How the understanding of God’s nature has declined from the time of Abraham to his grandson, Jacob! Abraham showed evidence time and time again of understanding that the whole earth is God’s domain. Hearing God from Syria, Abraham responded to his call. Finding good places to put down temporary roots, Abraham made places of worship in Canaan. Standing and speaking with a human being who was more than a human being, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”
From that lofty understanding of God as being everywhere and being over all things, the clan of God’s promise has descended now to Jacob who saw a dream vision of God at Bethel and thought to himself, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים win zen ki ‘im-beit Elohim, “This is none other but the house of God!” In his diminished idea of the scope of God’s power and rule, Jacob thinks he has accidentally or by luck stumbled upon the local place where the God of his grandfather has dominion.
God plays along. The very dream that God has shown to Jacob is a sort of Bronze Age version of what a deity might look like. In Mesopotamia, where Jacob’s ancestors are from, the gods are worshipped at pyramid-like structures called ziggurats. The main feature of a ziggurat is a staircase leading to the pinnacle. The ziggurat and its staircase are a sort of gate or portal between heaven and earth, between the realms of gods and men. The gods and their messengers use the stairways to do business between heaven and earth. Similarly ladders or stairways between heaven and earth feature (literally or symbolically) in the literature of Egypt and the Hittites. Thus, in the dream God sent to Jacob, he appears as a deity atop a stairway (the usual translation of סֻלָּם sulam as “ladder” could just as easily be “stairway”). God’s messengers (a word usually translated angels, though it means messengers) travel up and down the stairway doing divine business between the two realms.
Jacob’s Bronze Age thinking falls far short of the reality of the greatness of the Greatest Being that Is. אִם־יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי ‘im-yihyeh Elohim ‘imadi, “If God will be with me,” he says. Jacob isn’t putting all his hopes in this deity who appeared to him. He will go up into Syria on a quest for a wife and when he returns, if this god has blessed him, Jacob will make offerings.
What are we to make of this story? God, it seems, is willing to work with people who are not “right” about theology. He meets halfway a person who is seeking the blessing of his grandfather, someone who is far from being a devout servant of heaven. This is a pattern we see again and again in the Bible. It is people, especially religious people, who insist that God helps only people who know truth or people who do the right things. The God of the Bible is far from a purist demanding rightness. He gently keeps alive the spark of good and truth in his children and nurtures such sparks into burning hearts.
Jacob’s dream at Bethel (10-12), the Lord promises that in Jacob the covenant promises will be realized (13-15), Jacob thinks the place is sacred (16-17), Jacob makes a standing stone and vows to the Lord (18-22).
Several elements of Bronze Age thinking are evident in the story. The word for stairway (or ladder) is derived perhaps from the verbal root “to cast a mound” or from the Akkadian for steps (Sarna). It reflects the general idea, found in more than one element of Ancient Near Eastern culture, of a gateway between the realm of the gods and men. In Egyptian and Hittite literature, we know of a ladder sometimes available to the dead in the underworld to climb to earth or to heaven. The Babylonian pyramid-like mounds known as ziggurats featured a stairway symbolizing a gateway to the realm of gods.
Also, Jacob, upon having this dream, thinks like a pagan, that he has found the home ground of the local deity of his father Abraham, as if the Lord is the God of Bethel. He makes a standing stone altar (something later forbidden, Lev 26:1) and vows to God. In terms of the development of Jacob’s character, this story reveals him as tentative in faith (“if I return safe”) and seeking to buy favor instead of receiving it as freely given. Jacob does not understand grace, the unmerited assurance of the promise to his family.
Life isn’t black and white. Curses are not without their blessings and blessings are not without their cursed elements. Tension seems to be the governing principle. Life is a tension and blessing and curse hang in the balance.
Jacob made a deal with God at Bethel, “If God will be with me . . . then Adonai will be my God” (Gen 28:20-21). Now, seemingly, Jacob finds his first example of God being with him. He finds and falls in love immediately with the first woman he encounters in Paddan-Aram. But will this be as simply and linear of a journey to a happy ending as Jacob may hope at this point?
Of course not. Complicating his love affair with Rachel will be the scheming of her father Laban and the predicament of her older sister, Leah. In a drama that was Shakespearian before Shakespeare, the pathos of rejected Leah will play out and the sadness of Rachel who, though beloved, is barren. Laban and Jacob will try to get the better of one another. Two women, each with their own tragic situation, and two men, striving to win against each other, this tale is blessing and woe mixed together.
