Sunday, January 27, 2019

Injustice for Dinah and Tamar (Gen 34, 38)

Mixed in with the stories of the patriarchs and their wives in Genesis, there are two interludes where the main characters are women with injustice done to them by men. Dinah's story involves rape, romance, and murder. Tamar's story features a series of bad marriages, prostitution, and a death sentence. They are vivid stories, and their main female characters present a contrast in ways of approaching life as a woman that is much more stark than the pretty/plain contrast we saw between Rachel and Leah. I think this contrast is an interesting way to look at their stories, so I'm going to write about them together.

So far, Genesis has featured many stories where women are fairly bold: speaking, acting, influencing their husbands and the action. They talk to God, and he often talks to them. Tamar fits this mold, except that she does not interact with God. But Dinah is different in every way. Dinah is Leah's last child, the only daughter born to Jacob. The meaning of her name is not given in the text, but it means "judged," which turns out to be a bit prophetic, as we will see.

Dinah, being a girl, would not grow up to found one of the tribes of Israel, like her brothers. But you can imagine that as the baby sister, she might have been doted on. That her brothers love her fiercely and feel possessive of her becomes evident as the story unfolds.

Almost all we know about Dinah's life takes place in one tragic episode. In her story, Dinah takes only one mild action, visiting some young women who lived nearby. The rest of the developments happen to her. On her visit, a local prince, Shechem, sees her and "seized and raped her." This is described as a violent crime, not a romantic interlude. But in the next sentence Shechem "fell in love with her, and he tried to win her affection with tender words." He is completely serious and tells his father to get involved so that he can marry Dinah. How must Dinah have experienced this? I think it is extremely hard to read. Shechem's affection (*after the RAPE*) seems genuine and strong. Dinah must have initially been terrified and violated, but did she change in her feelings? We cannot know. Dinah does not contribute to the movement of the story here, she is just raped, and then pursued for marriage.

Shechem approaches Jacob and Dinah's brothers (Leah's other sons) to ask for her hand. But the wedding negotiations appear to be between Dinah's brothers, and Shechem's father rather than between Jacob and Shechem's father. Shechem begs to marry Dinah, offering anything they will ask of him. Jacob's brothers respond, "deceitfully, "says verse 13. They pretend they will allow Shechem to marry Dinah, if he and all of his clan will be circumcised. Shechem, the text says here, is a highly respected member of his family. He presents the proposal to the leaders at the town gate and they accept in basically good faith, though they do have a motive of completely mixing with Jacob's family so that "all their livestock and possessions will be ours." Maybe this was just a motivation for accepting the terms and joining with the wealthy Israelites. But either way they are as good as their word, and all the men are circumcised in preparation for the marriage.

At this vulnerable moment for the men of Shechem's town,  Simeon and Levi fall upon them and murder every man in the town. They take Dinah from Shechem's house, and return to their camp. Then the rest of Jacob's sons arrive and plunder the the town, taking all the riches and even "their little children and wives . . . as captives." Ugh.

Jacob is furious with Levi and Simeon when he finds out, mostly because of his fear of repercussions for himself and his family. He is worried that the other nearby people will join together to crush them after such horrendous behavior, which seems reasonable. They prepare to leave town, and God tells them to go to Bethel to meet with him. From his reaction, it looks like Jacob was not in on the planned massacre. He was part of the meeting where the terms were agreed on, though he did not set them. Was he in approval of the match?

We never hear Dinah's reaction to all of this. But however she felt about the marriage, the murders were probably devastating to her. If she really hated Shechem, she may have been glad to be free of him. But two considerations make me think she might not have been. First of all, he seems to really treasure her approaching the marriage. If it was genuine and not obsessive, a human response to that kind of love just might be forgiveness and acceptance? The second is that however she felt toward Shechem, after having been publicly acknowledged as a rape victim, any more marriage prospects for her must have been difficult to come by in that society. With no husband and no children, Dinah's ability to achieve honor and advancement would have been really limited. I'm sure she was taken care of within Jacob's wealthy household. But when his descendants are listed as they depart for Egypt at the end of Genesis, where her brothers are listed along with their wives, children, and in some cases grandchildren, Dinah is just Dinah.

Tamar's injustice is different. It develops much more slowly, and though it does also involve headline-worthy sexual scandal in the end, she is the one who commits it, in order to take care of herself, where Dinah is on the receiving end, and suffers for what happens to her.

