God, Behind the Scenes: Reflections on Genesis 29:15-28

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Lectionary Reflections for Sunday, July 24, 2011
Genesis 29:15-28

This part of the long story of Jacob is funny and sad at the same time. After he bargains with God at the place he calls Bethel (28:20-22), he arrives at the home country of Haran, whence Abram came so long ago.

Some background for our text is important. Jacob goes first to the place of community gathering, namely the well. In desert climates, the well was both source of life and center of community wellbeing and gossip. As no doubt was common in the ancient world, the functioning of the well was carefully regulated by the community. A huge stone was placed over the well mouth to prevent any one group from taking more than their fair share of the water. It takes more than one shepherd to remove the huge stone. Hence, "when all the flocks were gathered there" (29:3), only then would the shepherds lift the large stone off to allow all the flocks to be watered under the watchful eye of all the shepherds. This practice is reaffirmed when the shepherds are questioned by Jacob about their native place (29:8).

They tell him that they know Laban, his uncle, of Nahor, and also reveal that he has a daughter, Rachel. Right on cue, Rachel appears at the well, ready to water her father's flock. Listen very carefully to Jacob's reactions: "Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother's brother, Laban, and the sheep of his mother's brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well's mouth and watered the flock of his mother's brother, Laban" (29:10). Lest we get too romantic about Jacob and his subsequent love for Rachel, causing him to remove the massive stone by himself, we must not forget all those lovely sheep! We should know about Jacob by now; he is not a man to miss the opportunity for increasing his worth and wealth in the world. Rachel is surely beautiful, but all those sheep catch his eye, too.

Jacob rashly kisses Rachel, since she is his cousin, and then weeps. The woman quickly returns to her father, Laban, and tells him that a close relative has turned up at the well. Laban reacts with what looks like extravagant hospitality: he "runs" to meet him, "embraces and kisses him," bringing him back to his house (29:13). He then repeats the phrase used by Adam in the garden when he first lays eyes on the newly created Eve: "Surely, you are bone of my bone" (29:14)! And Jacob stays in his uncle's home for a month. There may be more to Laban's actions than first meets the eye.

And we now come to our text—29:15 is laced with undercurrents that must not be missed. "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?" asks Laban. He implies that he expects service from his nephew, and apparently magnanimously, asks Jacob to name an appropriate wage for his work. He suggests that he could demand free labor from the relative, but will agree to some sort of contract. The reader is then told that Laban in fact had not one daughter but two, Leah and Rachel, and we are also told that Leah is the elder daughter. Jacob, significantly, is not told of their birth order.

Vs. 17 is a problem, because the adjective used to describe Leah is difficult to understand. The NRSV translates "lovely," which could work, since it is only Leah's eyes that are called lovely. In contrast, Rachel was "graceful and beautiful." It seems clear that Leah's eyes were her only good feature whereas Rachel was supremely beautiful. Jacob was naturally smitten with Rachel and quickly (too quickly?) agrees to work for his uncle for seven years in order to win the hand of his beloved (29:18). Laban readily agrees. "It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me" (29:19). Given the subsequent events of the story, it is clear that Laban has hatched a plan to entangle Jacob, the consummate trickster. Jacob is about to discover that he is not the only deceiver in the family!

The seven-year agreement passes quickly; indeed, "they seems to him but a few days because of the love he had for her" (29:20). On the very day that the seven- year toil has ended, Jacob comes to Laban and says (perhaps ominously), "Give me my wife that I may go in to her" (29:21). He does not name the wife he expects, Rachel. After the long wedding celebration—some ancient records suggest a full week is involved—Jacob eagerly rushes to his tent, awaiting Rachel. But Laban instead pushes his eldest daughter, Leah, into the tent. It is night, and the tent is full dark. Could it be that only Leah's lovely eyes peer over her veiled face and body? In any case, she and Jacob consummate the match all night.

7/17/2011 4:00:00 AM
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    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.