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Genesis 29:15-28

Of the primordial triad of Israelite forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is Jacob that serves most faithfully as a representative character sketch of our own selves. This forefather is praised, not for his righteousness, but for his grit. He would eventually receive the name ISRAEL – quite literally meaning – he strives with God. The story of Jacob’s complicated love life is a story that only continues this theme of striving.

After having fled his homeland, Jacob comes to the land of his mother’s relative Laban, where he falls in love with the younger of his two daughters, Rachel. After manipulating his father and older brother to hand over the birthright to him, Jacob encounters a man of equal shrewdness and wit. Laban, not wanting to disgrace his older daughter or break from tribal customs, tricks Jacob into consummating marriage with his older daughter Leah. In this story, Laban serves as a foil to Jacob’s own conniving spirit.


This story is often told disparaging Leah as a less attractive or pleasing individual, and making Rachel the victim of a father’s will for cultural norms to rule the day over/against romantic love. Such readings of the narrative further perpetuate a misogynistic view of this account. In the Jewish Talmud, however, the rabbis offered the following commentary, citing

“Rachel’s selflessness and her concern to spare her unloved older sister humiliation. Jacob, the midrash reports, had given Rachel certain tokens by which he could identify her, lest her deceitful father succeed in substituting Leah. Worried that her sister would then be put to shame in her wedding bed, she handed the tokens over to Leah…”[1]

This story is the beginning of an arduous saga in which we find a multitude of children that are born, not out of the active will of an aggressing husband, but out of the warring of two powerful women. Although Jacob has a very significant amount of agency throughout his life, this story lifts up the shrewdness and will of powerful women, as does the story of his mother pushing him to acquire his older brother’s birthright. This story reminds us that God’s work in history is often accomplished in spite of the warring wills of people with their own interests in mind.

 

[1] Jewish Study Bible, Tanakh Translation. Jewish Publication Society: 2004. p 60.

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