Come to my Garden IV

Jacob’s Cattle

Let my beloved come into his garden,
to eat of the fruit of the trees that are therein.

Veniat dilectus meus, Antiphon on the Psalter
Second vespers, Celebrations of our Mother Earth

I’ve been shelling beans: pinto, kidney, lima, black turtle, black coco, Vermont cranberry, cannelini, limelight, Montezuma red. The sisters ordered many more varieties from Canada but the boxes arrived empty except for a pre-printed note of confiscation from U.S. Customs.

I love shelling Jacob’s Cattle beans because of the story in Genesis.

Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright (with a simple bowl of pottage cooked in a timely way) and his blessing (with a disguise smelling like Esau devised by their mother Rebecca ). Jacob is a hero for his guile. He instinctively values the worth of the patriarchal covenant in a way his brother does not. Nevertheless, Jacob runs away from the wrath of Esau, heading north to Haran, to his mother’s people. On the way he dreams the ladder of angels, confirming the covenant relationship with God, even though he cheated his twin brother to receive it.

When he arrives in Haran, Jacob sees the “beautiful and lovely” Rachel, his cousin. He kisses her right then and there. In exchange for her hand in marriage, “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” On the morning after the wedding, Jacob wakes to find he has shared the nuptial bed with Rachel’s older “dull-eyed” sister Leah. In a rage he complains to their father Laban, who replies glibly that in his country it’s not customary for the younger to wed before the older. So Jacob serves another seven years for Rachel.

Leah produces many children but the beloved Rachel seems to be barren in that Biblical way of anticipating extraordinary children. After a scene of sisterly trading of aphrodesial mandrakes for tent-time with Jacob, Rachel eventually bears Joseph, beloved of his father, (who, in later chapters, will save the whole clan from starvation after his jealous brothers sell the boy into slavery in Egypt.)

After years of service to his father-in-law Laban, Jacob proposes taking his family back to Canaan. Guile for guile, Jacob meets his match in Laban. Jacob proposes that he take the “speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats.” Laban agrees, but sends Jacob away on an errand and in the meantime removes all the male spotted and speckled among the sheep and goats from the flock. So at mating season, Jacob creates a clever visual incentive,

“… rods of poplar and almond and plane, peeling white streaks in them and exposing the white of the rods. He set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the runnels, that is, the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the rods and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled and spotted.”

After further machinations by Laban, Jacob and his wives have a family meeting out in the field. Jacob says, “You know that I have served your father with all my strength; yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times …” Yet everything Jacob touches prospers, for God is with him, even though he has fallen out of favor with Laban. Leah and Rachel note that their father has spent their dowries on himself so that they don’t feel obliged legally toward him. And so they agree to run away with their company of slaves and servants and children, and their flocks and herds, striped, speckled and spotted, back to the land of Jacob’s birth.

I love casting the characters of Genesis in my imagination. One day I might imagine CNN’s Christiane Amanpour as Rebecca, Peter Stormare, the actor who plays the blond sociopath in Fargo as Isaac, Harrison Ford as Jacob, Clare Danes as Rachel. I cast James Gandolfi (in his Tony Soprano persona) as Judah with Glenn Close, or Nicole Kidman, or Deborah Kerr as Tamar. On another day, in another mood, alternate qualities of character emerge, perhaps voices of my own subconscious, or maybe Isaac himself through his own profoundly troubling silences, Rebecca in adventurous cunning, Jacob’s unique and unrenderable complexity, and bright-eyed Rachel, luminous, petulant, manipulative. They come to me as real and complete as anyone I might encounter at a family reunion.

I owe them something. They know me. I belong to them. I have to visit this family often, or I lose myself. And I think about them while I’m shelling Jacob’s Cattle: the dry white beans mottled with burgundy stripes, speckles, and spots.

 

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