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Genesis: Jacob, the Trickster

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

From now until the end of Genesis Jacob will be a central character. Because Esau is planning to kill him, Rebekah tells him to flee to her brother Laban In Haran. She doesn't want him to marry a Hittite woman, she says, which is what Esau did. "I hate my life because of Hittite women!" she exclaims. Perhaps she's had a bad experience with her daughter-in-law. Before Jacob leaves, Isaac blesses him – evidently there are no hard feelings between father and son – and tells him not to marry a Canaanite woman. Endogamy persists.

Jacob sets off and one night, on his way to Haran, dreams that he sees a ladder leading up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. The Lord tells him that He is with him and will look after him and bring him safely back home. The story is an explanation for a place name Bethel, which means "house of God". Many of the stories in Genesis purport to be explanations as to why places got their names. But the steps in the ladder also indicate that Jacob will father a long line.

The first person he encounters on arrival at Laban's farm is his daughter Rachel, who is tending sheep. Jacob kisses Rachel, weeps, informs her that he is her cousin – in that order, note – whereupon she runs off and tells her father. Notice again the detail of a young woman running. Clearly Rachel is excited at meeting Jacob. Jacob says he will work for Laban for seven years in return for marrying Rachel, which certainly says something about his feelings towards her.

However, on the night of the wedding Laban substitutes his older daughter Leah for Rachel, and when Jacob wakes up in the morning he sees that Leah is beside him in the bed. Jacob the trickster has himself been tricked. Laban's excuse is that he cannot marry off his younger daughter until he has married off his older daughter. That's a tradition that still persists in some countries to this day. So they agree that Jacob will put in another seven years of indentured service in order to acquire Rachel as his wife, which he duly does. Again, more evidence, I would like to think, of his deep attachment to her. It's also striking – and sad – to learn that Leah is described as "despised" by Jacob, in contrast to Rachel who is loved.

There now follows one of the most extraordinary passages in the Hebrew Bible. Jacob has two wives and both now compete in a kind of fertility competition to see which of them can produce more sons. The Lord joins in, now favouring one sister, now the other. Both wives rope in the services of their maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, in order to increase the tally. Jacob is a veritable sperm donor at this point in the narrative. It would be difficult to take all this seriously, were it not for the fact that a serious point underlies it, which is that the 12 sons they collectively produce become the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel. Rachel later dies giving birth to the youngest, whose name is Benjamin.

Jacob now wants to head home so he makes an agreement with Laban to take with him all the speckled, spotted and black sheep and goats. Laban readily agrees, because these were in the minority. Even so, he tries to cheat Jacob by squirrelling away all the speckled and striped goats and all the black sheep. However, Jacob the trickster has a trick up his sleeve. He puts striped sticks in front of the female sheep when they're mating, and as a result they produce striped and speckled offspring. People in antiquity, and indeed well into the 19th century, believed that a mother's visual impressions at the moment of conception affected the appearance of her offspring. In this way Jacob became "exceedingly rich".

Jacob is back to his old tricks, though this time we are surely expected to applaud his trickery. Laban is, after all, a downright scoundrel and he has exploited Jacob to the max. God appears to Jacob in a dream and tells him it's high time to leave, so he heads off with all his family and flocks and other possessions without telling Laban. Before leaving, however, Rachel steals the household gods. Household gods were minor deities who protected the family. Three days later Laban discovers they've gone and heads after Jacob. He seems to be almost as upset by the theft of his household gods as he is by the loss of his daughters, whom he melodramatically describes as "captives of the sword". Come on. They're hardly captives. After all, Jacob has paid a hefty price for each of them in terms of labour – 14 years no less.

When he catches up with Jacob, Laban insists on searching for his household gods but he can't find them. It turns out that Rachel is sitting on them. "I can't get up because I'm having my period," she tells him. She's become a trickster too. Isaac is incensed at the false accusation of him stealing the household gods – he doesn't know Rachel stole them – and tells Laban that the only reason he managed to escape from his clutches was because God was protecting him.

Genesis doesn't pass any moral judgement on the fact that Rachel is still, at least partly, a polytheist. This is perhaps a reflection of the enormous effort it took the Jewish people, and human beings in general, to switch from a polytheistic system of belief to a monotheistic system of belief.

Isaac and Laban make a covenant to keep out of each other's way in future, and Isaac swears he will not mistreat Rachel and Leah. Then they part, Laban still bitter at being outsmarted by Isaac.

The subject of the next lesson is the terrible crime that Jacob's sons commit in defence of their sister's honour.

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Written by

Robert Garland