Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in to her.” … Now it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter and brought her back to Jacob, and he went in to her. And Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid. So it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah. …Then Jacob… fulfilled her week. So he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife also. And Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as a maid. Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Laban still another seven years.
When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. So Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben [literally, ‘See, a son’]; for she said, “The LORD has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me.” Then she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon [Literally, ‘Heard’]. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi [Literally, ‘Attached’]. And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Now I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah [Literally, ‘Praised’]. Then she stopped bearing.
Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die!” And Jacob’s anger was aroused against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” So she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.” Then she gave him Bilhah her maid as wife, and Jacob went in to her. Then Rachel said, “God has judged my case; and He has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan [Literally ‘Judge’]. And Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and indeed I have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali [Literally, ‘My Wrestling’].
When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took Zilpah her maid and gave her to Jacob as wife. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son.Then Leah said, “A troop comes!” So she called his name Gad [Literally, ‘Troop’ or ‘Fortune’]. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, “I am happy, for the daughters will call me blessed.” So she called his name Asher [Literally, ‘Happy’].
Now Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also? And Rachel said, “Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.”
When Jacob came out of the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes,” And he lay with her that night. And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, “God has given me my hire, because I have given my maid to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar [Literally ‘Hire’]. Then Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. And Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she called his name Zebulun [Literally, ‘Dwelling’]. Afterward she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah. Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. And she conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” So she called his name Joseph [Literally, ‘He will add’], and said, “The LORD shall add to me another son.”
Genesis 29:29 – 30:24
It seems to me that when self-professed Christians who express nostalgia for a “golden age” world order somewhere in the distant past, who advocate for a return to “Old Testament morality”, they display a profound misunderstanding of genre. The passage above, for example, is a historical narrative (not Rankian History as we know it today, but rather history when history and literature were not too different from each other). History is not the same as Law: Genesis is descriptive of a certain society at a certain point in human history, and not a prescriptive recommendation for building the ideal society. Just because polygamy was present in the days of the patriarchs doesn’t mean that it made God happy – on the contrary, almost every instance in which polygamy occurs in the Old Testament ends in strife and division.
The words that describe God in this passage do not suggest smiling approval – rather, they are express judgment in the face of sin, and compassion in the face of suffering. A woman’s worth in society in Jacob’s time was defined by her husband and children, thus making marriage and childbearing matters of life or death, honor or shame. It is heartbreaking to read about Leah and Rachel’s bizarre arms race, in which their female slaves, their children, their sexuality and beauty and ultimately their husband and their selves become weapons wielded against the other. It’s even more heartbreaking when you realize they were literal sisters, born of the same (rather despicable) father. And yet, jealousy spiraled out of control, overwhelmed any sisterly affection they may have had for each other, and they ended up enemies under the same roof, sister against sister, desperate to prove themselves by winning the love of a single man.
Also, just think what the effect those names they gave their sons had – imagine calling out “Hire! Hire!” or “Troop! Troop!” or “Look! A son! A son! A son!” while calling your little boys back in from the fields while your barren or unloved sister watches on… It is hardly surprising that it is the sons born in moments of closeness and surrender to God – Reuben, Judah, Asher, Joseph, who end up with relatively undamaged psyches, as we may deduce from their actions as adults – Reuben saves Joseph from their brothers’ murderous hands, Judah decides to sell him off rather than leave him in a pit, Asher receives a good blessing from Isaac instead of a curse, and poor, cocky Joseph gets to save them all, but only after he’s been sold off and left for dead for a good many years… And so, once again, the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited upon the next and the next generation…
Unlike some of the other patriarchs, Jacob was fooled into polygyny, rather than choosing it for himself (the most spectacular case of this is, of course, King Solomon, who had 1000 wives. I’m not even sure how that works out logistically, but it must have been tiring…). Although I’m personally skeptical that he really had sex with Leah without noticing that it wasn’t Rachel (and it certainly would have voided the contract if he hadn’t “gone in to her”), he certainly didn’t object when Jacob offered Rachel as a second wife, although that in itself was demeaning to Rachel, the woman he really loved. And he also didn’t object when Laban “sweetened” the deal with poor Zilpah and Bilhah – so Jacob, half-knowingly, half-unknowingly, ends up with four wives (two slave, two free) all competing for sex with him, all competing for his favor. No wonder the poor guy is angry when Rachel threatens suicide – he must have been exhausted!
