Dueling tricksters

By the time Joseph was born, Jacob had had enough of the deceiver, Laban. “It’s time to free me from service and let me go to my own country,” Jacob grumbled. “Let me take my wives and children, whom I purchased with honest, hard work.”

“Allow me to say, if you will,” Laban answered, hoping to persuade him to stay, “you and I both know God has blessed me through you. If you agree to stay, I’ll pay you whatever wages you demand.”

“A familiar offer, Uncle,” Jacob said. “But I wonder, are you capable of a good, clean deal?”

“You have my word.”

Laban’s word was worthless, but Jacob decided this might be his only opportunity to get the better of his employer.

“Do you admit that my service record is impeccable,” Jacob asked, “and that your livestock has fared well under my management?”

“Absolutely,” Laban agreed.

“Honestly, you were nothing before I came along, and now you thrive. God has blessed whatever I’ve touched.”

“Yes, Nephew, yes.”

“But how do you expect me to provide for both you and my growing household?”

“Name your price,” was Laban’s eager reply.

“Okay,” Jacob said. “Pay me nothing.”

“I don’t follow.” Laban was stumped.

“If you agree to my terms, I’ll keep feeding and protecting your flocks.”

“What do you have in mind?” Laban asked, feeling suddenly uneasy.

Jacob said, “Let me take all your blemished sheep and goats, and you can keep all the pure, white sheep. Only the marked animals will be mine. Further, I’ll insist that you inspect my wages with your own eyes so that my integrity isn’t questioned later. If you find among my flocks and herds a single animal without blemish, you can call me a thief.”

Laban was all too eager to agree to the deal, but before Jacob had a chance to sort all the animals, Laban removed every goat and lamb with the slightest mark and placed them in the care of his sons. Then he distanced those blemished flocks from the spotless flocks by a three-day journey. He put the rest in the care of Jacob.

Jacob was accustomed to Laban’s dishonesty through the long years of toil, and he assumed the man would play dirty, but he was also confident that God would be on his side, no matter the outcome.

During mating season, Jacob pulled out all the stops. He would attempt the ambitious feat of modifying the herds in his favor, using selective breeding techniques, a little primitive magic, and a lot of prayers.

One night, Jacob dreamed that only the male goats with spots and blemishes were healthy and active in the pen. The spotless goats were lethargic and weak. Then an angel of God appeared in the dream and said, “I’ve noticed Laban’s dishonesty. Now notice all the healthy goats, leaping atop the weak, are yours. I am the God of Bethel, the same God who appeared where you anointed the rock with wine and oil and made a vow to me. It’s nearly time to go home and leave this place behind.”

For six more years, God blessed Jacob. Not only did the spotless herd gradually turn speckled, spotted, striped, and black, but any unblemished sheep left were sad and frail.

So after a total of twenty years serving Laban, Jacob grew filthy rich on flocks, herds, camels, donkeys, and slaves, and his desire to leave Laban’s household grew to a fevered pitch.

Inspiration: Genesis 30

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Growing family

Rachel seethed with envy over Leah and her children, but she lashed out at Jacob. “I’ll die if you don’t give me children,” she complained violently.

Jacob said, “What do you want me to do, play God?”

As a matter of fact, that might not be such a bad idea, she thought.

Rachel left Jacob’s tent and returned a few minutes later with her maid, Bilhah. “Sleep with Bilhah,” she said, nudging her maid closer to Jacob, “and let her carry my babies.” Jacob took Bilhah into his bed, and they had a son named Dan.

Rachel was overjoyed. “God has weighed everything and has answered in my favor.”

Then Bilhah had another son, and Rachel named him Naphtali.

Jacob’s nocturnal visits with Leah were few, but because her rivalry with Rachel was strong, Leah took a strategy from Rachel’s playbook and gave her maid Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate. Zilpah had two sons for her, and Leah named them Gad and Asher.

During the wheat harvest, little Reuben was playing out in the field and came across a sweet-smelling bouquet of mandragora flowers. He plucked them carefully by the root and brought them to his mother.

When Rachel saw her sister’s flowers and caught their pleasant scent, and believing them to aid in fertility, she wanted some for her own house.

“Please give me some of your mandrakes,” she said.

But Leah, remembering her bitterness toward her rival sister, said, “You stole my husband, and you have the gall to ask me for flowers my child presented to me as a gift?”

“Give me some,” Rachel bargained, “and I’ll give you Jacob for the night.”

“Deal,” Leah said, collecting a handful from the bowl by the door.

Jacob was returning from the herds late in the day, and Leah met him halfway. “You’ll be sleeping with me tonight,” she said. “I bought an evening with you in exchange for exquisite mandrakes.”

