November 24, 2006

Genesis 27-29: Fool me once...

Today's reading is Genesis 27-29 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Jacob's theft of Esau's blessing from Isaac and his subsequent flight to Laban, Jacob's ladder, and Jacob's marriages to Leah and Rachel.

In this passage, we encounter two instances of deception. In fact, it could be argued that these are the first successful deceptions of the Bible. While there were, of course, other attempts at deception (see, for example, the three repetitions of the "she's my sister" strategy), none of the have been successful until now.

The first episode takes place in Gen. 27:1-45. Here is a brief summary:

Isaac is old and nearly blind. Knowing that his death is drawing near, he asks his favourite son, Esau, to kill him some venison so that Isaac may eat it and bless him. Isaac's wife, Rebekah, overhears this and quickly has her favourite son, Jacob, retrieve a few kids (young goats) from the flock. She concocts a tasty stew and places the goats' hides over Jacob's smooth skin, so that he feels like Esau. Jacob goes to his father, who is not entirely convinced Jacob is who he claims to be. Nevertheless, Isaac eats the stew and blesses him. Then, just as Jacob is leaving, Esau returns to claim his blessing, in vain. Isaac weeps and wails, but cannot undo the blessing he's already given, unwittingly, to Jacob. He gives a lukewarm blessing to Esau, who vows to kill his brother. Forewarned by his mother, Jacob flees to his uncle Laban's house in Haran.

The first thing we notice about this deception is that it is not completely flawless. Isaac did sense something was amiss when Jacob spoke with his own voice, not that of Esau's. Isaac says as much, "The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau." (Gen. 27:22) In fact, Isaac asks three times whether the son before him is, in fact, Esau. (Gen. 27:18, 21, and 24) For all the elaborate preparation that went into the ruse, it was still quickly put together and left room for doubt.

Of course, it was not Jacob that prepared the deception, but his mother, Rebekah. Rebekah overheard the conversation (Gen. 27:5), instructed her son in the particulars (Gen. 27:8-10), and did most of the work (Gen. 27:14-17). Jacob, meanwhile, merely followed the will of his mother and raised the occasional objections. The mastermind of the operation was not Jacob, but his mother Rebekah.

This is all the more interesting because of Jacob's name. Jacob's name comes from the Hebrew "grasping the heel," because he was born grasping Esau's heel. (Gen. 25:26) However, the NIV notes that "Jacob" can figuratively mean "he decieves." (see footnote f) Furthermore, notes that Yaakov (the Hebrew version of "Jacob") can mean "supplanted." Esau notes this meaning in Gen. 27:36, claiming that Jacob supplanted him twice, once when he took his (Esau's) birthright, and once when he took his blessing.

Yet despite these literary devices, it was Rebekah, not Jacob, who was the true deceiver of the story.

The second deception story comes in Gen. 29:15-28. Here is a summary of the episode:

Jacob is living with his uncle Laban. When he begins his stay, Jacob requests marriage to Laban's younger daughter, Rachel, whom he loves, as his wages for working in Laban's house for seven years. Laban agrees and Jacob works for seven years. However, when the marriage day arrives, Laban gives him Leah, the elder daughter, instead. Jacob does not discover this trickery until the next morning, when it is too late to repent. Laban, instead, insists that Jacob work another seven years before he can marry Rachel, which he does.

Yet again, we find that Jacob is not the instigator of the deception. In fact, this time he is the victim. Furthermore, Jacob seems somewhat dense during this episode: he seems to submissively accept a further seven years of work on top of the seven he has already provided, in order to marry the woman he loves. Perhaps he enjoyed the work. Perhaps he lived well in Laban's house. Regardless, fourteen years is a long time for a man to pine after his love. And yet Jacob does this, with narry a hint of negotiation between him and his uncle.

On the other side of the deception, Laban appears to be a cold-hearted taskmaster. He knew, from the beginning of Jacob's stay, that his nephew wanted to marry Rachel. Surely Laban had been planning this beforehand. Why wait seven years to perform a bait-and-switch? Perhaps it was simply because he knew he could: he understood that he could get many years of service from Jacob, fourteen instead of the original seven.

As one final point, Laban's excuse is that in his country, the eldest daughter is always married before the younger, thus Leah needed to be married before Rachel. (Gen. 29:26) There are a number of problems with this argument. First, Laban had seven years to find a husband for Leah. Surely, it would have been possible for him to find another man to marry his elder daughter before Jacob's seven years were up.

Second, if this truly was the custom, Jacob should probably have discovered this in his years of work. A man so love-struck that he's willing to work seven years for his bride would certainly have attracted notice from the other men in the neighbourhood, who presumably would have told him about this regional custom. So either it was the custom of the region, and Jacob was exceptionally stupid or love-blind, or it wasn't the custom, and Laban was making a poor excuse (and Jacob was still stupid to fall for it).

Either way, things don't look good for Jacob.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jacob's name doesn't come from "grasping the heel". The biblical etymology is more of a pun than accurate - its like saying that "'Ketchup' got its name because it can 'catch up' with you".

No-one really knows what "Jacob" means, although scholars strongly suspect that its very closely related to "Jochebed" and "Ichabod" ("Jacob" being a linguistic corruption of an earlier name).