We will now focus on Jacob, and the Old Testament completion of the promise God gave to Abraham, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
(Genesis 12:2-3 RSV) This promise will now come true through Jacob, who will be the father of the tribes of Israel. The tribes get their names from ten of the sons of Jacob and his two grandsons through Joseph: Reuben, Simeon Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin. But, I’m getting ahead of the story.
Jacob was God’s chosen, but as history shows God’s chosen ones never have it easy, and Jacob was no different. After his deceit with Esau was discovered Rebekah sends him off to her brother Laban’s house on the ruse of finding a wife from among his cousins, expecting him to be gone just a short time until Esau cooled off. Isaac gives his blessing to this, and off Jacob goes.
Now, no one in ancient times goes anywhere alone, especially seeking a bride, so we can feel sure that Jacob, from a very wealthy house, goes with many servants and possessions. Along his journey Jacob has his legendary Ladder dream.
Exhausted from a long walk, Jacob lies down to sleep for the night. During that sleep God comes to him in a dream. The first thing to note about this dream is how God introduces Himself to Jacob, “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac.” In case you are missing it, Isaac is Jacob’s father, Abraham is his grandfather. This is important to note because it goes to the confusion people have with the genealogies in the Bible, especially trying to add up the years, and wondering why Jesus’ two genealogies are different. “Father” doesn’t necessarily denote a direct relationship between two people, rather “Father” can refer to any male ancestor, terms like “grandfather”, “great-grandfather”, etc. didn’t exist. When you read “father” don’t make that assumption. Hebrew genealogy tracked what was considered important or major figures in a families past. If Jacob were to list his ancestry it would be perfectly acceptable to say, “Jacob, the son of Abraham, the son of Noah, the son of Adam” and skip everyone in between whom he considered unimportant, or at least unimportant to the point he was trying to make.
The other important thing to note about Jacob’s dream is the promise being made to him. Prior to this God promised to Abraham to make his seed (descendants) as numerous as the sand on the beach, but only gave him two children. Here God gets more specific with Jacob, He tells Jacob not only that his seed will be numerous, and that they will inhabit the land on which Jacob rests, but that He will not leave Jacob until this is accomplished. Indeed, God is with Jacob throughout his life, giving him the ten sons and two grandsons from which the twelve tribe are named. For his part Jacob names the land Beth-el (House of God) and promises give to God a tenth (tithe) of everything God gives him.
Jacob continues his journey to his uncle’s house (Laban), he comes upon a well with shepherds watering their flocks. If you are curious about the rock being used to cover the well, it was there for a number of reasons. First, to indicate to strangers that the well was active, a well without a covering was an indication that it had dried out. Very important in nomadic cultures. Second, it was to prevent accidents, people or animals falling into an open well. The owner of a well could be sued if someone’s animal fell into an unprotected well.
While he is there talking with the shepherds Rachel comes to the well, and the shepherds inform Jacob that she is Laban’s daughter. Again, we get a little insight into ancient culture. Jacob asks the shepherds to remove the rock so she can water her sheep, but they tell him that they cannot until all of the shepherds are there. First, quite often the rock was so large that it required many people to remove it, this was to assure that someone didn’t drain the well dry, or forget to cover the well afterwards. Also, we see that they insist the sheep be allowed to drink before the cattle. Why? To most of us “urbanites” this is confusing, but it is a matter of practicality, especially in the desert. A sheep will drink about 2 gallons of water, a single cattle will take down 30 – enough to water 15 sheep! In times of drought cattle would be sacrificed before the sheep. Not only did the cattle require more water, they also needed more food, both of which would be in short supply. A single cow could be slaughtered, it’s meat dried, skin turned into leather, feeding a good number of people for quite a while, allowing 15 sheep to survive, whose wool and milk could still be used. Practicality.
In this case the shepherds were following custom, as we find out that the rock was not a large one. When Rachel comes near Jacob rolls the rock away so she can water her sheep, then kisses her and introduces himself. Now, let’s not get all lovey-dove here, this is not a passionate kiss on the lips, the other shepherds would probably have cut him down there for such an act. This was a kiss of greeting, either on the cheeks or the shoulders, a very common greeting, just as Judas did with Jesus (though without the nefarious overtones). Rachel runs home to bring the news to her father, who runs out to greet Jacob with a kiss, and brings him home.
