Sunday, November 3, 2013

Parshat Vayetse: In Lavan's Man-Cave with His Drinking Buddies; or, What Jacob's Father-in-Law Really Thought of Him



Scene: A stucco’d mud house in Paddan-Aram, in the country of the East, where Isaac and Rebecca sent Jacob to live among the people of her brother Lavan, fearing the wrath of Jacob’s brother Esav. Lavan is sitting with his cattleman-cronies before a fire, eating dried dates, salted olives, and drinking Egyptian-style beer. A hookah/nargeelah/water-pipe is making the rounds. As the scented smoke rises and the liquor takes hold, the men tell stories and swap gossip.

Ben-Hadad (a middle-aged neighbor of Lavan’s, and an old friend): So, Lavan, what news of your son-in-law?

Lavan: Jacob? Who tells me, with his nose in the air, ‘I’m not an Aramean, Father Lavan, I’m a Hebrew’? How he puts on his other-godly-airs before me—Pah! I can’t figure him out. From the day we first met, I thought I had his number—beautiful girls and sheep, many flocks of sheep, that was all he wanted. It was fate that sent that wet-behind-the-ears scamp to me—fate, or the workings of Baal, my favorite god, the one who rides the clouds—how Baal plays with my life! Fleece of sheep, young Jacob wants? Hah! I’ll fleece him, yet—pass me a drink, Rafa; this water-pipe sears my throat.

Rafa (a young shepherd; he is Lavan’s foreman and chief gofer): Here you go, Lord Lavan; this Egyptian beer will straighten you out. But, didn’t I see young Jakey running home, tonight? He had that glint in his eye, and was shouting to us about a warm bath, a quick meal, and a night of—something about—mandrakes?

Lavan (sighs): O yes, that will be my poor little Rachel’s mandrakes; poor thing, the gods have closed her womb. (Muses) I must send one of the serving-girls over to her with the Ishtar-goddess-idol, so she can burn some incense before it. That will make her fertile; that will give me grandsons with her eyes and her smile. Ai, my poor Rachel. (Broods briefly, but then smiles) But you take Leah, now—she is a stout, healthy girl; she has been pumping out those babies with regularity; let me see (drinks and counts on his fingers)—Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Judah—yes, a fine tribe; and good, strapping babies, too.

Ben-Hadad: But didn’t I hear that Rachel gave her maidservant to Jacob as a concubine?

Lavan (puffs the hookah thoughtfully): Yes, by Shamash! Let my poor baby girl, my favorite, play midwife to her maid; that Bilhah has wide hips enough to birth an Amorite army, and may Rachel pick up some fertility from her. That is all to the good, friend Hadad; all to the good. Rafa! Why is my glass empty?

Rafa (coming over with the beer-jug): Here again, Lord Lavan; cool yourself (Pours Lavan more beer). You know, I had wanted—had wanted—

Lavan: Spit it out, man! You know me all your life: I am a straight talker, and I stand behind what I say. Am I not an honest man, and known throughout this town as such? (His cronies nod and mumble in agreement; he is paying for the beer, after all)

Rafa: W-well, Lord Lavan, I had thought to ask you for Zilpah’s hand in marriage, since she is a slave, and by Hurrian law her dowry rights belong to you. I would give her a good home, buy her freedom, and make her my wife—my first-class wife, not concubine. I cannot afford but one, on a shepherd’s humble wages. But now, I hear that your Leah has—perhaps—made other plans?

Lavan (Narrowing his lids and eyeing Rafa like a prize chicken, about to be plucked): I cry woe, but yes, Young Rafa; she is spoken for, by Leah, my no-less-loved elder daughter. My poor Leah—with all those husky boys nibbling at her dugs, she needs as much help as she can get, and so I gifted her with Zilpah! Ha! (Rafa sighs and turns away, disappointed; Lavan reaches out and touches his arm) But stay, good Rafa—let me offer you Anat, that Philistine wench whom we purchased two weeks ago from the Midianite caravan—she is a bit thin, ‘tis true, but you can fatten her up on the lambs and goats with which I pay you, and she will bear you many sons. What d’you say?

Rafa (uncomfortable): Let me think on it, Lord Lavan—I have seen Anat, and she is no Leah; that’s certain. Let me think.

Lavan: Do so, but quickly, for Shafat the smith asked me about sweet, juicy Anat just this afternoon, there in the market-place—did he not, Hadad?

Ben-Hadad (willing to be part of the ruse): Yes—uh, yes, indeed, he did! Pass us the water-pipe, old friend, good Lavan.

Just then, the room-curtain parts, and a young maidservant, breaching purdah, protocol, and manners, rushes in:

Girl: Lord Lavan! Jacob and his family have left Charan, and are now halfway to the Yabbok River.

Lavan: What?! That rascal! Rafa—gather my shepherds, and arm them! Ben-Hadad—saddle the camels! I’ll catch that scamp and his cursed brood, or may the rays of Shamash, the sun-god, strike me dead!

(The company, fuddled from the drink and smoke, gathers their weaponry and stumbles out, the best they can, in pursuit of the Lord’s favorite.)