Jacob slept with Leah, and she bore two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter named Dinah.

God also answered Rachel’s prayers, and from her own womb, she bore a son named Joseph. “Thanks to God, I’m no longer a disappointment.” Then, as if Joseph weren’t enough, she added, “May God give me another son!”

So all of the bickering among Jacob’s wives brought to fruition the entry point of God’s promise of countless descendants for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Inspiration: Genesis 30, Song of Solomon 7:13

Fourteen years

“Just because we’re family,” Laban told Jacob, “doesn’t mean you work for free. How shall I pay you?”

“Funny you should ask,” Jacob answered. Laban had two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and although Jacob was embarrassingly aware that he had come without a dowry, his heart belonged to Rachel.

Customarily, the eldest daughter would have been married off first. But in this case, the eldest’s eyes were somewhat zombie-like and unattractive, while Rachel’s sparkled. Rachel was a picture of beauty, grace, and radiance.

“I’ll work for you for seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage,” Jacob said.

Laban agreed. That would surely give some other suitor ample time to come and take Leah. “It’s better for Rachel to be with you than any other man,” he said.

Jacob stayed with Laban’s household for seven years, watching over his flocks, herds, and lands. Because Jacob loved Rachel, it seemed only a few days had passed.

After completing his part of the promise, Jacob came to Laban to fetch his prize. “My time here is finished, as you know. I’m ready to make Rachel my wife.”

“Very well.” Laban invited everyone in the vicinity to celebrate at the wedding feast. After much dining, singing, and dancing, the sun retired. Laban brought his daughter Leah to Jacob, and Jacob, being full of wine, went to bed with her.

In the morning, Jacob realized what had happened. He asked Laban, “Why did you do this to me? I became a seven-year servant for Rachel.”

“You know our custom,” Laban answered. “We give our firstborn to be married first.”

Laban had also become rich while Jacob managed his affairs, so he wasn’t in a hurry to be rid of him. “Finish this week of celebration, and I’ll give you Rachel as a wife also. The only condition is that you serve me for another seven years.”

So Jacob and Leah finished their week of celebration, and Rachel was presented to Jacob as well.

As Jacob began his second stretch of the indenture, God saw that Leah was unloved. He, therefore, gave Leah the ability to become pregnant, while Rachel suffered barrenness. Leah had four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.

After Judah was born, Jacob’s visits became infrequent.

Inspiration: Genesis 29

Jacob’s love

Jacob continued traveling east until he came to a field where three flocks of sheep were resting by a well. Jacob asked the shepherds, “Where are you from, brothers?”

“We’re from Haran,” one of the shepherds offered.

“Do you know Laban?” Jacob asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Look,” another shepherd pointed further east. “Here comes his daughter with Laban’s sheep.”

Jacob saw a girl approaching in the distance with a flock. He looked around at all the sheep lying around. “Why aren’t these sheep out grazing? It’s not even near nightfall. Water them quickly and get them to pasture.”

“Can’t be done,” the first shepherd said. “The stone covering the mouth of the well is too heavy. We need all the shepherds together to move it. Only then can we water the sheep.”

When Laban’s daughter Rachel was close enough for Jacob to see her beauty, he took hold of the massive boulder with both arms and rolled it away from the mouth of the well. He watered Laban’s sheep, gave Rachel a kiss, and cried in front of everyone.

“I’m your Aunt Rebekah’s son,” he said.

Rachel ran home to tell her father, and Laban ran back to meet him. They embraced, and Laban welcomed Jacob into his home.

Jacob told Laban all that had transpired over the last several days, and Laban answered, “We’re related by blood.” He thought back to a time when a servant of Jacob’s grandfather came with riches for the hand of his sister Rebekah.

Jacob stayed with Laban for a month.

Inspiration: Genesis 29

Jacob’s ladder

Jacob traveled from Beersheba toward Haran, and as evening approached one night, he settled in a clearing near the city of Luz. Using a stone for a pillow, he slept like a rock.

He dreamed that a ladder rose up from the ground and into the sky, and angels moved up and down its rungs. God stood next to him and said, “I’m the God of Abraham and Isaac. This land will be yours, and your descendants will spread to the north, south, east, and west, like dust on the wind. Every family on earth will be blessed by you and your descendants. I’m with you wherever you go and won’t leave you until I’ve fully paved the way of my promise, bringing you back to this land.”

Jacob woke suddenly, saying, “God is here, and I didn’t even know it.” Then, a surge of fear came over him. “I’m in awe here in God’s house, facing heaven’s gate itself.”

In the morning, Jacob got up early, fashioned a marker from the stone he had slept on, and he poured wine and oil on it. He named that place “Bethel,” House of God.

