Note to self:
Posts about language elicit comments. Posts about places elicit readers. Posts with direct questions? Oh well . . .
This is the last of my series of six Women stories, retellings of Biblical accounts about women. I meant to queue it up to post last Tuesday, but I forgot and then went away to Maine with my Paul and Alicia and Second Second Kid. So here it is (and I’m still not home, but this time it’s because I’m at Camp), and I won’t post anymore retellings for a little while. But I have more, so they’ll come up again sooner or later. In the meantime . . .
Now I Will Praise the Lord
Genesis 29-30, 35 (NRSV–link to CJB)
“Leah’s eyes are lovely,” people said. They meant there was not much else that could be said in my favour. I don’t think Jacob ever even noticed that much.
He only noticed Rachel. To him, probably even Father’s sheep looked like her, so besotted was he—at least for those first seven years, while he worked to win the right to marry her. At the end of the seven years he said to Father, “Give me my wife, that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”
When he said that, my heart sank, and I knew my doom had come. My doom was to love a man whom I knew could never love me, and to be married to him. When you are a daughter, you can’t expect much from a marriage. When you are the ugly oldest daughter, you learn to expect the worst. But maybe you still can’t help hoping.
I couldn’t. At the beginning of the seven years, I tried to forget the charming man who had eyes only for beautiful, graceful Rachel. I cooperated with all my father’s attempts to make me beautiful and graceful, too, so that I would be married and safely out of the way before Rachel’s turn came. Maybe I would not love my husband, but at least then it would not matter if he did not love me, either.
But still no one noticed me, and even my supposedly lovely eyes availed nothing. As the end of the seven years drew near, I bent my efforts in another direction: trying to get Jacob to notice me instead. I did not expect him to, but I couldn’t help hoping. Hoping, however, was as useless as my lovely eyes. I don’t know that Jacob was even aware I existed until he woke after our wedding night and saw I was not Rachel.
Jacob was too drunk to know who I was, that first night. Too drunk to know how much I wept, realizing that even then he was loving Rachel, and not me. In the morning, sober, he reached for me and smiled. Then his eyes shot open and he stared at me. I stared back for a moment and then shielded my head with my arm as he leapt up and bellowed.
Fortunately, he did not hit me. He never hit me, even during the times, later, when Rachel and I fought over him like a piece of property. Instead he marched off to Father, still bellowing, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”
I did not need to be told—though I was—that Father only chuckled at his new son-in-law’s rage. “This is not done in our country,” he said mildly, “giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”
At least by the end of the week, Jacob had learned that I existed.
I did not expect that knowledge to last much after Rachel moved in, and it didn’t. But not everyone forgot me. Someone else who is also often forgotten, looked down and saw me. God remembered me, and gave me a son.
“Because the Lord has looked on my affliction, surely now my husband will love me,” I said proudly, and named the boy Reuben. I couldn’t help hoping I was right. Surely Jacob would see that the one God favored, he should also favor? But Jacob loved Rachel, and she had no children.
Still, with a baby, I was a little harder to ignore, and soon I had another son, Simeon. “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated,” I said, “He has given me this son also.” But Jacob loved Rachel, and Rachel had no children. Then when Levi came I said, still hoping, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons.”
After the fourth one, however, I began to doubt it. Jacob still loved Rachel, and she was still childless. But the fourth one was special for other reasons, because with him I remembered the Lord again. It was the Lord, I saw, not Jacob, who had made me fruitful. If my husband did not love me, I wondered, was it possible that God did? God, that great invisible One, who made the sun shine and the rain fall and had, I heard, given Jacob’s grandparents a child when they were old? Having children was not, then, something to take for granted. Not everyone could have them. My sister Rachel was proof of that. Yet God had given me four. “This time,” I said, “I will praise the Lord.”
Then the games began, and I forgot Him again. I suppose if the Lord loves you, you really have no cause to complain, but sometimes the very greatness of His love is too much. It is too big to be felt, and He is too other to be seen. Sometimes you just want your husband, small, foolish human being that he is, to hold you and love you. Really love you.
On the other hand, maybe sometimes that human love is too little. Apparently it was not enough for Rachel, who had it, and still screamed at Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die!” He shouted right back at her, but both of them knew they were helpless in the face of her infertility, so she gave him her maid, Bilhah, to have children for her, and it worked.
By that time, I had stopped bearing children myself. I did not know how God felt about me anymore, if He felt anything. I knew Jacob still did not love me. But two can play games, so I gave my maid Zilpah to Jacob, for her to bear more children for me. That worked, too, but it was not the same as having children myself.
Reuben was old enough now to see what was happening, and one day he found me some mandrake roots. Strange little man-shaped plants they are. Everyone says they bring you children. I never found out, because Rachel saw them. In a surprising display of humility, she asked, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”
But I was unhappy. The Lord had apparently forgotten me just like everyone else had, and meanwhile, in spite of the games and the shouting, Jacob still loved Rachel. “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband?” I snapped. “Would you take away my son’s mandrakes as well?”
Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.”
It wasn’t love, but it was something, and so Jacob scarcely had time to come in from the sheep when I met him and said, acidly, “You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” I hardly even noticed the pain and fatigue in his eyes when I said that, and if I did notice, I suppose I told myself it served him right. Besides, God seemed to reward me, for I bore three more children: Issachar, Zebulun, and my beautiful daughter Dinah, before I stopped.
As for Rachel, at long last she had a child, too. She named him Joseph. With Joseph, things changed between us, I think. It no longer mattered to Rachel that I had six children while she had only one. He was her own one, and she softened and loved him. And she loved Jacob. Maybe she was at last able to see his love for her as the treasure it was.
As for me, I had my children, and I also loved them. After the frenzy of needing more and more of them had died down, I was able to love the ones I had. And I was able to notice something I had been too bitter to see before. Jacob respected me. He would never love me as he loved Rachel. He would always love her Joseph, and later her Benjamin, whose birth killed her, more than my sons and daughter.
But Jacob respected me. He relied on my children. He knew I existed. And that, when I came to think about it, was far more than I had expected. This time I will praise the Lord.