Tamar's story starts out with an honorable arranged marriage to Judah's son Er. This marriage must have been hard for Tamar considering that her husband was "wicked in the Lord's sight," so much so that "the Lord took his life." This direct judgment is pretty rare in the Bible, but it happens twice to Judah's sons, who are Tamar's husbands, in this story. When Er dies, Tamar has not yet accomplished the important work of bearing a child to be Er's heir. Therefore, his brother Onan has a legal duty to marry Tamar, so she can have a son for Er. Onan does marry Tamar, and even sleeps with her, but he wickedly "spills his seed on the ground" so she can't actually have a child. God "considered it evil for Onan to deny a child to his dead brother. So the Lord took Onan's life too." Tamar has really had a poor lot of husbands to deal with at this point.

With his two sons dead, rather than take her in to provide for her as part of his family, Judah sends Tamar back to her parents house to wait until his third son Shelah is old enough to marry her. At this point, Tamar is not doing well in life. She hasn't yet been able to have a son, because two of her husbands were too wicked to live, from God's perspective. She is now back at home and her only hope of a family to be with her for the rest of her life is in Judah's last son. She must have been apprehensive after her marriages to Judah's other sons. Would Shelah be any different? But when he reaches marriageable age, nothing happens. Judah does not look like he plans to even do his legal duty to Tamar by letting her marry him. This is when Tamar springs into action.

When she understands her circumstances, that she will likely be neglected by the father-in-law who has a duty to care for her, she takes her future into her own hands. The text gives us cinematic detail of her changing out of her widow's clothes and putting on a veil to disguise herself. Then Tamar brazenly sits by the road where she knows Judah will be, to present herself to him as a prostitute. She must know Judah, and be fairly sure that this plan will work, to be bold enough to put it into action.

It goes like clockwork. Or as if it were divinely orchestrated? Judah does not recognize Tamar, but does want to have sex with her. She gets his identification markers, apparently as a deposit for the goat he promises as payment. But really of course, she wants these rather than a goat! Judah, embarrassingly, cannot find her later to get them back. She is holding onto them until the key moment when she is found to be pregnant.

At that moment, Judah's great hypocrisy, callousness, and lack of love for his daughter in law is revealed. It's interesting that before he understands what's going on, he has a clue that could have jogged his memory and made him wonder about the timing of everything. Judah was told (it doesn't say who told him), "Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has acted like a prostitute. And now, because of this, she's pregnant!" Did the message bearer know what had happened I wonder? The details in the accusation are perfectly correct, and it's hard to know how anyone else would know about this unless Tamar wanted them to.

Judah, horribly, says "Bring her out and let her be burned!" Apparently this is his public stance on prostitution. But he changes his tune when she sends a message to him  "as they were taking her out to kill her." She has tied the knot in her plan well. She shows Judah his id markers she has been holding onto, and she escapes her sentence when Judah has to acknowledge the truth of his behavior. All the talk of burning is forgotten, and Judah, convicted, now declares, "She is more righteous than I am because I did not arrange for her to marry my son Shelah." In a righteousness contest, most likely neither of these two would be near the top if their particular relationship with each other were considered. However, I do think he's right that Tamar would be ahead.

Judah gives Tamar twin sons, who in true biblical fashion, at their births switch their birth order: one baby's hand comes out first, then the other baby is actually born first. Their names are Perez and Zerah, and they follow Judah immediately in future geneologies, skipping the generation of Er, Onan, and Shelah. I'm not sure what the official geneology protocols are in this kind of situation. Technically of course the boys are Judah's sons, even though Tamar's sons were supposed to count as Er's sons if they had been fathered by one of his brothers. I think it is really interesting that Tamar is one of the only females mentioned in Jesus's geneology in Matthew, perhaps it is because of the tricky nature of the line here. I wouldn't say that that alone counts as an endorsement of Tamar's scheme. But there is another place where we have some interesting commentary on what happens to both Dinah and Tamar.

The final commentary in Jacob's blessings
At the end of Jacob's life, he calls together all his sons to bless them before he dies. We have thought a little about a father's blessing and it's effect before, wondering whether it is meant to actually influence the future, or to rather predict it. In this case Jacob gives us a clear answer for what he means to do. "I will tell you what will happen to each of you in the days to come." He intends these blessings as prophecies, and when he says things like "I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob," it sounds to me like he is really speaking for God, since this is not something an old man at the end of his life will be able to do. He has a message for each of his sons, but I think what he says to his first four are particularly thought-provoking for us.

