Saturday, December 28, 2013

Compassionate Brother (part 5)

Moving forward in the story, it is said that even though Jacob had willingly taken her as a wife, that “Leah was unloved” (Genesis 29:31).  In direct response to this---at least, this is what the author seems intent on conveying---the Lord “enabled her to become pregnant while Rachel remained childless.  So Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son” (29:31-b-32a).  This son was named Reuben, which was a Hebrew word meaning “The Lord has looked with pity on my oppressed condition” (29:32c).  In turn, the name of each child that would be born to Jacob would also be a Hebrew word reflecting the circumstances of their birth or the mindset of the mother at the time of conception or birth.  Here, one notes with great interest that it is suggested that the wives of Jacob and not Jacob himself that give names to the sons born to them.  Surely this was an oddity in that age.  If so, this oddity would not be lost on the original hearers of the Genesis narrative, so nor should it be lost on those who read this narrative today. 

Though this study will not dwell on it, it is worth pondering that the Scriptural narrative preserves the tradition that the mothers took for themselves the honor of naming these children, especially considering the fact that these women were, for all practical purposes, the property of their husbands.  Taking in the wider scope of the whole of the record of Scripture, this record of naming is something akin to the unsuppressed and seemingly celebrated fact that in the Gospel narratives it was women that were first given the responsibility to announce the Resurrection of Jesus.  This was a curious thing indeed in a time in which a woman had no societal standing, were believed to be largely incapable of accurate reporting of factual matters, and in which even their testimony in civil or criminal judicial proceedings carried no weight whatsoever.

The text suggests that the sons of Jacob come forth in rapid-fire succession.  This appears to be a competition among the wives---an honor competition, to be sure.  After the birth of Reuben, Leah becomes pregnant again, giving birth to a boy that she names Simeon.  Another pregnancy results in a son that she named Levi.  With a fourth pregnancy, along comes Judah.  With a growing jealousy of her older sister while she herself remained childless, Rachel demands that Jacob also marry her servant named Bilhah, insisting that “she can bear children for me and I can have a family through her” (30:3b).  Subsequently, Bilhah gets pregnant and delivers a son, whom Rachel names Dan.  Bilhah experiences another pregnancy, delivering yet another son.  Rachel names him Naphtali. 

Not to be outdone in the ongoing intra-household honor competition, Leah provides her servant Zilpah to Jacob.  Zilpah becomes pregnant and provides a son that Leah names Gad.  With another pregnancy comes another son to whom Leah provides the name Asher.  Leah gets into the game again, giving birth to fifth and sixth sons of her own and naming them Issachar and Zebulun.  For good measure, Leah gives birth to a daughter named Dinah as well.  Finally, after all of these things, it is said that “God took note of Rachel.  He paid attention to her and enabled her to become pregnant” (30:22).  She would give birth to a son and name Him Joseph.       

Of course, though it is clear that Joseph does indeed come last of all, there is no need to presume that all of these children came in the precise chronological order in which they are presented in the text.  As was said, this appears to be a competition among wives for the almost singular honor that could be awarded to them---that of giving sons to their husbands.  Though Reuben obviously comes first, there is no reason to imagine that, according to the Scriptural record, there was not significant overlap in these ongoing developments.  Must one presume that Rachel waited until after Leah’s fourth child before she insisted that Jacob take Bilhah?  With her position and honor as favored wife at stake, this hardly seems likely.  Similarly, one needs not imagine that Leah waited for Bilhah to deliver two children to Jacob and Rachel before insisting that Jacob take Zilpah as a wife, that Leah’s fifth or sixth sons had to come after all the sons delivered by Bilhah and Zilphah, or that Dinah came last of all?  There is no reason to do so.  That said, what should be noticed is that this is a rather riotous series of events, and should be understood as such.                   

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