Jacob, Leah, and Poetic Justice

As I read the text for today, I began thinking of all of the books, movies, and shows whose plots revolve around the theme of poetic justice. Either the antagonist gets a taste of their own medicine, or the good, humble character receives the honor and recognition they deserve. Those themes permeate so many of our favorite stories. After watching Jacob for the past four chapters deceive so many people around him, today we see the tables turn.

In the past two posts (read The Sacredness of Siblings here, and Birthrights and Blessings here) we watched Jacob manipulate and deceive his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac, in order to obtain Esau’s birthright and blessing. At the end of Genesis 27, Esau becomes so enraged at Jacob that he intends to kill him, so Rebekah intervenes and sends Jacob to live with her brother, Laban (Gen. 27:41-46).

When Jacob arrives at Laban’s house, Laban is overjoyed to see him. They embrace, and Laban invites Jacob into his house, where Jacob informs Laban of all that has taken place (Gen. 29:9-14). After a month of living and working in Laban’s house, Laban asks what Jacob would like in return for his labor. He states that he will work for seven years in return for the right to marry Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. The text is really sweet here: “Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, but it seemed like a few days because he loved her” (v. 20). 

Jacob genuinely loves Rachel, and he works a long time in order to marry her. However, on his wedding night, Laban brings Leah, his elder daughter, rather than Rachel, and she and Jacob consummate their marriage. The following morning, Jacob realizes that Laban deceived him, and he becomes infuriated. Laban suggests that Jacob celebrate the marriage week with Leah, and then Laban offers him Rachel, in return for another seven years of work (v. 22-30).

Leading up to this chapter, Jacob has deceived his father and his brother in grievous ways. Then we meet him in Chapter 29, and Jacob becomes the deceived one. 

The biblical text alone has a neat way of turning the tables on Jacob over the course of these chapters, but my husband pointed out to me that the Rabbis who wrote Genesis Rabbah (a 4th-5th Century Jewish commentary on Genesis) offer an even saucier reconstruction of Jacob and Leah’s wedding night:

“All night [Jacob] kept calling [Leah] ‘Rachel’ and she kept answering him, ‘Yes.’ But ‘in the morning, behold, it was Leah!’ (Gen. 29:25). He said to her, ‘Liar and daughter of a liar!’ Leah answered, ‘Can there be a teacher who is without pupils? Was it not just this way that your father called out to you, ‘Esau?’ and you answered him [by saying, ‘Yes’]? So when you called out [‘Rachel’], I answered you the same way.'” (Gen. R. 70:19)

In this interpretation, not only does the biblical narrative transform Jacob from deceiver to deceived, but Leah actually references Jacob’s deceit toward his father to justify the ways she deceived him. Just as Jacob responded “Yes” when is father asked if he was Esau, so Leah responds “Yes” when Jacob calls out the name, “Rachel.”

The tables turn on Jacob. Even the honored patriarchs occasionally experience retribution for their actions.

We love these stories because they’re about transformation and justice. They keep us thinking about the ways our actions impact others, and how to cope with the decisions that others make toward us. May we keep in mind today that even in the biblical text, God sees and loves his beloved children, while also allowing them to experience some of what they have inflicted on others. We know that God is good and just, and will multiply what we produce; so let’s produce love, goodness, and peace in the world. And at the end of the day, perhaps we will look around, and find ourselves surrounded with the good fruits of what we have created.

2 thoughts on “Jacob, Leah, and Poetic Justice

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