Friday, October 21, 2005

Am not I better to thee than ten sons? (Gen 30)

So, the baby wars are on.

Leah's got four children, and Rachel has none, and Rachel's apparently flipping out about it. The SAB notes, "Rachel considers herself worthless if she cannot produce children for her husband." While it's unfortunate, I think it's clear that it's a cultural thing, perhaps particularly in the ancient Middle East, that a woman did indeed consider a great deal of her self- worth to be measured by the number of offspring she could produce for her husband, especially male offspring. In any case, she starts getting angry at Jacob because she doesn't have any children, and Jacob's technically true but perhaps more than a little insensitive response is, "Hey, it's not like it's my fault, is it?" (But then again, maybe it is his fault?)

So Rachel comes up with the same solution Sarah did; she offers her handmaiden Bilhah to her husband. As Rachel notes, culturally the child would be considered to be hers for however these sorts of things work. This makes me wonder sometimes why Sarah got so bent out of shape over the same arrangement, especially since it was her own idea. Rachel seems to have no problem with it.

So Rachel gets two sons out of this deal, but this just leads Leah to get jealous again, so she offers up her handmaid Zilpah, who proceeds to also have two sons. While the SAB says that daughters never seem to come out of these unions, there is of course a daughter born in verse 21. Perhaps the intention of this claim is that no daughters come of these surrogate mothering arrangements. Maybe, maybe not. I wonder at times whether there may have been daughters that simply are not mentioned. Call it sexist if you will (and I might not argue), but the Bible rarely mentions daughters unless they're important to the plot, and Dinah is central to a story that comes up a few chapters from now.

Back to the action, Reuben, Leah's oldest, finds some mandrakes and gives them to his mother. Mandrakes are herbs that apparently have been considered by some to be either an aphrodisiac or they magically make you fertile, I can't remember which it is, maybe both. Now neither of these women is having children right now, so they both want to get their hands on these things, but Leah has them. So Rachel makes a bargain and says that Leah gets to sleep with Jacob if she gives her the mandrakes. But so much for the power of mandrakes, because it's Leah who ends up having another son, two of them, actually, and the only mentioned daughter. Finally after all this, Rachel gives birth to Joseph herself.

Now Jacob decides enough time has passed, and he tells his uncle/father-in-law that he wants to go back home. Laban, however, seems somewhat unwilling to let him go, saying that he knows God is blessing him for the sake of Jacob. The SAB notes that the phrase used in verse 27 probably is referring to divination of some sort on Laban's part, and I think that's probably correct. The Hebrew word behind the phrase is almost never translated the same way twice in the KJV, and most other choices by the translators reflect a concept of discerning by a spiritual method. He could be speaking figuratively as many modern Christians do (although they may not mean to be speaking figuratively) when they say, "God was telling me..." when something goes their way. Whatever the case may be, I'm not sure what the problem is here.

Jacob apparently cuts a deal and says that he will stay a while longer, but he wants to have a share among the flocks. He says he will take the sheep and cattle and goats that have certain characteristics, and leave the rest. This sounds fine to Laban, so he grants it. Then, another one of the stranger parts of the Bible: Jacob proceeds to perform some weird trick with the sheep where he shows them certain colors when they come to drink water, and they conceive and have offspring that are the desired color Jacob wants. Why this works, I have no idea. It certainly isn't the case that an animal's colors will be determined by the colors its parents were looking at when they were conceived. Genetics just doesn't work that way. The only thing I can imagine is that somehow these colored poplar rods have an aphrodisiac effect on the livestock, and when Jacob sees the right ones together that will produce the offspring he wants...? Who knows? I've never heard of anyone explaining what this is supposed to mean, other than the possibility that Jacob has a stupid idea that God, since He wanted to bless Jacob, makes work through a miracle. If that were really the case, though, I think the Bible would tell, as most miracles are clearly indicated within the text.

You win this round, SAB... ; )

1 comment:

marauder said...

From what I recall reading in a study Bible, there was a belief at this time that strong impressions at the time of conception would influence the offspring. So by placing streaked sticks in front of the hardier flocks as they rutted but not in front of the undesirable flocks as they rutted, Jacob was trying to influence the quality of the flocks. That doesn't hold up to genetics, but that's the sort of scheming he was accustomed to doing to secure a better life for himself.

Not that it did much good. Laban kept changing Jacob's wages, and Jacob ended up giving to Esau as a peace offering everything he had gained for himself by conniving and trickstering anyway.

That's how I've always understood this stretch of text anyway -- that all of Jacob's efforts amounted to naught because it wasn't until he was broken (literally) that he was able to stop trying to scheme his way to the top and find the actual divine blessing that he had been promised at birth.