I. Read 28:10-15.
What do you notice that's unusual right from the start?
(He does leave for Haran. He has a dream. There's a stairway or ramp. And angels of God are going UP and DOWN on it.)
Why up and down? It would have been more natural to be down from heaven and up again. What might this signify?
(Maybe angels are with us all along. Maybe they are first carrying his messages to heaven, as in most endeavors, one step at a time, perhaps through prayer. Indeed is this intended to say that alone and in need, Jacob is reaching out to God in supplication? Some say this is like liturgy that involves ascent, standing in the presence, and descent. Other thoughts?)
II. Read 28:16-22
What's Jacob's reaction to God's presence
and reassuring re-statement of the covenant to him?
(relief, to be sure, and a good dose
of gratitude. Certainly, there's an acknowledgment that God is in the world in
ways he had not previously understood, that God can be present anywhere and at
any time, through, for example, the placement of such a ladder. Also, God
responds to our call. Further, Jacob can dream and have visions of God in the
world and a better life because of it. There is the capacity for the spiritual.
The Hebrew for "lighted upon a certain place" is vayifga bamakom. Indeed the word for place, hamakom, is later used as a name for God. And vayifga connotes encounter and is later used in the Bible as a word that means entreat, even pray to.
Thus, this is truly a place of God-encounter, and is highly noteworthy, as it was here for Jacob. And, oddly, it was a place where he had been thinking of other things as he happened upon the presence of God. Has this ever happened to you? We think we're alone, maybe with fear and concern, and we find that God was there all along!
But what about all the conditional, "if this, then that?”)
Is this natural and/or expected from a young man in his fear and actually tantamount to a certain sort of expression of a budding faith or a sense of mutuality in the covenant? Is it intended to mean IF this dream proves to be real, I will... Or when I get back to the land, I will...?
Or is it a sign of an immature faith? Is this the language Abraham used when he got his call? There certainly seems to be a struggle going on within Jacob. Perhaps he's known God through his parents, and now he's finally emerging in his own life and must learn for himself. Thoughts?
III. Read 29:1-14. What do we have here?
Distill the story to its core elements.
(From God to walking to looking to water to
a stone to arrival at physical destination to Rachel (love and the future) to
manifestation of his strength (action and vitality perhaps vs., say, his
mother's kindness) to family complexity that will need to be worked out.
Jacob is a different fellow than his father or grandfather. Emotional. Physically strong. Complex. More to find.
Tell the story about how Camille never gives more than A minus, if there are no literary (especially Hebrew gems. Well - here's a kiss for my bride! In 10 and 11, Jacob rolls the stone off the well and waters (vayashq) the flock. In 11, he kisses (vayishaq) Rachel. Pretty cool pun, no? Show the two words; they have the exact same consonants but with different vowels. Why would the Author enjoy punning these acts with similar words?
Kissing Rachel nourishes life (their love, their children, their legacy); watering the flock nourishes the sheep, performs essential work for the welfare of the family now and into the future, also assuring the family's livelihood. Both are acts of kindness. Both relate to his mother - note the mention of her. Very, very nice.)
But problems arise immediately. What double meaning do you take from the dubious Laban's statement, "You are truly my bone and flesh."?
(Maybe they both are family AND they both
have some deceiver in them?)
Isaac and Rebecca sent him here for what will be a muddy and messy experience that is also God-driven. Let's dig a bit.
IV. So, Laban and Jacob begin to negotiate the terms of his work there. Jacob agrees to serve for seven years if he can have Rachel.
A. Read 29:21-26.
What does this remind you of?
(Jacob's deceit of Isaac! There's darkness in the room as there was in Isaac's eyes - the foundation of the deception. The deceived perhaps could have detected through smell or feel but did not.
Note the word for "deceived" in 25 - rimitani comes from the same root as the word Isaac used to describe Jacob's guile in 27:35 - mirma. Both, from rama.
Note that Laban enforces the traditional rule that the first born child goes first, the very rule Jacob busted up in his setting. This is dramatic irony, a fine how-do-you-do, really a preview of a sort of sense of measure for measure. Though Jacob may have been acting in accord with God's will and Laban may have been acting with lesser motive, what we do tends to have consequences that come back on us in interesting ways.
B. Also, note in 27 and 28 that Jacob acquiesces in the consequence of the deception and agrees to live with the terms, to work another seven years for Rachel. What does this remind you of?
(Isaac's acceptance of the blessings he gave out, after being deceived.)
C. So, what do we make of this narrative about Jacob's years in Haran?
(So, it was in the odd circumstances of all of these relationships, including the deceptions, that "our family" - the 12 tribes of Israel - was built by Jacob, with wives and handmaids! It's sort of the flow of life - in 14 years, there was deception and payback, and work, and acquisition and use of tools, God's presence, jealousy, human choice and patience, imperfection, and becoming. It all involved struggle, as has Jacob's life throughout. God remains for correction and healing with time, with forward motion to destiny.
Lest we leave this all on an upbeat major chord, the future is not all bright, is it? There are consequences that flow from these rivalries and jealousies for Leah, his daughter, in feeling unloved through the marriage by deception, and for these children later in the story, just as there have been consequences and will continue to be for Jacob.
It's not simple. And what's the message in that? Perhaps that we move forward, as best we can, with our commitment to God and living in accord with Divine expectations.
V. Special Items
A. We've noted, and will continue to note, God's sympathy and special love for the weak and abandoned. Note the language in 29:31 - The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and opened her womb.
B. Also, we won't spend much times on the names of the children, but I do want to point out that Leah's first three children bear names related to frustrating experiences with Jacob and rivalry with her sister. Somehow, the fourth son is born in a spirit of gratitude, and his name is rooted in the Hebrew word for "to praise." This is, of course, Judah who plays perhaps the most significant role in the destiny of all of her children.
Does this cause us to ponder the meaning and roles of names, parental mood and expectations, etc. on the future?
VI. The New Contract and the Departure. 30:25-34. Laban and Jacob continued to work each other into deals that ended up very well for Jacob (and Laban, too!), though with great tension with Laban and his sons. It was time to leave. Yet, he fled, without "proper goodbyes."
A. I want to focus on this matter of Rachel's stealing the terafim of her father - some sort of household gods. Let's read 31:19-20, 30-35. What's this about? Rachel is a matriarch, mother of the remarkable Joseph and Benjamin, and yet she appears to need idols, indeed idols stolen from her father! Explain.
(In this more practical, real world account, as we get deeper into the reality of life, isn't the transition from home and mores hard? Do we carry things from the past with us even when we take on a new way?
Or, as some Biblical scholars insist, was this just a matter of property rights, that is, that the ancient customs of Haran were such that these figures were tantamount to evidence of ownership that Rachel wanted Jacob to have to support his claim to all the people and property that went with him?
Other sages say she was trying to wean her father from idol worship. Maybe.
Or is this a weakness in Rachel? Perhaps she stole some "protection" and left her father without it, drawing Jacob's comment that anyone who stole them would get death. The drama here is compelling, though to the modern eye, it's mysterious, to be sure.)
B. All the emotions between Jacob and Laban come boiling out in chapter 31. What do they do? Fight or reach an understanding? Let's read 31:44-54.
What's the lesson here?
(Ultimately, whether with travails or God's blessings or both, we are to meet the other, understand our differences, and reach an agreement, an accord, to resolve and go forward. It's not to leave through the victory of deception, or to escape with matters unresolved in hostility, but rather amicably if possible or at least peacefully through a boundary.
Jacob grows. He goes to Haran alone, but with God's protection. He comes back with family and wealth, and is greeted by angels. He'll need it all when he comes to the grand confrontation in next week's portion. That encounter is one of the most splendid and impactful and meaningful of any we find in our sacred texts. So, come again next Sunday!
So, as we wrap us, we've now had two portions with Jacob. Let's discuss this question: how is he different than his father and grandfather, and in what ways are those differences important to us? (less iconic than Abraham, more fleshed out by far than Isaac, more physical, more virile, more complex maybe, with more imperfections and flaws spelled out, more human, possibly "more like everyman." And this matters, doesn't it? How?)