Despite his advanced age, Abraham somehow manages to remarry after the death of Sarah, and fathers yet more children (as if the first two hadn’t resulted in enough troubles). Fortunately – since there’s quite enough internecine bloodshed in this book as it is – they seem to be happy enough to be sent away with ‘gifts’ on Abraham’s death, as befits the sons of a mere concubine.
Ishmael also dies at a great age, bestowing on us the phrase “gave up the ghost” (Ch 25 v 17).
There is also a certain sense of repetition in many of the themes. Rebekah, like her mother-in-law, proves to be barren, necessitating more prayer from Isaac before the Lord relents and ‘opens her womb’ (interesting how the bodies of women are such potent tools of men’s relationships with their God, despite the fact that many of the women concerned don’t even seem to believe in the same deity. In a similar manner to Robert Graves’ interpretation of way in which different versions of the Greek Myths reflect the shift of power from women to men in Bronze and Iron Age societies, could all of this be a reflection of the declining power of female deities in the region and concomitantly of women in increasingly patriarchal societies?)
So, despite her initial barrenness, Rebekah conceives, accompanied by predictions of yet more familial strife:
“And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Ch 25 v23)
And this prediction is brought about by the younger – Jacob – very sneakily cheating his starving brother out of his birthright in exchange for “a pottage of lentiles” (actually I’m not convinced that this is such a bad deal, if you’ve got a really good lentil soup recipe).
In yet another sense of deja vu, Isaac imitates his father’s weird shenanigans by telling poor old Abimelech, King of the Philistines, that Rebekah is his sister not his wife, again apparently in fear that having a good-looking wife will get you killed. This is despite the fact that Abimelech proved himself perfectly honourable last time, and does so again, although he must be getting pretty confused about his repeated bizarre guests who go around apparently getting jiggy with their sisters.
Unsurprisingly, relations with the Philistines start to deteriorate somewhat, although the whole weird sister/wife thing is just a sideline to the growing economic (read: sheep) power of Isaac. In yet another disturbing precursor to modern strife in the region, Isaac and the Philistines get aggro over water supplies, with some proper conflict (Ch 26 v16-22) and a bit of extra well-digging and negotiation, leading to the establishment of the modern city of Beersheba.
Having cheated him of his birthright, Jacob and Rebekah now collude to make sure that when Isaac is dying, Esau is also deprived of his father’s blessing. This is achieved by Jacob dressing up in the skins of a couple of young goats, which just goes to show the amount of blood and killing that goes into keeping these internecine conflicts going, and even the poor livestock get hauled into it all.
And, just so that history can repeat itself yet again, Jacob gets sent away to marry “outside the land of Canaan” (more exogamy), as Rebekah and Isaac have already been angered by Esau marrying some local Hittite girls:
“34 And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite:
35 Which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah.”
In order to find a wife from outside Canaan (but not very exogamous – he’s gone to find his uncle Laban to marry one of his daughters), Jacob heads off to Haran, now in modern Turkey. He falls sufficiently madly in love with Rachel, Laban’s second daughter, that he’s prepared to work for seven years to earn her, and is therefore somewhat understandably miffed when he gets given Leah, Rachel’s older sister, instead. As usual, Laban is calling the shots and the women aren’t obviously getting much of a look-in here (however, as I’ll be writing about later, we could put some of this down to the male authors, not entirely to events themselves, and there are some attractive literary alternative versions of this story.)
But to stick to official version for the moment, once Jacob has done two lots of seven years labour in return for Rachel, she turns out to be barren as well:
“And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.”
I’m not sure if this is supposed to be the LORD giving Leah some kind of consolation for the fact that she’s stuck with a husband who’s doing nothing to hide the fact that his is profoundly dischuffed to be married to her, or if he’s just playing more nasty games with women’s bodies. I have my suspicions.
In an attempt to address the fact that Leah has stopped bearing children (after four, which seems reasonable enough) and that Rachel’s not having any at all, Jacob now also gets to sleep with Bilhah and Zilpah, Rachel and Leah’s handmaids respectively. So yes, once again, the slavegirls get shagged, presumably without anyone asking their opinion on the matter. And have we learnt from all the bitterness and jealousy and people getting slung out into the desert that we saw with Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael? No we haven’t. And, as with Sarah, Rachel finally gets pregnant after all that anyway and produces two sons to get all jealous and internecine with Leah’s six and the several that the slave women have had forced on them too.
After all that, you’d think that Laban might actually be quite glad of the peace and quiet of a smaller family, but Jacob feels compelled to sneak off with large numbers of sheep and goats which he has legitimately earned. A bigger deal seems to be the fact that Rachel secretes the household gods in with the packing too, pretending to be menstruating when Laban asks where they are, which implies that there is still little unanimity on the subject of the LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but not apparently of their wives and other relatives.
However, on the way Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure who might indeed be God himself and who renames Jacob Israel, just as he’s about the cross over the Jordan River back into Canaan. This is a key moment in the consolidation of both a religious and ethnic identity amongst this branch of the descendants of Abraham. And, despite his general sneakiness a couple of decades before, Jacob finally comes home to Canaan to a warm and generous welcome from his brother Esau.