“If God stays with me, feeds and clothes me, and protects me against my angry brother until I return to my father’s house,” he said, raising his hands to the heavens, “then God will be my Master, this stone will mark the place of his residence, and I will give back to him one-tenth of all I own.”

Inspiration: Genesis 28

Selecting wives

Esau hated Jacob for the wholesale robbery of their father’s blessing, and he was often heard mumbling his plan of revenge.

“After Father dies and I’ve mourned his death, I’ll snuff out that thief in the night and take back what’s mine by right.”

Rebekah heard Esau’s venomous pronouncements, so she called for Jacob. “Run to your uncle Laban’s house in Haran,” she said, “and stay there until Esau’s anger has subsided. When your offense is no more than a distant memory, I’ll send a messenger for you. Don’t make me mourn the loss of my husband and my beloved son at the same time.”

Then Rebekah insisted that Isaac have a heart to heart with Jacob about a wife.

“These Hittite women make me want to puke,” she complained. “If Jacob marries one, I see no reason to live.”

So Isaac sat his younger son down and said, “Look, don’t marry a Canaanite. Instead, go to Grandpa Bethuel’s house and find a wife among Laban’s daughters. God’ll give you the family blessing, numberless descendants and all the real estate you could ever want.”

After hearing from both of his parents, and seeing they were in agreement for once, Jacob left for Haran to find his uncle, Laban.

In the meantime, after having overheard the part of the conversation about not marrying a Canaanite, and realizing his wives disgraced his parents, Esau went to visit his uncle, Ishmael. While there, he took Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath, also called Basemath, as a wife in addition to his foreign wives, Judith, Adah, and Oholibamah.

Inspiration: Genesis 27-28

Twice bitten

No sooner had Isaac finished blessing his son Jacob, that Esau returned from hunting game for his father. Jacob slipped out the back way while his older brother prepared a hearty meal of roasted ibex and bread, just the way his father liked it.

Bringing the hot dish to his father’s side table, Esau said, “Sit up, Father, and eat. Afterward, you can give me your blessing.”

Isaac, already sitting up, suddenly had a perplexed look on his face. “Who are you?” he asked.

I’m your firstborn, Esau.”

Isaac began to shake. “To whom did I just give my blessing?” he asked. “To whom offered me a meal of meat, fresh from the field? Who watched me as I ate every bite?”

Isaac bowed his head and sighed. His son stood in confusion. “Whoever he was, he’ll be blessed indeed.”

Esau grabbed his father’s lapel violently and wailed, “Bless me too, Father!”

Isaac’s head remained bowed, unflinching. His words were calm and evenly paced. “Your brother deceived me and has taken away your blessing.”

Esau slowly released his grip from his father’s bedclothes. “My brother is aptly named ‘Jacob’… Supplanter.” Esau grimaced and backed away from the bed. “Twice he has nipped at my heel, taking what is mine. First, my birthright, and now my blessing.”

A lamp flickered in the corner of the room, and Esau could see that his father was just as distressed by Jacob’s betrayal as he was. For a few minutes, neither said a word.

Then Esau asked, “Have you not reserved any blessing for your other son?”

Isaac lifted his head, his eyes in a dead stare at whoever was facing him. “I’ve already given Jacob lordship over you, and all his brothers will be his servants. My granaries, herds, flocks, and vineyard are now his. There’s nothing left.”

“Are you telling me you can only bless one of us?” Esau asked. “Bless me, too!” he said. “Please, Father!” Then Esau began to cry.

Isaac raised a hand and said, “Your existence will be desolate and barren. You’ll live in perpetual conflict, a servant to Jacob. But you’ll eventually break free, destroying the bonds that hold you to your brother.”

Esau left his father and wandered into the dark night.

Inspiration: Genesis 27

Stolen blessing

Esau was forty when he married Judith and Adah. Neither Isaac nor Rebekah were impressed with his taste in women, mainly because they were Hittites.

When Isaac was close to death and had all but lost his vision, he called for Esau. “My time here is short, son,” he said, “and one of the last things on my bucket list is a meal of fresh game from my favorite son’s bow.  Go. I want to give you my blessing before I die.”

Rebekah overheard their conversation, so when Esau took to the field with his quiver and bow, she pulled Jacob aside and said, “Get the best two kids from the flock so I can prepare delicious cutlets for your father. After you serve him the meal pretending to be Esau, he’ll bless you.”

But Jacob answered, “Esau is a hairy fellow, and I’m as slick as an eel. What if Father reaches out and literally feels the betrayal? He’ll curse me as well as my future children.”

“No, he’ll curse me,” his mother assured him. “Now, go.”

