The Torah/Vayetze

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Summary[edit]

Jacob’s Ladder (painting circa 1800 by William Blake)

As told in Genesis 28:10–32:3, this is the story of the Torah reading Vayetze:

A ladder to heaven[edit]

When Jacob left Beersheba for Haran, he stopped at a place for the night, using a stone for a pillow. He dreamed that he saw a ladder to heaven on which God’s angels ascended and descended. And God stood beside him and promised to give him and his numerous descendants the land on which he lay, said that through his descendants all the earth would be blessed, and promised to stay with him wherever he went and bring him back to the land. Jacob awoke afraid, remarked that surely the place was the house of God, the gate of heaven, and called the place Bethel (although the Canaanites had called the city Luz). Jacob took the stone from under his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on it. And Jacob vowed that if God would stay with him, give him bread and clothing, and return him to his father's house in peace, then God would be his god, the stone pillar would be God's house, and he would give God a tenth of what he received.

Jacob and Rachel (painting circa 1520–1525 by Palma il Vecchio)

Rachel at the well[edit]

Jacob came to an eastern land where he saw a well with a great stone rolled upon it and three flocks of sheep lying by it. Jacob asked the men where they were from, and they said Haran. Jacob asked them if they knew Laban, and they said that they did. Jacob asked if Laban was well, and they said that it was, and that his daughter Rachel was coming with his sheep. Jacob told the men to water and feed the sheep, but they replied that they could not do so until all the flocks had arrived. When Jacob saw Rachel arrive with her father's sheep, he rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered Laban’s sheep. Jacob kissed Rachel, wept, and told her that he was her kinsman, and she ran and told her father.

Jacob Tells Laban that He Will Work for Rachel (woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from the 1860 Die Bibel in Bildern)
Jacob Talks with Laban (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)

Jacob and Laban[edit]

When Laban heard of Jacob’s arrival, he ran to meet him, embraced and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all that had happened, and Laban welcomed Jacob as family. After Jacob had lived with Laban for a month, Laban asked Jacob what wages he wanted for his work. Laban had two daughters: The elder, Leah, had weak eyes, while the younger, Rachel, was beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel, and offered to serve Laban seven years for Rachel’s hand, and Laban agreed. Jacob served the years, but his love for Rachel made them seem like just a few days. Jacob asked Laban for his wife, and Laban made a feast and invited all the men of the place. In the evening, Laban brought Leah to Jacob, and Jacob slept with her. Laban gave Leah Zilpah to be her handmaid. In the morning, Jacob discovered that it was Leah, and he complained to Laban that he had served for Rachel. Laban replied that in that place, they did not give the younger before the firstborn, but if Jacob fulfilled Leah’s week, he would give Jacob both daughters in exchange for another seven years of service. Jacob did so, and Laban gave him Rachel to wife, and gave Rachel Bilhah to be her handmaid.

Jacob’s children[edit]

Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, so God allowed Leah to conceive, but Rachel was barren. Leah bore a son, and called him Reuben, saying that God had looked upon her affliction. She bore a second son, and called him Simeon, saying that God had heard that she was hated. She bore a third son, and called him Levi, saying that this time her husband would be joined to her. She bore a fourth son, and called him Judah, saying that this time, she would praise God.

Rachel envied her sister, and demanded that Jacob give her children, but Jacob grew angry and asked her whether he was in God's stead, who had withheld children from her. Rachel told Jacob to sleep with her maid Bilhah, so that Bilhah might bear children upon Rachel’s knees who might be credited to Rachel, and he did. Bilhah bore Jacob a son, and Rachel called him Dan, saying that God had judged her and also heard her voice. And Bilhah bore Jacob a second son, and Rachel called him Naphtali, saying that she had wrestled with her sister and prevailed.

mandrake roots (illustration from a 7th Century manuscript of Pedanius Dioscorides De Materia Medica)

When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she gave Jacob her maid Zilpah to wife. Zilpah bore Jacob a son, and Leah called him Gad, saying that fortune had come. And Zilpah bore Jacob a second son, and Leah called him Asher, saying that she was happy, for the daughters would call her happy.

Reuben found some mandrakes and brought them to Leah. Rachel asked Leah for the mandrakes, and when Leah resisted, Rachel agreed that Jacob would sleep with Leah that night in exchange for the mandrakes. When Jacob came home that evening, Leah told him that he had to sleep with her because she had hired him with the mandrakes, and he did. God heeded Leah and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son, and called him Issachar, saying that God had given her a reward. Leah bore Jacob a sixth son and called him Zebulun, saying that God had endowed her with a good dowry. And afterwards Leah bore a daughter, and called her name Dinah.

