What Goes Around… - Reflections on Genesis 29:15-28

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, July 24, 2023

What Goes Around…

Genesis 29:15-28

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          The Grabber is about to get grabbed!  This marvelous and hilarious part of the long tale of Jacob and his relatives is replete with wonderful wordplay, connecting the story to earlier sections of the narrative. Let’s first review the immediate context.

          Jacob, or Grabber, is running for his life from his furious brother from whom he has deceitfully pilfered both birthright and blessing, using his dying blind father to steal the latter. His mother, Rebekah, has urged her favorite to flee back to the home country of Haran, both to escape Esau, Hairy, and to find a good marriage partner of Israelite stock rather than be wedded to a local woman of the Canaanites. Jacob soon lodges with his uncle Laban, whose name in the language means “white”. I thus choose to name him Whitey. Jacob settles with Whitey’s family and spends a month with them. 

          Whitey has wasted no time in putting his nephew to work, as he reveals in his first speech in the story: “Just because you are kin to me, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be” (Gen.29:15). Immediately, the narrator interjects, “Laban had two daughters,” who are clearly the object of Jacob’s interest, at least one of them. Grabber has in fact already met Rachel at a well not far from Laban’s camp. Jacob, of course, has come to Laban with nothing, and if he hopes to marry one of these girls he will need to offer something for their hand. The girls are then described in ways that have occasioned much discussion. Leah is the elder and Rachel her younger sister. “Now Leah’s eyes were…” something, but what that something is is in dispute. NRSV guesses “lovely,” but adds in a footnote “meaning of Hebrew uncertain,” that translation’s way of announcing that they really do not have a clue about the word’s exact meaning.

          I disagree that the word is impossible to understand, at least up to a point. The word used is regularly the opposite of “hard,” and then can mean “soft” or “gentle,” in some cases even “weak”. (Some translations even suggest that “Leah’s eyes were weak.”). It seems to me that the storyteller is trying to make a contrast between the two women, since Rachel’s description is unusually fulsome: “graceful and beautiful,” according to NRSV, “comely in features and comely to look at” in Robert  Alter’s rather more literal reading. I suggest that Leah’s eyes had some sort of impairment, whether weak or somehow odd looking. In short, Leah is a 6, while her sister is decidedly a 10! Directly after the contrasting descriptions of the two, we are told, “Jacob loved Rachel,” and the way the two look has a great deal to do with the matter. 

          And now the clever Whitey knows he has the upper hand in the bargain, once he realizes that his nephew pines for the younger girl. Without knowing just how things are done in Haran, Grabber blurts out a thoroughly ridiculous suggestion of how long he is willing to labor for Rachel’s hand. “I will serve 7 years for Rachel your younger daughter” (Gen.29:18). One can only imagine how pleased and shocked Whitey is at this absurd statement, and says with supposed magnanimity, “Better I should give her to you than give her to another man,” implying perhaps that this love-struck booby has just given a huge portion of his life away in service for a cute daughter; if he survives his seven-year hitch, he will surely have earned the right of marriage. 

          But of course, Whitey has a grand trick up his flowing sleeves. The seven years pass, and in Jacob’s eyes are “but a few days” due to his vast love (lust?) for Rachel. The phrase “a few days” is exactly the phrase used by Rebekah when she sent Jacob to Haran in the first place to hide him from Esau (Gen.27:44). As much lust as love, I would say, given how he now asks for Rachel. “Give me my wife, for my time is done, and let me go to bed with her” (Gen.29:21). But in the dark of the wedding night, Whitey substitutes Leah for Rachel in the marriage bed, and in the morning, with no doubt a circle of Whitey’s cronies surrounding the bridal bower, “she was Leah,” the text states laconically. And Jacob is horrified and says, “What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel I served you; why have you tricked me?” (Gen.29:25). Well, a well-satisfied Whitey responds, “It is not done like this in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn” (Gen.29:26). Who better than Grabber knows about the special requirements of the firstborn over the other child, since he has usurped the firstborn rights from his own elder brother? In his anguished demand to know why Whitey has “deceived” him, he employs the same verb Isaac used to announce the deception of the youngest against Esau (Gen.27:35). 

          And Whitey now wrests seven more years of labor out of Grabber in order to gain the hand of Rachel. After 14 long years, Jacob finally gains Rachel as wife, but he of course is already married to Leah, whose “weak” eyes hardly prevent her from prodigious child birth abilities, while the comely Rachel is barely able to produce a single child. But that is the next story in the tale. 

          What are we to make of this story of trickery, deception, and clever dealings? No character here is to emulated; the Bible does not say ever “be like Jacob” or “take Laban as your model for living.” What the Bible instead implies is: just how is the great God going to make anything out of these rascals? And, it follows, just how is God going to make anything out of us? How indeed. With laughter and fun, it appears that especially God must have a sense of humor, and is that not a very good thing, given the fools like us that God continues to witness and choose down the ages?    

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