Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 29:1-30:24

In this installment Jacob goes about acquiring a family while in the service of his uncle Laban. Herein we find an incredible feat of strength, more baffling gullibility, another warning about those tricky neighbors to the north, a curiously silent yet quite active deity, a sibling rivalry involving a uterine arms race with a couple of slave girls caught in the crossfire, the silliest excuses for names you ever did see, and we read between the lines a bit to see how good biblical writers copy, but great biblical writers steal.

Genesis 29:1-14
Jacob heads off to "the people of the sons of the east" (who happen to actually be up north) where he comes to a well. Here we see yet another chance meeting at a well that results in a marriage/purchase, as this folkloric motif is repeated. The motif becomes so common that a New Testament writer will have a bit of fun with it using a woman he portrays as a slut that's been married five times and is fornicating with some other guy. Wells must've been a good place to pick up chicks in the Ancient Near East. But I digress.

This well is covered by a stone that usually takes several guys to move. Jacob is apparently so inspired by his hot cousin's approach with his uncle's sheep that he just goes ahead and moves it himself like a total badass. He's already proven rather adept at moving large stones around, as we learned from the previous chapter. That's not bad for a mamma's boy in his seventies, eh? One might think this old bachelor may have some pent up sexual frustration. Well, fear not, old man. For in seven years' time you'll be drowning in it.

Genesis 29:15-20
Jacob goes to his uncle's house and stays there for a month working for him. Laban says he wants to pay Jacob for working for him. They conclude their labor negotiations with Jacob agreeing to be paid for seven years of work in exchange for the better-looking of his two female cousins. I suppose that puts the going rate for hot cousins at around seven times the average annual salary of a ranch hand. I've never negotiated the sale of a girl before, so I don't really know whether that's a good price or not.

Since Jacob is about to marry his cousin here, just for kicks, let's recap the inbreeding so far. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah, making Sarah both Isaac's mother and also his aunt and making Isaac his own cousin. Isaac married his father and mother's great niece who was also his second cousin. Jacob now goes back to that same branch of the family tree so he can marry his first cousins who also are his third cousins, making Jacob his own cousin-in-law. At any rate, one can't help but think the whole thing is starting to sound like an episode of Jerry Springer or maybe a Ray Stevens song.

Genesis 29:21
The seven years of working for his uncle flies by for Jacob, but when the time comes, he tells Laban to pay up. In this verse he literally tells his uncle "Give up my woman, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in." Of course, "go in" is referring to penetrating her with his penis. Isn't traditional biblical marriage beautiful? I can't believe people want to redefine it according to the utterly corrupt modern notion of consenting adults who love each other, rather than a biblical concept involving a man purchasing a woman from her father.

Genesis 29:22-24
Laban invites a bunch of people to a feast and gives Leah, the homely one with a lazy eye, to Jacob. We are to somehow accept without explanation that this seventy-something and presumably virgin bachelor, after waiting with anticipation and working hard for seven long years to be presented with the object of his desire, allows himself to be duped into banging the wrong woman on his wedding night. How in the world does that happen?

It's not abundantly clear how Laban pulled this trick off in the text as it is preserved. Maybe he got Jacob slobbering drunk? That trope was used on Lot a couple of times with great success and will work again when Ruth seduces Boaz. Maybe there was some ancient custom wherein the man is somehow unable to see the woman until after the deed is done? Let the buyer beware, amirite? Maybe it was just really dark and Leah, although ugly in the face, was still shapely like her sister? Maybe Jacob was just so excited to be finally having sex with a woman after all those years that he didn't take note of the discrepancy? Maybe Leah was hairy like Esau and Rachel was smooth, so she shaved her arms and neck so that Jacob wouldn't know any better? That would be some ironic reversal for sure! Perhaps Jacob is turning blind in his old age like his father. After all, he is in either his late-seventies or early-eighties at this point in the story.

Whatever the explanation may be, it doesn't matter. The storyteller's point is that the trickster has been tricked and we now have a double-reversal of the mythic motif of the younger supplanting the older. Plot holes be damned. It's about the story, stupid...and also about how you can't trust those shifty Arameans up north who will deceptively pawn off their ugly, undesirable daughters on to guys that they know will never love them and always view them as the woman they were tricked into marrying just to get seven years of free labor.

