Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jake's Women

Jake's Women is a play written by Neil Simon (and starring Alan Alda) that my husband and I saw performed off-Broadway more than 15 years ago. It concerned a writer who had imaginary conversations with women in his head. I seem to recall at least one of these women was an ex-wife, but I could be wrong.

But that's not the subject of my post today.

I'm thinking about the patriarch Jacob and his women, notably Leah and Rachel (we'll discuss the maids another time).

Three of the most beautifully written books I ever read were penned by Christian author Liz Curtis Higgs. They are a retelling of the story of Jacob and his two wives. Set in 18th century Scotland, they manage to have you cheering alternately for each of the sisters in their pursuit of Jacob's affections.

But that's not the subject of my post today.

I taught this story recently in my Bible study class and was amused by the reaction of the women who immediately questioned the ethics of the patriarch taking two wives in the first place (and two concubines to boot).

But that's not the subject of my post today.

Maybe having a second wife around the house isn't such a bad idea. Today, I went to the gym, took my younger daughter to the orthodontist, held 3 phone meetings with clients, arranged a new insurance policy for a rental property, attended a staff meeting at church, made copies for my lesson tomorrow, recorded expenses and income from the last two youth trips I've been on, turned in various receipts to get reimbursed, discussed a new class with my pastor that I'm helping to launch, argued with the manager of a storage facility about my bill, answered emails and phone calls on business related to the Kiwanis Kids Triathlon, wrote safety text for one client with one more still to complete tonight, wrote up most of the lesson plan for tomorrow's class, edited a PowerPoint, did laundry, cleaned the kitchen and cooked dinner.

Yeah, I could use a wife.

But that's not the subject of my post today.

No, I'm interested in the interaction and the attitudes of Jake's women as recorded in the book of Genesis. These amazing women, while taking sibling rivalry to a new level, gave birth to eight of the 12 tribes of Israel, including two of the most important characters in the old testament: Judah (Leah's son and ultimately the "royal" bloodline that led to Jesus) and Joseph (Rachel's son, the dreamer with an amazing faith who trusted God to use him to ultimately save his people, even at the expense of great personal suffering).

Leah is the older of the two sisters. Many translations render her physical description merely as having "weak" eyes. Today, my pastor read this passage in our staff meeting and translated it as "beautiful" eyes. So definitely, there was something going on with her eyes.

Rachel, the younger, is the one who manages to capture her cousin's heart. In fact, one of the most romantic lines of scripture comes from Genesis 29:20. Jacob is living in Paddan Aram at the time, working for his Uncle Laban. When Laban asks him to name his wages, he says he will work 7 years for the hand of Rachel. "So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her." (Awwwww!!)

Possibly one of the first victims of the old bait and switch, Jacob is duped into marrying Leah. For the rest of her days, Leah must look in the mirror and say, "My husband had to be tricked into marrying me." This must have stung terribly.

Rachel, on the other hand, through no fault of her own, finds herself sharing her husband. Even if he loves her and prefers her to her sister, still, the marriage bed is a time share. I imagine this reality was a bittersweet one.

The Bible tells us that when the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he blessed her, enabling her to do what women were honored for doing back then: having children. She is the fertility champion, birthing four sons in a row in easy succession. Interestingly enough, she seems to feel more desperate and less loved with each son (as evidenced by the names she chooses for them). Take a look -- Reuben (It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now); Simeon (Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too); Levi (Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons); and Judah (This time I will praise the Lord).

And how does Rachel respond? Apparently being an Auntie was not very fulfilling. She shrieks at Jacob (OK, that's just my speculation) "Give me children or I'll die!" How ironic that she ultimately dies in childbirth!

Leah, Rachel and Jacob are caught in a triangle. I've been studying about relationship triangles as prsented in a theory called Bowen Family Systems. I still don't get entirely how triangles work, but the idea is that two people are usually on the "inside" and one is on the "outside." Depending on where the stress and anxiety is in the interactions among the three, sometimes the outside position is advantageous and sometimes it's not. When the two maids are thrown into the mix, we find interlocking triangles; even more interesting!

Maybe for practice I should diagram the triangles of the various interactions among Rachel, Leah, Jacob and the maids as recorded in Genesis 30....

Maybe another time.

After Leah gives birth to 6 sons and 1 daughter (that we know of), and the two maids each have 2 kids, Rachel finally conceives. Doing the math and taking things like weaning into account, Rachel probably waited between 12 to 15 years before finally having a child of her own.

One woman receives child after child after child, fulfilling the traditional role of wife and mother, growing increasingly empty as the "unloved" sister. Those around her surely called her blessed, probably encouraging her to get over the minor detail of her husband's affections being otherwise engaged.

The other woman has her husband's favor, but cannot give him what she desires most: children. What good is it to be the "loved" sister if you have nothing tangible to show for it?

Each of these women experiences what many of us experience: dissatisfaction with God's will for our lives. We want our cake (Jacob's love) and to eat it too (children).

Each resorts to her own cleverness to try to bring about what they perceive to be God's will for their lives -- having a husband that loves you and being able to bear your husband children.

Each reacts strongly to God's will.

Leah obviously is enticing enough to keep drawing Jacob into the marriage bed. To each child, she attaches a symbolic name that speaks of her sorrows (which certainly could not have been a secret!) She is humble in this respect, offering praise and honor to God with the birth of each son and looking to him for deliverance and comfort. In the end, God honors her with the bloodline that leads to messiah. Jacob honors her by burying her in the family plot.

Rachel wants desperately to make her husband happy, but she seems to think only having his children will accomplish this. She seems a bit childish, throwing tantrums, initiating the plan of hiring out her maid as a surrogate mother, and even stealing mandrakes from her nephew (a supposed aphrodisiac). Even when she finally gives birth, the name she settles on the child Joseph means "May he add another." Not the least bit satisfied, she sets her sites on the next desired "blessing" that she has hand-picked for herself. On her deathbed, having just birthed her second son, she attemps to name him Ben-oni (son of my sorrow) but Jacob changes the name to Benjamin (son of my right hand). Poor Rachel is outmaneuvered in the end.

What a whirlwind of a life this Jacob must have lived, saddled with the impossible task of keeping two wives happy. Yet surely each woman had her moments; moments when she provided what every hard-working man desires -- sanctuary.

The Lord saw fit to order each of these women's lives just so, even attempting to comfort each in turn as she kicked against the goads of God's will. Here, I believe, are lessons worth noting: Trusting God when His will doesn't line up to our ideal. Receiving his comfort even as we fight His plan. Ultimately realizing that He has never forsaken us, never forgotten us; no, not even for one nano-second.

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