Monday, May 31, 2010

Desperate Housewives of Genesis

The story of Jacob is a story of struggle between close relations, one that is easily and perhaps best viewed as an allegory for the internal struggles with which we all deal.

The closest of these relatives, Jacob and his twin brother Esau, are the warring aspects of our own natures: The lusty, life-loving Esau is contrasted with the (deceptively) simple, spiritual Jacob.

The sisters Jacob marries offer a similar contrast. Objects rather than subjects in terms of the narrative, the beloved but barren Rachel and the unloved but fertile Leah present to us the spiritual and physical aspects of marriage. I started out to say the higher and lower natures of love, but I don’t think love is the right word, because there is little sense that Jacob either loves or values Leah; nevertheless he stays with her (keeps her around, at least) and fathers seven children with her. I also don’t think it’s a matter of high and low, because, as with Jacob and Esau, the contrast is one of equals, of two equally necessary qualities.

Jacob and Esau come to peace with each other only through the recognition that they are separate, that their kinship does not require them to dwell in proximity, as a family in practical terms. Leah and Rachel have no such luck. Married to the same man (along with two slave girls), they suffer through and because of their differences – Leah, unloved but fertile, Rachel beloved but barren – and elect to remain with their man even when he offers them a choice. Jacob gives them the option of staying with their father, the wily Laban, in whose servitude Jacob has spent 20 years. But the sisters, who have their own reasons to resent their father, choose to flee with their husband, who, after all, was as wounded by Laban’s deceptions as were they.

A central scene in the domestic drama occurs after Leah has given birth to four sons, Rachel’s slave girl Bilhah (whom Rachel has given over to Jacob in desperation) has borne two boys, and Leah’s slave girl Zilpah another two. The episode of the mandrakes occupies only a few lines in Genesis 30, but manages to encapsulate the troubled relationship between the sister-wives.

Chapter 30 has begun with an argument between Rachel and Jacob. Rachel, in frustration over her barrenness, pleads with Jacob, “Give me sons, for if you don’t, I’m a dead woman!” Jacob, irritated by the suggestion that he has somehow withheld children from his favored wife, responds in anger: “Am I instead of God, Who has denied you fruit of the womb?” This exchange leads to the surrogacy of the slave girls and the birth of four additional sons by the time we get to verse 14.

There, Leah and Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben, collects mandrakes from the field and makes a gift of them to his mother. The introduction of the mandrake is a brilliant move. By naming this plant, the author gives us in a word all of the many powers attributed in folk medicine to it: Mandrake was known as a fertility drug, an aphrodisiac, an hallucinogenic, a soporific, and, if administered in too large a dose, a deadly poison. It’s hard to imagine a plant that carries more medical associations.

Seeing the boy make this gift to his mother, Rachel pleads with Leah for some of the plants, to which Leah responds testily, “Is it not enough that you have taken my husband, and now you would take the mandrakes of my son?”

Woah. A resentment that has clearly been brewing now bubbles to the surface. We had been told at the end of Chapter 29 that after the birth of her fourth son, Judah, Leah ceased bearing children. Now, in this single comment in Chapter 30, it becomes clear that the reason for sudden lack of fertility was an absence of sex. In Leah’s eyes, Rachel has stolen her man. We had already been told that Rachel was jealous of Leah’s fertility; now we see the inverse, Leah’s accusation that Rachel has caused Jacob to stop bedding his first wife.

But having said this, Leah decides to use the situation to get what she wants. She barters the mandrakes to her sister in exchange for a night with Jacob, then confronts her husband with the fact that she has bought and paid for his services: “With me you will come to bed, for I have clearly hired you with the mandrakes of my son.”

Mama gotta have it.

That night proves productive: Leah conceives a fifth son. And it apparently leads to a resumption of regular relations between the couple, because we are told in short order that Leah gives birth to a sixth boy and then a daughter, Dinah, whose story turns on her own troubled sex life.

Love. Sex. Jealousy. In a mere seven verses, we get a steamy plot worthy of a contemporary nighttime soap. It’s a masterpiece of concision.

Thomas Mann’s massive tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, an expansion and rumination on the patriarchal stories, is a great work, but it’s not greater than the original telling in Genesis. Why that is so is clear in Mann’s retelling of the episode of the mandrake. Mann expands on the dialogue between the sisters, but his additional words add no new insights. The complex stew of emotions is all there in the seven verses of Genesis.

The greatness of Mann’s novel is in the author’s setting of the Genesis stories within an uber-mythology that ties together beliefs of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Christianity, Judaism and more (Mann links the story of Jacob’s thirteen children to the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis, in which Osiris’ body is cut into 13 parts by his killer. His sister-wife, Isis, recovers all but the penis, which the murderer, Set, has eaten. Because Osiris is variously considered the god of the moon, the harvest and the underworld, his story dovetails conveniently with that of Jacob and his sons in many places). But when Mann comes down to earth and deals with the human, multigenerational story of the Abrahamic line, he really can’t top the original. Mann explicates what is implicit in the stories, but he doesn’t enhance them. How could he? This is the Bible after all, the towering achievement of western civilization.

The story of a slave girl given over to bear children in the stead of a barren wife has been told before, of course, two generations earlier in the tale of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. There is, in fact, a lot of repetition in the accounts of the three generations known as the patriarchy. Three times a beloved wife suffers years of infertility before giving birth (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel), three times a younger son is favored over his older siblings (Isaac, Jacob, Joseph). Twice Abraham deceives a king who has hosted him in exile by presenting Sarah as his sister rather than his wife (in Chapter 20 we learn that she is, in fact, both – shades of Chinatown!), and then his son Isaac makes the same misrepresentation with Rebecca (to one of the same kings, or at least one with the same name, Abemelech).

These characters have a complexity as individuals that is new to the Bible at this point; we haven’t seen comparable character development in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah. We recognize these people, and recognize ourselves in them. That, of course, is the greatness of these stories. For the first time in the Bible, blessings and tribulations come to people just like us, and we learn from how they muddle through them – and muddle is the right word here. No straightforward paths to salvation for this line.

And while the men may be the focus of the story, the female characters are drawn quite intriguingly. These are truly desperate housewives. Sarah, having promoted sex between her husband and the slave Hagar in an attempt to lay claim to the resulting child, finds herself jealous as she watches the fertile Hagar develop a supercilious and mocking attitude toward her barren mistress. She harasses the pregnant slave to the point where Hagar runs away, only to be convinced to turn back by an angel (the second time Hagar leaves, this time sent away with her son, Ishmael, by Abraham, God saves them from death in the desert and leads Ishmael on to found a mighty nation).

The child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, Isaac, is quite a passive character for a patriarch, but his wife, Rebecca, is a real spitfire, engineering the deception that provides an undeserved blessing for her favored son, Jacob, and leads him into 20 years and more of trouble. Rebecca doesn’t have a female adversary in the narrative, but she gives birth to the adversaries Jacob and Esau, and fosters and adversarial relationship between them. If trouble doesn’t come your way, you may have to give birth to it, I guess.

And, of course, Rachel and Leah have a lifetime of difficulty following the deception through which Laban marries off his elder daughter to Jacob instead of the promised younger daughter. When Rachel finally gives birth to the child she has so long desired, her happiness doesn’t last long. Immediately, she is caught up in the escape from Laban and the reunion with Esau (in fact, she can be said to have engineered the confrontation with Laban by stealing her father’s household gods), and shortly thereafter she dies giving birth to Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin.

Rachel’s death is presented prominently in Genesis 35; we are told that she is buried along the road from Bethel to Ephrath, and that Jacob sets up a tomb to her (Rachel’s Tomb is an Israeli landmark today). But Sarah’s death is even more important to the narrative; it leads to Abraham’s first purchase of land, after a drawn-out bargaining session with the Hittites. The physical manifestation of God’s promise comes to pass in this episode, told in Genesis 23. (The Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel are said to be buried, is another important landmark in today’s Israel).

Other female characters, though less important than the matriarchs, figure prominently in these middle chapters of Genesis. After Sarah’s death, Abraham marries again, a woman named Keturah who gives birth to six sons. We’re not told much about Keturah, but, Like Hagar’s son Ishmael, her sons are not considered legitimate, and are sent away with gifts while Isaac inherits the real estate. In a bit of ethnic-baiting, the disfavored sons of Abraham are said to be the founders of neighboring nations.

Smack in the middle of the patriarchal narrative comes the tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’ll get into that story another time, but it’s worth mentioning the women in this one (Genesis 19). Lot’s wife, of course, famously is turned into a pillar of salt when she looks back at the cities being destroyed – a warning to all who dwell on the past. But the two daughters of Lot who escape with their father (there presumably are more, married daughters because we have reference to Lot’s sons-in-law) are central to one of the most disturbing stories in all of Genesis. After the escape from Sodom, Lot and the two girls take refuge in a cave. Thinking they are the last people left on earth, the daughters decide that they need to take strong action to preserve the human race. So, on successive nights, they get their father drunk and have sex with him. Each girl ends up pregnant; the resulting sons give rise to the nations of the Moabites and Ammonites. For this story, I have to admit I can find no moral – it seems to exist for the sole purpose of hurling a “Yo Mama” insult toward those two neighboring nations.

And finally there is Dinah, Jacob’s thirteenth child and only daughter, who goes out visiting among the local girls and ends up being raped by Shechem, son of a prince. But Shechem seems to fall in love with his victim, and has his father petition Jacob for her hand. Dinah’s brothers, incensed by the abuse of their sister, insist that before a marriage can take place, every man in Shechem’s tribe must be circumcised, a condition to which Schechem and his father agree (We’re even told that “their words seemed good in the eyes of Hamor and in the eyes of Shechem son of Hamor” – that boy must have really been in love). While the men of Shechem’s tribe are recovering from the painful surgery, Jacob’s sons kill them all, recover Dinah, loot the village, and take the women and children captive. The chapter (34) ends in a standoff between Jacob and his sons: Dad accuses the hotheaded sons of creating a world of trouble for him, to which the sons respond, “Like a whore our sister should be treated?”

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