Genesis 30:1-24 (New International Version, ©2010)
1 When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”
2 Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
3 Then she said, “Here is Bilhah, my servant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her.”
4 So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her, 5 and she became pregnant and bore him a son. 6 Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.” Because of this she named him Dan.[a]
7 Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 Then Rachel said, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” So she named him Naphtali.[b]
9 When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 Then Leah said, “What good fortune!”[c] So she named him Gad.[d]
12 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 Then Leah said, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher.[e]
14 During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”
15 But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”
“Very well,” Rachel said, “he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.”
16 So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he slept with her that night.
17 God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Then Leah said, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband.” So she named him Issachar.[f]
19 Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 Then Leah said, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun.[g]
21 Some time later she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.
22 Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive. 23 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” 24 She named him Joseph,[h] and said, “May the LORD add to me another son.”
ok… I have to say – I LOVE this story.
If you know me and have ever discussed any aspect of pop culture with me, you know that I am drawn to the quirky, off center storytelling of the Coen brothers and the like. I love messy, open ended stories. I love it when a story leaves me scratching my head and saying “huh?”
Did I mention that I love this story?
This story has all the makings of a great film adaptation; Lots of great characters, farce-type comedy with real heartbreak and struggle to balance. And… the original work is in the public domain and therefore the story rights are essentially free!
If I were going to develop this story for the screen, I think I’d want to really explore these characters and their stories so, rather than a big screen adaptation, I think I’d pitch it to cable; Maybe an HBO series like the Sopranos with great actors and great writers telling great, complex, quirky stories. I might move the story to a contemporary setting.
It might look something like this…
There is another reason I love this story. Another reason I find it so rich and so hopeful. I love this story because… well… because it is just so… messed up.
How did we get here? Jacob swindled his brother out of his father’s money, his father’s blessing, and his father’s love. But, he soon found it difficult to enjoy his winnings due his constant and well founded fear that his brother Esau might, at any moment, brutally murder him. So, he runs. He runs until he finds a rich uncle who will take him in. Uncle has a beautiful young daughter named Rachel and a not so beautiful daughter – Leah. Jacob is smitten with Rachel. Leah… not so much. Asks uncle for permission to marry Rachel. Uncle says “eh… work for me seven years and she is yours”. Jacob works seven years. Takes a bath, combs his hair puts on his tux, walks the aisle, marries Rachel, and they head off on their honeymoon. Candle-lit tent… soft dessert breeze… camel softly braying in the distance… Finally the moment comes and he removes Rachel’s bridal veil…
Not Rachel. It’s Leah. Remember Leah? The not so beautiful sister?
Complains to Uncle. Seven More years. Another bath, his second in 14 years! Another wedding (wasLeah Matron of Honor?). Another honeymoon. candles, breezes, veil ever so gingerly lifted with one eye closed and the other squinting… sigh of relief. She is more beautiful than he remembers. Jacob finally has Rachel…
AND he has Leah.
This should absolutely go well.
As the father of three daughters who are consequently also sisters, the thought of this arrangement makes my eyeballs ache. In fact, I am pretty much ready, at this point in the story, to say that Jacob has paid his penance for ripping off his brother.
So, here we are. We pick up this story in Genesis 30. Jacob has two wives and 4 sons. Rachel has not been able to have children and so she has Jacob marry her servant who gives him two more sons.
Now we have THREE wives and six sons.
Leah, in a fit of sibling rivalry, gives Jacob her servant with whom he has two more sons.
So… if you are keeping score… that’s FOUR wives and eight sons. I am tired…
And NOW the story takes a really weird turn. Leah’s oldest son Rueben – Like the sandwich - has gathered some Mandrakes out of the fields he tends. Rachel sees the mandrake plants and really wants some…
Mandrakes. Most of you are undoubtedly aware that the mandrake is known primarily for that fact that it screams like a banshee when pulled from the earth and that Mandrake is the best known antidote for victims turned to stone by the direct gaze of a basilisk. If you are not well read in the Harry Potter Chronicles and require more commonly known facts about the truth and legend of the mandrake, consider these nuggets:
- the mandrake is a hallucinogenic plant (was Rachel attempting to self-medicate?)
- the mandrake is a common element in many pagan and neopagan religions
- the mandrake is found in the writing of literary greats such as Macciavelli, Shakespear, DH Lawrence, JK Rowling, and Cormac McCarthy
and most significant to our story…
- the hebrew word used for mandrake means “love plant” and the mandrake was believed, in many ancient cultures, to ensure conception.
Jacob had eight sons at this point, but Rachel remained barren. So she asked for the Mandrake… she was desperate and Leah knew it. Leah knew how badly her sister wanted a child and she also knew how deeply Jacob loved her sister. So Leah, being a loving and kind sister, gave Rachel the Mandrake with but a simple request.
“Let me sleep with Jacob”
Rachel gets a nasty, ugly, root and Leah gets Jacob and, eventually, two more sons and a daughter. Got that? Rachel takes the fertility drugs and Leah, who already has 4 sons, gets pregnant!
And Jacob? By now I would imagine that he’d give back his birthright if he could just spend a weekend alone fishing.
There is an old Asian saying: “happy wife, happy life”. What do you get with four un-happy wives? Not sure but maybe this is why, a few years later, Jacob wrestled God without fear.
Have you been keeping up… doing the math? Four wives. Ten sons. One daughter.
And then it happens. God remembers Rachel. And Rachel has a son… she names him Joseph.
Joseph. Of Jacob’s 12 sons (Rachel has another son later - Benjamin) the only one we all remember is Joseph. The only son of the 12 whose story we know because he is truly the only one of the 12 whose story is recorded. We don’t know much about Dan or Rueben or Asher except that they sold Joseph to the gypsies and told Jacob he was dead… did I not say this would make an amazing HBO series?
So there is the story… and here is your challenge…
What is the doctrinal truth taught in this passage? Where does this story most clearly and significantly impact systematic theology?
Is this story another wonderfully quirky example of a big God with a Big Love for a messed up bunch of people?
Maybe, sometimes, a great story is just… a great story.
In the midst of this soap opera, God listened to Leah. God remembered Rachel. He did not endorse or condemn their wacky behavior. He just stuck around and cleaned up the mess… but not all of it.
I said last week that these Old Testament heroes give me hope… that God can use me as I am. Broken, selfish, dishonest, tired, bitter, weak. That a great story does not require perfect characters and that, in fact, the best stories rarely have perfect characters at all.
And yet… I am not satisfied in my weakness. I do not embrace my selfishness or my bitterness. I look forward… and I look up because; at the end of this “great cloud of witnesses” that make up the patriarchs of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths, is the “New Adam” – Jesus Christ. The Christ who, before he was executed, prayed for his closest friends and, maybe, for us too:
John 17:12-19 (New International Version, ©2010)
12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.
13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
He kept them… us… safe. He protects us. The broken, the selfish, the bitter, tired, weak…
By his NAME. He gives us HIS joy. He gives us truth. He sanctifies us. And he sends us stumbling into the world… not to be a part of the world… but to CHANGE the world.
Jacob did not want to be the father of a nation. He only wanted Rachel. He did not intend to become Israel, only to keep his wives from killing each other and maybe to take a peaceful nap every once in a while.
But God uses the stuff at hand. He uses the common, the broken pieces; and tells a story that leads us all to his son and the kingdom he has called us to seek.
A kingdom that can be found…
Even in a messy family like Jacob’s...
Or like ours.
His kingdom come.