Rachel and sheep

Just in time, the Network of Biblical Storytellers sent the latest “Scholarly Musing” e-mail, this one about our passage of Genesis 29:1-12, Jacob and Rachel, this one written by the very smart Richard Swanson, a professor of Religion at Augustana College in South Dakota. While his essay is packed with fruitful thoughts, he reminded me of what I had forgotten: Rachel means “ewe” a mother sheep. So we have Jacob being very manly and moving great big stones by himself; flexing his muscles as it were. We have Rachel (who we learn later in verse 17 was graceful and beautiful) who is named, called, to be ripe and motherly. Jacob is on a quest for an appropriate wife and a thriving future. There is the well and there is the girl. The future is about to happen. Swanson writes, “The future life of the family depends on her ability to nurture and provide. Jacob will also be crucial in the future of the family, of course.” But Jacob’s name means “he cheats”. We’ve seen this earlier, as he cheats his brother out of his birthright and his blessing. We’ll see more cheating/trickery later. We’ll see Jacob cheated upon himself. But Swanson writes, “…flourishing will be founded on Rachel’s ability to nuture.”

What a tragedy then that Rachel is barren for so long; that we cannot be sure about her nurturing ability amid sister-wife jealousy and competitions — these are women who were ahead of their time in terms in competitive parenting. Perhaps one key take-way, not especially original but good to be reminded, is that God doesn’t work his will out with perfect people. He works through all of us; he loves us all.

And hover with me just for a moment to envision all this: I remember dim as a dream that feeling of being ready to be a grown-up, to be an actor on the stage, to fall in love, to start on real things — a spouse, a family, a baby — and everything until that started was just waiting for some director to hand me my lines. It was a time shimmery with hope and dreams and naivety and promise and mistakes. It was a time before realizing how complex adult life is. It was such a brief little moment. I can see Rachel staring at this amazing stranger who has just come on the stage, moved the stone from the mouth of the well, imagine her lips parting in a smile. While Jacob and Rachel were never perfect, they did love each other and perhaps this was the moment it started; everything started. The other shepherds are there but talking to each other, maybe laughing. Maybe a playful breeze blows around them. Maybe the sky is the bluest that Rachel has ever seen, just a few puffy clouds. And the grass, so deeply green and all the healthy smelly placid sheep dotted about them. The stone would smell of caves. The fresh water underneath would be slightly cool and they would drink first themselves. Perhaps after the kiss of greeting, Rachel smelled Jacob, who had been traveling and rolling huge stones. Perhaps immediately she like his voice, maybe it was deep and rumbly and cheerful. Jacob probably had one of those smiles that light everything up. Perhaps Rachel did too.

Of course she ran to get her father! Life suddenly got real, suddenly there was her scene — quickly she has to slow things down, to run and get her father’s help, for one moment that giddy mix of excitement and fear makes her turn to the comforts of childhood.

(Yes, I’ve leaving out that in that cultural time and place that was the proper thing to do — she wasn’t her own to give away and she was a proper girl and there was a stranger around claiming to be family — of course she ran to get her father. It’s just I think the scene could be deeper and richer than just that.)


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