Jacob begins to work for his uncle
The young walk round and round the plaza taking the night air, boys one way girls the other. No word is spoken. In the northern sky the lightning flaps. They had come out in their best – it could be a pagan rite. Now and then older folk slip into the procession, bringing a touch of gaiety; it could be they know how it was before the Flood when that generation had no inhibitions. This one has gone the other way. Harmless plays, holding hands, chatting, are taboo. The elderly sitting on the stone steps have nothing to say and too many clothes on. From all sides torches flood the plaza with light.
This is how market day culminates. Caravans with baskets of limes and peppercorns, cloves and nutmeg, braces of guinea fowl and breeds of cockerel, also a rarity: four slaves, though decrepit and manackled neck to neck, had converged on Charan Alleyways in the souk were clogged with traffic so that two mules could not pass without altercation between the drivers.
The night social had been the idea of Laban’s father who reveled in public displays. A tatty King Nimrod, Besuel liked to sit and survey the parade, to pick out a fresh young woman for a privileged word with him. Laban kept the event going. Tonight he had brought his nephew along. Jacob must see what marrying into the dynasty meant. They recline on deep cushions set before the dais from which the bust of the late ruler casts blank eye sockets on the merrymaking. Time cannot touch the dead, but it can alter their monuments, snub-nosed and pocked from vandalism and the attrition of weather.
‘I’m thinking,’ he says to Jacob, ‘to outlaw kissing in public places.’
‘Sir, I don’t know what came into me.’
‘Nephew. Jacob. It did not set a good example. Rachel may be a cousin, but my people don’t think that way. A communal well is no spot for hanky panky.’ He is careful to be an example after the goings-on of the lecher parent he poisoned. Folk to this day feel rancor over Besuel’s depraved decree. They gossip over how he spoiled their daughters’ wedding nights. But the flesh is frail, and the son forgiven.
While Laban picks him out, Jacob fingers a gold-looking ring. It was not seemly, his uncle thought for a relative to go without adornment, be it of light copper. A destitute nephew on the run living under his roof would not do. Laban thinks that the way Jacob plays with the ring, turning it this way and that, is a mark of his guilt. Had he not blackened the legacy of his grandfather Abraham? A servant puts a low table before them; another sets down a tray with a silver jug, cups and bowls of dates and nuts.
‘A little brandy?’ Jacob takes the cup gingerly. ‘Come now. If my daughter’s good enough for you why not my liquor? No pagan hand came near.’ Then quickly: ‘A joke! Family can make fun of serious matters. I profoundly respect the rules taught in your academy of Seth, son of Noah.’
Jacob blushes from the neck up. Predicaments grow by the day – by the hour. But his uncle makes a good point. ‘Away from home, Sir,’ he says, ‘ rules can be difficult to keep.’
Laban rubs his nose. ‘I can imagine. Fleeing the nest will make life quite difficult. But who am I to judge. I would take comfort in a kindly pretty cousin.’
‘I never thought of it that way.’
‘Of course you didn’t. You have problems enough. Robbed of everything by…Who was it?’
“A nephew. Eliphaz son of Esau. I count my blessings. He had orders to kill me.’
Laban breathes. ‘I suppose, after what you and your mother did to him…Anyway you have nothing to fear. I will turn my household upside down to protect you. You eat my bread and do the minimum. I don’t care. Nothing wrong. Blood runs thick. I give you my daughter’s hand. You are a grandson of my great uncle Abraham. Who must look after you if not me? Royal treatment even. You won’t hear me complain.’
A bat sweeps across the table. Jacob gazes at the lunatic counter rotation on the plaza. Man and Woman He created. How long could the royal treatment last? He thought of the academy: scholars cross-legged, learning on Mount Moriah, where Abraham meant to sacrifice Isaac, to be his father. From scholar to castaway: a transition, to him, more difficult than living off a scurrilous uncle. The academy had not prepared him for disgrace. Mouthing a guilty blessing over the wine, the captive drains his cup to the dregs.
‘And what?’ says Laban at the quick replacement of the cup as though his fingers got burnt. At mental warfare no one beats him. He has already drawn the lines for a battle of wills involving a groom of seventy, a bride of five and a father-in-law more cunning than a bat eared fox.
You are not a masochist or a saint,’ he tells Jacob on the walk back by moonlight. ‘You want to be of use. I can put you to use. God forbid that I give you some menial job for the sake of paying me back. You want to earn your keep and your beloved. I respect that. You don’t want all the sumptuous meals you swallow at our table to turn to ash in your mouth.’ He claps him on the back. ‘Hey. Quite the lady your cousin will be by the time you’re ready to marry.’ He gives Jacob a playful shove that propels him forward. ‘The years will go like days.’ You see if your uncle is not right.’
Jacob longs to ask, ‘Right about what?’ But he has been taught that it is wiser to placate a ruler than to pick him out. ‘It is better, uncle,” he says, ‘for a man to serve idols than to rely on charity. So I was taught. You won’t find a stronger worker of seventy.’
Laban inhales. ‘You are, aren’t you ….’
They come to the stables where Jacob beds down. He bends to kiss the hand that feeds him. ‘Idols and charity,’ he, Laban, remarks caustically. ‘I think both will be hard to find in my domain.’ The peal of laughter sounds long after the night swallows up the ruler of Charan.
The morning finds Jacob in a room under the rafters. ‘Come in, come in. Meetings by the hour. Put this one to bed.’ Genial, he takes his arm and leads him to a cupboard. Throwing open the door, he stands back. Jacob sees a row of stout shepherd rods held by wooden rings fixed to the back of the cupboard. ‘I’m a collector,’ Laban says. ‘The four on the left go back to my father’s time. Whenever a new shepherd started we had a rod made for him. I kicked the latest out on his ear, oh, not long before you arrived. Sleeping on the job. And a matter of stock gone missing. He blamed it on wolves. So I put young Rachel on the job until I find a replacement. You think my two daughters are weak, but put them in the saddle and I assure you, nephew, they are tougher than you. I never troubled my girls with any academy. But our obligations: yours to me and mine to you.’
The words recur that Jacob heard in his dream on Mount Moriah on the flight from murderous Esau: ‘Devise a plan but it will be thwarted; state a proposal but it will not stand.’ Angels were alerting him that he was going to work for a supremely tricky person. Laban pushes a paper across the table. The terms of employment are clear enough.
Contract for Jacob, son of Isaac
10th day of Adar
- Shepherding: half the going weekly wage
- Quarters: Out in pastures a hut. In on Sabbath, the homestead of Laban.
- Deductibles: shepherd rod and any loss of livestock, however caused.
- Incentive: For every ten births one day extra wage.
- Compliance: certified on the last day of the year when a new rod will be issued.
- Wedding: all expenses paid at the end of month eighty four.
‘Well?’ Laban kneads hairy knuckles. ‘You can be quite sure of encountering only generosity and integrity from me.’
‘Uncle, he says, ‘I had no doubt of it.’ Perched on the edge of the table Laban hums as he pins a blue ribbon to the document. ‘There. The bother you landed in is gone and forgotten. The difficult aspects never happened.’
‘Aspects?’ He thinks his uncle will explain. But all he does is touch a finger to his lips and nod at the contract.
Alone he turns to the dispatches. Plague in the province…Laban is always very fearful of infection. Letters from a foreign ruler. Is it true that Charan will fight alongside an expeditionary force against Moab? Certainly not, he writes, Charan never fought in a war. Besides, what an insulting notion! Meanwhile his thoughts are running ahead, eighty four months ahead. He wants a trick that Rebecca’s fugitive could never anticipate.
Ketura gives it to him at the first Sabbath supper for Jacob. She made two dishes. One was a lentil stew, to confront Jacob with what he paid for Esau’s birthright. The other dish was a gazelle stew, as a reminder how he got the blessing Isaac meant for Esau. By getting Jacob’s goat, Ketura gave Laban a piping hot plan.
It is not difficult to put himself in the place of God. What punishment would be stored up for Rebecca and Jacob? For deceiving blind Isaac on his deathbed, what punishment would the heavenly court mete out? Laban had some lore passed down to him. He knew the basics of Abraham’s beliefs. For instance, forgiveness was not divine. Punishment was. Measure for measure was heaven’s way of dispensing justice. And it gave the crook the terms for Jacob’s marriage contract.
Esau, he considered, labored long and devoutly to serve up tasty game meat for a dearly beloved father. He hunted gazelle for three days; skinned and hung the carcass on the fourth; trekked home on the fifth; prepared the meal on the sixth; and waited upon Isaac on the seventh. Seven days to serve his old parent the last supper…Which the brother and doting mother took a quick hour to upend. The two nipped Esau, poor fellow, at the post, and cooked up a hasty meal for Isaac. Even that was not the end of it. Isaac lived on for seven hellish days before being gathered to his people. Seven days of confronting the deception practiced on him, and on the son he loved. For every day of Esau’s thwarted labor, and for every day of Isaac’s hell, God, to Laban’s mind, would sentence Jacob to a year of hard labor. A fourteen year sentence!
The first part of the sentence went by, for Jacob, as Laban foretold. The years of shepherding passed like days. Meantime the drought had given way to plenty. Water courses and wells overflowed. Animals fattened and foaled. Laban was ecstatic. And on the 10th of Adar, seven years to the day of making the contract, a wedding is held beneath a canopy erected on the property.
‘Well well,’ Laban says to him before the big night, “At last you get to marry your cousin. Upon my word you make me proud.’
Jacob, flattered, says if only his mother was here to see it. A pause; Laban bends his head. ‘When our caravan arrives and mother meets the beautiful bride, that’s when my happiness will be complete.’
‘Indeed,’ Laban says ruefully, ‘you are marrying a girl of infinite worth. I know a dozen suitors – men of wealth – who’d beat a path to my door to press claims. Better I give her to you than to a man with money who would take my daughter away. I would never set eyes again on my Rachel, never see the grandchildren she will give me.’ Jacob hears, but he is entranced and fails to listen.
The arrangements, in splendor and gaiety, are overwhelming. Every side of Charam life is there: the court circle and military chiefs; Baal priesthood and landed gentry; farmers and tradesmen; a full complement of relatives and retainers. The men are in stately robes, frogged tunics, white jackets, sheepskin coats. Women of different complexions wear silken gowns, glittering headgear and lumpy ornaments of gold and silver. The players strike up. Dancing begins. Turbans and tiaras bob on the floor.
The bridal party is due to make an entry when the guests have had their fill. A canopy for the nuptials has been erected between the tables. This is a magnificent affair, surrounded by potted palms, with brocaded staves, uprights encased in velvet, and an embroidered top dripping golden bells and tassels.
The plan has worked well; so well that all of it cost Laban not one zuz. Better still, Jacob with his miraculous shepherding is locked in for another seven bountiful years.