There are things we double-check in life: parachute straps, spelling, and…brides. Jacob missed that last one, and it got him in some trouble. There is a great word in Hebrew, probably my favorite word: balagan. The best translation is “clusterfuck” or “total mess”. Balagan describes the whole series of events that end up netting Jacob two wives, Rachel and Leah, who become Jewish matriarchs in their own right.
Fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau, Jacob heads out alone into the wilderness. At night he lays his head upon a rock, and has a dream about a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels climbing up and down. With Jacob at the bottom is God, who greets him with the same covenant that Abraham had: all the land around him will be given to him and his descendants, who will be as numerous as the dust on earth, and God will be with him and protect him and will bring him back to this land, and, crucially, will not leave Jacob until these promises have been fulfilled. Jacob names this site of his spiritual awakening Bethel.
Jacob heads to the hometown of his uncle, Laban, and at the same well that Abraham’s servant met Rebecca (Jacob’s mother), Jacob sees Rachel. He kisses her, starts crying, and says that he is her cousin. Laban takes him in and the two strike a deal: Jacob will serve Laban as a laborer for seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel. But at the end of the seven years, at the wedding, Laban presents Leah as the bride instead of Rachel. Instead of accepting the outcome, Jacob is so in love with Rachel that he agrees to work for another seven years in order to get Rachel’s hand in marriage, which he finally does. So after fourteen years of work, two brides for the price of…two.
The two sisters then engage in a competition to produce children for Jacob, even having their maidservants sleep with him. Jacob ends up with 13 children from the four women — twelve sons and one daughter. The Jewish family tree really gets going with these 12 sons, and each will become the patriarch to one of the later Twelve Tribes of Israel.
God: appears to Jacob at the bottom of the ladder to heaven, where God presents to Jacob the same covenant that was received by Abraham (Jacob’s grandfather).
Jacob: the third and last of the Jewish patriarchs, he wanders alone in the wilderness to his uncle’s hometown. There he falls in love with Rachel, and marries both her and her sister.
Laban: Jacob’s uncle, makes Jacob work seven years for Rachel but reneges on the deal to have him marry Leah.
Rachel: love interest of Jacob, eventually becomes his wife after he works for 14 years.
Leah: considered the less-desirable sister, she marries Jacob before he marries Rachel.
- Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven represents him crossing the threshold on the Hero’s Journey. Before this dream Jacob was one kind of personality: deceitful (towards his brother and father), avoidant (running away from trouble), arrogant. But after the dream he starts to change, becoming more determined, hard-working, and forgiving. Perhaps the angels going up the ladder were his old persona leaving him, and the ones coming down were carrying new traits to fit his personality going forward.
- This story is yet another example of the sibling dynamic so common in the Torah: the older child struggling against the younger. In this case, Leah is considered less desirable than her younger sister, Rachel. Although she marries Jacob first, he loves Rachel more. But when it comes to children, Leah is able to provide Jacob with sons while Rachel remains barren. Rachel is more loved by Jacob but desperately wants to have his children. And Leah has his children, but desperately wants to be loved by him. As the Conservative Jewish movement wrote in their most recent bible commentary, “Each diminished the value of what she was blessed with and focused on what she lacked.”
- God is involved in human affairs. Take Leah. Although her husband, Jacob, doesn’t love her, she is endowed by God with the ability to conceive his children, which elevates her importance and ensures the line of Jewish nationhood. God in this story is compassionate: God sees that one woman is loved less than another, and ensures that she will have value and comfort.
- When Jacob awoke from his dream of the ladder to heaven he uttered the famous phrase, “Surely the Lord is here in this place, and I did not know it.”
- Bethel, where Jacob had his dream, still exists today near an Arab village in the West Bank called Beitin.
- The Torah (since it has something for everyone) describes the engineering behind the water well where Jacob meets Rachel. A stone covered the top of the well, which could be rolled back and forth to access the water or to protect the water from non-locals.
- We get the term “Jew” from the name “Judah”, who was Leah’s fourth son by Jacob, and whose name indicates praise for God.
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© Jason Harris 2017