Jacob leaves Canaan a misfit, and returns a broken man – inheriting everything, but connected to nothing. A rival to the gods, and a stranger to his brother.
Jacob finagled the firstborn’s inheritance out of his elder brother Esau through price-gouging, and with his mother’s help tricked his father into giving him the blessing due the firstborn. But the warlike hunter Esau is now murderously enraged, and Jacob cannot stay to collect his inheritance; instead, he must leave the house of his father and mother. Jacob’s grandfather, when he was still called Abram, took his first great journey from his home of Harran, to Canaan; Jacob is making the reverse journey, back from Caanan to his other place of origin, to the place his mother grew up in: the city of Harran, in the land of the two rivers.
The dreamer and the ladder
While passing northwards through the land of Canaan, Jacob stops at the mountaintop of his grandfather’s second place of encampment in Canaan, where Abram first invoked the name of Yahweh. Not recognizing the place, Jacob adjusts the stones lying there around his head, and goes to sleep. Sociable, domestic Jacob, the dweller in tents, favored by the sophisticated Rebekah of Harran, sleeps alone under the stars, with a stone for his pillow. His head’s connection to the ground beneath him is mediated by nothing but a rock from that very ground.
On this horizontal journey between wild Canaan and urbanized Harran, disconnected from the one and not yet connected to the other, Jacob dreams of a vertical road: a ladder. Its base is at the very spot he chose to spend the night. Jacob’s head is to the stones of the earth, but the ladder’s top is in the heavens, like the tower of Babel. Unlike that tower, the work of this ladder is complete, and messengers of Elohim traverse the ladder in both directions.
An upright person also has a sort of ladder at their core, along which messages are passed between a godlike cognitive center at the top, and actuators on the earth below: the spine.
House of God
Upon this ladder stands one specific god: Yahweh, the god who spoke to Jacob’s mother Rebekah, designating Jacob as her foremost heir.
Yahweh promises Jacob what he promised his grandfather Abraham: You will inherit this land. Your offspring will be as numerous as the dust of land, spreading out across the land in all four directions. The families of the land will be blessed through you and your seed. Yahweh continues, promising to guard the lonely traveler wherever he goes, and to return him to this soil.
Upon waking, Jacob is afraid, declaring that he unknowingly slept in the presence of Yahweh, and that this place must be the house of Elohim, and the gate of the heavens. Perhaps this was even the very spot his grandfather consecrated, newly arrived in Canaan, having obeyed Yahweh’s command to depart from Harran, Jacob’s destination. Perhaps the stone he displaced to be his pillow was already consecrated as part of his grandfather’s altar to his god.
Having left the house of his mother and father, temporarily undoing the work of his grandfather Abraham along that dimension as well, Jacob for the first time acknowledges his grandfather’s god. He takes the stone he moved for his pillow, sets it up as a pillar, and anoints it with oil, consecrating the place Beth-El (בית–אל), House-of-God. Jacob, always canny, makes a conditional vow: if Yahweh’s promise is kept – if the Elohim, the cosmic powers, are with him, keeping him fed and clothed along his journey, and he returns in safety to the house of his father – then Yahweh will be his god, and he will build up this place as a house of God and tithe to him.
The first man from the house of Abraham to return to Harran to find a wife was not Jacob, traveling on his own account, but the steward Eliezer, who brought Rebekah back out to Canaan to marry Isaac. Jacob’s arrival at Harran mirrors Eliezer’s.
Jacob the lover
First, he arrives at the well where the flocks of sheep and goats are watered. Then he encounters a woman from the family of Bethuel. Instead of Laban’s sister Rebekah drawing water for the household, he sees Laban’s daughter, his cousin Rachel, a shepherdess working in the family business.
Far from home, he sees a kinswoman, and finds something about her compelling. Perhaps she reminds him of his mother, her aunt.
Eliezer tested Jacob’s mother by seeing whether she would extend the hospitality of watering his camels. But here, the situation is reversed. Jacob has not brought any thirsty animals to be watered, nor any valuables to present, nor a home to bring her back to. He has nothing to offer but himself. Fortunately, Jacob has inherited from his mother not only her familial affinity towards shrewd dealing, but her generous and passionate nature as well. (Recall that she swooned right off her camel when she first saw her husband-to-be meditating in the fields.)
In an uncharacteristic feat of physical prowess, Jacob defies local custom by rolling the great covering-stone off the well and watering Rachel’s flocks, a stranger extending hospitality to a local. He then introduces himself to Rachel, who brings him home to her father Laban, his mother’s brother.
Laban the dealer
Jacob has served in Laban’s household as a shepherd for a month, apparently to Laban’s satisfaction, when Laban insists that he accept some sort of compensation to formalize the arrangement.
