[I'm continuing to try to catch up in presenting these notes. Feel free to send comments, ideas, or questions. Quotes below are from The Message, Eugene Peterson's wonderful paraphrase of the Bible.]
1. Genesis 30 opens with a scene which, from the perspective of our modern sensibilities, may make little sense. Rachel, seeing that her sister, Leah, the other wife of her husband, Jacob, is having children--"popping them out like a Pez dispenser," in the words of a conference speaker I once heard--becomes desperate. "Give me sons or I'll die!" she tells Jacob.
This isn't Rachel being a drama queen. As I explained in the last post of this series, not having children was regarded as a curse from God and having them as God's blessing. Since Jacob was clearly "successful" in conceiving children with Leah, Rachel felt that she was being judged. Yet, with these imploring words seem to deflect the blame or responsibility onto Jacob. One can be sympathetic for Rachel; her circumstances may have been unbearable to her.
Adding to Rachel's agony is the fact that, in those days. baby-making wasn't considered successful if sons weren't produced. Only males could own any significant amount of property or, in the case of first-born sons, inherit it from fathers. A widow was often destitute, forced, because of limited options, to either find another husband or become a prostitute.
For all these reasons--competition with her sister, feeling judged by God, wanting to provide for her future--Rachel is desperate to have sons.
2. Jacob reacts angrily to Rachel's words. His retort demonstrates that he believes that God has decided heretofore not to allow Rachel to conceive. But he also effectively puts the blame on Rachel. "Am I God?" he asks her. "Am I the one who refused you babies?"
These words must have been cruel blows for Rachel! They may even have been intended to be cruel. Time and again, Jacob proves to be a most imperfect person. But like the Christian woman who was nonetheless a fanatical bridge player, a competitive ogre, mentioned by C.S. Lewis in his classic, Mere Christianity, one is forced to ask, "If Jacob is this bad with God in his life, how much worse might he be without that relationship?"
3. In her childlessness, Rachel resorts to the same ploy used by Jacob's grandmother, Sarah, when she was childless. "Here's my maid Bilhah. Sleep with her," she tells Jacob. This, as I mentioned when discussing Abraham and Sarah's maid, Hagar, comports with a custom of the time. Servants were regarded as the possessions of their masters and mistresses. If a mistress was childless, she could give her maidservant to her husband and the child that issued from the pairing was then regarded as belonging to the mistress and her husband.
4. Bilhah successfully conceives and bears Jacob several sons. Unlike Sarah when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Rachel shows no resentment toward Bilhah for being able to give Jacob sons and no fear that Hagar and Ishmael might supplant her in Jacob's affections.
Each son is given a significant name.
5. Leah, always second-fiddle in this dysfunctional family, finds her competitive juices roused when she sees that while she wasn't conceiving, Rachel's maid was. So, she gives her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob. (One wonders whether Jacob wasn't perpetually worn out from all these sexual pairings, tired of living in a domestic war zone, or perhaps, pleased with things. His feelings on this subject aren't recorded.)
Zilpah proves fertile and the result is that Leah was winning her race with Rachel, hopeful that somehow her success as a mother of sons will cause her husband to love her more. Leah is among the most sad and misused figures in the Old Testament. But even from her sadness emerges sons who will found the twelve tribes of Israel, helping to make God's original promise to Abraham come to pass.
6. Genesis 30:14-21 tells what happened when the two competitive sisters essentially bargained with one another to have Jacob sleep with them. Used as barter are fruits known as mandrakes, referred to here by their nickname of love apples. They were thought to be aphrodisiacs. (Why any of this crew would think they need them at this point is beyond me!)
Rachel may have felt utterly humiliated that her sister bears two more sons for Jacob. (Mentioned as an afterthought, reflective of that culture's sexism, is a daughter, Dinah. She will play a sad role in upcoming events.)
7. Another incident of narrative tension, an ongoing element in Genesis, would have arisen by now in the minds of ancient listeners to this story of Jacob. Where, they would wonder, is Joseph? Joseph, they would know, was the son of Jacob, born of Rachel, who ended up as a sort of prime minister in Egypt and would play a pivotal role in God saving His people from famine. Without Joseph, the Abrahamic promise couldn't be fulfilled. Without Joseph, there would be no Israel, no Moses, no journey to the Promised Land. For we believers in Jesus, there would be no salvation.
I'm reminded of that climactic scene in Back to the Future. Everything depends on Marty McFly's future parents kissing at the "Enchantments Under the Sea" dance. But because of Marty's presence and his disurbance of events, that seemed increasingly unlikely. Marty looked at a Polaroid snapshot of his family. His siblings had faded away and he was about to disappear, to. Then, his parents kiss. (As in Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast, it was apparently true love's first kiss.) Marty's future is secured, just in the nick of time. The audience issues sighs of relief.
Jacob and Rachel must conceive a child. And they do. His name is Joseph. God's people issue sighs of relief!
But Rachel isn't finished. She asks God for another son. That son will be Bejamin. He will be the source of joy...and sorrow.
8. The next section of the Genesis narrative was always the most difficult passage in the whole book for me to accept. I had no problem with the creation narratives. The story of the flood surfaced no difficulties. Nor did the acounts of the tower of Babel or of Sodom and Gomorrah. But my faith and credulity were challenged by this story of Jacob and the flocks of Laban.
Then I realized something. This isn't a story of Jacob's manipulation of genetics. Animals conceiving before speckled branches aren't going to produce speckled offspring. This is a story about God's intervention. In essence, Jacob said to God, "I believe that to fulfill Your promises to my ancestors and me, my family and I need to get out from under Laban's thumb. I will trust You, God, to create this animal offspring to increase my family's ability to survive whatever may come our ways when we leave Laban. This is the method I'll use." Jacob takes such a gigantic step of faith in God that when he outlines his proposal to Laban, Laban must think that one more time, he's going to take advantage of his son-in-law.
Jacob never claims that animal husbandry lay behind his success. He attributes it to God. "Over and over," he later tells Rachel and Leah, "God used your father's livestock to reward me" (Genesis 31:9).
The "negotiations" between Jacob and Laban are, in a way, typical of the marketplace transactions of the time, full of the shrewd and sometimes disingenuine wordiness favored to this day by traders in Near East cultures. Both Jacob and Laban are notorious schemers. Heretofore, Laban has always gotten the better of Jacob. Not so this time. That's because this time, God has Jacob's back. It's like I always tell my Catechism students, "Either God gets His way or God gets His way. In the end, there are no other options."
[[Here are links to the previous installments in this series: