Crazy deal

“You see the predicament,” Laban said. “We had to marry older Leah before younger Rachel – whom it delights me to say we are now free to betroth.” The ‘we’ and the ‘free’ were my grandfather’s exit doors. By the ‘we’ he passed the blame onto others who had stopped him giving Jacob the bride he expected to get. Now no one could stand in the way. By the ‘free’ he would give Rachel away out of goodness of heart – free; it was only fair after Jacob had got a raw deal. As far as the contract could be honoured Laban had honoured it. Still, he felt bad about the whole thing.

What aplomb! He deflated the cheated, glaring, quick-breathing newlywed without a glimpse of triumph or pulling of rank. As a cobra charmer will snap his fingers to coil the serpent into a receptacle, it was as if Laban snapped and Jacob’s rancour fizzled like a watered fire.

Laban helped himself from little dishes on the breakfast table. “Well,” he said, “I can’t offer you anything, can I? You’re forbidden unsupervised food. I saw you eat nothing at your wedding. Leah nibbled, but as a non- Hebrew after her parents she could eat.”

“Sir, forgive me repeating, I worked seven years for Rachel not for Leah.”

Contrition crept into Laban’s manner. “Poor darling. Son, for Leah’s sake wait out your seven wedding days. Upon my word your love shall be your bride on the eighth day.”

Jacob, mouth making bird motions: “Very well then. If we must wait we must.”

And Laban, quick to seize the moment, “Believe me son, I’d hold the wedding tomorrow had not my oracle advised against it. Don’t bundle and mix two celebrations he told me. It never portends well for a marriage. We’d be gamblers to rush ahead.”

He now took Jacob by the arm and sat him in a chair and resumed breakfasting. Turning about while chomping – “I tell you what, I’m going to give you Rachel on credit. No – think nothing of it. I’m not one to make lovers wait.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t talk like that –”

“Why for heaven sake! Love and happiness – what’s to be scared of! When they’re offered grab with both hands. You know, I think I will have that inscribed and mounted for your bedchamber. Look, marry first then work off your seven years. Notice – the same bride price as for Leah. What could be fairer?’

For Jacob it was more a question of what could he do. Head lost in a cloud of private dreams (or were they divinations?) he grasped that both cousins were destined for him. Trapped like a domestic slave he passed a week waiting for the inevitable. He was a bystander to the arrangements for his nuptials. They would be nothing like the first public, ostentatious affair; this one would be quick and family-only. Came the end of Leah’s bridal week, Jacob wed Rachel, really for the second time, and began to work off her dowry of seven hard years, for the second time. By day he made Laban wealthier than he had ever been. By night he summoned the libido to father eleven sons and twelve daughters and keep two sister-wives and their handmaidens (one of them too young to menstruate, but that was Jacob) happy. He was not your tired drooping octogenarian. From four wives, who fought to have him in their beds, he fathered twenty three children in a matter of seven fertile years. I believe it fore-shadowed the miraculous baby boomers of Jacob’s family in Egypt.

A final child (Joseph – Egypt’s saviour in-waiting) was delivered on the last day of the seventh year, and right off Jacob went to the uncle he knew would again not keep his word.

“I’m ready to make a new life with my family,” he announced with all the matter-of-factness he could muster. “Fourteen years are up, uncle.” The calm way Laban took the news confirmed Jacob’s fears.

“God yes,” he said, “they are, aren’t they. How quickly time goes.”

Jacob in a nervous flurry, “What did you have when I started? Seventy thin animals, two unmarried daughters, and no heirs. Under me a thousand rams, goats, oxen and camels were added to your stock every year, fourteen times over. You’re a wealthy man, father. Me? I stand before you with no means of support. The time has come to work for the welfare of my family. We’re off to a new life in a new land.”

Laban never could tolerate having a fait accompli dropped at his feet. The incident had to be met with a consequence. Jacob ought to have consulted with him, not tell him what he was going to do. Fourteen years give habits, good or bad,  time to germinate and infiltrate; Laban, let it be said, had learnt to take his nephew for granted. My grandfather refused to admit that his nephew was not a debtor any more, that Rachel and Leah were fully paid for, that the son-in-law, older than he, owed him not a brass bit.

What makes a good swindler great is a talent to assume different parts, to know when to dictate and when to plead, when to be firm and when to bend. Now my grandfather dropped his dignity to play the hapless patriarch. He whined about being a widower. He fondled the head of Naphtali, who hugged his father’s legs, and who reminded Laban of when his two boys were toddlers. The sons now lived on their own properties. He had grown used to having his grandchildren around. Life would be droll if Jacob packed up and took them away.

“Of course my family will go with you,” he said sorrowfully. Jacob never knew he had it in him. “To say nothing of the good fortunes you brought me.”

Jacob wavered.

“I admit,” said Laban, assuming a coating of honesty, “it’s because of you I’m blessed.”

“And it’s because of Hakodesh, the Holy One that I’m blessed.”

“My son, we can be partners. Name your price. You’ll find me more than accommodating. I won’t haggle a bit. Go ahead – what will it take to make you stay? You can earn more working for me than you ever dreamed possible. Why risk working for yourself.”

The plea, Jacob knew, affected him more than was good for him. One way or another he would emerge penniless again. He’d never get the better of his uncle – not in a straight deal. But, but…If a deal was not straight? If it were utterly absurdly hopelessly biased, if it was a game the crook couldn’t possibly lose? Would Laban not jump at a last opportunity to upstage him? The more Jacob thought, the more this line of thought grew budding shoots.

So shrewd Rebecca’s boy cooked up another of his crazy schemes. Having got the birthright of his twin for a bowl of soup, and the blessing meant for him by cooking meat and dressing up, what was on the boil now? Did Jacob forget that Laban wasn’t a greedy foolish Esau, or a blind croaking-his-last-breath Isaac? Neither. The idea had descended with angels on a dreamt ladder. Whatever scheme, however mad, he cooked up, God would provide signs that Laban owed him all his property.

The deal Jacob presented was so convoluted that even brilliant minds differ on the exact workings of it. “I don’t want money,” he declared. “Nor any property.”

Taken aback Laban asked what he did want.

“Odd-coloured sheep and goats born under my care. Sir, if I’m to work another six years for you, let me make the terms and conditions.”

He knew every trick in the book, my grandfather, yet this one got him. Odd-coloured animals! Had fourteen years of sun and cold brained his nephew? Caustically: “Do you want to tell me what you have in mind?’
“I know it will seem complicated…”

Laban set his jaw. ‘Son, let’s hear it.’

“Basically the rules would be as follows. We – you and I – will go through your flocks picking out non-white animals.”

Laban stifled a guffaw.

“All non white animals, whether spotted, speckled or dark, will be pastured away from your white breeders, which I will tend.”

“What will be with the non-white flock?  I’m sorry; you were saying?”

“Look at the pure white flock under my care as the base flock. Should any non-white lambs and goats be born among them – whether spotted, speckled or dark – those will belong to me. All white stock remain your property. Uncle, those are my terms for a work contract.”

Laban smacked his lips in the way he would savour ripe cheese. His thoughts were deep – the long private thoughts of somebody who needs to alter a whole course of life. On the veranda of Jacob’s quarters he sat on a cane chair, his buttocks ballooning over the edges on both sides. He had come from a rendezvous with a concubine, and exhaled perfume. Fourteen years of manoeuvring had taken a toll on the relationship. Uncle and nephew had long ago abandoned any pretence of trust and respect. They were adversaries, hardly bothering to hide it.

Now a joke at the nephew’s expense: “How do I know you won’t sneak non-white stock from my flock to breed with your white stock? Ho, ho, ho.  Don’t worry – my dry humour again.”

“What’s on your mind, uncle?”

“Well,” said Laban, eyes agleam, “look at the problem like this. What if the white breeders under your care happen to mingle and mate with my non-whites? I don’t say you’ll do such a thing deliberately; but that way you could produce non-white stock for your property.”

Red like a beetroot, Jacob – “How about if you moved your flock far, far away – a three-day walk? There’d be no chance of intermingling.”

Laban raised his bulk from the chair. He took a while to stand straight, then shot a hand out. “Son, you made a deal” – not hiding his relish. “I don’t see any problem – not on my side! Ho, ho, ho! His joviality boomed like a gong. For decades he had laughed joked cajoled amused clients into making ruinous deals. The cheeriness made Jacob itch. He’d have to bank on God to come up with miracles – a strictly forbidden thing to do. His father-in-law’s laugh sounded like the bark of a hungry hyena.

They wrote and revised, added and subtracted – the contract took up a whole day and half a night. Before it was sealed Laban kept thinking of loopholes and of details for plugging them up. It had to be amended ten times. Finally it was done. He stamped the document with the purple, red and gold seal of three horned devils, back-to-back, supporting a lion standing on two dragons rending each other, interlaced all through by a symbolic serpent. Then Laban’s boys (my father Beor and his brother Chazzer) drove the non-white flock to the other side of the mountain.

Now began a battle of wits. Jacob took the white flock under his care – or should have done under the contract. Laban was taking no chances. He wanted his flock to be large and Jacob’s to be small.

He inspected each animal minutely, insisting that the slightest fleck on the coat of a sheep or a ram made it non-white and belonged to his flock. At the same time it gave Laban the opportunity to remove every healthy animal in Jacob’s flock; he left the poor fellow with hundreds of sickly animals. Jacob would have to work a miracle just to keep them alive, never mind breed them. First trick to my cunning grandfather.