What incentive might Laban have to formalize Jacob’s compensation? Once consideration might be simple fairness – that Jacob be repaid for the work he does. But Laban’s prior behavior towards Eliezer (making sure to keep him around until all the valuables he brought were extracted as gifts) hardly conforms to this hypothesis. Another consideration is that if Jacob is contributing materially to the productivity of the household, Laban might be anxious to keep him around, perhaps at an advantageous-to-Laban “friends and family rate.” On the other hand, specifying terms in advance is also a way to avoid risk, by keeping a transaction arms-length. By making the terms of Jacob’s compensation explicit, Laban may hope to avoid a potentially messy later disentanglement, or the unlimited liability owed kin treated as such.
Whatever Laban’s intent may have been, Jacob opts for the friends and family rate; having fallen in love with Rachel (the younger of Laban’s two unmarried daughters), he proposes to serve Laban as a shepherd for seven years, in exchange for her hand in marriage. Laban accepts, commenting that it would be better to give her to Jacob than to a stranger.
By specifying no other compensation than Rachel herself, Jacob sets up a situation in which Laban, naturally concerned with the well-being of his daughter and her offspring, will be inclined to treat him well in the future. Nominally, Laban owes Jacob nothing aside from his daughter. But his actual liability remains unlimited, as he is still in effect entirely responsible for the maintenance of her household.
On the other hand, by putting himself at Laban’s mercy for his living, Jacob risks losing control of their joint venture. If the case of Eliezer is any guide, Laban will hold onto Jacob for as long as he can, to extract as much as he can out of the deal. If Laban can force Jacob to put roots down in Harran, then Jacob becomes a valuable permanent addition to the household of Laban, and Jacob is lost to the Abrahamic project, lured back to rich, civilized Mesopotamia.
At the end of seven years’ work, Jacob somewhat bluntly demands that Laban fulfill his part of the deal – “Bring my woman, since my days are fulfilled, and I shall come in to her.” Laban arranges a wedding feast. In the evening, however, he places his elder daughter, Leah, in the marital chamber. In the dark of night, Jacob unknowingly consummates a marriage to his beloved Rachel’s elder sister, discovering this only upon waking.
Why might Laban have done this?
The crudeness of Jacob’s demand may have marked him to Laban as a yokel who could be easily exploited by giving him literally what he asked for, and only that, despite the prior deal. After all, he didn’t bother to verify the identity of his bride before consummating the marriage,
Or perhaps Jacob’s indelicacy of expression with respect to Laban’s daughter offended him. When Jacob demands an explanation the next morning, Laban tells Jacob that in this place, it is not customary to give the younger child preference over the elder. This may be an implicit rebuke of Jacob’s behavior towards Esau and his father, usurping the legal and ritual precedence of his elder brother. Filial precedence may be inverted in the wild west of Canaan, but in mature, civilized Harran, daughters are married off in the traditional order of seniority.
But why didn’t Leah marry in the preceding seven years? The text’s description of Leah as tender-eyed – explicitly contrasted with Rachel’s physical beauty – is perhaps a clue. Considered in conjunction with Jacob’s preference for Rachel, and the fact that Leah was not noticeably entrusted with a responsibility like shepherding, this may denote a physical defect. One might even speculate that this is an early instance of Ashkenazi-typical gene that tends to cause both higher measured intelligence and myopia, although it could just be a blemish about the eyes. Whatever the details, perhaps this apparent defect limited her marriage prospects despite Laban’s evident prominence and wealth.
On the other hand, if Laban benefited from Jacob’s continued presence, holding Leah in reserve may have been a deliberate stratagem. (In this case, her tender eyes could connote tears of resignation; her marital history with Jacob is consistent with this interpretation.) After Jacob discovers Laban’s subterfuge, Laban proposes that after Jacob spends a week with his new bride, he marry Rachel immediately – in exchange for another seven years’ work.
Laban, leaning into the close-ties situation Jacob set up, is bargaining for considerably more in expectation than seven additional years. By requiring Jacob to stay around for his first seven years of marriage, Laban nearly guarantees that by the time Jacob is free to leave, he will have children who have grown up here. To marry his beloved, Jacob is maneuvered into a position where he has to put down roots – with Laban’s elder daughter – in Harran, without any independent means of support. (Perhaps a desire to avoid this was why Jacob accepted the initial seven years’ delay without complaint.)
Jacob accepts Laban’s revised offer, establishing a precedent that Laban can alter the terms of agreements at will. To ensure the production of progeny to bind their interests together, Laban provides a handmaid for each of his daughters, to bear children as heirs by proxy if one of his daughters should happen to be infertile.
Jacob’s departure from his native land to start a family brings to mind the description of human mating in the second creation story:
And the ruddy one (ha’Adam, האדם) said: “This instance is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because this one was taken out of Man.” Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave unto his woman, and they shall be as one flesh. And they would both go naked, the ruddy one and his woman, and were not ashamed.
