And all for some mandrakes.
I’ll get to Sunday’s gospel lesson (probably in tomorrow’s post), but I couldn’t pass up the chance to write about today’s OT lesson from the Daily Office (Genesis 30:1-24). Sometimes the Hebrew bible lists the names of the generations in a way that, although very important, tends to put the contemporary reader (me) to sleep. Not so with the story of the birth of Jacob’s children.
First a little refresher.
Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, but her father pulled the old switch-a-roo and substituted Leah, the older and less attractive sister, forcing Jacob to work an additional seven years for Laban to earn the right to marry his other daughter. Rivalry in the making? You betcha.
Leah quickly had four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.
Rachel, jealous of her older sister’s progeny, gave Jacob her servant, Bilhah, who gave birth to Dan and Naphtali.
Leah, who thought her years of fertility had passed but was unwilling to be outdone by her rival sister, offered her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob, and Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher.
And then there were the mandrakes.
Reuben, the first-born, went out into the fields one day and found some mandrakes. What are mandrakes? I had to look it up. Wikipedia says they’re a parsnip-shaped relative nightshade and contain hallucinogens. Because of their shape (sometimes looking like human beings) and their potency, they have a long history of being used in magic and pagan rituals. Anyway, Reuben comes back with the mandrakes, and Rachel sees them and wants them—possibly because they were believed to promote fertility. Rachel asks her despised sister for some of her son’s mandrakes, and, after a little haggling, they strike a deal by which Leah gets to take another turn in the proverbial haystack with Jacob. That’s the part that really baffles me.
Verse 16 recalls that strange encounter: “When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, ‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son's mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night.” I’m guessing that everyone was surprised when Leah’s fertility returned (don’t know whether she had any mandrakes) and gave her two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah. Finally, the chapter concludes when “God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb,” and she gave birth to her own son Joseph, whose drama-filled story follows.
Mandrakes. You must lie with me because I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes. You can’t make this stuff up.
As I like to say in premarital counseling, the bible is full of stories of marriage, but few of them resemble an ideal. Betrayal, polygamy, prostitution, adultery—they’re all in the bible. Apparently, those who recorded these tawdry stories weren’t worried about what they might do to the reader. No one reads the story of Leah and the mandrakes and thinks that it is the model of marriage. It’s a story of human life—in all its messiness. Sometimes the lesson to be learned (perhaps in this case that God works through even the most convoluted means) isn’t taken from what happens but from the story as a whole.
Maybe we should spend more time thinking of life like that. Individual chapters don’t always look the way they should. People make mistakes. People do terrible things. People make decisions that we wouldn’t want our children to repeat. But there’s a bigger story at play—one that may be hard for us to see when we’re enmeshed in a story about mandrakes. Be patient and maybe we’ll see how even the weirdest moments work out.