The good news(?) for Jacob is that his uncle was nice enough to throw in a bonus sex slave for him by giving Leah one of his own slaves in the transaction, which is explained in a parenthetical remark in verse 24 that bears the appearance of merely being inserted after the fact to provide some backstory for later events. That actually becomes an important clue for textual critics, by the way, and possibly suggest that there may have never been a Zilpah or Zilpah's kids in one telling of this story.

Genesis 29:25-30
When the trick is discovered the next morning, Jacob is understandably livid and asks Laban, "What the hell, man? This isn't what I paid for!" I'm paraphrasing, of course. Laban explains that it's not their custom to marry off the younger before the elder. Oh, burn! This is the storyteller's way of winking at his audience to drive home the point that Jacob is being taught the lesson that what goes around comes around. Jacob even uses a cognate of the same word for "tricked" used by the writer in chapter 27 to describe his own deception.

Laban offers to give Rachel to Jacob the following week in exchange for another seven years of work. Jacob goes for it and gets Rachel and yet another potential sex slave in the process. Of course, Jacob loves the younger and hates the older. That sounds pretty awful, doesn't it? To love and show favoritism to the younger while literally hating the older (the Hebrew word for "hate" is used in verse 31)? That's deplorable behavior, even for a polygamist like Jacob. It's important to point out that the Bible never condones this kind of behavior, probably because it's just so obviously wrong. Well, unless you're God, of course. In that case, there's no injustice whatsoever in loving the younger and hating the older because shut up, puny human.

As we will see, Yahweh will personally intervene to right this injustice. Sure, this makes Yahweh into a hypocrite and he will look a bit like Loki playing with people's lives, stoking a sibling rivalry, making sure nobody gets what they actually want (except Jacob), and pretty much using these four women's uteri to mess with the patriarch. But it's important to remember that his ways are higher than ours...or something.

Genesis 29:31-32
Yahweh sees that Leah is hated, so he turns her into a baby factory while making her hot sister barren. This doesn't make Jacob suddenly love Leah more, mind you. Even if it did, that would be pretty shallow on Jacob's part. It's important to note that Yahweh never shows up and provides any explanation for what's going on either, leaving all these people to interpret the circumstances as they will and their interpretations are helpfully preserved in the fanciful etymologies for the names of Jacob's children.

It becomes increasingly clear that what Leah desperately wants is love and affection from her husband, yet Yahweh makes sure she gets children instead. All Rachel wants is children, yet she gets the love and favor of her husband. Is this supposed to be a lesson in contentment for them? Is it a lesson in the cruel ironies of life circumstances? Is Yahweh just a twisted, divine O. Henry? Since we're never informed, both we and the characters have no way of knowing.

That doesn't stop later expositors from giving it a shot, of course, providing all manner of guesses about what Yahweh's intentions are. But this only highlights the point. He never shows up to tell Jacob not to take a second wife. He never tells Rachel or Leah to be content. He never tells Jacob to knock off the favoritism and love his first wife. He never says that owning surrogate sex slaves is wrong. Conservative Bible expositors will remind us time and time again that the Bible is merely recording these deeds, not condoning them. But that doesn't magically remove culpability from Yahweh because he never clues anybody in on what he actually wants, all while directly intervening in the situation. Because he never communicates any of that information, both the characters themselves and Bible expositors are largely left to interpret his intentions on their own. One can't help but notice that the way the characters interpret their own circumstances is quite different from the way Christian expositors will interpret them.

So who's got the better angle: the characters viewing the circumstances through the religious and cultural milieu of the original audience's time and place, or the later Christian expositors viewing these circumstances through the lenses of their preferred systematic theologies, incorporating the "progressive revelation" of other conceptions of this deity and combining dozens of other literary sources spanning entirely different times and cultures? I guess it depends on some underlying assumptions, doesn't it? In either case, whatever Yahweh's intentions were, they are not obvious and we only get a couple of glimpses. Yahweh "sees" Leah is hated in 29:31 and responds by opening her womb and closing Rachel's and later Elohim "hears" Leah in 30:17 and "remembers" Rachel in 30:22 and opens her womb; that's all the insight we get in the text itself and in none of those instances are the deity's intentions made abundantly clear.

Here in verse 32, thanks to Yahweh's intervention, Leah gives birth to a son and names him Reuben. Reuben means, "look, a son." But she doesn't stop there. Leah stretches the meaning to connote affliction and looking with pity. The Oxford Bible Commentary notes that all of these reasons given for these names are "quite fanciful and hardly genuine." It's a nice way of saying they're complete bullcrap and barely close to making sense, much less authentic. Sadly, Leah concludes that surely Jacob will love her now, which reflects a second etymology using a play on the conjugation of the word "love." Someone has combined both of the strained explanations for Reuben's name from two different sources and will do so again with the names of three other sons.