The elder brother, Esau, was the ruddy one here. The younger, more neotenous Jacob nonetheless has left his father and mother, to stay with his woman. But his marital relations can hardly be called unified, or without shame.
Seed of Jacob
Jacob now finds himself possessed of two wives, each with a maidservant as fertility backup. In contrast with the fertility difficulties experienced by his mother and grandmother, Jacob’s household immediately begins to produce offspring. But as in the case of his grandfather’s children, the reception they receive is not one of uncomplicated joy.
Leah – simple, tender-eyed, and unloved – turns out to be exceptionally fertile, and competes for her husband’s affection on the basis of the simple virtue of being able to produce heirs. The story of the naming of Leah’s first four sons reflects this:
Yahweh saw that Leah was hated, and opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and called his name Re’uben (ראובן, literally, “look – a son!”): for she said, “Because Yahweh saw (ra’ah, ראה) my affliction (b‛anyiy, בעניי), therefore my husband will now love me.” And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said, “Because Yahweh heard (shama‛, שמע) that I was hated (shnumah, שנומה), he gave me this one too; and she called his name Simeon (Shim‛on, שמעון). And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined (yillaweh, ילוה) to me, because I have born him three sons”; therefore his name was called Levi (Lewi, לוי).
After bearing three healthy sons fails to win her the anticipated affection of her husband, Leah is apparently resigned to her fate, and decides to find joy in her children themselves. Accordingly, she no longer takes credit for a gift to Jacob, instead simply thanking Yahweh for her fourth son:
She conceived again and bore a son, and she said, “This time I will acknowledge Yahweh (Yehuah, יהוה) — therefore she called his name, Judah (Yehudah, יהודה); and stopped bearing.
Leah’s fourth son is named after Yahweh himself, presaging a special relationship between the god of the Israelites and the tribe named after him, despite three senior brothers from Jacob’s same, senior wife.
Rachel, Jacob’s preferred but barren bride, is threatened by her sister’s fecundity. Her initial response is mercurial, as is Jacob’s reply:
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she said to Jacob: “Bring me children, and if not, I will die!” And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said: “Am I in Elohim’s stead, which withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
Jacob refuses to accept responsibility for the underlying fact of Rachel’s apparent infertility, so she resorts to the expedient of heirs by proxy, and tells him to try her handmaiden Bilhah. While Leah’s children’s names reflect marital and motherly love, the names Rachel gives “her” sons by Bilhah describe them as victories in a contest with her sister:
Bilhah conceived, and bore Jacob a son. And Rachel said, “God has judged me (dananni, דנני), and also listened to my voice, and gave me a son; therefore called she his name Dan (דן). And Bilhah Rachel’s handmaid conceived again, and bore Jacob a second son. And Rachel said: “Wrestlings of Elohim have I wrestled (naphtulei Elohim niphtalti, נפתולי אלהים נפתלתי) with my sister, and have prevailed.” And she called his name Naphtali (נפתלי).
Leah enlists her own maidservant, Zilpah, who bears two more children. Leah names them Luck (Gad) and Happiness (Asher), continuing to focus on the joy of children rather than her rivalry with her sister, at least in naming her sons.
But heirs by proxy are not Leah’s only compensatory measure; during the wheat harvest, her son Reuben finds her mandrakes, an herb supposed to be an aphrodisiac, analgesic, and fertility-enhancer. Rachel, still suffering from infertility, asks her sister for some of her mandrakes. Leah initially balks, indicating that despite the names of her newest children, she is still hurt by her husband’s preference for her younger sister: “Is it a small matter that you took my husband? Would you even take my son’s mandrakes?” Jacob has apparently given up on Leah as a mate altogether – or that is how she feels.
Rachel’s response is to offer a night with their husband in exchange for some of the mandrakes. That night, when Jacob comes home from the field, Leah meets him and informs him of the sale. The resulting child is named after the incident:
Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, You shall come in to me; for a hire have I hired you (sachor schartticha, שכר שכרתיך) with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night. And Elohim listened to Leah, and she conceived, and bore Jacob a fifth son. And Leah said, Elohim has given me my hire (schari, שכרי), because I have given my handmaid to my husband: and she called his name Issachar (Yissashchar, יששכר).*
Perhaps motivated by Leah’s renewed fertility, Jacob apparently continues sexual relations with her (we are not told whether more mandrake payments are made to Rachel), since she goes on to bear him a sixth son, whom she names after the manner of her first three, in the hope that bearing so many children would win her Jacob’s affection:
And Leah said, “Elohim endowed (zabadni, זבדני) me a good dowry (zebed, זבד); now my husband will dwell with me (yizbleni, יזבלני), because I have born him six sons; and she called his name Zebulun (זבלון).