Reuben is chided " you are as unruly as a flood, and you will be my first no longer. For you went to bed with my wife; you defiled my marriage couch." A sexual sin which is mentioned in one sentence earlier in the text now keeps Reuben from the blessing of his firstborn status. Jacob does seem mainly concerned in this instance with how he has been dishonored in the affair, rather than with the personal sin of Reuben or Bilhah. But still, this is evidence of the importance of sexual and marriage purity in the evaluation of a life. In the Me Too era, this is noteworthy. How many men with illustrious careers have been found in sexual sin, which they try to say doesn't matter when you consider their great contributions to the world? This defense does not hold water for Reuben when Jacob judges him.

Simeon and Levi are lumped together and indicted for the violence they inflicted on Shechem and his town. Jacob says he does not want to join in their meetings or be party to their plans, because of their fierce anger and cruel wrath. (Speaking for God here?) Their murderous action is judged harshly here, even though it was retaliatory. In the hindsight of history given in Jacob's blessing, Shechem is remembered as a victim, not a perpetrator. And if Shechem is a victim, Dinah is an ultimate victim, suffering both in her rape, and then in the loss of the hope of a family for herself. Though it is so hard to know what her perspective on it all was, her story ends badly. Dinah was really treated as a pawn by Shechem and then her own brothers. They are cursed for their actions, but Dinah herself bears a lot of the burden of everything that happens. Remember her name means "judged." Two meanings for that could apply to the people who hurt her: Shechem judged by Dinah's angry brothers, and the brothers judged by Jacob.

Having taken in the first three blessings, Judah's comes as a surprise to me. Reuben, Simeon, and Levi are held accountable for their sins, but Judah's treatment of and relationship with Tamar is not mentioned at all. Is this because of the "happy" ending? Judah gets the best, or second best blessing, tied with righteous and faithful Joseph. As the brother's stories play out, we do see Judah taking responsibility as an oldest son in their dealings with Joseph in his high position in Egypt. But Reuben does as well, and it seems, in the balance, that his sexual sin trumps his later good behavior.

If we follow the geneology in Matthew, when Judah blessed his sons at the end of his life, he would have been blessing Perez and Zerah, the sons of Tamar. How should we understand the ethics of what happened between them?? Judah's sin was in leaving Tamar, and his son Er, without any children. When Tamar set up an outside of marriage tryst, which Judah would have had to acknowledge was a sexual sin for him as he committed it, was she coercing him into doing what he should have done? The text says that his wife had already died when he set off on the trip where Tamar met him, but I don't think their family relationship would have allowed them to marry. And after their one meeting, he never has sex with her again. This is a real-world complicated story with real-world complicated characters and motives.

Dinah and Tamar in contrast
A final judgment on Judah and Tamar is difficult, but, let's look at the arcs of Dinah's and Tamar's stories in contrast, because I think that is really interesting.
  • Dinah: Injustice is done to her, she does not act, the people who wrong her are judged, she suffers.
  • Tamar: Injustice is done to her, she takes action in a questionable/sinful way, the person who wronged her is not judged, she escapes her suffering.
The major caveat to the above sketches is that God's justice is not fully administered until then end of each of our lives. We can trust that he provided full perfect justice for Dinah, Simeon and Levi, Shechem, Tamar, and Judah, ultimately. But I think Jacob's prophetic commentary should pique our curiosity about God's mercy for Judah and Tamar. The true answer, by which to set your compass, is that no matter your circumstances, you are not justified in using sinful means to try to make things better for yourself. But I think we see God having mercy on Tamar (and Judah!) in their sin here. I won't go so far as to say he finds no fault with what Tamar did. But her action brings conviction to Judah, children for herself, and no final judgment from Jacob. I will just leave it as a question mark, it would be way off to conclude that God doesn't care about sexual sin. But I do think you see the story showing that Judah's sin of neglecting Tamar is a bigger infraction than hers of ensnaring him for sex.

We've been learning that after the fall, the relationship between men and women is troubled by a power dynamic, where women want to control men, but men are destined to rule over them. The curse leads us to expect to see men exploiting their power over women; and the physical nature of femininity, with women doing the vulnerable work of childbearing, reinforces that. In these two stories, women suffering from lack of power choose two different responses. I'm sure of God's ultimate justice for Dinah, who simply suffered. But we can also see here God's patience with, and activity in, the life of a woman who did not lay by the wayside, but acted to try to bring about justice and regain power for herself.

Also, I don't think we can end our discussion of all this without noticing that none of the characters in these stories invite God into the action. No prayers are even mentioned. God is over all of this as a witness and judge, but he does not intervene, and he is not asked to. How might things have been different??