Genesis 29:33
Leah has a second son and names him Simeon, meaning "to hear" because she thinks Yahweh has heard that she was hated. This one is actually pretty reasonable and isn't nearly as much of a stretch as most of the others will be. Jacob may not love Leah, but since she's the one popping out the young'uns, he seems to at least be willing to close his eyes, pretend she's her sister and perform his husbandly duties so he can keep getting sons.

Genesis 29:34
Leah gets knocked up a third time and names the boy Levi. Nobody really knows what "Levi" means, but it sounds kind of like the verb "lavah", which means "to join." So Leah names her third son Levi because now her husband will be more likely to "join" his genitals to hers. That's...well...that's kind of messed up. She's right, of course, but still, can you imagine explaining to your kid that he's named after your desire to have your husband have sex with you in spite of how ugly he thinks you are compared to your son's hot aunt/stepmother?

Genesis 29:35
Leah cranks out a fourth son and names this one Judah, which means "he will be praised." Of course, she alters this to "I will praise." After this fourth one, Yahweh closes up shop in her uterus, for now anyway.

I'm more interested in showing just how screwed up this whole thing is when taken as a whole, but there is a case to be made to show how this is the end of one block of source material for this narrative, namely the Yahwist source. The Elohist, whose source material follows, may have intended for Jacob to have nine sons (or possibly even seven in its original form), while another source using Yahwist material that focuses almost entirely on the first four sons along with Joseph and later Benjamin to the exclusion of the others brings the total number of tribes up to twelve in accordance with the Sumerian Zodiac divisions, lunar calendar, usefulness in a base 60 numerical system, etc.

That said, if you're curious and you want to see how that alternate reading might play out, just begin at 30:1 when the divine name "Yahweh" gets dropped in favor of "Elohim" and pretend that Leah has only given birth to Reuben at that point. Recall that the account of Reuben's birth has both etymologies preserved, which is a clue that he's in both sources. Then note that in 30:8 Rachel seems to think she's winning the contest to produce more kids even though she'd be down 2-4 at that point if we take the text as we have it now. Omit a couple of inserted references to birth number and take out the mandrake story of 30:14-16, noting that this leaves Leah declaring Issachar to be "wages" for giving her servant to her husband (v. 18) rather than "wages" for purchasing a night with Jacob using Reuben's mandrakes (v. 16). To get to seven just note that Zilpah is a parenthetical addition in 29:24 and then eliminate her sons Gad and Asher, who both have rather terse etymologies, comparatively speaking.

Of course, not all critical scholars accept this understanding, but I'll just point out that another line of evidence not within this portion of the text that supports the nine sons theory (and eventually ten tribes once Joseph is split into Ephraim and Manasseh) is from a passage that many scholars believe to be one of the oldest in the Bible, the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. Guess which tribes aren't present and accounted for in this song? The same three sons allegedly absent from the Elohist's birth narratives. This would mean that Judah, Simeon and Levi don't even exist in the Elohist's version of "history" as sons of Jacob and that a later writer (or writers) both literally and literarily grafted them into the rest of Israel's "history," adding two more tribes (Judah and the subsumed territory of Simeon) along with turning the Yahwist priestly class of Levites into a tribe in its own right.

It's much more audacious to just completely steal some other culture's founding myth in order to create your own national epic that explains current ethnic divisions, legitimates the ruling class, and ties together shared cultural experiences than, for example, simply borrowing the popular legends of a respected culture by having a well-known character from that culture's central myth become the ancestor of your own. It's certainly no less effective, I'm sure. Not that anybody would ever try to legitimate their own culture's "history" that way. No, sir. People just don't do that. Besides, this is the inspired Word of God we're talking about here, so this whole notion is just part of the wild speculations of critical scholars. The Kingdom of Judah certainly wouldn't just steal parts of Israel's "history" from them and rewrite it like that, right?
"Of course not. Don't be ridiculous."
Genesis 30:1-4
Rachel gets jealous of her sister and begs her husband to knock her up. I'm sure it's not for lack of effort on his part, but he declares that this is up to Elohim and not up to him. Desperate to catch up to her older sister, Rachel comes up with a brilliant plan, which happens to be the same plan her great, great aunt Sarah used on Jacob's grandfather when it appeared she couldn't have kids. She tells Jacob to have sex with her slave and she will bare children through her slave. You know, because she's her property and all. That's just how it works. Jacob consents. Bilhah's consent is irrelevant, of course. She gets to be a surrogate mother the old fashioned way and have sex with this octogenarian whether she likes it or not. The children she bears will not even be considered hers, though I'm certain she'll be tasked with raising them.

