung on the social ladder.  This is part of the significance of the shepherds being the first people to see the newly born Jesus, because the shepherds (sleeping out in the fields, essentially homeless) would have been the poorest and least regarded of the Israelites, though perhaps not as hated as the tax collectors.

To conclude this digression, I simply suggest that my readers consider references to shepherding with the thought that "the social value of being a shepherd begins relatively high in Genesis and will steadily devolve throughout the Bible all the way into the NT".  Always try to keep in mind the implicit hostility between those who raise livestock and those who farm.

Moving on, Jacob meets Rachel and in his joy he moves the stone and waters her flock.  Some commentators note that Jacob seems to have surprising strength in moving the large stone, but since we aren't told its exact dimensions, I don't think this is necessarily supernatural or excessive.  This is an interesting reversal of the story of Abraham's servant, where Rebekah watered the camel of the servant.  Now it is Jacob who is watering.  There are a lot of parallels between Jacob's story and the unnamed servant's story.  They both travel to Haran to find a wife (... for someone at least), in both cases that wife is the first named woman to appear, and in both cases Laban is one of the primary brokers of the marriage.

There are also some contrasts.  The unnamed servant departed Haran literally the day after he arrived, because his primary role was to find a wife for Isaac and return immediately.  He was completely focused o his task, and Laban dealt with him fairly.  Jacob comes mostly to avoid Esau, and finding a wife is really just an excuse, and he stays an awkwardly long time, a full month, before Laban basically hires him.  So Jacob demonstrates none of the focus of the unnamed servant and Laban cheats him.  I think this is (intended to be) Jacob's redemption process.  He who was so long the deceiver of his brother is now the one who is being deceived by the manipulative Laban.

Whenever I read this, I always wonder about how Jacob did not know it was Leah in bed.  What clouded mind could have sex with someone and think it was someone else?  Furthermore, I wonder why Leah would go along with it.  Did Laban lie to her also, or did she knowingly pretend to be Rachel... to what end?  Didn't she realize she would be unwanted, since she was only married through a deception?  Or was her appearance indeed so bad, her eyes so weak, that she would be hard-pressed to find a legitimate suitor?  I don't actually know.  I'm sure Leah would have done many things out of obedience to her father (much like Jacob deceived Esau out of obedience to his mother), but surely she could have known it would end badly for her, perhaps like Jacob should have known his deception would have ended badly too.  The biggest difference I see is that Rebekah's deception was for the benefit of Jacob, while Laban's deception was for his own benefit: seven years of valuable service.

Either way, Leah does deceive Jacob and now they both must face the results of that deception.  Jacob goes on to marry Rachel as well, as he initially desired, and the result is immediate strife between Leah and Rachel.

Marrying two women rarely turns out well in the Bible, but it seems particularly ill-advised to marry two sisters, who would already share competitive impulses.  Jacob's immediate preference for Rachel aggravates the situation even further, as Leah is now clearly depressed at being unloved by her husband.  Unlike modern times, Leah has no option to divorce, and will have to stay with Jacob at least until his death.

Verse 31 is very interesting.  The Lord sees that Leah is unloved and gives her children, while Rachel remains barren.  Her sons are a consolation, but I have to admit I am perplexed why Rachel would remain barren.  I think part of the answer is the generational barrenness of Jacob's entire family line, from Abraham through Isaac, and perhaps it is only through the Lord's mercy that Leah is given children.  I'm not really sure.

What I can say is that the conflict between Leah and Rachel is now about children.  As I previously mentioned, bearing children is an extremely important role for women in this era, especially the firstborn son, and so now Leah and Rachel are trying to have more children than the other in a perverse sort of race to bear the most sons.  This is reminiscent of Sarah's strife with Hagar, except in this case Jacob will not divorce Leah and unlike Isaac vs. Ishmael, all of the sons of Jacob are considered the "promised children".  I use the term metaphorically because Jacob was not actually promised a son, though he is the inheritor of Abraham's promise to the land.  Therefore Jacob's children will bear a sort of equality that is not seen by his ancestors.

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