  • Tamar and Dinah both suffer injustice from men who should have provided for them. Dinah does not act and does not escape her suffering. Tamar does act, in a morally questionable way, and does escape hers, at least in some measure.
  • Continue to notice the centrality of the feminine domains of marriage, sex, and childbearing to the plot of the Bible here.
  • Do you think Dinah forgave and loved Shechem, or would have been happy to be "rescued" and brought back to her father's house?
  • How do we rate the morality of Tamar's scheme with Judah? Do you think Tamar gets completely off the hook? 
  • If women experience injustice from powerful men in our own lives, how should we figure out how far to go to get justice for ourselves? As far as Tamar did? Further than Dinah? Is it different in for different people in different circumstances?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Lovely Rachel and Rejected Leah (Gen 29-35)

Welcome to the third generation of Abraham's family, which will officially begin the nation of Israel with its twelve tribes, formed from the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons.

As we begin to look at the lives of the women in these stories, let's note that Rebekah, our mover and shaker from the last episode, again starts the action in this story when she sends Jacob back to her family to look for a wife. She does this partly so he can escape the anger of Esau, whom she helped Jacob trick out of his firstborn's blessing from Isaac, and partly because she wants him to marry within her family rather than with a local Hittite woman like Esau has done.

Rachel and beauty
Jacob first meets Rachel at the well. This scene should remind us of when Abraham's servant met Rebekah: again there is animal watering and a beautiful eligible young woman. Rachel is introduced to us as a shepherd, which makes her the first career woman in the Bible. This time it is Jacob who takes the initiative, helping get the water and intervening in some local conflict over the well, and he is delighted to find that Rachel is a potential wife. They go to find Laban, who again is very happy to welcome an unexpected kinsman with marriage potential for his daughters.

After Jacob has been there a month, they arrange his future marriage to Rachel, which will take place after Jacob has served Laban for 7 years. Leah is mentioned as Laban's other daughter who is less desirable because of her "dull eyes." Translators tell us the meaning of the description isn't clear. But the point is that Rachel is much prettier.

Jacob clearly falls in love with Rachel instead of Leah because of her beauty. This is a major major topic among ideas about women. It's almost axiomatic that women's beauty is of high value in the world, where men's attractiveness is not as important. Beauty is considered to be a corollary of femininity. It's also pretty much universally acknowledged is that this is not fair. That most women would love to be absolutely beautiful is evidenced by all the trappings of fashion, makeup, jewelry, beauty products, fitness plans etc. It is a major deal in women's lives that takes up a lot of time, energy, and money. But we don't pursue all this stuff out of stupidity and frivolity. This story is the first Bible story giving evidence that the prettier a woman is, the more desirable and loved she will be, the more things will go well for her, and the more power she will have.  I can feel angry eyes burning back at me from the reading side of this post, but believe me mine are flashing from this end too, because it's not fair and it also affects me. But listen, let's acknowledge how this is and speak frankly about it.

Also, let's read along, and see where this advantage and disadvantage take Rachel and Leah in their lives, and how God deals with each of them in their own situation. In doing so let's look for clues about how he values physical beauty in women. He is its creator after all.

After the seven years fly by for Jacob who is so in love with Rachel that they "seemed to him but a few days," the day for the marriage arrives. Laban reveals himself to truly be from the same stock as his strategically dishonest sister Rebekah. In an almost identical trick to the one she played on Isaac, he substitutes Leah in for her sister when Jacob is unable to see her and recognize what is happening. When he realizes he's been tricked, it's too late. The deed has been done and Laban's agenda is achieved.

Laban's action is truly unfair to Jacob and he is right to be angry. But I do wonder if Laban's motivation was one of love to poor Leah, who he worried would not receive her own attention, and might not gain herself a husband on her own, and would therefore have no one to provide for her. He gives Rachel to Jacob as well, as promised, but gets seven more years of labor for himself out of the deal. Jacob takes this all as well as could be expected.

Leah and children
Immediately after the wedding, the narrative begins to take up Leah's case, that Jacob loves Rachel much more than her, and that the Lord sees this. "When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he enabled her to have children, but Rachel could not conceive." There is a lot going on there. God seems to have noticed that Leah was suffering from a lack of love from her husband, and mitigated that suffering by honoring her with children. Though we saw God's similar concern that Sarah would be the mother of Abraham's heir, the children God gives to Leah seem to be to comfort her even more specifically, since God will bless Jacob with many legitimate sons through several women in the end. God clearly finds her lack of received love to be wrong, and intervenes to compensate and bless her.

The meanings of the names Leah gives her boys are a peek into how her relationship with Jacob is developing:  Reuben -"The Lord has noticed my misery, and now my husband will love me"; Simeon - "the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me another son"; Levi - "surely this time my husband will feel affection for me, since I have given him three sons"; Judah - "now I will praise the Lord!" Does the meaning of that last name show a development that Leah is at last giving up on Jacob's affection and turning to receive the affection of God, who blesses her regardless of what her husband does?

Rachel is on a different journey. Though she is loved dearly by her husband, she is unable to have any children. If beauty is one asset women are expected to have, fertility is another. And it was even more important in the historical setting of Genesis than it is today. Further, I think biologists would say that in the grand scheme of things, our ideas of attractiveness tend to be characteristics that indicate fertility. Beauty is often a sign of what nature deems really important between the sexes, ability to reproduce.

Rachel becomes jealous of Leah's children, despite her clear victory over Jacob's affection. Her infertility also causes a relational wedge between her and Jacob. She demands that he give her children, "or I'll die!" Jacob is "furious" at this and says that God is the one keeping her from having children. But neither of them approach God for help. Instead, we see Rachel using mandrakes to try to increase her fertility. When Rachel finally does conceive, it says that God remembered her and answered her prayers. But there is no recorded conversation between either of Jacob's wives and the Lord compared with what we had with Rebekah and Sarah.

Rachel's infertility is first mentioned in contrast to Leah, who God enabled to have children because she was unloved. I would love to understand God's motivation here. It does seem that God is comforting Leah in her loneliness and rejection by giving her children. Is Rachel punished for being loved? My idea of infertility is typically that it's a problem--that scientifically, if the right things happen, a couple will get a baby. But maybe this is the wrong way to look at it. In each of the family stories we've read, the couple has been completely dependent on God for a child, and the child does not arrive without his intervention. When you consider even from a physical standpoint all the millions of tiny developments that have to go right for a healthy baby to arrive, it does seem miraculous that it ever happens at all. And perhaps this is the correct way to look at children. They are brought about by God as a gift. Though we participate, it is up to him to give them.

Servant-wives as teammates, not rivals, this time
This drama always seems less present, though, in the lives of the servant women recruited by their mistresses for help when God is not delivering on the timeline desired. Maybe though we don't know their stories as much as we know Leah's,  God is acting similarly for the servant women who are not honored and cherished in marriage?

But in this story, the servants Bilhah and Zilpah are pretty much completely accepted into the family. Where Sarah was jealous of Hagar's pregnancy, Rachel and Leah are delighted with the children of their servants, and take credit for them. Perhaps the difference in their emotional experiences is because of the competition between the sisters. Another reason that marriage is best with just one man and one woman--competition in this relationship is terrible! Because of the rivalry between the sisters, maidservants become teammates rather than rivals themselves.

It's noteworthy that where Ishmael was rejected as the heir and sent away, Bilhah and Zilpah's children are full tribes of Israel. God does accept them, and Jacob accepts them and blesses them on his deathbed (albeit with shorter blessings than Rachel and Leah's sons receive). Though the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher are less legendary than the Levites, the tribe of Judah, and the others from the lines of Rachel and Leah, they are Israelites, where the Ishmaelites and the Edomites are not. Is this partly due to the real influence of Sarah and Rebekah who are both influential in their stories in favoring their boys? Of course God works through all of this. But perhaps in these stories we can also see these women's actions influencing the plot.

We don't know a lot about the servant women of Rachel and Leah other than that they were lauded for bearing children. After Zilpah bears her first son, Leah says, "Now the other women will celebrate with me!" Maybe this tells us that the women of the household were a bit of a support group for each other, in the absence of the relational support of a primary marriage relationship?

Leaving Laban
When all of his children are born, Jacob feels the need to separate from Laban. After some years of negotiating about livestock with shrewd Laban, Jacob receives a message from God that he should just go, and return to his homeland. I love that he consults Rachel and Leah about this move. They respond to the idea with hearty approval, seconding Jacob's disillusionment with Laban, saying that he will not give them any inheritance, and expressing that "all the wealth God has given you from our father legally belongs to us and our children." This discussion about money is the reason they think Jacob should "go ahead and do whatever God has told you."

They leave in secret, and in an interesting development, Rachel steals her father's household idols. Are they valuable, and is she hoping to get some "inheritance" back from her father after all? Is she doing it out of superstition? Laban chases the family down, angry both because they left without telling him and because of the stolen idols. Jacob is sure of his his innocence, and unknowingly puts Rachel in grave danger, by promising to put to death anyone who may have taken them. He also promises to give back any other stolen goods, not mentioning a death penalty in that case. Maybe he would be more upset to find anyone in his household worshiping idols than thieving.

Anyway, Rachel, proving her genetic connection to her father and aunt, sneakily avoids being caught, using a very feminine excuse (while sitting on the idols, she says she can't get up, she's having her period). After Laban unsuccessfully searches Jacob's belongings, Jacob makes a great speech defending his innocence and rubbing Laban's nose in it. And that's that. As far as we know, nobody ever finds out about Rachel's theft.

In the next part of the story, where Isaac returns home and has to face down Esau, we see a contrast between him and his father and grandfather when facing conflict with other powerful men. Where both of his forefathers used their wives as bargaining chips with local kings, offering them without qualms to their rivals, when Jacob goes out to meet Esau, he protects everyone. He appeases Esau with gifts before they arrive, and then divides his family into groups to attempt to keep some of them safe. His divisions clearly and openly show the rank of the women in his family. Least protected are the servant wives and their children who go to meet Esau first, then Leah and her children, and finally Rachel and Joseph.

The meeting goes well, and after reconciliation the brothers live in two different towns. But Jacob is forced to move again after a scandalous and murderous incident with a local tribe over his daughter Dinah. I think we'll talk about this one in separate post. They leave, and return to camp at Bethel, where Jacob has earlier met God. Here Jacob does order his household to get rid of all of their idols, so he must have had some knowledge of the presence of idols in his family after Rachel's theft. Also at Bethel, they hear of the death of Rebekah's old nurse. We learn her name, Deborah, and they name the tree where they bury her "the oak of weeping." She seems to have been much beloved. In contrast, we don't even know exactly when Rebekah dies.

The sisters' lives in hindsight
Jacob's family next moves to Ephrath, or Bethlehem. But on the way, Rachel goes into labor, and winds up being the first recorded woman in the Bible to experience the curse of difficult childbirth to such an extent that it causes her death. The story is very sad. She has intense labor pains and a difficult delivery, and she must have been having a terrible time because her midwife tries to comfort her "Don't be afraid--you have another son!" "With her last breath" she names the baby "son of my sorrow." We have her pain, her fear, and her sorrow, in the last moments of her life all recorded in these sentences. It makes my heart ache.

Jacob does not want to leave the baby with this legacy from his mother in his name, and changes it to "son of my right hand" or Benjamin. They bury Rachel there and leave a stone monument, which "can be seen there to this day." I wonder when it faded out of memory. Wouldn't that be amazing to find??

After Rachel's death, her maidservant Bilhah gets into trouble with Reuben, and in half a verse we are given the report of their affair, with no other commentary. But this sexual sin keeps Reuben from receiving the firstborn's blessing from his father, even though he is the only son of Jacob who will later keep his brothers from murdering Joseph.

We don't hear any more about either Rachel or Leah, except in much counting of their descendants over the next few chapters. Though Leah's death is not recorded, Jacob later tells us that she is buried with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah at Mamre. Though she was less loved by her husband, she was honored to be the mother of the most important tribes of Israel and to be buried with the patriarchs, where Rachel was not.

These chapters are, among other things, a contrast study of the lives of a pretty woman and a plain woman. Beauty, often associated with fertility, turns out not to guarantee it for Rachel, but the favor of God does for Leah. However God does not completely deny Rachel, whose physical condition gives her the advantage in romance and disadvantage in family honor, and he also gives her a son at last. But judging from Rachel's tragic early death, beauty and a romantic spark did not ultimately give her the win in life. I wonder as the years rolled on for Leah how the pain of her rejection by her husband evolved, and whether she achieved peace and happiness in life.

Does either sister really know God? There is little evidence of their interaction. So for this story I think we can gain the most from looking at how God acts toward them. As we often see in the Bible, here God brings about a reversal, where the person you would expect to see in a place of honor: the young, pretty sister, does not receive favor from God as much as the older, less pretty sister.

About beauty itself, I think we see God acknowledging it as an asset for women, though of course he doesn't use it to calculate a woman's value. Instead, he blesses those who suffer for lack of beauty the same way he blesses the poor, who suffer for lack of money. Maybe that's a good analogy for considering beauty. Like money, or any other skill or asset, it's not good or bad in itself, it is just a resource to use for God's purposes, and he takes into account what we have been given and how we use it. Though money and beauty ease life for some, they don't guarantee happiness and can become completely irrelevant to whether we achieve it. But in neither case can they be completely ignored when you consider a person's situation in life. One difference is that money can be more attainable for most, where beauty is not as attainable. This contributes to the power dynamic between men and women where a general human lack of ability to become much more beautiful affects women more than men. But we can take heart that God sees and understands all this, and is good and trustworthy in the midst of it.


  • Both Sarah and Rebekah have real influence on the major plotline of the family God chooses to form his people.
  • In this story we see the advantage that beauty gives some women in life being acknowledged and mitigated by God's favor.
  • Neither Rachel nor Leah is recorded interacting with God. The only references to God in their lives are comments about their prayers when their children are born.
  • Why the difference in status for Ishmael compared with Bilhah and Zilpah's sons?
  • How do you reckon with the intuitive way people value beauty in women? Not fair, but real. What do we do with it?

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Rebekah, the woman with a plan (Gen 24-27)

Rebekah's story has two parts we are familiar with. In one, she is a beautiful, kind, and courteous young woman, willingly accepting gold jewelry and a marriage proposal that is clearly God's will. In the other, she is a bold and deceptive wife and mother, playing favorites with her sons, and crafting a disguise out of animal skins to take advantage of her aging husband's ailments and thwart his wishes for his children's futures at the end of his life. How can we make sense of Rebekah, and what can we learn from her story?

Reading these chapters, it's obvious that Rebekah is no wallflower, but rather a confident and decisive woman. Abraham's servant's prayers to find a wife for Isaac are answered by her actions. Though given in marriage by her father, she herself is the one who decides when she will depart to marry Isaac. Later in life, her initiative puts in place the reversal of blessing order for her sons, surely her most important legacy.

Watering the camels, and wedding without waiting
Rebekah is from Abraham's family: the sister of Laban (who will later give her son Jacob so much trouble), and the daughter of Nahor and Milcah, Abraham's brother and niece. When Abraham hopes for a wife from his family for Isaac, he could not do better than Rebekah in terms of family lineage.

She is first presented in the story as an answer to prayer. Her first contribution to the action, watering the servant's camels, is not intended to advance an agenda. But her simple courtesy results in a huge development in her life. God clearly uses it to give Abraham's servant, Rebekah, and her whole family, confidence that God is directing Isaac to marry Rebekah. There is an air of excitement, "we got what we asked for!" to the servant's story, and it's full repetition. Laban is fully convinced, as are Rebekah and her family.

That Rebekah is an independent woman becomes obvious when the question of when she should leave comes up. Her family knows Rebekah will have an opinion, "we'll . . . ask her what she thinks." Rebekah is decisive that she will depart right away. and her family follows her wishes. When she goes, they give her a blessing, which I think is a little unusual for Biblical women? Normally sons receive blessings from their fathers, but Rebekah does too here on her departure.

The scene where Isaac and Rebekah meet is sweet. He sees the camels coming. She sees him "walking in the fields and meditating." She puts on her veil. The servant repeats to Isaac the confirmatory story of how he found Rebekah. Then Isaac takes her into his mother's tent. He loves her deeply and she is a special comfort to him after his mother's death. These details are heart-fluttery, even across thousands of years and distant language translation.

Next in the text, is an interlude in Rebekah's story that relates back to her mother-in-law, Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac are together burying Abraham with Sarah. That they are both there says that Ishmael still feels attachment to his father even after being sent away. After Abraham's death, Isaac is blessed, while Ishmael and his family live "in open hostility toward all their relatives." Sarah's plan to bring about God's plan by her own means has now brought about a whole nation of people who feel rejected and have become hostile.

What Rebekah learns from God about her unborn sons
Next, we have a formal introduction to the story of the next generation in God's chosen family, "This is the account of the family of Isaac, the son of Abraham." It opens with the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. The first thing that happens to them as a couple is the now familiar struggle with infertility. But Jacob, who loves his wife dearly, prays for her (the first move toward God we see him taking). God answers him and gives Rebekah twins, who she can feel struggling with one another. At this, Rebekah makes her first move toward God, which is actually the only interaction between Rebekah and the Lord recorded in Genesis. "Why is this happening to me?" she asks. And the Lord answers her. He tells Rebekah that her sons will always be at odds, but that the older will serve the younger.

It is really important, considering Rebekah's future actions to steal Esau's blessing for Jacob, that she has heard this message from God. Is she trying to "help" God's plan along later on, like Sarah did? Perhaps her favoritism of Jacob is not random or due to her own preference, but in response to what God has told her. It seems doubtful that God meant to instruct Rebekah to show favoritism to Jacob in order that he would rise up over his older brother, but in the mystery of human will and God's purposes, this is sort of what happens.

We are told quite a bit about the two boys, and that Isaac and Rebekah each have their favorites. But the first stealing of birthright over a bowl of stew is completely between the brothers.

When there is a famine, Isaac moves to Gerar, the land of Abimelech and the Philistines. He has the same trouble there that Abraham had, and follows Abraham's playbook of pretending his wife is his sister. I would guess that this wife/sister lie combined with their division over their sons could mean that their marriage was strained, but evidence to the contrary is that Abimelech discovers what is going on when he sees them embracing.

They are also united in the next tidbit we get about Rebekah, her shared reaction with her husband to Esau's two Hittite wives, who "make life miserable for Isaac and Rebekah." This is the first mention of in-law troubles in biblical history. There will be more to follow! Abraham and Isaac both left their families and didn't have to deal with that. Maybe this is part of the reason for the "leave and cleave" instruction in Genesis 2? However, it's interesting that God's people always being foreigners and leaving family is at odds with what I consider traditional morality about sticking with your family. We'll have to continue to consider what God actually wants when it comes to extended family as we go along.

Rebekah's bold deception: injustice, "helping", or both?
Now we come to the main story of this generation: Jacob and Esau and the blessing. Rebekah is the mastermind of this series of events, and she has always astonished me with her boldness, deception, and injustice to Esau here. I find the passage in this chapter where Esau pleads for his blessing to be one of the most painful passages in the entire Bible. But drawing the connection between the message Rebekah received about her sons before they were born and her actions later on has made me see her in a more forgiving light. But I'm still kind of mad at her, if I'm honest.

I think we can see Rebekah's action here as similar to Sarah's, "helping" God's plan move along by doing herself what God has told her he would do. She has faith that God's message will be true, so she tries to make it come true. How should we judge this kind of action? Incomplete faith, but still some sort of faith.

The line Rebekah delivers to Jacob, "then, may the curse fall on me!" is evidence of her bold determination to do this. Even Jacob seems taken aback by what she wants him to do. But she is certain.

After the horrible scene of blessing and lack of blessing plays out, Rebekah is still fully in Jacob's corner, protecting him by sending him to Laban under the guise of continued complaint about Esau's Hittite wives. Isaac responds by blessing Jacob further and sending him back to Rebekah's family to look for a wife.

Esau now pathetically makes the connection that his father would rather have him marry someone from the family, and takes another wife from Ishmael's family in addition to his other wives. It's a bit poetic that these rejected sons, where they are because of their mothers' blame-worthy actions to advance God's plan, unite their families here.

From here, Genesis transitions to the next generation and the story of Jacob and his family. Though later we have the record of the death of her nurse, We hear nothing more about Rebekah. We don't even know when she dies. What does this say about her legacy in the family? There is really little further biblical comment about her EXTREMELY historically significant grab of Isaac's blessing for Jacob, who will be Israel, the father of the twelve tribes and founder of the Jewish nation. Though Sarah is often discussed later in the Bible, Rebekah isn't mentioned again after Genesis. This absence of recommendation says something I think.

It's interesting that the main things that happen to Rebekah, her marriage and her children, are clearly provided to Rebekah without her bringing them about. These all important circumstances are given to her, but within them she works hard to exert her own power.

This is another example of God's plan playing out through the actions of women who enforce what they believe to be his will, even when they are acting questionably. We know his will is accomplished even as sin is happening. But the fate of these sinful movers and shakers depends on their ultimate trust in his goodness. You could see Rebekah either as a flawed but faithful actor, or a plain old sinner throwing fairness to the winds to advance her agenda. I'm not sure how God sees her.

  • Rebekah is a mover and shaker.
  • Rebekah's only recorded interaction with God is over her pregnancy with her twins, and his response to her question directs her main contribution to the story and the formation of the nation of Israel.
  • Isaac and Rebekah seem to have a truly affectionate relationship even in the midst of conflict over their boys.
  • God used Rebekah's unfair action, to bring about a plan he told her about, which directed her unfair action. 
  • Is Rebekah's blessing from her family, and the way they consult her, unusual?
  • What does Rebekah mean when she says, "then let the curse fall on me!"? Do we think she deserves a curse? Do we think she gets one?
  • Compared with Sarah, who is held up as "holy woman of the past" in 1 Peter, is Rebekah less worthy of this? Does Sarah just get the title because she came first or is she to be judged more holy that Rebekah, and why?
  • In God's judgment, is it ok for women to be assertive with what they understand his will to be, even in gray areas, or is it better for us to wait for him to act? I think I know the answer . . .