Genesis 30:5-6
Bilhah does her duty and produces a son for her master, Rachel. She names him Dan, which means "judge." Again there's a linguistic play here. She claims it is because she has been vindicated by Elohim, but vindicated is "din" not "dan." We also find that, as Rachel sees it, the fact that Bilhah has given birth to a son on her behalf is totally cool with Elohim. If it weren't he wouldn't have allowed it to happen. As Jacob said earlier, such things are Elohim's doing alone. So Rachel is apparently right to conclude that this is indeed Elohim hearing her prayer and vindicating her. The sign that it was his doing is the fact that it worked. Religious belief gets quite a bit of mileage out of post hoc assumptions.

Genesis 30:7-8
The good times continue to roll for the old man as he knocks up Rachel's servant a second time. Rachel names this son Naphtali. It's another linguistic stretch. The writer is using a rare verb, "patal" meaning "to twist" and ironically twisting that word to mean "wrestle," saying "I wrestled with my sister and won." It would seem Rachel isn't doing a very good job of keeping score if she thinks she's won. As previously pointed out, the score is now 2-4 in favor of her older sister. Unless, of course, we are dealing with different source material. If that's the case, this version of Rachel might be right about the score because we might be dealing with an entirely different account showing it's now 2-1 in her favor, leading her to declare victory over her sister.

Genesis 30:9-11
Leah, suddenly finding herself barren and thus without purpose or a means of gaining even her husband's most basic expression of pseudo-affection, decides to try to get back in the game. She pulls the same trick and gives Jacob her own slave as a surrogate. He "goes in her" and Zilpah cranks out a son. Understanding this as a stroke of good luck, Leah promptly names the boy after the pan-Semetic god of good fortune. Things like this are hints that when these characters speak of "elohim" they're not really talking about God in the singular sense, but rather the gods. We've seen hints before that we are probably not dealing with monotheists in many of our biblical authors, and we are certainly not dealing with monotheists when it comes to the characters themselves.

Genesis 30:12-13
Zilpah churns out yet another son for Jacob the virile octogenarian who now finds himself in the midst of four competitive vaginas. Leah names this son Asher. "Asher" kind of sounds like the word "ashar," which in rare instances means "happy," but typically means "to go straight." This is some really complicated Hebrew wordplay for a couple of Aramean women who seem to think their sole purpose in life is to bring forth children, but I'm sure things really happened this way and these aren't just made-up etymologies for the names of the tribes of Israel. I mean, who would do that? Just make up stuff that isn't true for the purposes of telling a story? Ancient cultures just didn't do that, right?

Genesis 30:14-18
Our journey through the bizarro world of this ancient culture continues as little Reuben (who can be no more than five or six if we want to make the chronology work) goes out to the fields and finds some mandrakes to give to his mommy, Leah. This is potentially messed up on a few levels. First off, why is Reuben looking for mandrakes? He's six. Why is a six-year-old out in the field trying to find plants that contain hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids that were thought by the ancients to be magical aphrodisiac "love plants?" So he can hook up his sexually frustrated mom with some Funky Cold Medina? I really hope he just thought they were pretty flowers and brought them to her innocently. Let's just go with that. I can't take much more deviancy in this passage.

Rachel sees the mandrakes and demands Leah give them up to her. Leah eventually agrees to turn over "her son's mandrakes" in exchange for a night with Jacob. Rachel agrees and Leah goes out to meet Jacob and explains to him that he is to sleep with her that night (literally, "you must come in me"), explaining that she hired him with her son's mandrakes. Yeah, that's not messed up at all. We have to give a tip of the hat to our writer, however. For Leah is indeed using mandrakes to get Jacob to sleep with her. She's just not using them the way they typically would've been used. That's some noteworthy literary irony right there, I don't care who you are.