No doubt the storytellers who passed down the saga of wandering Jacob were commenting on the nature of human life. The warp of our lives is blessing and the woof is curse and we try to keep it all from unraveling. Like Jacob, we strive to understand the mystery of God. Will he ultimately bless us? Can we trust him? Shall he be “our God”?
Jacob comes to the well in Haran (1-3), conversation at the well (4-8), Jacob rolls away the stone when he sees Rachel (9-11), Jacob is received by Laban with joy (12-14), Laban asks Jacob what wages he will require to serve him (15-17).
The scene of a man wooing or conversing with a woman at a well is a stock scene in the Bible. We have seen it already with Abraham’s servant and Rebekah. Now we see it with Jacob and Rachel. It will come around again with Moses and Zipporah and also in the New Testament scene with Yeshua and the woman of Samaria. Wells were a scene of social interchange in the semi-arid climates of the Near East.
The stone at the well figures prominently in this story, connecting it with the one that came before in which Jacob laid his head on a stone and made an altar out of it (Sarna). Jacob thought a stone had something to do with his good fortune (he laid his head on it and it seemed to him he awakened the god of Bethel).
Now, this stone at the well in Paddan-Aram is one the locals put over the opening to the well and its purpose is to keep outsiders from coming and easily taking water. The locals say they are waiting for men to arrive and move the stone so they can water their flocks. But when Jacob sees Rachel, he is moved with love and so, fittingly, he moves the stone without help (Moses will similarly distinguish himself as strong at the well in Exodus 2).
The motif of a stone shows how Jacob is experiencing blessing, hearing from and worshipping God and then finding a woman like his mother who will be the love of his life. The story of Jacob’s wooing of Rachel is set up with the usual customs of hospitality and matchmaking. Yet there is a problem, since Leah is the older sister and custom dictates a match for her before Rachel. Jacob’s blessings are not without tension.
GENESIS 29:18 – 30:13
Some call it karma. Others call it measure for measure justice. Some just say, “What comes around goes around.”
Jacob gets some comeuppance from the universe. Having disguised himself as Esau to blind Isaac on his deathbed, Jacob certainly deserves some karma. He meets his nemesis in the equally crafty and deviously competitive Laban.
But, assuming God is in some way behind the events that shape the lives of the characters, we might ask if the Judge of all the earth carries out measure for measure justice in a vengeful way. Is there a law that every bad action must have its balancing penalty.
But we note in the ongoing story of Jacob that this all works for his good. Leah, whom he would never have married given free will in the matter, is mother to Levi and Judah, the two most important tribes. Though Rachel is the prized wife, the object of his desire and love, Leah bears the most children and the ones whose lives will be the most significant in Israel’s later history.
More than that, we see how Jacob’s life is gradually transformed by his time with Laban. The trickster matures and comes to some realizations about life through these trials. By the end of Jacob’s story we can look back and see that God was not cursing him, but blessing him.
Divine discipline is restorative, not retributive. That is, God gives us doses of karma to help us ascend from the ashes, not so we will burn and die. Rehabilitation and redemption are God’s plan, not endless suffering.
Jacob’s seven years for Rachel (18-20), Laban deceives by giving Leah instead (21-25), Jacob obligates himself seven more years for Rachel (26-30), Leah’s four sons (29:31-35), Bilhah’s two sons (30:1-8), Zilpah’s two sons (9-13).
The story of Jacob’s many years of labor for his beloved Rachel is interesting for the window it provides on customs, for its literary themes, and for revealing the origins of the tribal patriarchs.
The seven years of labor is to pay the bride price, a custom known from a number of cultures. Only in Jacob’s case we could wonder why Isaac did not pay it, since Abraham had already paid it for Isaac according to 24:53 (Sarna).
A marriage of cousins seems odd to us, but some nomadic cultures practice it as a way to preserve the clan (Sarna).
The unusual tale of Leah being substituted for Rachel on the wedding night suggests the possibility the bride was veiled on her wedding bed. In 24:65, Rebekah had put on her veil as she and the servant were about to see Isaac for the first time. Nahum Sarna says that there is evidence in Ancient Near Eastern texts for the custom of veiling.
