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Essays, Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Choosing A Mate (or Two)—Genesis 29:15-28 (Timothy Simpson)

The Old Testament account of Jacob’s sojourn with Laban can expose some contemporary Christian blindspots, not least in assumptions concerning the ‘biblical’ meaning of marriage. However, we must also reckon with the limitations of the text’s own perspective, giving voice to the silent female characters within it.

15 Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ 16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. 18 Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ 19 Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

21 Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ 22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. 23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24 (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25 When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ 26 Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ 28 Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

The portrayal of the patriarch Jacob prior to this text is not exactly flattering. First, he outfoxed his twin brother, Esau, cheating him out of his birthright. Then he hoodwinked his visually-impaired father, Isaac, into giving him the paternal blessing that had also been meant for Esau. No, not flattering at all. The story wastes little time, however, in seeing to it that Jacob gets his comeuppance. Call it karma. What goes around. Or payback time. By whatever description, it’s a familiar trope in moralistic narratives, religious or otherwise, and will always resonate with readers or hearers. The experience of such a situation, in which one reaps what one has sown, is typically the catalyst for the development of empathy, and cultures traffic in such tales, particularly told to children, preemptively when possible but afterwards if necessary, in order to learn from others’ or our own mistakes.

This is the low-hanging fruit of this passage that might be utilized to some degree, perhaps in a children’s sermon. Like Jacob, one day you will meet someone more ruthless than yourself, so don’t think you’ll get away with taking advantage of others forever. Even Gordon Gecko gets it in the end. This text, however, has a couple of other more substantive and mature themes which might also be positively explored by the preacher this coming Sunday.

The most obvious political point in this passage is the clear evidence of a fluid biblical sexual ethic in the form of both polygamy and concubinage (Leah’s maid). At the present time, some in the church are advocating a so-called “biblical definition of marriage,” despite the fact that nothing like that exists. Instead, as this text exemplifies, what one has in scripture is not a definition of marriage, but rather a series of narrative portrayals of varying configurations of persons whom the text presents as having appropriate sexual contact, sometimes married and sometimes not, sometimes to one person, sometimes not. In every age, the people of God put its own distinctive demand for justice on marriage (cf. the support guidelines if one wanted to have plural wives in Exodus, or the requirement that husbands love their wives in Ephesians, for example), but the basic marital practices of the culture were what the faith community regularly adopted.

Dispensationalists are those who attempt to explain discrepancies in the biblical evaluation of ethical standards and theological beliefs by means of a discrete series of dispensations or ages, in which God deals differently with what may appear, on the surface, to be similar issues, regarding marriage, for instance. In the dispensationalists’ view, God “allowed” polygamy under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, but in the “Church age” it’s all monogamy all the time.

This sounds nice, and a lot of good people have been snookered by it in the church, but it won’t hold up to scrutiny. For one thing, dispensationalism is a case of the tail wagging the dog. It comes from 19th century fundamentalists who could accept neither that the Bible had error or contradiction, nor that the culture in which the Bible was constructed had anything to do with its formation of matters of faith or ethics. Starting with those indemonstrable presuppositions, dispensationalists constructed an artificial interpretive scheme and overlaid it onto the Bible in order, ostensibly, to “protect” both God and the Bible. In other words, dispensationalism is not about interpreting what’s in the text but rather conforming the Bible to the needs of the interpreter who must get a particular result from the Bible every time it is read. Occam’s Razor, however, suggests that this kind of Rube Goldberg hermeneutic is completely unnecessary. Instead, what we see in scripture is the re-forming of the community’s understanding of things like marriage in tandem with the surrounding culture. In the Ancient Near East, polygamy was normal. You don’t have to construct some divine decree to make sense of it. Likewise, by the time you get to the New Testament, polygamy is gone, not because we entered a new dispensation in which God only sanctioned monogamy, but rather because Greco-Roman culture found the practice to be barbaric. And, living as they did within that dominant cultural milieu, first the Jews and then the early Christians adopted that ethical norm as a given, not in response to a heavenly mandate.

The bigger political issue raised by this text, however, concerns the treatment of the women within it. This is one of those passages that I learned very early growing up in the church that I now look back on with amazement because of the way that presentations of it to me by the adults in my life universally ignored as irrelevant the now all-to-obvious theme of the invisibility of the female character’s desires or aspirations regarding either their sexuality or their futures. The way that I was told the story was that the whole thing was between the men and the women were simply supposed to do what they were told. Nobody in my religious universe questioned that until I was a grown man. That shouldn’t have happened and the responsible pastor will make sure that it doesn’t in their parish.

A 1980s political joke:

Richard Nixon dies and goes to hell. A voice tells him to walk down the corridor to meet his fate. So, nervously, he proceeds down the corridor. He comes to the first door and, with trepidation, opens it to find former Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom Nixon had defeated for Senate in 1950 by painting her as a closet communist—”pink right down to her underwear” was his signature quip. Nixon nervously asks, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” reples the voice. So he continues down the hall, stopping at the next door. Peering inside he finds his nemesis, former NY Congresswoman Bella Abzug, the first member of Congress to call for his impeachment. Quavering, Nixon asks, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” the voice replies. Relieved, Nixon presses forward down the corridor. Stopping at the third door, he can scarcely bring himself to open it. When finally he does, to his surprise and relief, there sits the pop star Madonna, lying languorously on a sofa. Lecherously, Nixon chuckles. “Is she my punishment?” “No,” the voice replies. “You’re hers.”

The humor of the joke “works” because it subverts the expectation that the perspective of the man is what is most important. The trap is sprung when the hearer realizes that there is someone else whose viewpoint matters in this encounter and that the man’s evaluation of what constitutes a “good deal” is not the only one available and should not, therefore, automatically be privileged. A good pastor who preaches this text, while perhaps not using the joke in the sermon—unless one can get away with it!—nonetheless has to make a move of this sort in preaching, exposing the other possible points of view of the characters in the story, even if the text’s narrator does not.

The reason this has to happen is because Rachel and Leah are still out there. They aren’t just dead characters in an old tale. There are still women whose bodies and futures are bartered away like any other commodity by men in kin, clan, or community. And such women aren’t always out in the middle of nowhere, in a jungle hut or a desert tent, which is where the mind’s eye often locates such happenings. Although women in the Two-Thirds World do suffer under these circumstances, we also know definitively that sexual trafficking of both women and children is a First World problem, happening right under our noses in big cities in Europe and North America. It has been, for several years running, a huge issue at Super Bowl venues in the US, to highlight just one instance, as it was this past winter in the New York City metro area. Pastors should not hesitate to make this connection right off of the front page of the newspapers. It is no sacrilege for the church to take the Bible to task where its cultural practices can’t withstand ethical scrutiny. After all, what the church holds sacred in scripture is not such artefacts but rather the Gospel, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself. One can tell the story in the traditional way, that, like Jacob who ran from Esau but right into the clutches of Laban, you can’t run forever from your sin, while at the same time impressing upon one’s congregation the fact that women’s sexuality in particular, and their destiny in general, are to be left in their own hands, as individuals created in God’s image, for whom Christ died, and to whom the Holy Spirit has been given.

Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Choosing A Mate (or Two)—Genesis 29:15-28 (Timothy Simpson)

  1. As a woman named Rachel, I was always bothered by my name – was even bitter towards my parents for naming me after a woman like her. That is, until I really put myself in Rachel’s shoes, and realized there is a lot to learn from her that one misses at first glance. What does it say that she wanted a man like Jacob? She was possibly due for some commupance herself. I’m making assumptions, but what I have learned is that whether the central character is a man or a woman, we all struggle with the same sin. We are all slaves to something. While I very much appreciate your motive to subvert the male gaze, I think the fact that Rachel didn’t have control over her destiny is the least of her problems. I wonder if she had accepted her lot – had chosen to be content in it rather than envied, stolen, and lied to seek revenge – if her great act of will was to persevere in the manner of a servant – maybe then she would have been more fruitful.

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