Wherever men wield disproportionate power over women, and there is no taboo against it, there has been polygamy, and the field of bioanthropology has increasingly demonstrated what the Old Testament has narrated all along: Polygyny is always disadvantageous to the women, and by extension, to society. God, in His wisdom, made the proportion of men to women 50:50 – a perfect natural balance that ensures that for every woman there is a man and vice versa. However, whenever a man is powerful and demands women as tribute or to cement alliances (very evident in the ancient – and modern – world’s monarchs, chiefs, Big Men, and captains of power, celebrity and industry), he deprives one of his subjects of a wife. When you get enough single, frustrated males in a group, it’s easy to see why they might form a militia to overthrow the tyrant. Steven Pinker, in his fascinating book How the Mind Works, postulates that all wars are at heart about securing property and women – certainly in the vast majority of evolutionary time, and in modern hunter-gatherer societies, this is very conceivable. But you needn’t even look to biology or anthropology to tell that the multiple child brides of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints are getting the short end of the stick:
“‘We have thousands of women pulled out of school at an early age, forced into marriages with older men, kept isolated from society, constantly impregnated, and often placed on public assistance with no financial means of their own. They are forgotten citizens facing abuse and fear. On top of it all, the victims are constantly taught that God is just pleased as punch about the whole deal. It has to stop’.”
– Utah state Senator Ron Allen
But before we get too pleased with pulling punches on easy targets like the FLDS, consider carefully the kind of culture that we swim in – a culture in which there are more Christian women than men (Why? Is the church failing to speak to men?), in which sex is cheap and can be had after a mutually gratifying grinding session on the dance floor, in which scores of skimpily-clad college girls line up outside frat houses for the validation of getting in the door, only to be abandoned on the dance floor because the sex ratio is something like 5:1. In which women, who (for good reason) demand commitment more quickly and to greater exclusivity than men, are forced by the culture to approach men (who are considered sleazy if they approach women), and try to “have sex like a man” (the starting premise of Sex and the City – which ended in her marrying the guy, by the way) and hundreds of strong, smart, educated, beautiful women I know personally are puzzled why their friends-with-benefits aren’t interested in settling down with them.
What is crazy about this state of affairs is that it isn’t even a zero-sum game between Rachel and Leah. It isn’t that in the end, Rachel wins and Leah loses. Everyone loses – there are no winners at all, only Mutually Assured Destruction. Men who are able to “play the field” and get many women to like and sleep with them earn the label “stud” – a badge many wear gladly. But if you look at the true condition of such a man, it’s not a badge of honor, but one of profound brokenness. Jacob is a stud in this story – a mere beast, slave to his women – even prostitute to Leah, who “buys” him for the night with a handful of mandrakes.
A stud is a beast – a horse, a dog, a bull who is led blindly by the nose to rut with a female, any female. It is heartbreaking to think of Jacob frantically shuttling from one jealous wife to another, from one female slave (only God knows the pain of Zilpah and Bilhah – I am just glad they were dignified with being named in the Bible) to the next, trying to sow his seed as equitably as possible. In those moments, instead of being dignified, instead of feeling fully human in the sacred act itself, fully a Man becoming one flesh with one Woman, he is instead cast out from that grand vision of marriage – the metaphor Jesus uses for His love for the Church – a contract of true love between two beings, conquering their base natures with the spirit of God.
The Declaration of Consent
N., will you have this man to be your husband; to live
together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him,
comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health;
and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you
both shall live?
The Woman answers
The Celebrant says to the man
N., will you have this woman to be your wife; to live
together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her,
comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health;
and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you
both shall live?
The Man answers
– Book of Common Prayer, Marriage Rites