Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Red Tent: Jacob and His Wives

I was fascinated by the way that Anita Diamant describes the relationship between Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. It was entirely unlike what I'd imagined taking place between them, so I'm looking forward to discussing your reactions to Diamant's account.

The biblical account of Jacob meeting Rachel and Leah begins in Genesis 29 with Jacob's arrival in Haran. He meets several shepherds by a well and then meets Rachel, Laban's daughter, who is a shepherdess. Jacob had been sent by his father, Isaac, to Laban's house in order to take a wife from their people rather than from the Canaanites. When Jacob met Rachel, he "kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. He had told Rachel that he was a relativ of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father" (Gen. 29:12).

After a month of staying with and working for Laban, Laban asked Jacob what his wages should be for working for him. Here is the first mention of Leah: "Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, 'I'll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.'... So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her" (Gen. 29: 16-18, 20). The Strong's concordance for "weak" in relation to Leah's eyes comes up as "tender, delicate." I've wondered about the comparison here - the juxtaposition of Leah and Rachel is meant to contrast Rachel's beauty with Leah's "weak eyes" -- my impression has always been that Leah wasn't particularly unattractive, but she dimmed in comparison to Rachel's beauty. What do you think of this verse?

The seven years pass, and Jacob goes to Laban to claim his bride. "But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her... When morning came, there was Leah!" What!?! These few verses in Scripture have always puzzled me -- really, Jacob didn't know that it wasn't Rachel in his tent? It's hard to imagine that this sort of scheme could've been executed without protest from Leah OR Jacob. Anita Diamant reimagines the story and adds in her own version of the festivities, which humanizes the whole scenario for me, except that she veers so far away from the biblical account.

Regardless, here we are with Jacob and an undesired wife. He protests this union with Laban, who says that it is not their custom to marry off the younger daughter before the eldest, but what the heck, work for me for another seven years and I'll give you Rachel, too. To be fair, you can finish out the marriage week with Leah and then take Rachel as your bride, too. The week with Leah ends, and then, "Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah" (Gen. 29:30).

I've tried to imagine what it must have been like to be the unloved wife of Jacob. I think back to junior high and high school, times when I had a crush on the same boy as one of my friends and that friend ended up dating him instead of me, and how sad/jealous/miserable/envious/angry that kind of passive or active rejection made me. And that was only in the days of dating -- how much worse when it happens in marriage. Perhaps the modern-day equivalent of the polygamous marriage is, at the extreme, extramarital affairs, and to a lesser degree yet still harmful, pornography's impact on a relationship. These kinds of distractions and intrusions into the intimacy of marriage destroy a woman's sense of security and sense of self. Oh, Leah.

God's mercy and compassion for Leah is demonstrated in the final verses of Genesis 29, beginning with verse 31, "When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren." In order to imagine what Leah experienced during these years, I wrote a poem that incorporates the assumed meanings of the Hebrew names of her first four sons', Reuben -- "he has seen my misery", Simeon -- "one who hears", Levi -- "attached", and Judah -- "praise".

Leah Considers Mercy
“When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved,
he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.”
- Genesis 29:31

On my knees in the dirt, I begged, Lord
I want to feel his kiss
hear whispers from his lips
but to my sister in law, sister of my blood
he cries, How beautiful you are, my lovely!
Not to me, not from him…
and then one came.
I named him Reuben: He has seen my misery.

I can feel the rolling hills raise up their crops,
tickle lambs’ feet—
years are grains of wheat,
harvests bountifully hollow, fall, frost.
Reuben crawls across the floor, his daddy’s
boy, but the door clicks shut.
I am not loved. The cord is cut
and Simeon: one who hears makes two for mercy.

What does she have, fairer skin? But not two sons
with wild hair, chasing
their father after dinner, waiting
under woolen blankets, sucking thumbs.
Not empty shadows, cold pillows, heavy silence.
My lover is hers—he browses
among lilies—I am not his.
I finger fields of dandelions: this strange abundance.

Reuben and Simeon dart out of the kitchen, call Dad!
when the door opens.
His hands hold them close.
Bread and wine on the table, I’m roasting lamb—
so hungry—eyes water, mouth dry, stomach grows.
Dinner’s ready and I’m famished
but it’s time, Levi: attached.
Three of him and me. Now he will hold me close.

Just like their shepherd father, my boys grow
tall and handsome.
On the run, Reuben
picks daffodils—it is spring and the meadow
is filled with yellow. This afternoon, Simeon drew
a stick woman smiling
and Levi is piling
blocks outside the house. I thought we were through,

but I have a fourth one now. He is here,
suckling at my breast.
For now we are at rest,
just him and me. Jacob, Rachel, and the boys peer
in, wait to see the son who has my eyes
and all his Father’s glory.
I know he’ll have a story
but it’s enough to hear him breathe. I name him Judah: praise.

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