Leah then bears a daughter, named Dinah (דינה), judgment, in an analogous formation to Rachel’s son by Bilhah, Dan. Another difference from Leah’s first four children is her relationship with divinity. The description of her attitude around her first four births describes her in relation to Yahweh, Jacob’s particular god; in contrast, Rachel, less committed to her husband’s ideas and less trusting of providence, refers to the more cosmic Elohim. But as Leah goes longer without her husband’s love, and is forced to resort to more mundane expedients than authentic, unmediated sexuality to produce offspring (a surrogate, a fertility drug, and buying a night with her own husband), the name of Yahweh drops out in the description of her handmaid’s offspring, to be replaced by Elohim for her final two children.
Jacob has acquired two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, a daughter, and the solicitous patronage of his wealthy Harranian uncle, but he is so disconnected from the emotional life of his household that his wives barter him as a commodity and his firstborn son participates in their competition for primacy. His preference for Rachel even disconnects Leah from the Yahwistic project she was initially happy to accept; she starts playing the game on her own account instead.
Finally, around the end of Jacob’s second seven-year term of service, Rachel conceives and bears a son. There are two stated explanations for her son’s name. One refers to her past shameful infertility, which Elohim took away (asaph, אסף); the other, hoping that Elohim would increase (yoseph, יסף) her progeny by providing her with another son. The firstborn from her own body is Joseph (Yoseph, יוסף). But her attention is not on the actual son she has now; instead, she is only concerned with her history and future prospects.
Much like Jacob traded away the present of a red lentil stew for the future prospect of a birthright, Rachel has traded away her ability to enjoy the present, for the ability to steer the future. She is a schemer and dreamer, like her husband and his mother before him. And soft-eyed Leah is learning to project her vision onto reality, like her sister-wife and their husband.
Negotiable assets and return on investment
Jacob reopens negotiations. His initial position is apparently modest; he asks to leave with nothing but his personal family, his wives and children. Laban won’t accept this for two reasons. First, he can’t very well let Jacob do that without providing for his own daughters and grandchildren, a lump sum expenditure he may wish to defer. Second, apparently happy with Jacob’s stewardship, Laban is anxious to retain his services. So Laban responds by asking Jacob to name his wages. This is again less generous than it seems; adversarial negotiation is about information asymmetries, and power negotiators try to avoid being the first to disclose information by name a number. Jacob accordingly avoids answering Laban’s question directly; he responds by talking about how he has caused Laban’s livestock to increase, and how Yahweh has blessed Laban through Jacob, finishing with “and now when shall I provide for mine own house also?”
Jacob is arguing not just for pay, but for autonomy. First, he establishes that he is demonstrably providing value for Laban. Second, he claims that he provides this value as a conduit for Yahweh’s blessing – this is an assertion that his ability to add value is related to his ability to run a distinct household on Yahwistic organizing principles. Thus, it is in Laban’s interest not merely to reward Jacob richly as a personal retainer, but to provide Jacob with substantial autonomy. Only after this frame has been established does he point out that while he’s been increasing Laban’s wealth, he’s been neglecting his own household.
Laban doesn’t engage with Jacob’s argument, preferring the simple but effective tactic of restating the question, asking Jacob once more to name his wages. Jacob again refuses to name specific wages, but proposes a profit-sharing arrangement. The typically colored dark goats and white sheep will be Laban’s, while the speckled goats and dark sheep will be Jacob’s. Separation by color will make the accounting easy. Jacob can manage his and Laban’s flocks together, but a separation can be effected at any time.
Laban agrees to the deal, but immediately acts to minimize his costs; he separates out the speckled goats and dark sheep, assigns them to his sons’ flocks, and places three days’ distance between himself and Jacob, preventing Jacob from recovering his property. Jacob is left in charge of a flock of goats that are black, and sheep that are white sheep – and therefore, all Laban’s and none his own.
Jacob, perhaps having learned from Laban’s marital subterfuge, is not without defenses in this case. He uses sympathetic magic – displaying white-streaked rods to the animals under his management – to cause the strongest animals in his flock to conceive spotted and speckled young. With considerable negotiable wealth, he is able to acquire other assets he would need to split off from Laban – camels and donkeys, but also people. Perhaps even fighting men.
After six years building up his household in this manner, Jacob observes that Laban’s sons are jealous of their inheritance, which they perceive him to be expropriating, and that Laban too does not welcome his presence as much as before. He receives a message from Yahweh that it’s time to leave town.
Jacob calls his wives out into the field, away from the ears of potential spies, and confers with them about the decision. His argument for leaving is that while this particular environment is hostile to him and his interests, the god of his father is reliable and friendly. Therefore, leaving this place together as a household will be advantageous.
