* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Twelve Tribes Born of Jealousy, Fear, and Deceit: How the Children of Jacob Came to Be

Looking at the title for this entry, it becomes apparent that certain moral judgments are inescapable when people hear or read stories from other cultures.  To be fair, the Bible doesn't always blatantly pass judgment on the behavior of people like Jacob's wives; it simply states, "This is how she felt, and this is what she did."  Cultural mores and a cultivated societal understanding of right and wrong are bound to color how people are seen.  In a way, that's the point of much of this conversation.  In order to accept the Bible's teachings and apply them to modern-day life, one must be discerning about what makes sense and what doesn't fit with contemporary society.  It cannot all be equally accepted without analysis.  Many people want to lift up scripture as morally unassailable, but the truth of the matter is that we must use an internal sense of morality in order to judge what we read.

As an example, take the story of Jacob and his wives in Genesis chapters 29 through 31.  Back when Abraham was looking for a wife for Jacob's father Isaac, he was insistent that the wife be brought to Isaac instead of Isaac going to get her.  It's as if Abraham knew that his kinfolk were trouble.  Jacob has to find this out the hard way in dealing with Uncle Laban, who soon becomes Father-in-law Laban.  When Jacob had worked seven years to earn the wife he wanted, Laban changed the rules and told Jacob he had to first marry the elder (and uglier) daughter, Leah.  So Jacob worked for another seven years to get the wife he wanted, Leah's sister Rachel.

Laban was the very epitome of shrewd cunning.  When Jacob finally wanted to take his wives and children and head home, Laban played the grateful employer and (after over 14 years of not paying Jacob a wage) told his son-in-law that he could name his price to stay on and keep tending Laban's flocks.  Jacob wanted all the speckled or spotted goats or lambs, so after agreeing to the deal, Laban sent his sons to weed out all the speckled or spotted goats and lambs from the herds Jacob was tending.  Then he put three days between him and Jacob, probably feeling quite smug.  Jacob, while most likely feeling betrayed by his uncle, pulled a crafty bit of witchcraft and essentially bred his own wealth.

When he had had enough of Laban's tricks, Jacob took his wives and herds and children and headed back toward his father's land without telling Laban.  Just to twist the knife a bit, Rachel also took her father's household gods (or idols).  When Laban came to chase him down, Jacob was indignant, Rachel hid the idols, and Laban was forced to cut his losses and make a truce with Jacob.  So Jacob got the last laugh, not by being more righteous, but by beating Laban at his own game.

During all of this time, Jacob's wives had been having a breeding war.  Although Jacob loved Rachel more and found Leah to be less appealing, Leah was the one who got pregnant first.  In fact, Leah had four children by Jacob, which made Rachel very jealous.  Since she wasn't getting pregnant, and the problem obviously wasn't with Jacob, Rachel suggested that Jacob sleep with her maidservant Bilbah.  When Bilbah got pregnant, Rachel felt vindicated through a strange bit of vicarious conception.  After Bilbah had borne two of Jacob's children, Leah's competitive side kicked in and she threw her servant into the mix.  Leah's servant, Zilpah, also gave birth to two of Jacob's offspring.  The two sisters even traded herbal conception aids (mandrakes) for the opportunity to sleep with Jacob.  In the end, Leah had two more sons and a daughter with Jacob, and Rachel at long last (perhaps due to the mandrakes?) had a son, Joseph.  Some time later, after the departure from Laban, Rachel died giving birth to another son, Benjamin.

So, Jacob wound up with twelve sons by four different women, which wasn't a bad thing in that culture.  But wives were often considered valuable only in terms of the offspring they could provide to further the bloodline.  In fact, the story takes special care to point out why Rachel would be kept around if she wasn't bearing any children: She was aesthetically pleasing to Jacob, she was useful in hiding Laban's idols, she was loyal to her husband, and she had a handmaiden that could do the important work of conceiving children as a surrogate.  The fear of being worthless compelled Leah and Rachel to suggest some things that seem utterly alien to today's society, but it wasn't anything strange from Jacob's perspective.  Maybe the early Jews thought the situation strange, but every English translation conveys the story in very matter-of-fact terms, the impression being that this is just a recounting of how the twelve tribes of Israel came into being.  Whether there is any factual or historical accuracy to the story or not, it can at least be assumed that there is some cultural accuracy involved.

There are some spiritual lessons in these stories of Abraham's children and grandchildren as well.  In this particular case, there may be some lesson about trusting one's own ability rather than relying on an abusive "patron".  People often stay in situations in which they are being taken advantage of, simply out of a lack of faith in themselves.  Jacob's story encourages people to take responsibility for their own wealth and well-being.  His sacrifice for what he really wanted (Rachel) is also a lesson.  If something is worth having in the long run, it's worth some hardship in the short term.  In Jacob's case it was fourteen years of working without wages, but some people today are unwilling to make sacrifices for even a month or two in order to get what they truly want.

The lessons one can reap from the stories of these people are manifold, but they must be cast through the lens of the society in which a person lives.  A 21st century American man cannot expect to marry two wives, get to sleep with their maidservants as well, and perform a magic spell to make his wealth multiply.  He can expect, however, to wait for what he values and to cultivate a willingness to do every ethical thing within his power to create the life he wants.  Readers cannot look upon the words of the Bible, or any other text, and take it at face-value.  People must engage their minds in interpreting what is there, and that means tapping into the internal sense of what is right -- a sense of truth that surpasses personal preferences, and an awareness of beauty and value that sees beyond what is convenient. 

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