In 29:27, Jacob complains the next morning when he discovers Laban’s deceit. We have already been told he completed seven years of labor for the bride price (vs. 21). So what does Laban mean when he says “complete the week for this one”? According to Nahum Sarna, this reflects a custom of celebrating the wedding for a week, probably with daily feasting and guests invited. So after seven days of his marriage to Leah, Jacob takes Rachel as his second wife and must work another seven years.
The literary power of this story is heightened when the reader realizes Jacob has become the victim of his own trick. Having pretended to be Esau, he is now on the receiving end of a similar deception. But God’s providence is behind it all (Sarna). Leah, whom he would not have married, bears Levi and Judah, the two most important tribes.
Life can’t be manipulated. Some things are changeable while others are inevitable. Once we begin obsessing with the outcome, it may already be too late. But as we live through joys and disappointments, we want to know, will God remember us?
Genesis turns to the story of two women with two different sadnesses. They are the mothers of Israel and their lives included deep hurt. Leah was the rejected wife, the one who had to hire her own husband to get him into bed. Rachel was the desired wife, but she was unable to conceive a child.
Behind this struggle and sadness was Jacob, a grasper who tried to manipulate life to find blessing and who strove with Laban. Jacob wasn’t deliberately cruel, but his maneuvering and struggle poured over into the lives of his women. The author of Genesis skillfully draws us into their bitter struggle for affection and meaning in life. Rachel’s unfulfilled desire is to have a child. Leah’s is to be wanted.
If they both could see from the larger view how their lives would be viewed today, they would understand how blessed they already were. The mothers of Israel lived in sadness, not realizing they were to be the mothers of Israel.
Rachel tried bargaining for some mandrakes, as if a fertility potion could eliminate her deepest sadness. But the mandrakes became the bargaining tool through which Leah hired her husband to sleep with her and by which she bore three children. The author seems to be making the point that God, not magic, is the means by which the course of our lives will ultimately be determined. Those parts of life which are unchangeable, things like the day on which we will die or when forces beyond our control will bring us blessing or curse, these things lie in mystery with God’s unseen purpose.
But we read of Leah, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל־לֵאָה vayshma’ Elohim el-Leah, “And God listened to Leah.” And we read of Rachel, וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת־רָחֵל vayizkōr Elohim et-Rachel, “And God remembered Rachel.”
Leah prayed and God gave her children. Rachel did not pray, but God did the same. Who can understand the mysteries of destiny and divine providence? It seems, behind it all, one thing we can count on is the kindness of God — both to those who ask for it and those who don’t.
Bargaining over mandrakes (14-15), Leah earns the marriage bed for mandrakes and bears two sons and a daughter (16-21), God remembers Rachel and she bears a son (22-24), Jacob seeks to leave wily Laban (25-27).
A mandrake (mandragora officinarum) is a small plant with yellow fruit and a long root which in some cases splits in two and resembles the shape of a human body. The plant has long had associations with fertility, as can be seen by one particular nickname for the goddess Aphrodite, “lady of the mandrake” (Sarna). They are mentioned also in the Bible’s long ode to romantic love, Song of Songs (7:13-14).
Rachel thinks these will end her barrenness, but in a twist of destiny, the dealmaking over the mandrake plants actually leads to three more children for Leah. But when Rachel does have a son, the author tells us it is because God “remembered” her.
Rachel is the desired wife, but her sadness is infertility. Leah’s sadness, on the other hand, is more painful. She has to “hire” her husband to get him into bed.
The striving between wives is a tragic note in the tale of two graspers, Laban and Jacob, whose manipulations have trapped these women in a bitter struggle for affection. Jacob seeks now to part with Laban, but Laban can sense that God’s blessing, the blessing of Abraham, is with Jacob. Even outsiders can see the Abrahamic blessing if they look for it.
GENESIS 30:28 – 31:16
God comes to us not only as the Great Power of the universe, but also as the personal God who has made himself known in our lives. אָנֹכִי הָאֵל בֵּית־אֵל ‘anōchi ha’El Beit-El, “I am the God of Bethel,” God said to Jacob in a dream. He was reminding the struggling trickster of the earlier incident, when Jacob was fleeing the land in the terror of Esau and in hopes of finding a wife in Syria. Jacob had a dream vision at Bethel of God atop a stairway between heaven and earth.
This incident in Jacob’s life was pivotal. אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁחְתָּ שָּׁם מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לִּי שָׁם נֶדֶר ‘asher mashcheta sham matzeivah asher nadarta li sham neder, “Where you anointed a pillar-stone and vowed to me a vow.” We have all had conversations with heaven (the universe, the God of our understanding) and many have done so during a time when our conception of God was immature and when the struggle of life was pressing on us.
God reminds Jacob of his earlier understanding, calling him back to an impulse to reach out to heaven for the good that he seeks. If we all look at our lives, we can see how the desire for true goodness has been there are key times in our lives. It is a desire above all desires, seeking true joy and believing against hope that somehow the universe can provide what we see in our dreams.
These moments of desire for something better are not wasted dreams. They are not foolish. They are what God intended for us and intends for us.
The times in our lives when we remember the aspirations of our youth, when we recall a yearning for true goodness and blessing, when we reach for it from the depths of our soul, these are holy moments. Jacob is on a path to growth, one that will lead him to face the greatest fear of his life and overcome it. The power of God is not something we always recognize, but it comes to us in strange ways.
Laban turns Jacob’s intent to leave into a negotiation (28-34), Laban manipulates the condition of the flock to minimize Jacob’s portion (35-36), Jacob uses magical means (or pretends) to manipulate the flock (30:37-43), Jacob prepares to leave Laban (31:1-9), Jacob seeks his wives’ consent to leave and relates two dreams from God (10-14), Rachel and Leah also wish to leave their dishonest father (15-16).
Laban has grown richer with Jacob’s skillful work over the flocks. Like his grandfather, Abraham, Jacob is a skillful herdsman. Also like him, Jacob has the blessing of God so that the very laws of nature are bent in his favor.
When Jacob’s service is over, Laban offers him a deal to stay. Yet Laban intends to manipulate God’s blessing on Jacob and make it work out in his favor. In the ancient world view, the power of the gods could be manipulated by clever human beings and it was even possible to deceive deities.
Jacob, of course, fully expects this and has his own plan. The first part of the plan is related in 30:37-43 and involves magical means (rods of wood at the trough). Jacob, like Laban, thinks the way to win this contest of cleverness is to manipulate the universe to make the outcome work in his favor. But Jacob already has what he wants before he tries to interfere with destiny. He continues to lack understanding of the covenant promises.
What is really happening behind the scenes is uncovered in a revelation through a dream in 31:8-12. It is God, not magic, that has been blessing Jacob with newborn goats and sheep that will belong to him and not to Laban.
Some interpreters (Sarna, for example) want to find a naturalistic (scientific) explanation for Jacob’s use of peeled branches at the watering trough. But given what we know about magical beliefs in the ancient world and also seeing that Jacob has shown evidence of adhering to cultural beliefs about gods and the universe, it should be no surprise that he would turn to magic.
On the other hand, at some point, through dreams, Jacob became aware that it was God who was providing him with the goats and lambs. Was Jacob hedging his bets and using magic as well as trusting in God’s providence? The interplay of magic and divine providence has already been a theme (the story of the mandrakes). Whatever Jacob may or may not believe, the reader knows that God’s providence is what brought him blessing.
It is easy for modern readers to miss comedy in the Bible. To grasp the comic aspect of this story, the reader needs to understand impurity (uncleanness) as a concept not only in Israel, but in the Near Eastern world. The laws of clean and unclean (pure and impure) in the Torah are not inventions of the Bible, but relate to the larger culture of the Near East.
If something is “impure” (unclean), it is not “morally wrong.” Rachel does not know Torah, but it is evident from this story that in her culture menstruation is already regarded as unclean (just as it is in Torah, Leviticus 15:19-24). Anything she sits on is regarded as impure temporarily. A man would be reluctant to touch her during her period. Impurity is an abstract concept. To the people of the Near East it may have been a force opening a person up to demonic encounters (demons for them were not “fallen angels,” but shadowy beings capable of causing harm).
Rachel pretends to be in the time of her period and hides the idol stolen from Laban among the items she is sitting on. Laban will not ask her to stand and will not search because of the cultural belief in impurity. It is a perfect strategy of deception.
But it is also high comedy for a narrator who believes idols themselves are impure! This was almost certainly not Rachel’s intent, but the author is deliberately satirizing the status of the idol. Believed to be an item capable of bringing the power of a god to bear on the lives of human beings, the author shows instead the idol being consumed by the power of impurity.