The question of tension between Jacob and his wives’ family is naturally a sensitive one, and Jacob’s expansion on this point reflects this. He begins by establishing as common knowledge that he has worked honestly for their father, but that their father changed his wages multiple times, and he was saved only by the intervention of Elohim. He then goes on to specify the sort of changed wages he means, with Laban repeatedly altering the standard by which animals would be Jacob’s, including a substantial amount of vivid detail about the coloration of Laban’s flocks. In addition to fleshing out his argument with specific evidence, the vivid description may have served to divert attention from the first way in which Laban changed Jacob’s wages: his wives!
Jacob then goes on to describe a prophetic dream in which an angel of God showed him the speckled animals, said they were God’s gift, and told him to get out of town. The angel identified himself as the God of Beth-El, where Jacob anointed a pillar and vowed a vow, and tells him to return to his native land. Thus, Jacob’s material prosperity here is marshaled as evidence for leaving rather than for staying.
Rachel and Leah’s response is all that Jacob might have hoped. They say that their father used up their inheritance, and then sold them. Consequently, they don’t feel a debt of loyalty to him, and are happy to be enriched through Jacob at Laban’s expense. They tell Jacob to carry out the instructions of the Elohim that has done well by him so far.
Satisfied with this level of strategic alignment, Jacob assembles his household and wealth, and begins the journey from Paddan-Aram back to his father Isaac in Canaan.
Reflection on the moon
During the preparations for her household’s departure, Rachel – always looking for an advantage – secretly steals her father’s teraphim, or household gods. According to prevailing Mesopotamian mores, physical possession of an idol was terribly important; by stealing it, Rachel is implicitly claiming for her husband – or herself – Laban’s primacy over his clan. But there is reason to believe that this bold move was not made out of mere acquisitiveness.
The status of women in Harran – or at least in Laban’s household – seems to have declined substantially between the visits of Eliezer and Jacob.
Our first clue is that water has become scarce. Women in the Bible are associated with access to water. Hagar was shown a well in the desert, to save her life and the life of her son Ishmael. The comparatively female-dominated household of Isaac was noted for the digging of wells, the ownership of which Isaac had to defend against Avimelech. And when Eliezer arrived at Harran, Rebekah brought him and his camels water. But now, the water supply is sufficiently scarce that there seems to be a local norm against taking water when others can’t monitor you.
This clue is borne out by more direct evidence. When Eliezer wanted to bring Rebekah back with him to marry Isaac, Laban could plausibly insist on delaying the departure to consult, not only his and Rebekah’s father, but Rebekah herself, and their mother as well, as independent stakeholders.
In this generation, Laban sells his own daughters like chattel. They construe this as taking away something they used to have, apart from the inheritance they say Laban spent. A memory of things having been better in the recent past seems to have been part of the motivation for their aggrieved estrangement from Laban, and preference for the comparatively egalitarian Jacob’s leadership.
Laban (לבן) is Hebrew for “white,” and its feminine form, “levanah” (לבנה), is a poetic term for the moon, the celestial object most frequently associated with womanhood. This association is due to receptive and reflective nature of the moon’s white light, but also to the near-coincidence of lunar months and menstrual cycles.
Harran was also one of the two known centers of moon-worship in Mesopotamia; the last independent Babylonian king before the Persian conquest, Nabonidus, notoriously favored Harran’s moon cult over Babylonia’s native cult of Marduk. (You may remember Marduk as the god who notoriously carved up the first-generation goddess Tiamat to create the mundane world, an implicit symbol of patriarchy carefully neutered in the Bible’s story of the carving up of creation.)
Rachel’s theft of Laban’s teraphim thus carries the symbolic resonance of picking up the mantle of champion of women, from the lapsed, corrupt, patriarchal moon-god of Harran, to carry into Canaan, through the patrilineal household of Jacob.
Laban put three days’ distance between himself and Jacob (presumably in order to prevent Jacob from recovering the speckled animals Laban removed from the flock). Jacob now benefits from the distance with three days’ head start before Laban hears of his departure, and of the simultaneous disappearance of his own household’s gods. Laban pursues Jacob, but it takes him seven days to catch up with Jacob, by which time Jacob makes it across a river into the mountainous region of Gilead (just east of northern Canaan), giving him a defensive advantage.
Perhaps Jacob deliberately stopped at that point; any farther, and he risked further complicating the situation, either by proceeding south towards his brother Esau, or west into Canaan; in either location, the locals were likely to have a strong interest in either destroying him or binding him into a patronage relationship. But in Gilead he stands alone against a lone opponent.
Stand at Gilead
During his pursuit, Laban was warned in a dream by Elohim to offer neither inducements nor threats to Jacob. When he arrives at Jacob’s position in the mountains of Gilead, he tells Jacob about this constraint, perhaps to cause him to understand that the absence of explicit offers and threats does not imply an unwillingness to reward good conduct with gifts or punish bad conduct with violence. Then, making neither threats nor offers, he simply berates Jacob for stealing away in secret, taking away Laban’s daughters like captives of war, denying him the opportunity to send off his children and grandchildren with proper ceremony or kiss them goodbye.
