Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wrestling with God and Man: Part 4- Sister Rivalry

Genesis 29:31-32 (NIV)

31 When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 32 Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, "It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now."

[The Vision of Rachel and LeahDante Gabriel Rossetti, 1899]

Jacob was indeed blessed but it came at the cost of two sisters wrestling for Jacob's love and blessing. Jacob believed that departing to Haran would lessen the pain he's caused, but being blessed by God isn't easy. On his journey Jacob will soon find that running away from his troubles only causes more grief. Here are the verses I will be referring to on the wrestling sisters, Leah and Rachel.
Through Jacob, he blessed others in his 20 years in Paddan-Aram. Yet there were some who took advantage of his blessings, and in the end Jacob's blessings increased. There is a comical tale in Rashi's commentary which is telling of Laban's greed when he first greeted Jacob (Genesis 29:13).

13. Now it came to pass when Laban heard the report of Jacob, his sister's son, that he ran towards him, and he embraced him, and he kissed him, and he brought him into his house. He told Laban all these happenings.
יג. וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ לָבָן אֶת שֵׁמַע יַעֲקֹב בֶּן אֲחֹתוֹ וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבֶּק לוֹ וַיְנַשֶּׁק לוֹ וַיְבִיאֵהוּ אֶל בֵּיתוֹ וַיְסַפֵּר לְלָבָן אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה:

Rashi's Commentary

that he ran towards him: He thought that he (Jacob) was laden with money, for the servant of the household (Eliezer) had come here with ten laden camels.[from Gen. Rabbah 70:13]
וירץ לקראתו: כסבור ממון הוא טעון, שהרי עבד הבית בא לכאן בעשרה גמלים טעונים:
and he embraced: When he (Laban) did not see anything with him (Jacob), he said, “Perhaps he has brought golden coins, and they are in his bosom.” [from Gen. Rabbah 70:13]
ויחבק: כשלא ראה עמו כלום אמר שמא זהובים הביא והנם בחיקו:
and he kissed him: He said,“Perhaps he has brought pearls, and they are in his mouth.” [from Gen. Rabbah 70:13]
וינשק לו: אמר שמא מרגליות הביא והם בפיו:
He told Laban: that he had come only because he was compelled to do so because of his brother (Esau), and that they had taken his money from him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 70:13]
ויספר ללבן: שלא בא אלא מתוך אונס אחיו, ושנטלו ממונו ממנו:

And so after a thorough cavity search, Laban announced that since he is kin that he could take him in (even though he doesn't have to). Laban asked Jacob to name his wages for working for him. Jacob said he would work 7 years for Rachel, Laban's younger daughter. Already the wheels of deception within Laban's head are turning as he "cooks" up a scheme to profit immensely from the one blessed by God. After 7 years, the hasty Esau within Jacob speaks up, asking for his wife. Laban pulls the old switch-a-roo and to Jacob's surprise, it was Leah! Karen Armstrong describes the misery he faced for the deceptions he has caused in the past.
"Jacob the trickster had been duped in his turn. With strong poetic irony, he was forced to acknowledge the rights of the firstborn child. Before he was given Rachel in marriage too, he had to agree to work for Laban for another seven years. But his marriage to the sisters did not bring peace to the household. Because Jacob loved Rachel and not Leah, he introduced the same sibling rivalry into Laban's home that had split his own family asunder." (In the Beginning, "A Blessing of a Curse?")
In Rabbinic tradition, Leah was destined to marry Esau and the description of her eyes as tender (or weak from crying, Genesis 29:17) is interpreted as Leah earnestly praying for God to change her destiny. God granted her wish, but not Jacob's heart. God makes up for Jacob's neglect, by opening up her womb. With each son she bore, Leah grew to make peace with Jacob's hatred towards her and thanked the Lord by her fourth child, Judah. I found Armstrong's statement on the forgiving, healing, and reconciliatory nature of Leah's thankfulness as foreshadowing of Judah's attempt to reconcile his family very touching. Although her thankfulness is momentary it is a peek into the hearts of our wrestling characters. Each of them have their own personal demons which they struggle with so that they may recapture Eden.

Back and forth the sisters wrestled for God's blessing and Jacob's love (Genesis 30). [Notice that God chose to bless one of them with fertility at a time.] When God would not bless her with children Rachel took matters into her own hands by offering her maidservant to Jacob, as Sarah did with Abraham. I wonder if this offer opened up any of Jacob's childhood emotional wounds since he must have noticed his father, Isaac, in silent misery caused by Sarah and Hagar's rivalry. Jacob yearned to keep his family together and feared that the Edenic promise of prosperity and blessing might slip through his fingers at any moment. The tension between the sisters became more hostile as Rachel named her second son, by her maidservant, Bilhah, after the struggle the sisters endured: "Then Rachel said, 'With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed'; so she named him Naphtali." (Gen. 30:8). Back and forth they wrestled, and Jacob tired of it all asked Laban to let him go home (30:25).

Jacob knew that he could never truly live at peace with himself and reconcile the members of his family until he faced Esau. The sibling rivalry between his wives was a daily reminder of his fear to his past actions. The man who would be renamed Israel (Hebrew: יִשְׂרָאֵל‎, "struggler/striver with God") could not even stand to face his wives struggling over his blessing and love. The man who through all others were blessed could not find any blessings within his own home. Jacob's story is a testament to the struggle each and everyone of us may face in life. Jacob is not remembered for overcoming his inner demons, but that he CHOSE to continue wrestling even if it meant wrestling with the Divine itself. It is the struggle itself that makes us who we are, not the demons we've overcome.

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