A big part of Torah is a transformative ideology of the true nature of the world and God. The original readers of Torah were susceptible to a thousand superstitions, debilitating fears, and futile dependencies. We are not immune. In this story, the reader knows the source of blessing is God and God alone. Jacob and his wives and family and servants are destined to arrive safely in Canaan, no matter what Laban or anyone else tries to do. There is peace in knowing the end has been decided before the story is over.
Jacob flees and Rachel steals an idol (17-21), Laban pursues and is warned by a divine dream (22-24), Laban accuses Jacob’s camp of stealing an idol (25-30), Jacob says Laban may kill the thief (31-32), Rachel deceives her father (33-35), Jacob is angry with Laban (36).
Sarna thinks possibly Rachel stole the idol to prevent Laban from being able to use divination to find them as they fled. Or perhaps she felt she needed the security of a god to be with her.
Laban’s speech is typical of abusers of others: he plays the victim though he has done worse to Jacob and his daughters. The story emphasizes Jacob’s integrity relative to Laban. Laban’s false accusations include the notion that Jacob forced Rachel and Leah with threats.
Sarna points out the irony of Rachel’s claim to be on her period and thus unclean (ideas of impurity from menstruation predate the Torah): she devalues the idol so much, she sits on it. It is likely Rachel did not intend to make a statement against idolatry, but the narrator does through this story device.
GENESIS 31:43 – 32:3 (32:2 in Christian Bibles)
There is a true country where our blessing lies. For Jacob, that place was Canaan, which later would be called by Jacob’s other name, Israel.
In the Torah, Canaan becomes a liminal place, a land that lies at the boundary between two realms: the natural and supernatural. We see this in the Jacob story in that his exit from the land included an encounter with heavenly beings (28:12, “messengers of God,” usually rendered “angels of God”) and now his reentry is also graced with the appearance of divine messengers: וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים vayifge’u-vō mal’achei Elohim, “Messengers of God met him.”
Although Torah has been careful to say that God’s power is everywhere and there is no place outside of the domain of heaven, still there is something different about Canaan. It is a place where God’s presence is heightened.
Later in the Torah, the Land, and especially the area immediately surrounding the temple, operates potentially by a different set of laws than those of nature. In the Land itself, if Israel would obey the covenant, the laws of weather will be overruled by divine grace and the ground will become a utopian paradise of abundance. Around the temple, human death is forbidden and any contact with human death is banned from the place. Symbolically the temple grounds represent the lands of Adonai surrounding his palace in supernatural realm, where there is no more death.
If the Land is liminal, being at the boundary between this world and the other one, it means we see a foreshadowing of our true country. God has a place for us beyond the limitations of this place. It so happens that the supernatural will come down over the natural and this present world will be transformed into the world to come. It means we can already see in this world signs of the next one, if we know where to look.
Laban concedes that Jacob is an equal power (43), a covenant of equals between Laban and Jacob (44-54), Jacob reenters the land encountering angels (32:1-3).
Laban has pursued Jacob all the way down to the border of Canaan. There can be no doubt Laban’s intent was hostile. But the “fear of Isaac” (פַּחַד יִצְחָק pachad Yitzchaq, 31:42) has put terror in Laban’s heart, convincing him to respect Jacob as an equal. Sarna observes that the description of Isaac and his relationship with God is double edged. On the one hand, it means Isaac revered God. On the other, it means God put terror in the heart of Isaac’s potential enemies.
Now a thoroughly chastened Laban admits that he is powerless to oppose Jacob. Laban proposes a covenant of non-hostility. Jacob calls the place “mound of witness” (or possibly “mound of treaty”), גַּלְעֵד Gal’eid, a sound-alike for the later place name Gilead. As for a ceremony to accompany this treaty (a kind of covenant that is between equals), Jacob and Laban build an altar and share two covenant meals. Laban provides one meal and Jacob the other.
Sarna notes the consistency of this form with texts about covenants in the period. Also, he argues that this is not likely a late fiction since Aram and Israel were bitter enemies in monarchic times. Laban names two deities, the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor (the Laban clan’s patriarch, see 22:20). He almost certainly is thinking of two separate deities here. Jacob only swears by “the Fear of his father, Isaac” (vs. 53, recalling the earlier use of the term in vs. 42).
Jacob’s return to the land is accompanied by an encounter with angels, just as his leaving the land had been. His coming and going are marked by signs of the divine presence, a visual testimony to him that the covenant blessings are centered in the land.