Elohim listens to Leah. Note that she never said anything to him in the first place; at least not in the narrative we have preserved here. Nevertheless, Leah conceives and has a son. She names him Issachar and there are two explanations given for this name, one assumed and the other stated. Issachar means "man of wages." The play is on the Hebrew word for wages (sekari). The implied explanation for this is that Leah's night with Jacob was paid for by the wages of Reuben's mandrakes. The stated etymology is that Leah sees Issachar as wages paid by Elohim in exchange for letting Jacob knock up her slave girl. Both etymologies are kind of messed up either way you look it. Either Issachar is so named because his mom paid for a night with his dad or he's so named because his mom sees him as a reward for letting his dad bang her slave girl.
"Now let me get this straight. Before you were born your older brother gave your mother a hallucinogenic drug that she traded with your aunt, who your father is also married to, in exchange for your mother being allowed to sleep with your reluctant father and when you were born she either named you after that or after how God rewarded her for letting your father get the maid pregnant a couple of times? That's...well...I got nothing."
Genesis 30:19-20
Leah gives birth to another son and names him Zebulun. Again we have two different etymologies preserved here and both are stretches. Leah declares that "Elohim has given me a good gift (zebed)," but then also declares "my husband will honor (zabal) me." Thus the name Zebulun gets associated by approximation with a noun in one and verb in the other and each occurs nowhere else in the entire Old Testament.

Genesis 30:21
Oh, by the way. Leah had a girl too. Big deal, right? I mean, what a waste of gestation space. The writer doesn't really care how she got her name either. She gets one of the shortest verses in the narrative. She's probably only mentioned because later on she's going to get raped and used as a pawn in her brothers' sick plot to kill a bunch of guys and take their stuff. The writer has to at least account for her existence, though, so here she is.

Genesis 30:22-24
Elohim "remembers" Rachel and finally opens her womb for business. She has a son, of course, and names him Joseph, which means...well, it depends on which of the two preserved sources you're asking. Once again we have two etymologies given here, but they take different roots and mean the exact opposite. The first is "Elohim has taken away (asaph) my reproach." The second is "May Yahweh add (ysp) another son." Ironically, the Elohist ties Joseph's name to being taken away while the Yahwist connects it to being added. Fortunately for us, our editor has seen fit to preserve both.

I just want to reiterate that the way many Christian interpreters will defend the Bible's portrayal of the behavior that Jacob and his wives exhibit in this passage is by pointing out that the Bible never condones their actions. It merely reports events as they supposedly happened. Again, I see two big problems here. One is that God does, in fact, intervene for some reason or another. Yet the reasons for his actions are never explained to either the characters themselves or to the readers, leaving us all guessing. So he chooses to intervene yet communicates nothing to the people involved, neither warning them nor explaining his actions to them. Ponder the implications of that for a moment and recall how his actions were interpreted by the characters themselves.

The other problem is that, as far as later commands in the Hebrew Bible go, Jacob has technically broken only one, which comes from the Priestly source (Lev. 18:18). It is the command not to marry sisters while both are still living. As far as the New Testament is concerned, he failed to love Leah (Eph. 5:25). That's it. That's all he's done wrong according to the Bible. There are no biblical prohibitions against polygamy. There are none against owning women like Bilhah and Zilpah and using them as surrogate mothers with or without their consent. There are no prohibitions against cutting deals with a woman's father to purchase his daughter as a wife, regardless of what she wants. All of those things fit within the definition of traditional, biblical marriage.

The idea that both parties should be of sufficient legal age, both give consent, and both be in love with each other are modern concepts foreign to the Bible. Our culture has completely redefined marriage to include those things with very little backlash from Christians...unless, of course, those consenting adults happen to have the same reproductive organs. Then it becomes a hill on which to die because buttsex is icky.

Rachel will eventually have her prayer answered, as Yahweh will indeed add another son at a most inopportune time with terrible consequences. It seems you have to be careful when you ask Yahweh for something. He just might end up answering your prayer in a way you had not intended. He can be such a trickster sometimes.
"I want to play a game..."


  1. I feel like this line right here could use a Jon Gruden pic: "She's just not using them the way they typically would've been used. That's some noteworthy literary irony right there, I don't care who you are."

    1. Actually I was channeling Larry the Cable Guy.

      Don't judge me.

  2. Ok, I am officially impressed now. I've been reading along for a week or so now, and, yeah, it's good though I disagree on your interpretations of some points, and I think you kind of bang on some others too much, mostly for comedic purpose. This entry, though, is where it all clicked and I went from being just mildly interested to being genuinely impressed.

    Well done!