The Bible portion opens as Jacob begins his journey from his parents’ house to his uncle Laban – both to escape from his brother and to find a bride; it is as if he is starting afresh, beginning a new chapter in his life.
Jacob leaves with nothing – both physically and metaphorically – so much so that for a pillow, he uses a stone as he sleeps on the ground. That is when God appears to him in a dream, atop a ladder reaching the Heavens: “I am the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” — notice God refers to Abraham as Jacob’s father. The slight to Isaac aside, God sees Jacob as the one who will carry on Abraham’s legacy and repeats to Jacob words He said to Abraham: “the land on which you lay I will give to you and your descendants…” And God ends with a promise: “Behold I am with you and I will watch over you wherever you will go and I will return you to this land…” Jacob is so encouraged after this encounter with God that he “lifted up his feet” and continues on his journey.
It is as if Jacob is getting a clean break with his past. Like when the not-so-good protagonist leaves town to make a break with his past, we too are hoping Jacob’s bad behavior might simply be wiped clean and he can move on. With God’s blessing to Jacob as reassurance, this has the feel of a bright new beginning.
And then, when Jacob arrives in Haran the scene is already familiar to us from Abraham’s servant’s journey: the same well, and, as Jacob talks to the shepherds offering them unsolicited advice, “Rachel came with the flock of her father for she was a shepherdess.” This time it is Jacob who removes the stone from the well – a task of several shepherds – “and he gave water to the cattle of Laban, his mother’s brother. And Jacob kissed Rachel and lifted his voice and cried.” While the Bible isn’t associated with romantic literature, it is little surprise to the reader that Jacob wants to marry Rachel. (This damsel-at-the-well scene will play out once more in the Bible with Moses.) And all might end happily ever after. But, as we know, it doesn’t.
The love story takes a miserable turn with Laban’s treachery. One can’t help but notice similarities between Laban tricking Jacob and Jacob tricking Isaac. In each case, the capacity of sight is lacking in the victim: the act of substitution is done when Jacob can’t see (because it’s night) but can only feel, just as Isaac couldn’t see but could only feel. In each story, eyes are defective: Leah is described as having “soft” or “weak” eyes (which apparently undermines her looks), as Isaac’s eyes are “heavy” so he can’t see. Perhaps most ironically Laban’s excuse for his deceit is the precedence of the elder sibling over the younger: the exact paradigm which Jacob so relentlessly tried to undermine in relation to his brother, now reasserts itself with a vengeance.
There is too much irony here to conclude that this is coincidence and that Jacob is not facing retribution for what he did to Esau. God is not absent. In fact, He reappears in the middle of the story “God saw that Leah was hated and he opened her womb while Rachel was barren.” God is playing referee in a plot He orchestrated.
Jacob’s family is built on the competition between Leah and Rachel for Jacob’s love and attention. Each sister names her sons (or those of her maidservant) as a description of this anguish. Leah: “God has seen my suffering, now my husband will love me” (Reuven); “God heard that I am hated” (Shimon); “this time my husband will accompany me” (Levy). Rachel of her maidservant son: “God has judged me and also heard my voice and gave me a son” (Dan). In a word, this is not a happy family.
At the same time, Jacob is very successful at animal husbandry to the point where Laban becomes jealous of Jacob’s success and wealth. God tells Jacob to leave Laban and return to his homeland. With the encouragement of Leah and Rachel, Jacob leaves without telling Laban. Laban gives chase and confronts Jacob: “Why did you escape deceitfully without telling me? I would gladly have sent you off with songs and drums and fiddle… I have within my power to do you harm but the God of your father told me last night: ‘beware lest you speak to Jacob…'”
Thus ends Jacob’s sojourn in Haran. Jacob came with nothing and leaves, twenty years later, with a family and a huge flock. He came a young man and left a mature, careworn adult.
It cannot be said that Jacob is happy or that he has a happy family. It all is one big, ongoing struggle.
But God was there with Jacob, through the good and the bad – and there were ample portions of each. God is there as Jacob suffers and He is there to guide Jacob when he needs it.
I guess we cannot say of Divine oversight that it makes for happiness. But it does pull you through.