In our modern culture we have lost a lot of the joy from ancient times, I often wish it were back. Jacob was welcomed into Laban’s house, a feast was thrown, and Jacob stayed with them a month. An English preacher where I live once gave his take on this meeting. He said that Laban and his family would have feasted for days welcoming Jacob, in England his father would have looked up from his paper and say, “humph” then gone back to reading. I was once invited to a friend’s house to meet his parents, off-the-boat Italians; they greeted me, offered me a glass of wine (I was only 14, but that meant little to them, it was, after all, just wine) and his mother started putting food on the table. It was 2 in the afternoon, didn’t matter that I had recently had lunch, and that dinner was also close, I wasn’t leaving that house until she felt I was well fed. Ah, for those good old days. Now I’m lucky if someone offers me a glass of water.
It takes a month before Laban asks why Jacob has come all of that distance – talk about patience! Of course, little does Jacob realize what that patience will mean. Jacob tells Laban that he is there seeking a wife from his kin, Laban is pleased and brings both daughters out to meet Jacob. Jacob describes them as. “Leah’s eyes were delicate, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.” Now, to our modern culture we would envision Rachel as a supermodel, with an hourglass figure and attractive looking, while Leah was “easy on the eyes.” In actuality, Leah was probably good looking, but thin, while Rachel was stout and sturdy. A woman was valued by her assumed ability to bear children, and a short woman with wide hips was considered most likely to be able to handle the rigors of pregnancy and child birth than was a slender woman. My, how times have changed.
Laban and Jacob agree on a period of seven years for Jacob to work for the right to marry Rachel. However, Laban is clever. He knows he has little chance to marry off Leah, so after the seven years he springs a cultural requirement on Jacob. In the seven year period Leah has not married, and women must be married in order, oldest to youngest, so to get Rachel, Jacob must first marry Leah. Leah is delighted, Jacob, not so much. So, Jacob works another seven years for the right to marry Rachel, and so it is done. But all was not well, because Jacob hated Leah because of Laban’s deceit. Even though Leah gives him many sons (6, compared to Rachel’s 2), the other 4 came from the handmaids of Leah and Rachel in a tug of war to win favor by having more children than the other. Interesting is that the tribe of Judah, from which Jesus comes, was the child of Leah, the wife Jacob hated.
After this there goes on a long battle between Laban and Jacob about leaving. What it boils down to is that Jacob, after over 20 years away, wants to go back home with his wives, children, and belongings (including the dowry). While he’s been there Jacob, with the help of the Lord, has multiplied Laban’s wealth several times, so Laban doesn’t want Jacob to leave. Bartering goes back and forth about what portion of Laban’s flock belongs to Jacob, they finally settle on Jacob getting all of the “damaged” herd, which is anything that does not have a pure white coat. However, Laban isn’t playing fair, he has his sons hide all of the blemished sheep so that only the pure ones remain. God, however, assures His promise to Jacob and all of the sheep give birth to only blemished lambs. Frustrated, Jacob takes everything that is his and flees from Laban, figuring this is the only way to get away.
Rachel steals the idols of her father’s gods, Laban, realizing this, chases after them and catches up. Laban accuses Jacob of theft, Jacob (unaware of Rachel’s theft) tell him to search the camp for anything that is his and bring it to Jacob. Laban and his men search everywhere; when they get to Rachel’s tent she has hidden it under blankets and says she can’t move because “it’s that time of month”. Frustrated, Laban admits that he could find nothing. Jacob then makes a pact with Laban that all is settled between them, a cairn is erected marking a border between their lands that both agree not to pass over, sealed by an oath to both of their Gods (Laban worshiped the god of Nahor)*. They offered a sacrifice and shared bread and wine in celebration of the pact. In the morning both went their separate ways.
Next time we complete the history of Jacob (Israel).
As always, comments and questions are welcome.
*NOTE: At this point Abraham’s people still believed in territorial gods. YHWH was god over all of the territory that Abraham’s people controlled, and Laban’s god ruled over his territory, in which Laban resided. The concept of a single, universal God still hadn’t quite sunk in.