November 27, 2006

Genesis 30-31: What's in a wife

Today's reading is Genesis 30-31 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the further birth of Jacob's children, the increase of Jacob's flocks, Jacob's flight from Laban and Laban's pursuit, and the pact made between the two men.

One thing that is striking about this passage is the continuing presence of Jacob's wives. When people think of family structures in Biblical times, they typically think of a highly patriarchal system, where men control everything and women have barely any power. Indeed, none of our readings until now would have given us reason to doubt this idea. However, Gen. 30-31 gives us a new perspective on the power women may have really held, both overtly and covertly.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been in a long-term relationship that women are able to be quite crafty when they want to be. In the last essay, I spoke about Rebekah's cunning ploy to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the birthright that was rightfully Esau's. Today, we see that her daughter-in-law, Rachel, seems to share several of her trickster characteristics.

In Gen. 31:19, Jacob prepares to flee his father-in-law, Laban. Meanwhile, Rachel secretly steals Laban's "images" (KJV, ie: the statues representing household gods). She doesn't inform Jacob she has done so. Once Jacob flees, Laban follows and the men quickly come to angry words over the stolen images. A brief summary:

Laban is incensed at Jacob's audacity in stealing his images. Jacob, equally incensed at the accusation of theft, challenges Laban to search through his (Jacob's) possessions, and anyone found in possession of the images shall die. Laban searches everywhere without luck. Finally, he comes to Rachel's tent and searches that. Unbeknownst to anyone but Rachel herself, she had hidden the images in a camel saddle at sat on it. She claims that she cannot stand up, because she has her period (KJV: "the custom of women is upon me"). Laban returns empty-handed, and Jacob climbs onto his high horse to berate him, never knowing the trickery conducted under his own roof.

It is beyond the scope of this particular essay to ask why Rachel wanted to steal her father's images. Perhaps she wanted to forcibly convert him, perhaps she was just vengeful, perhaps the images were intrinsically valuable. The reason isn't important. More important is that her deception was cleverly done and masterfully executed. Following the proverb, "loose lips sink ships," she didn't tell anyone about her plan and instead formed a conspiracy of one. Furthermore, she planned for every contingency, knowing that her father would search her tent, and had a cleverly planned (and plausible) alibi.

Rachel successfully played both Jacob and Laban, and came out of the incident unpunished. Surely this shows a significant amount of covert power.

Wives were also able to manipulate their husbands by working together. Consider the incident of the mandrakes, Gen. 30:14-16:

Leah's son, Reuben, found some mandrakes in the field while harvesting. Rachel asks for them, and Leah refuses, claiming that Rachel has already taken her husband. Rachel and Leah thus make a deal, that Jacob will sleep with Leah that night in exchange for Reuben's mandrakes. Jacob returns and Leah goes out to meet him, saying that he must sleep with her that night because she "hired" him with Reuben's mandrakes. He does, and Leah conceives again.

This episode leads us to all sorts of interesting questions. Why did Rachel want the mandrakes? One potential reason might be as a fertility drug. Because of the mandrake's similarity to the human figure, it was often used for occult rituals. It is possible that Rachel was trying to conceive, despite her barren condition. Indeed, shortly afterwards, Rachel gives birth to Joseph. (Gen. 30:22-24)

Another question arising from this passage is, what did Leah mean when she said Rachel had already stolen her husband. I see two potential explanations. First, it might refer to Jacob's second marriage, with Rachel, after he had already been married to Leah. After seven years as the sole wife, it must have been a difficult adjustment to have a second contender. The second possibility stems from the first, that Rachel may have been the preferred wife, despite her barren womb. Since the deal struck between the women was the Jacob would sleep with Leah, it is possible that Jacob had stopped sleeping with her after marrying his true love, Rachel.

Another interesting point is that Jacob apparently has no say in the outcome of this deal. The wives decide that he will sleep with Leah, and he does so. No argument, no complaints. The decision of the wives was, apparently, final.

But wives had even more power than what happened within the marriage beds. As Jacob prepares to leave Laban's house, he takes counsel with Leah and Rachel (Gen. 31:4-16):

Jacob calls his wives to the field and relates to them the situation he is having with Laban: that Laban has been cheating on his wages, treating him poorly, and so on. He further relates that God came to him in a dream, telling him that He has given Jacob all of Laban's flocks and instructed him to return to his native land. Rachel and Leah reply that Laban has also treated them poorly, that they feel entitled to Laban's wealth, and that Jacob should do as God told him. And, that decided, Jacob leaves.

We see by this episode that Jacob's wives apparently have power even in matters that go beyond the home. Jacob could have decided unilaterally to leave Laban's house. He could have informed his wives that he was leaving, without posing it as a question. But instead, he waits for their opinion and confirmation that he is making the right choice. As in many happy households today, the decision to leave is made by both Jacob and his wives.

This is, obviously, not always the case in Biblical families, just as it is not always the case today. We don't have many instances of husbands taking counsel with their wives. Whether this is because most husbands made decisions on their own, or whether the authors of the text deemed such counsels too unimportant to include, we don't know. We do know that it appears this time, and Leah and Rachel appear to have some real power over Jacob.

So, the next time you think about the horrific oppression of women that occurred before the rise of 20th-century feminism, think twice. Though women were oppressed many times throughout history, today's readings show that there were also many times when they wielded significant power in the household.


iamChiang Mai said...

Welcome to

Anonymous said...

"Father's images" is a bad translation. The Hebrew word is "teraphim"; it refers to a VERY SPECIFIC type of cult object. Scholars think that Teraphim were probably skulls of ancestors.


The Hebrew word for Mandrakes is VERY similar to the Hebrew word for "(female) breasts" - thus Mandrakes were thought of as an aphrodisiac. That's why the story goes on about Rachel wanting them for Jacob.

The story isn't historic at all. Its worked backwards from the names of the children. Issachar = "man of hire" (a good name for a band of foreign mercenaries like the "shekelesh" = "men of the shekel", but an odd name for an actual person...- who now would name their son "rent boy"?).