It is not at all improbable that Laban, despite his domineering schemes, genuinely feels hurt. But this is also the sort of appeal that might carry some force despite being neither an offer nor a threat. Laban finishes his speech with another grievance: the theft of his gods.
Jacob responds to the two complaints in order. First, he explains that he left in secret because he was afraid that Laban would change the terms of the deal again, and forcibly recover his daughters in order to maintain control. But as for the theft of the Gods, Jacob has no particular reason to credit this allegation. Assuming that the accusation is a pretext for violence, he decides to deny Laban that excuse by permitting him to search the entire traveling household, and to execute whoever is found in possession of the gods.
Rachel – whether through quick thinking, or having planned for this eventuality – arranges to be sitting on her camel, concealing the teraphim under her seat. When Laban enters her tent, she apologizes for not standing to greet her father, since she is indisposed due to menstruation, implicitly aligned with lunar femininity. Laban chooses not to press the issue, lest he be forced to choose between losing face by leaving Rachel alive, and executing his own daughter.
The search completed, Jacob – honestly angry, ignorant of Rachel’s stratagem – scolds Laban, demanding that he produce evidence of stolen property. He recalls the history of his service to Laban – that he endured hardships and bore all the costs of his work to Laban, being more than fair, while Laban repeatedly changed the terms of the deal to his own advantage.
From Laban’s perspective, perhaps it seems as though Jacob brazenly staked the life of his favored wife on her father’s reluctance to exact vengeance. In any case, Laban replies: your wives are my daughters, he says, your children my grandchildren, your entire household is made of my stuff, what can I do to you?
Jacob really has acted somewhat coolly here. But this injury was self-inflicted on both sides; they agreed to a deal that would give Jacob nominal control over a lot of resources, but commit him to practical integration into Laban’s household. This forced Jacob to choose between indefinite acceptance of his de facto subordination to Laban (and eventually Laban’s male heirs), and uprooting his people and stuff from a household and city they’d put down roots in. Jacob bet that Laban would not be willing to engage in the level of overt violence necessary to recover Jacob’s household. And Jacob won.
Laban and Jacob build a pile of stones to mark a border, and declare an armistice; so long as neither crosses to the other side, there will be no violence. Playing once more the role of a patriarch looking after the well-being of his daughters, Laban demands that Jacob treat them well, and threatens to come after him if he doesn’t, or if he marries anyone else.
They make a covenant to this effect, Laban invoking the protocol of the god(s) of Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, of Laban’s grandfather Nahor, and of their father Terah, while Jacob invokes the terror of his father Isaac. Jacob offers a sacrifice atop the monumental stone altar, they eat together, and in the morning Laban retreats back towards Harran, kissing his children and grandchildren goodbye.
Contracts – a review
Jacob has left Mesopotamia a married man with eleven children and numerous livestock, but cut off from his Harranian roots, and not yet reconciled with the elder brother who waits for him in the lands to his south.
When Jacob left Canaan, his negotiation style focused exclusively on securing nominal claims to assets, taking for granted the enforceability of his rights. He did not accumulate any practical control over what was supposedly his, nor did he ensure alignment of interests between himself and his counterparty Esau. On the other hand, aside from his verbal side agreements, the fruits of his labor were entirely bound up in a household not his own. When he left, he left with nothing but himself and this woefully incomplete ability to defend his own interests.
In the household of Laban, Jacob learned to convert his nominal rights into effectual control of resources. He had to take into account both his contractual rights (in order to have the moral authority to hold onto his assets), and his actual social and practical constraints (accumulating mobile assets, getting buy-in from his wives, maintaining operational security to take effective advantage of distance between himself and Laban).
In his brother Esau, Jacob faced a simple problem, with simple lessons to be learned. Esau’s predatory intelligence was oriented towards physical reality – he hunted animals. His attitude towards his arrangements with Jacob was simple, and Jacob’s missteps were easy not to repeat.
Laban’s predatory intelligence is more similar to Jacob’s own, oriented towards interpersonal negotiation – instead of extracting resources from the beasts of the field, he extracted it from human beings, even his own family. What’s more, Laban began their negotiations from a position of strength, while Jacob began from a position of weakness. In addition, while Jacob seems to have felt bound to honor the nominal terms of any agreement he entered into (deceiving his father into blessing him as firstborn was his mother’s plan, not his own), Laban was willing to exploit his superior position to unilaterally change the terms of an agreement with Jacob when it suited him.
Jacob’s and Laban’s tricks are different in nature. Jacob carefully sets up deals with terms that pay off for him in the long run. He exploited his brother’s moment of high time preference, but he represented his position honestly, and continues to do so to Laban. Laban, on the other hand, makes deals that put him in position to squeeze the other party later, regardless of what he might be contractually entitled to. Jacob learns the game well enough to keep up with Laban without breaking his word, but only just barely, especially given the additional risk Rachel, his chosen partner, takes on.
