[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]
After Abraham dies, Genesis breezes through the account of Ishmael, pausing just long enough to mention his male offspring. Funnily enough, both of Abraham’s sons are said to father twelve “tribes.”
Then we get the account of Isaac. Though, poor Isaac — he’s only a bit player in his own story. His biggest speaking role comes when he’s duped by his youngest son into giving him the family blessing that belonged to the firstborn.
By all accounts, Jacob is the real star of the show. Which, if you think about it, is a blow for Mark Driscoll’s idolization of rough-and-tumble masculinity. Jacob is a mama’s boy. He isn’t rugged or hairy like his big brother Esau. He prefers to stay at home and cook, rather than go out and hunt. He’s what Driscoll would call a “chickified dude.”
Jacob’s also an inveterate schemer, but neither his effeminate tendencies nor his knack for deception are much of an issue for God. Lesson of the day: if God can make room for those who don’t live up to society’s narrow definition of masculinity — or who have some other “defect,” perceived or real — then maybe we should too. Just a thought.
In any case, Jacob may be a mama’s boy, but he’s got some serious chutzpah (or “choot-spa,” as Michelle Bachmann might say).
After fleeing from Esau, who’s grown tired of his little brother’s antics, Jacob gets his first encounter with Yahweh. God offers Jacob the same deal he made with Abraham and Isaac. But this time, there are no strings attached. This time, Jacob’s the one making demands. After his divine encounter, he says:
If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.
Seriously? God shows up and basically offers you the world, and THAT’S how you respond?
Jacob’s not an easy guy to like.
But he gets a taste of his own medicine when he goes to live with his uncle Laban. Jacob takes an interest in Laban’s youngest daughter. (Again, on behalf of us all: eww.) Jacob agrees to work for Laban seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Laban tricks Jacob by giving him his older and less attractive daughter Leah instead. Jacob doesn’t realize the switch has been made until the morning after. (That must’ve been some wedding party.)
Eventually, Jacob ends up with both of Laban’s daughters. In return, Laban gets about 20 years of cheap labor from Jacob.
In what has to be the saddest part of the story, Leah and Rachel compete to see who can bear Jacob the most children. According to the text, God sees that Leah is unloved, so he opens her womb. Women in the ancient Near East were basically their husbands’ property, their value measured by their ability to make babies. Specifically, male babies.
God doesn’t go so far as to dismantle the oppressive, patriarchal system that made Leah someone else’s property — not here, at least. Instead, he takes humanity as he finds it, working within a broken system to bring Leah some relief.
Leah gives birth to four children. At first, she tells herself this will win her Jacob’s love at last. Sadly, it doesn’t. But as a consolation prize, she manages to annoy her younger sister, who hasn’t borne any children yet. Next, both wives take turns giving Jacob their servants to bear him yet more children. (This is one messed up sibling rivalry.)
Then one day, one of Leah’s sons brings her some mandrakes, which Rachel insists Leah share with her. So they make a deal: Leah gets a turn in Jacob’s bed, and Rachel gets some of her mandrakes. This leads to the weirdest line in the whole Bible, as Rachel tells Jacob: “You must sleep with me. I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”
Mandrakes were thought to enhance fertility, which explains why Rachel (still childless) was desperate to get her hands on some. But in an ironic twist, it’s Leah who bears Jacob two more children. Only after this does God finally “remember” Rachel and give her a son.
This sad, sometimes ridiculous tale is yet another illustration of God favoring the underdog. No wonder the people of Israel were drawn to this story, warts and all. They were a perpetual underdog themselves. They often lived as strangers in someone else’s land. They briefly managed to carve out a home for themselves, aided by a regional power vacuum sometime during the second millennium BC — only to be carted off to exile by the ascendant Babylonians.
Other gods of the day cozied up to the strong and mighty, preferring the macho and the domineering. Not Israel’s God. He is the God of the underdog. He is the God of the weak and effeminate. He is the God of the unloved woman trapped in a man’s world. He’s the God of every kid who’s been picked last for kickball (which was very good news for my fifth-grade self).
Israel’s God works through misfits, rejects, castoffs… even the occasional mama’s boy. So when someone like Mark Driscoll says the problem with the church today is that there aren’t enough tough and powerful manly-men, we might want to take another look at who God routinely associates with in the Bible.