I continue to read each week’s Torah portion, accompanied by materials from Light of Torah and Bat Kol Institute, two organizations that provide scriptural reflections derived from Jewish sources for a Catholic audience. As this Thanksgiving weekend kicks off a holiday season of family gatherings, it’s consoling that the Jewish Bible doesn’t mince words in narrating dysfunctional family relations. This week’s passage from Genesis 28:10-32:3, dealing with Isaac and Rebekah’s son Jacob, is quite the tale. Having cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, Jacob has departed to his mother’s people, the household of his uncle Laban. Upon arrival, he meets Laban’s daughter Rachel at the well and later arranges with Laban to work for seven years in order to marry her. When the time comes, Jacob himself is deceived into marrying the older daughter, Leah, instead. He agrees to work seven more years to marry Rachel. During Jacob’s tenure, the herds flourish, which creates tensions with Laban’s sons; meanwhile Jacob believes Laban has cheated him of his wages. Interaction among the women is also fraught with competition, jealousy, and deception. Rachel experiences a long time of infertility while Leah produces son after son. In desperation, she offers her maid to Jacob, but then Leah counters with the same gesture. Eventually Rachel gives birth to Joseph and later dies giving birth to Benjamin. While Jacob’s sons are ubiquitous as originating Israel’s twelve tribes, I seldom consider that they were actually born of four different women. The final drama of the passage occurs when Jacob is instructed by God to return to his homeland, and he departs in secret with his accumulated wives, sons, and flocks of sheep and goats. Meanwhile, Rachel takes with her Laban’s household idols, Laban comes in pursuit, Rachel successfully conceals the idols, Laban and Jacob make peace, and the travelers continue on.
Throughout, the narrative points out how God is with the younger son (Jacob) and daughter (Rachel) as they use their wits to overcome obstacles. Ultimately God is faithful to the promise that he made to Jacob at the start,”Remember, I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen. 28:15) But the line that stood out to me the most in the whole four chapters comes right before this one. Whereas Abraham was promised descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky, God tells Jacob, “Your descendents shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendents.” (Gen. 28:14). “Dust” here connotes infinity like the stars, but I think it goes further by asking us to think of families like soil in which life both decays and grows. At this time of year when expectations for joy and happiness run high, we might let the descendents of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and the maids Bilhah and Zilpah bless us in our own imperfections and those of our families, whatever they might be. Remember, God is with us.
Top photo: by Hello, I am Bruce; via Flickr under a Creative Commons license
Bottom photo: by NASA Goddard Photo & Video; via Flickr under a Creative Commons license