Jacob brought in the meats, and his mother made Isaac a meal fit for a king. Then she disguised Jacob in some of Esau’s clothes and attached the hides of the freshly skinned goats to Jacob’s hands and neck.

“Now,” she smiled satisfactorily, handing Jacob a bowl and some bread, “serve your father this food, so he will bless you.”

Jacob went in, and his father asked, “Who are you, my son?”

“I’m Esau,” Jacob rasped, then cleared his throat. “I’m your firstborn. I’ve come back from hunting, and I’ve prepared some food the way you like it. Sit up and eat so you can bless me.”

“That was quick,” his father answered, sitting up and leaning on his banister.

“God brought me success.”

“Come over here, son,” Isaac said, “so I can touch you and confirm that you’re really Esau.”

Jacob approached his father, his heart pounding, and he placed the dish of food onto his father’s side table.

“You are Esau, aren’t you?” he asked, after feeling his son’s arms.

“Yes, Father,” Jacob said with a sigh of relief.

“Bring me my food,” Isaac concluded, so I may eat of your game and bless you.”

Jacob moved the table close to his father’s bed and served him the prepared goat cutlets. Isaac enjoyed every bite of his meal and chased it down with some wine.

Then Isaac said, “Come and give me a kiss, son.”

Jacob came close and kissed his father. Isaac recognized the scent of Esau on the clothes Jacob was wearing, so Isaac blessed him right then and there.

“The scent of my son is like a field blessed of God. May God grant you the best of heaven and earth. Let other nations serve you, and may your brothers submit to you in your dominion. Those who curse you are themselves cursed. Those who bless you are blessed indeed.”

Inspiration: Genesis 26-27

Welling up

Isaac farmed a piece of land in that country, reaping a hundredfold the very same year. His sheep and livestock were so numerous that the Philistines raged with jealousy.

This wasn’t the first time a Hebrew and his wealth caused the Philistines to misbehave. In the days of Abraham, they had clogged all the wells dug by his father’s servants to deter him from success.

So Abimelech said, “You’re too mighty. You have to leave.”

Without argument, Isaac left Gerar proper and settled in the valley. Isaac dug out the wells that had been filled in by the Philistines in his father’s day, and he restored the names his father had given them.

One particular well discovered by Isaac’s servants in the valley caught the attention of the local shepherds, and they contested its ownership. Isaac named the well “Esek,” Strife. Isaac’s servants dug another well, and again the local herders fought with him. He named that one “Sitnah,” Hatred.

Finally, Isaac dug another without contention. “Now this area is big enough for all of us,” he said. “We’ll be prosperous here.” He called the well “Rehoboth,” Wide Open.

After this, he went to Beersheba, where his father and Abimelech had made their promise to one another. The first night he arrived there, God appeared to him, saying, “I’m the God of your father. Don’t be afraid. I’m with you, and I’ll bless you. I’ll make your descendants multiply for your father’s sake.”

Isaac built an altar, called on the name of God, and settled there. Isaac’s servants dug a well at that spot too.

Abimelech paid Isaac a visit with his adviser Ahuzzath and his army commander Phicol.

“Well, this is a surprise,” Isaac said, inviting them into his tent. “You made it pretty clear you despise me. What can I do for you?”

Abimelech said, “It’s obvious that God is with you, so let’s promise we’ll leave each other alone. We’ve never touched you, and we sent you away in peace.”

Isaac prepared a bunch of food, and they all partied into the night. In the morning the king and his entourage left in peace. That same day, Isaac’s servants reported that they found water while digging yet another well.

“Let’s call it “Shibah,” Isaac said, naming it Oath. “And let’s name this city Beersheba as well.”

Inspiration: Genesis 26

Like father

Another food shortage occurred, but God told Isaac not to go to Egypt as his father had done. “Instead,” God said, “settle in the land I will show you.” And He echoed the details of the promise He had given to Abraham.

Isaac took his family and settled in Gerar. When the men noticed the alluring Rebekah, Isaac lied for the same reason his father had before him. “She’s my sister,” he told everyone.

After Isaac had been living there for a while as an alien, Abimelech, the Philistine king who had been deceived by Abraham in the past, was peering through his window and saw Isaac caressing Rebekah. He called for Isaac and said, “Obviously, Rebekah is your wife. Why’d you tell everyone she was your sister?”

“I thought I’d be killed, so someone else could have her.”

“What have you done? One of my citizens could have easily taken her to his bed, and you would have forced guilt on us!”

Abimelech remembered the oath of loyalty he had made with Abraham, so he made a blanket decree: “Anyone who touches Isaac or his wife Rebekah, will be executed.”

Inspiration: Genesis 26