A Shepherd (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster)

God heeded Rachel and she conceived and bore a son and called him Joseph, invoking God to add another son.

The speckled and spotted sheep[edit]

Then Jacob asked Laban to allow him, his wives, and his children to return to his own country. Laban conceded that God had blessed him for Jacob’s sake, and asked Jacob to name how much he wanted to stay. Jacob recounted how he had served Laban and how Laban had benefited, and asked when he could provide for his own family. Laban pressed him again, so Jacob offered to keep Laban’s flock in exchange for the speckled, spotted, and dark sheep and goats, and thus Laban could clearly tell Jacob’s flock from his. Laban agreed, but that day he removed the speckled and spotted goats and dark sheep from his flock and gave them to his sons and put three day’s distance between Jacob and himself.

Jacob peeled white streaks in fresh rods of poplar, almond, and plane trees and set the rods where the flocks would see them when they mated, and the flocks brought forth streaked, speckled, and spotted young. Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the stronger sheep, but not before the feeble, so the feebler sheep became Laban's and the stronger Jacob's. Jacob’s flocks and wealth thus increased.

Jacob Flies Away from Laban (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible)

Jacob’s departure[edit]

Jacob heard that Laban's sons thought that he had become wealthy at Laban’s expense, and Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him as before. God told Jacob to return to the land of his fathers, and that God would be with him. Jacob called Rachel and Leah to the field and told them that Laban had changed his opinion of Jacob, but Jacob had served Laban wholeheartedly and God had remained with Jacob. Jacob noted that Laban had mocked him and changed his wages ten times, but God would not allow him to harm Jacob, but had rewarded Jacob, giving Laban’s animals to Jacob. Jacob said that in a dream God told him to return to the land of his birth. Rachel and Leah answered that they no longer had any portion in Laban’s house and all the riches that God had taken from Laban were theirs and their children's, so Jacob should do whatever God had told him to do.

Laban Looks for Idols (18th century painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo)

So Jacob set his sons and his wives on camels and headed out toward Isaac and Canaan with all the animals and wealth that he had collected in Padan-aram. Jacob tricked Laban by fleeing secretly while Laban was out shearing his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s idols. On the third day, Laban heard that Jacob had fled and he and his kin pursued after Jacob seven days, overtaking him in the mountain of Gilead. God came to Laban in a dream and told him not to speak to Jacob either good or bad. But when Laban caught up with Jacob, he asked Jacob what he meant by carrying away his daughters secretly, like captives, without letting him kiss his daughters and grandchildren goodbye. Laban said that while he had the power to harm Jacob, God had told him the previous night not to speak to Jacob either good or bad, and now Laban wanted to know why Jacob had stolen his gods. Jacob answered that he fled secretly out of fear that Laban might take his daughters by force, and not knowing Rachel stole the gods, he told Laban that whoever had his gods would die. Laban searched Jacob's tent, Leah's tent, and the two maid-servants’ tent, finding nothing, and then he entered Rachel's tent. Rachel had hidden the idols in the camel’s saddle and sat upon them, apologizing to her father for not rising, as she was having her period. Laban searched and felt about the tent, but did not find the idols. Angered, Jacob questioned Laban what he had done to deserve this hot pursuit and this searching. Jacob protested that he had worked for Laban for 20 years, through drought and frost, bearing the loss of animals torn by predators, and not eating Laban’s rams, only to have his wages changed 10 times. Had not the God of Isaac been on Jacob’s side, surely Laban would have sent Jacob away empty, Jacob said, and God had seen his affliction and awarded him what he deserved. Laban answered Jacob that they were his daughters, his children, and his flocks, but asked what he could do about it now.

The Heap of Witnesses (illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible)

Instead, Laban proposed that they make a covenant, and Jacob set up a stone pillar and with his kin heaped stones, and they ate a meal by the heap. Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. Laban called the heap as a witness between him and Jacob, and invoked God to watch, when they were apart, if Jacob would afflict Laban’s daughters and take other wives. And Laban designated the heap and the pillar as a boundary between him and Jacob; Laban would not pass over it to Jacob, and Jacob would not pass over it to Laban, to do harm. Laban invoked the God of Abraham, the God of Nahor, and the God of Terah, and Jacob swore by the Fear of Isaac and offered a sacrifice.

Early in the morning, Laban kissed his sons and his daughters, blessed them, and departed for his home. And when Jacob went on his way, the angels of God met him, and Jacob told them that this was God's camp, and he called the place Mahanaim.

Notes[edit]