Note: This began as a discussion in the comments section of Riding to Lancelot’s rescue, but it seems worthy of making into a quick post.
Commenter Kevin asks:
I agree that the obsession with romantic love is absurd. But I continue to be confused by the connection between our bizarre expectations and courtly love. Is Dalrock arguing that there was no concept of love or romance prior to courtly love? Or that courtly love was the beginning of the perversion?
Genesis 29 seems to be a love story. The concept of love and romance both licit and illicit is ancient.
There has always existed an emotional aspect of sexual desire/passion. What is novel is our focus on separating the emotional from the physical and declaring the emotional aspect pure, purifying, and holy. As C.S. Lewis explains, we struggle to even imagine how this was viewed prior to the transformation of courtly love. Gen. 29 is a great example of this (NIV version):
16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah had weak[a] eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. 18 Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”
As Kevin points out, in our minds this is a modern love story, a romance. How could it possibly be anything else? We simply can’t imagine otherwise.
But take a look at the original Hebrew and how our translations cover it. I’m not trying to create the “correct” biblical interpretation*, but pointing out the different frame of mind of the Hebrew words vs the massive baggage we have in English about romantic love. Here is an example of how the passage would read choosing just three different English words:
16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah had weak[a] eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. 18 Jacob liked Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his sexual desire for her.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to go into her.”
Cane Caldo pointed out that Jacob’s “love” for Rachel is not the sentimental, purifying true love of modern love tales:
1. Jacob loved Rachel because she was beautiful. He wasn’t “captivated by her inner beauty”. He didn’t “love her for who she was”. He wanted her to be his, and to have sex with her. Compare this to Dalrock’s post “Like a rutting buck”.
Indeed. So much so that Jacob didn’t realize he had spent the night having sex with the wrong sister until the next morning!
21 And Jacob said unto Laban, Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in unto her.
22 And Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast.
23 And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her.
24 And Laban gave unto his daughter Leah Zilpah his maid for an handmaid.
25 And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold, it was Leah: and he said to Laban, What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?
Moreover, as Cane also points out, we are never told that Rachel had any romantic or sexual feelings toward Jacob; Jacob never “wins her heart”. Contrast this with 1 Sam 18 where we learn that Michal was in love with David:
20 Now Saul’s daughter Michal was in love with David, and when they told Saul about it, he was pleased. 21 “I will give her to him,” he thought, “so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.”
Jacob offers to work for Rachel’s father for seven years, and her father replies that he may as well give her to Jacob instead of some other man:
19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.”
And yet, as Lewis explains, the legacy of the courtly love revolution means that we can’t read stories like Gen 29 in any other way than as a “love story”.
This is not to say that Jacob had no emotional feelings for Rachel. If he didn’t have strong emotional feelings for her before the wedding he certainly had them by the time of her death. But the story of their “courtship” is anything but romantic, and the description of Jacob wanting to marry her so he could have sex with her is about as straightforward as it could be. There is also not even an inkling of the idea that romantic love is pure or sanctifying in this story. But the legacy of courtly love hovers over us like a supermassive black hole, warping everything relating to sex and marriage with a nearly irresistible force in our minds. We just don’t notice it because from our perspective it has always been there.
*Just as everyone with access to an acetylene torch is tempted to fancy themselves a welder, everyone with access to Strongs is tempted to see themselves as a scholar of Hebrew. For the record, I am neither a welder nor a scholar of Hebrew. My point is not to offer the correct interpretation/translation of the passage, but to give a sense of the immense baggage the words have in English.