As a result of his more integrated perspective, Jacob did better against his uncle than against his brother; not only was he entitled to great wealths, but he actually extracted a large share of what he was owed, performing the substantial feat of taking one household out from another (presaging the Exodus epic).
But while Jacob acquired an integrated perspective in some ways, his time with Laban also forced a sort of separation in him. While operating under a broader frame in which he was part of Laban’s household, Jacob had to be able to hold onto a private sense of distinctness, keeping track of what was really his, and looking for an opportunity to take it. To uproot his household, he needed an uprooted mind. Not the perspective of a stable tree, but of a ladder that might be taken on the road.
Ultimately, Laban is undone by his reflexive predation – it’s beginning to go too far, in ways that undercut him. He remembers to make it difficult for Jacob to claim the livestock he is owed, but forgets to treat his own side well enough to ensure their continued loyalty. Like Lot in Sodom, he ultimately treats his daughters as negotiable assets. Unlike Lot, Laban’s dismissive attitude towards his daughters is not a snap decision in service of the sacred obligation to protect one’s guests, but a consistent trend, which eventually pushes them into Jacob’s camp in loyalty as well as in law. Laban thus inadvertently gives Jacob the freedom of action he needs to honorably extricate himself from the situation. Rachel is an independent agent, but the side game she plays is to Jacob’s benefit – she is on his side now.
On the other hand, Jacob’s strategy doesn’t build an organic base of support – it’s only good enough to take into account the absence of such a base and plan around it. It’s a bad sign when your strategy relies on repeated miracles, even if it is impressive to be able to produce them. That he won the contest is impressive. That he had to enter the contest is not. But it’s amazing that it works at all, and Jacob is in a substantially better position to meet his brother than he was when he left Canaan, both in terms of material resources and in terms of prudence. He knows how to manage conflict to his advantage, even if he doesn’t yet know how to plant the seeds of a lasting peace.
Face of God
Jacob now turns south, to face his estranged brother Esau. Esau has removed across the Jordan to around Mount Seir, east of Canaan, in what will later be the territory of Edom.
On the way, Jacob encounters angels of Elohim. Not dream-messengers passed up and down a symbolic vertical column between the earth and sky, these are earthly messengers of some unknown power. He declares that this is an encampment (maḥaneh, מחנה) of Elohim, and names it Pair-of-Camps (Maḥanayim, מחנים). In the story that follows, Jacob receives mundane messengers, and divides his own camp in two.
Jacob sends messengers or angels of his own ahead to give Esau notice of his arrival. They come back to report that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with 400 men. (The largest force their grandfather Abraham ever fielded was 318, and that was enough to be a decisive force in a contest between the empires of his day.) Jacob is naturally worried that Esau’s intent is hostile, given the reason for his departure.
Jacob’s defensive measures begin with dividing his own camp into two, so if Esau attacks one, the other might escape. After praying to Yahweh and reminding him of his promise, Jacob sends ahead gifts of livestock to appease his brother. He separates the gifts into distinct droves, so that Esau will receive not one but a series of gifts, each one identified as such only after he asks, none of them promising a subsequent gift, but instead indicating that Jacob is behind them. As a result of this expectation management, Esau will receive a series of positive surprises, before encountering his brother.
Having divided his camp and sent gifts off to his brother, Jacob then sends his personal family across the Jabbok river (a tributary running west to the Jordan), leaving him completely alone. To the north, a monument separating him from his mother’s – and ultimately his whole family’s – place of origin: Padan-Aram, Harran, the old world, Mesopotamia, the place of Laban, guarded by a monument neither he nor Laban may cross lest they break their covenant of truce. To the south, a river, across which is his estranged brother Esau. And in between, with no close links at all, is Jacob.
That night, perhaps from the encampment of angels, a man visits Jacob. Their encounter does not seem friendly. They wrestle. Jacob wins, but his adversary first lands a low blow, injuring Jacob’s sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is on the inside of the thigh, connecting the base of the spine with the legs, and thus with the earth below.
The ladder connecting the earth and the heavens is broken. Disconnected by borders on either side from his familial roots, disconnected intellectually from the social web by which his wealth could be sustained, disconnected emotionally from his wives to the point where one of them whores him out to the other, Jacob – the wanderer who made a stone his pillow – is now disconnected from the earth itself.
But for this price, he gains power. At daybreak, Jacob refuses to let the man go without a blessing. The man replies that he will be known no longer as Jacob. (Jacob is probably short for Ya‘aqob-El (יעקבאל), meaning God-Will-Protect.) Instead, he will be known as Israel (ישראל). The most probable etymology for this name is God-Is-Upright (Yashar-El), but another explanation is offered: “you have projected force like a prince (sarita, שרית)** with Elohim (אלהים) and with men, and prevailed.”
