For the week of December 10, 2016 / 10 Kislev 5777
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3 (English: 28:10 – 32:2)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English: 12:12 – 14:10)
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Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” (Bereshit/Genesis 30:22-23)
Jacob’s family was blessed by God; it was also a mess! First, he grew up with tension between himself and his twin brother. There was a prophesy hanging over the two of them: contrary to custom, he would rise to supremacy even though his brother Esau was born first. He was a mama’s boy – homebody type -while his dad preferred his macho brother. Jacob was shrewd with his eye on the future; Esau lived in the moment and by his stomach. After stealing his father’s big-time blessing from his brother, he ran from Esau’s murderous threats to their mom’s relatives in Mesopotamia, where he worked for her brother, Laban. Uncle Laban was similar in some ways to Jacob, which helps sets the stage for his own messy family to be.
Jacob’s beginnings with Laban’s household look a bit like a Harlequin Romance. Instantly falling in love with Rachel, the younger of Laban’s two daughters, he agrees to work for his uncle seven years that “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Bereshit/Genesis 29:20). Talk about heart-warming, that is until Uncle Laban does the most unbelievable switcheroo in history by substituting his older daughter, Leah, in place of Rachel. How in the world did Jacob not realize? She was probably veiled for most of the time (which led to the Jewish tradition of unveiling the bride at the beginning of the wedding ceremony. We’re certainly not going to fall for that one again!); the world was a lot darker at nighttime then than it is today; and if alcohol had a part to play, I wouldn’t be surprised!
But true to form for both these two, they cut another deal whereby Jacob would also get Rachel immediately for another seven years’ labor. Not a good arrangement! No wonder that years later God would command Israel through Moses not to marry a woman and her sister (see Vayikra/Levities 18:18). God tolerated for a time the substandard custom of polygamy, but not when the women were sisters as in Jacob’s case. And to think that Jacob didn’t want Leah in the first place. What a mess!
So-called normal family life is difficult enough without an arrangement like this. For the next twenty years or so, competition ensued between the two sisters with regard to childrearing. After Leah had four children (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah) and Rachel none, Rachel resorted to surrogacy. If you think surrogacy is a modern invention, you haven’t read the Bible. And this wasn’t the first time either. Jacob’s grandmother Sarah suggested a surrogate situation to her husband, Abraham: “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Bereshit/Genesis 16:2). In the worldview of their day, the child born via the wife’s maidservant would be regarded as if it were her own. So, Rachel had two children through surrogacy (Dan and Naphtali). Then Leah, who stopped having children herself for a time, had two more through her maidservant (Gad and Asher), before having three more herself (Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah). And then finally, Rachel had two of her own (Joseph and Benjamin), tragically dying immediately after Benjamin’s birth. All the way through this, the two sisters wrongly thought they could win their husband’s love or rid themselves of shame through the having of children.
Isn’t this all ridiculous? But isn’t it also common? Perhaps not exactly this sort of situation, even though with the changes in various jurisdictions regarding the definition of the family, we might see this exact scenario again. And yet the messy family didn’t undermine God’s plans and purposes. It’s wild that it ended up being son number eleven (Joseph), who would be the one to save the day for the whole clan. Besides this being a crazy way to build a family, the competitive atmosphere helped fuel the discord that resulted in Joseph’s being jettisoned to Egypt, which in the long run was best for everyone.
Don’t get me wrong! The good that arose from the soil of family dysfunction in no way justifies any of it. But it does give us hope. If God can work powerfully in and through Jacob’s messy family, he can do the same with ours.
All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible