Updated: Aug 16, 2020
Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”
Now Laban had two daughters; the older was Leah, and her younger sister was Rachel. There was no brightness to Leah’s eyes, but Rachel was stunningly beautiful.
Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, “I’ll serve you for seven years in exchange for the hand of your younger daughter Rachel in marriage.”
Laban said, “Agreed. I’d rather you have her than any other man I know. You may stay here and work.”
So Jacob served Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel. The years went by quickly and seemed to him to be only a few days because of the immense love he had for her.
When the time came, Jacob approached Laban and said, “I have now completed seven years of work for you. I ask you now to give me my wife so that I may consummate my marriage.”
Laban gathered together all of the people in the area and prepared a great feast to celebrate the marriage. But in the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob slept with her, thinking she was Rachel. Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.
When morning came, Jacob realized it was Leah and said to Laban, “What have you done to me? Did we not have a deal—seven years of labor in exchange for your daughter Rachel? Why have you deceived me?”
Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger in marriage before the firstborn. If you complete this wedding week with Leah, then I will also give you Rachel. But in return, you must serve me another seven years.”
Jacob agreed and completed his week with Leah. And then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel in marriage. Laban gave his servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.
Let’s begin with a confession. This is a horrible story. Like many of the origin stories found in the book of Genesis, every character in this story is violated and devalued in one way or another. Every woman in this story is treated as human chattel—devoid of feelings, thoughts, or will. Leah is violated. Rachel is violated. Even the love between Jacob and Rachel is violated and devalued. To be sure, there is a historical tradition of looking at this story much like we might look at Romeo and Juliet—as a tragic love story that demonstrates how far the hero, Jacob, will go for the love of Rachel. On behalf of Zilpah and Bilhah, the two other women given away as property in this story, I feel it necessary to reject this interpretation.
Surely, we can all agree that they would not view this story as a triumph of romantic love.
Instead, I would submit to you that the reason a horrible story like this is told, retold, written down, preserved, and interpreted for thousands of years by billions of people is because it has something existential or transcendent to communicate—because it provides a window into the nature of humanity and the nature of reality. Specifically, I would submit to you that we have and hold onto a horrible story like this precisely because it has the capacity to confront us with questions we might not otherwise ask.
Questions like, “How do we end up enslaved?”
Such a question may appear to be disconnected from this story, but in reality, the question “How do we end up enslaved” is not only connected but interwoven into every story in Genesis. If we zoom out on Genesis and look at the broad strokes, we see a trajectory that
begins with a great formless void,
moves through the poems of creation,
traces the downward spiral of humanity exploring and tragically misusing its freedom,
follows the twisting tale of the Israelites—a new tribe called by God to bless all the other tribes of the earth—
and lands, rather precisely, with that tribe escaping famine and serving in Pharaoh’s house in Egypt.
It’s worth noting that those Israelites got their name from Jacob. After Jacob wrestles with the divine in Chapter 32 of Genesis, his name is changed from Jacob to Israel—which means “wrestles with God.” It’s also worth noting that the Hebraic word for Egypt—the land where Jacob’s tribe will end up is Mitzráyim…which means “narrow place.” So, to review, Genesis starts with nothing and ends with a tribe of Israelites—"those who wrestle with the divine”—on the precipice of becoming slaves in Egypt—the “narrow place.”
That is not a coincidence.
The story that follows the book of Genesis is the story of the Exodus—the story of Moses and the enslaved Israelites being painfully led out of the narrow place and toward freedom. The Exodus is the central story of the scriptures. It’s the story that defines, underlies, and contextualizes every other story in the biblical library. It’s foundational—interwoven throughout the scriptures—even underlying the Gospels. In my first year of graduate school, our Torah professor Dr. Robert Gibbs taught us that if we failed to wrestle with the Exodus, it would be impossible to truly wrestle with the cross. “This God,” he said, “always calls the enslaved toward freedom.” No matter where we enter the river of the biblical story, the waters of the Exodus are there. The loving God of the Exodus—who calls, pushes, pulls, leads, and loves oppressed people away from slavery and toward freedom inhabits all the stories of the Bible.
These stories are connected.
They’re not detached or isolated. Contrary to how we may have received them in Sunday school, not one of the biblical stories is an island. Beneath the surface, they are one. They are all part of a larger whole.
Like a story about Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, Jacob—who enters into what appears to be a reasonable work contract for the woman he loves but winds up violated and enslaved for decades.
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