I like the ‘rod method’ for what Jacob devised. He made rods of different patterns by peeling sticks from poplar trees. Some he left with bark on, and these were his brown rods. He peeled other sticks for spotted, speckled or striped rods. The brilliant part though, was how the innovative son of Isaac put the rods to work. When a sheep or goat came to drink at the trough he waved a rod at the female – sometimes a spotted rod, sometimes a streaked or a brown rod. At the waving a female would take fright, step backwards and, at this very moment the ram would mount her from behind.

Auto-suggestion in the human brain is not unknown. Perhaps it exists among the lower creatures. Whatever the truth of it, when Jacob waved a mottled or a striped rod in front of ewes and rams at the moment of conception, the offspring would have coats of the same pattern. When he waved a brown rod, lambs were born brown. According to a rod’s markings so were the markings conceived at the moment he waved the rod.
People argue that offspring by nature must take after parents. In the general case this is true. But God made man to bend nature to his will. To digress, here’s a story I heard from my wizened tutor who played a big role in a motherless boy’s upbringing. A black couple came to a sage by the name of Yehudah the Prince. The wife had given birth to a white baby. “This obviously is no child of mine,” the father said. “We are black, both of us. It cannot be possible that we could produce a white baby. My wife has been unfaithful.”
‘Have you any pictures in your house?’ the sage asked.
‘Of white people or black?’

“In that case,’ the sage declared, ‘at the time you conceived your child your wife must have been looking at the pictures. It is very similar to what Jacob did with Laban’s animals.”
Jacob discovered the power of mind over matter applied to animal husbandry. In no time he developed a non-white flock which grew to a size making it impossible for one shepherd to wave rods at every sheep and goat. So he improvised. Marked breeders were led in front so that followers would look at them and give birth to marked lambs and kids. And he improved the quality of the woolly breeders. At aggressive ewes he waved rods; at old and feeble ones he did not wave; hence their offspring were poorly white specimens which belonged to Laban…Thus he lit the fire of envy in the camp over the mountain.
Jacob’s freakish flock reproduced at a cracking rate. It did not take long for news to spread. People from far and wide came to buy livestock from the inventive Hebrew.  They paid a premium price. With the money Jacob bought camels and donkeys, slaves and gold. Soon no one could count the sum total of his wealth.

Laban and sons grew pale. The brothers felt that keen envy of dissolute youngsters who fear the loss of their unearned pleasures. “By stealth,’ they complained, “our cousin has taken over father’s property.” The complaint echoed all over Charan. It was a cutting envy; the poor refugee had learnt to beat their father at his own game. The upstart made the feared dealer look weak and foolish all over Charan. One after another clients foiled Laban’s crooked plots.

A reputation in business is like an egg shell – crack it and there’s no going back. Laban even lost the respect of his sons, ashamed of a father at his wits end. They indulged in snide remarks. “Father swindled others, now our Hebrew slave does the same to him.”

Laban tried every trick in the book. When he saw lambs being born that were rightfully Jacob’s he altered the contract. All spotted animals were supposed to go to Jacob. When Laban saw how many there were, he insisted it was a contractual fault. “I really meant that animals with large ring markings would belong to you. So the spotted animals actually are mine.”

Then Jacob fashioned a rod with ring markings; sure enough newborns had coats with rings. Laban swore that he actually meant rings with spots. “So all animals with entirely dark rings belong to me.” Then Jacob cut rods with dark rings and spots; sure enough animals were born with similar markings. And so it went on. Laban, my father told me, meddled and fiddled with the contract a hundred times. Exasperated and humiliated, his fury knew no bounds. He was being outwitted at every turn by the refugee who had fled Hebron for his life. In public Laban spoke of Jacob as an ingrate who stooped to cheating a family which had succoured him, treated him like family, for twenty years.

Did Jacob cheat? He thought he did – or might have done. He was not comfortable in himself. Why else would he later tell his wives a different version of how his flock grew while Laban’s diminished: “God has taken away your father’s livestock and given it to me. I served him with all my might, but he cheated me, changing my wages all the time. God himself came to my help.” So – Divine Providence helped him get wealthy. He just waved wands to help God. And another sign of mental anguish: Jacob’s thoughts were full of ewes, a word perilously close to ‘usury.’ Did Jacob take interest on what Laban owed him for twenty years? If Laban’s white flock was legal payment, the increase of it might be interest; though my cousin has my sympathy after grandfather took the woolly white breeders away, leaving not even the principal amount.

Jacob – a true heir of Abram (before God added h and a) – played the ‘ram’ game with Laban which his grandfather had played with Abimelech to become wealthy in livestock. And my aunt Rebecca who helped Jacob usurp her other son’s birthright: was it shrewd business or deceitful practice? One or the other, here were models for the eternal gripe against the descendants of Jacob: invite Israel to move in to bring prosperity, later pick on Israel for getting wealthier than necessary at the expense of their naively generous hosts.

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