Jacob proudly names the spot of this contest Peniel, meaning Face-of-God, claiming to have seen the face of God and lived. Rather than prostrate himself in sleep or submission, Jacob goes horizontal in a wrestling match against God. He goes out from under the protection of Elohim, to stand up as their peer.
Having stood facing his brother to the north, and prostrated himself to face down God, Jacob now turns south to limp across the ford of Jabbok, rejoin his wives and children, and face his brother. In the story that follows, Jacob also contends with a man, sees the face of god, and prevails, but permanently loses his connection with his roots.
Behold how good and how pleasant when brothers dwell together
Seeing Esau approach with his full fighting complement of four hundred men, Jacob sends another series of surprises ahead of him: each of his wives and their handmaidens, with the children belonging to each, is sent as a separate delegation to Esau, with Rachel and Joseph coming last.
Finally, Jacob approaches his brother in person, and prostrates himself seven times. There’s nothing more he can do to prepare – now he will know what his brother intends.
Esau runs to meet his brother, embraces him, falls on his neck, and kisses him. They weep, together. Esau asks about the women and children standing around; Jacob replies that these are his own children. The four groups each approach and bow to Esau. Esau asks about the many herds he encountered on the way to meet his brother, and Jacob replies that they are gifts to win his brother’s favor.
What might Esau be thinking? When Esau was murderously enraged at his brother for extracting his birthright and blessing, they were both impulsive young men – Jacob too young to be married. Jacob then left the household, with nothing, and was gone for twenty years. In that time, Esau left Canaan altogether, and seems to have done quite well for himself. Now, his little brother has come back, bringing wealth from another foreign land, and eager to appease him.
While Esau could still be angry, he’s spent twenty years focused on building up his own household – and growing up. More likely, he’s grown to regret the way they parted, and proud to see his little brother all grown up with a family of his own.
The last time these brothers met, they had little in the way of independent wealth, and were at odds over their inheritance. But now, Esau tells his brother, “I have enough.” Both brothers are independent enough to offer each other gifts. Jacob insists that he too has enough, and Esau graciously accepts the gifts.
Esau’s reciprocal offers, however, are not accepted. He invites his brother to come with him to his home in Seir, but Jacob demurs, with the excuse that his children are too young to bear a hard journey (it’s not longer than the flight from Harran to Gilead), and promises to follow at some undefined time in the future (he never does.)
Esau then offers Jacob the use of some of his men. Jacob refuses that as well. No longer in active conflict with his brother, he turns down all entanglements. The gifts were not the beginning of an exchange of affection, but a tactic to defuse tension. The conflict was temporary, but the separation is permanent. Jacob expertly manipulates the tactical situation, but turns down the opportunity to build a loving fraternal relationship.
In this context, it’s worth examining the words in which Jacob insisted that Esau accept his gifts: “But please, if now I have found grace in your eyes, then take my offering from my hand: for therefore I might see your face, as though I had seen the face of Elohim, and you be pleased with me.”
That very morning, Jacob had named a place Face-of-God to memorialize his victory in a wrestling match against the stranger who blessed him. In his brother’s face, he sees the face of a god – and stares it down.
Jacob continues his journey back into Canaan, purchases the land he camps on, and builds an altar to El-Elohei-Israel: God, Elohim of Contends-With-God.
Damage to the sciatic nerve
The text indicates that the damage to Jacob’s sciatic nerve is not merely a personal side effect of his victory over Elohim, but a longer-run civilizational tradeoff: “Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank.”
This is not the first hereditary nerve trauma near the connection between the spine and the legs. Abraham circumcised Isaac shortly after birth, and the same was presumably done to Jacob, cutting him off from some amount of intuitive sense of sexual and generative opportunity, to win him self-control. Now, in addition, he’s incurred permanent damage at the base of the ladder connecting the divine and the earth, up and down which signals are passed – the spine.
The ability to contend with gods and men is no small benefit, but we have paid a terrible price. Our civilization, which has risen to prominence based on its success managing a combination of trade and conflict, maintains a formal understanding of its origins, but very little of our culture retains a sense of intergenerational rootedness. The epidemic of lower back pain, related to the increased prevalence of working postures in which the legs no longer function as a vital connection to the ground, suggests that the particular pathology explained here is becoming more acute.
To repair the spiritual damage to our cultural mind-body’s sciatic nerve, we must look to these stories to see why and how the damage was incurred, so as to not simply set ourselves up for the same problems – and same costly solutions – the next time around. Not another turn of the great wheel, but another step up an unbroken ladder, with its top in the heavens.
The story is not over.
* Possibly from man of hire (ish sachar, איש שכר).
** This is the verb form of sar (שר), the word for prince that forms the basis of Sarah’s name.