By the standards of Genesis, the story of Jacob and his two marriages, first to Leah, and then to Rachel, with Leah remaining as his wife, is told at a leisurely pace. It covers Genesis 29-Genesis 31 and is detailed in its incidents, borrowing for a narrative the practice of the chronicle sections of Genesis and so recounts the names of his children by both of his wives and those of his children borne by the handmaidens of his wives. That is much longer than the story of Abraham, who also has to deal with both a wife and a handmaiden and the children born to them, which is dealt with in a much briefer narrative, Genesis 21, even though the span of time is the same in each story: about a generation. The reason for the slower and more stately telling of Jacob’s family story is, I think, because the author is trying to convey a sense of how it takes time for familial relationships to change, and there is much merit in the wisdom being offered, even if we must apply it today to a world without polygamy and where people by and large don’t marry their first cousins. It also may be that the story of Jacob and his marriages is a reworking of a story that appears just a short time earlier in Genesis 24. That is the story of how Isaac met his wife. It has some of the same plot motifs, such as meeting at a well. But the earlier story has been simplified in that the servant delivering the offer has been dropped even though that adds a nice “Beowulf”-like set of repetitions. The loss of the literary mannerisms suggests that the author or editor of the later story was striving for a simplicity of storytelling that would allow the poignancy of the story to come through.
The story begins with the vivid and justly famous scene of Jacob arriving at the well and seeing Rachel. He helps her move the stone which will close off the flow of water and within that time is besmitten with her, as is proven by the fact that when he is shortly afterwards reunited with his uncle, he asks him for Rachel’s hand in marriage, to which Laben assents, stipulating that Jacob must first serve a seven year term as what we would call an indentured servant, which is no great sacrifice because he had to learn his trade as a herdsman anyway and so that would have been considered reasonable terms, Jacob a young man in need of employment. Laben may even have meant, at that point, to keep his promise, because he would place Leah, Rachel’s older sister, elsewhere in the meantime. The same generous spirit might be prevailing even if the arrangements had been made by design rather than spontaneously. Perhaps forewarned by a message from his brother, Laben may have agreed to award Jacob a position as an indentured servant and been willing to offer a daughter to the new arrival so as to cement the ties between the families. But however much the events may have been planned, there is no denying that Jacob was taken by Rachel.
Then, seven years later, Laben breaks his word and has Leah put in the marriage bed because it was not seemly for a younger daughter to be married off before a younger one. The narrator notes that Leah had vision troubles, and that may have accounted for her lack of success on the marriage market. It may have been a disfiguring disability, and that would matter to a young man out to find a girl to marry, though it does not seem to have been of any consequence in their later life together, after Rachel became Jacob’s second wife. It does, however, sour Jacob’s view of his uncle, now father-in-law. Laben’s word is not to be trusted.
The concerns of Jacob’s two families, now that they have been established, shift. There is no question of sexual jealousy or which of the wives is the most attractive. Now the two families are preoccupied by the competition to produce the most offspring. Rachel worries that she has not produced any even though Leah has produced three. Rachel will instead get credit if Jacob has a child with her nursemaid. And then, as with many modern families who have turned to adoption, she does begin to produce offspring, and Leah and her own handmaidens also do. That this is the normal course of events makes all the more odd the fact that Sarah, a few generations before, had so come to resent the child Abraham had had with her own handmaiden. She was in this as in other ways a very peculiar woman. She tells a smutty joke in front of God and is such a harridan that God promises Abraham not to tell her that he will look after Esau, that ill fated child.
Meanwhile, Jacob had become a most adroit herdsman. He had multiplied Laben’s holdings manyfold and thought it was time to take his leave and set up on his own, but he knew that Laben was not likely to assist in that effort because it would deprive him of such a good herdsman. So he offers to take only the black and spotted sheep by way of a settlement between the two. Laben plays him false by stealing away with the black and spotted sheep so as to leave Jacob without any sheep to take with him. Jacob turns the tables by using his knowledge of animal husbandry. He finds a way that appears to this reader to be merely magical to raise only spotted sheep and this having been accomplished is prepared to take his departure.
The departure scene is very affecting. Laban has been clearly defeated, his herds diminished, without an adroit herdsman, without his two daughters and their children. But to make matters worse, as a sign of her bitterness towards her father, Rachel steals his household idols and hides them on a bag on the camel she is riding. The narrator makes clear that Jacob had not been aware of the theft because it would have lessened his stature had he known of it. Laben sees that the household idols are missing and searches the caravan Jacob is about to lead away. He approaches his daughter so that he can search her camel but she insists that she is besought by woman’s problems and so cannot dismount. Laben is either intimidated by his daughter or still suffused with an abiding respect for her that he cannot bring himself to insist. And so the caravan departs, which leaves the reader sympathetic, for the first time, to Laben, who had so alienated his offspring and his son-in-law that they would abandon him. His fate appears poignant and so very different from what Shakespeare does with very similar material when he has Jessica steal family heirlooms from Shylock, her father, to give to her gentile boyfriend. Shakespeare makes Jessica seem mean-spirited and vengeful, which makes Shylock even more bitter, while in this bible story what is happening is the playing out of what, in this family, had become inevitable: the dissolution of a family whose original coming together had been accompanied with such hope on both sides, and where Laben, the defeated relative, is simply left emotionally and materially bereft.
What is to be made of this story, at this remove, other than that it is a melodrama, a story of a particular family that discovers its own malfunctions, just as does a family in Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams? First is the fact that marriage does not seem to have changed very much in the twenty five hundred years since the story took its final form. There is a courtship phase, when first impressions and sexual attraction play their part; then, that is replaced with the rush of the childbearing years, when every energy is concentrated by the women on their offspring, while the men are busy furthering their careers; and, then, eventually, in some cases, to the final switch of allegiances away from the family into which one was born to the family into which one was married, however long that might have been in development, so that the daughter could even bring herself to steal her father’s household idols and lie about it. More important, though, than even the rollout of the way the dynamics within the family alter during the course of a family’s life, is the recognizability of the emotions surrounding these events. The early romantic moments are accompanied by a set of instant or very quick recognitions and quickly made commitments, lives shifting in their courses. Then comes the anxiety of raising children, whether that means just having them or comparing them, whether in number or in accomplishments, and then, in the case of some families, the dissolution of trust, which takes place over time and may result in bitterness and anger and a very nasty distribution of assets, whether in the form of a divorce or in the division of property. It doesn’t have to be that way. Some people, like Ruth, may love their mother in laws, but dissolution does occur enough to be recognizable as a failure, and that is just what happens in the story of Jacob and his families.
It is also important to recognize that this story is a purely secular one that nowhere has any room for religion even though it is told within a collection much of which is devoted to religion. In fact, just before arriving at his uncle’s place, Jacob had stopped off at Bethel, where God had appeared to him, unsummoned, and Jacob had been told that he would prosper and that God would be with him everywhere he went, which meant that God was not in household objects or household icons, but was instead a kind of spirit, an idea still in contention with the then more prevalent pagan beliefs. That the next story is of the domestic adventure suggests that God, to the extent He is present at all, is so in a spiritual sense, which means that people live out the drama of their ordinary lives while, perhaps, keeping alive in their own minds the sense that this is a working out of a plan that God has made. One of the remarkable things about the story of Jacob and his families is that the author does not have to remind his reader of the double life we all lead, spiritual and secular, but can attend, clear eyed, to the earthly story in and of itself.