With his brother Esau feeling stabby, Jacob leaves Beer-sheba and sets out for Haran at the beginning of Parsha Vayetzei. At night, he dreams “a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.'”
Genesis God seems really keen on reminding Abraham and his descendants, “Hey, I got you. I got your back.”
After poetically spelling out the glory of Jacob’s descendants, God continues, “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.”
God here reminds me of the conflicted, tortured anti-hero in a film. He’s the one with a troubled backstory that you hear about but you never really see it. He’s seen some things and done some things He regrets. Then, in the film’s climax, he says “Let me do this one good thing” and he does it to save the day.
When you hear from the Lord Himself that He’s got your back, it turns out it bolsters your spirits. Jacob says:
“If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house––the Lord shall be my God.”
I love this line. Imagine a juicy, delicious Thanksgiving turkey filled with stuffing. God’s promise is the turkey and the stuffing is Jacob’s series of delectable caveats.
“Sure, I’ll follow you––if you do the following.”
To be fair to Jacob, Torah God has a track record of making tremendous promises and then doing something deranged, like testing Abraham on whether or not he’d kill his son, Isaac.
Jacob and Rachel
With God watching over his shoulder, Jacob continues his journey and arrives in “the land of the Easterners.” This is where he meets and falls in love with Rachel, who is “shapely and beautiful.” (#BodyPositivity). But since this is the Biblical era, some twisted shit is about to go down.
Jacob is offering to help Laban, Rachel’s father, with his flock. Laban wonders what Jacob expects for compensation, to which Jacob answers, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Where “seven years” comes from is beyond me. Then there’s the fact that Rachel doesn’t appear to be involved in this discussion of using her as compensation for labor.
Anywho, that’s just Torah being Torah. They agree, Jacob serves seven years, and a ceremony is planned. But when the morning came, Rachel’s sister Leah was before Jacob. Needless to say, Jacob is pissed.
“I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?”
Laban says, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” So, he offers up Rachel again only if Jacob still takes Leah first and agrees to serve another seven years.
Literal Sister Wives
Seven years later, Jacob is with both Leah and Rachel. Laban’s ploy paid off. What follows is a bizarre sibling rivalry of who can produce more offspring, like dueling banjos of the uterus.
See, Rachel is barren. Leah, on the other hand, can make babies like nobody’s business. She’s popping them out left and right.
Rachel gets fed up and decides to give Jacob her maid Bilhah as a concubine. (Again with the concubines in the Torah.) It works, Bilhah births a son, and Rachel says, “God has vindicated me.”
Well, alright then.
Things get crazier as Bilhah produces more children with Jacob. Rachel straight up sees this as a competition with her sister, Leah.
“A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have won.”
You can practically sense the family therapists drooling to have a crack at these two.
But it’s not just Rachel who’s bought into this bizarre contest. Leah ups the ante by giving Jacob her maid, Zilpah, once she’s unable to conceive. And so more children enter the picture. You’d think that’d be the end of it, but you’d be wrong. This is Torah and what can go crazy, will go crazy.
After Zilpah has a daughter named Dinah, God “remembered” Rachel and “opened her womb.” This is Torah Talk for “she can now conceive.”
“God has taken away my disgrace,” says Rachel, and she names her son Joseph.
Perhaps having enough of this Jerry Springer-esque saga, Jacob decides it’s time to go home.
“Give me leave to go back to my own homeland,” he tells Laban.
Laban believes God has blessed him because of Jacob and wonders how he can compensate him. They agree on dividing up some of the animals.
Then, Jacob has another dream with God popping up again to let him know it’s time to go home. So, without saying goodbye, Jacob splits with Rachel, Leah, and their children. Rachel, for some reason, snags some of her father’s idols.
Naturally, Laban finds out and ends up catching up with them. He has half a mind to make trouble, but God had appeared to him as well, saying, “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.”
Although clearly pissed, Laban would rather settle things amicably. He says to Jacob:
“Here is this mound and here the pillar which I have set up between you and me: this mound shall be witness and this pillar shall be witness that I am not to cross to you past this mound, and that you are not to cross to me past this mound and this pillar, with hostile intent.”
In suburban speak, that’s: “I won’t blow leaves into your lawn if you don’t blow leaves into my lawn.”
The two agreed, Jacob offered up a sacrifice, and they shared a meal. The following morning, Laban kissed his grandsons and daughters and headed home. Jacob and his family continued onward, encountering angels along the way. He says:
“This is God’s camp,” and names the place Mahanaim.
Onward with Parsha Vayishlach.