I have a mantra: People are people. I’ve adopted this statement as my mantra because it’s a fact that I constantly need to be reminded of. And I have tried to make it a key focus of my writing on this blog. Only when we truly internalize and live out this truth are we able to practice compassion towards ourselves, others, and the world.
That’s why I’m troubled by a phenomenon I see often in the world around me, and sometimes even in my own life. It’s called dehumanization, the treatment of a fellow human being as less than a person. It happens in many different ways, some of which I would like to dive into sooner or later. But this week, rather than deal with instances of this issue in our world today, I’d like to look at a story from scripture that illustrates the problem I’m trying to address.
The Bible is an ancient book, and as such, it does not directly answer every modern question we bring to it. But the Bible is also an inspired, living book, and so it does offer us timeless truths and principles that we can apply to the issues that come up in our day and time. This story from Genesis 29 is culturally far removed from where we find ourselves today. It makes some assumptions and deals with some problems that do not exist in our society, and those can be jarring. But it also speaks into a timeless struggle that faces every person in every time and place: How are we to value and to treat our fellow human beings?
I can’t think of any story that exemplifies the destructive nature of dehumanization better than the story of Jacob and the way he came to be married. Let’s look into that story today.
Dehumanization is destructive.
Our story starts off with Jacob fleeing his family under questionable circumstances. We won’t get into all of those today, but let’s just say that he did some things he’d rather forget. While traveling through the wilderness, Jacob stumbles upon some friendly relatives and decides to live with them. He settles down in the house of his uncle Laban and gets a job tending to his sheep.
Of course, Jacob isn’t expected to work for free, and this is where the first instance of dehumanization comes in. Instead of asking for money or land in exchange for his labor, Jacob makes a deal with Laban that he will work seven years in exchange for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel. He doesn’t want to earn Laban’s respect or blessing; no, he wants to earn and own Rachel. And in case you think Rachel’s father was put off by this proposition, here’s his response from Genesis 29.19: “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man” (CSB, emphasis added).
What we read in this story is two men bartering for ownership of a human being. That is dehumanization manifested in the clearest, most heinous way possible. Jacob and Laban do not treat Rachel like a human being. (They don’t even bother to ask her opinion on the matter.) They treat her like a piece of property that can be transferred from one owner to another. They treat her like a sub-human, and that is wrong.
Some might say, “Hold up. This story occurs in a time in place when women were universally treated as property. It was a part of their culture, and there was no way around it. You’re being unfair by forcing your modern understanding of morality on an ancient story.” And it’s true that this story came out of a culture that did not consider women to be fully human on the same level as men. Like us, Jacob, Laban, and the writer of this story were limited by their cultural context.
But if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that God isn’t limited by the things we are. He sees things differently. He sees us differently. And he’s constantly calling us to see things the way he does. The very first chapter of Genesis teaches us that God created human beings in his own image, and from that story we learn that all human beings should be treated equally and considered innately valuable.
People are people. God teaches us that, and we are each called to know and practice it. Jacob should have practiced it, too, but he chose not to. He chose to dehumanize another person, and the consequences were drastic.
We fast forward seven years, and Jacob decides it’s time to claim what he believes to be rightfully his. He tells Laban to throw him a wedding, which he does. They throw a big party, and at the end of the night, it’s time for Jacob and Rachel to become husband and wife.
Except, Laban has a different idea. You see, Rachel is his younger daughter, and he can’t stand the idea of her getting married before his older daughter Leah. So even though Jacob isn’t interested in marrying/owning her, Laban pulls a switch-a-roo and gives Leah to Jacob instead.
You don’t even want to me to go into how Jacob could sleep with Leah thinking she was Rachel. Regardless, he wakes up the next morning and realizes what has happened: Laban tricked him. So he goes to his father-in-law and expresses his frustration, but Laban doesn’t see what the problem is. He’s fulfilled his side of the deal, giving Jacob his daughter in exchange for seven years of work. He’s even thrown in a bonus, sending his slave Zilpah to go and serve the newlyweds in their home. (This, of course, is slavery, another horrific form of dehumanization.) From a financial standpoint—and this was a financial transaction, after all—Jacob is coming out ahead.
But Jacob still isn’t happy. He wants Rachel, the daughter he’s been promised. So he agrees to work another seven years in exchange for her hand. After those seven years pass, Jacob marries Rachel and even gets another slave named Bilhah, who’s tasked with serving Rachel. This story has the opposite of a fairy tale ending: “So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years“ (Genesis 29.30).
Do you see the pattern here? These men are treating women not like human beings, but like objects. They have no say in what’s going on. Their feelings aren’t even considered. They’re just being passed back and forth between two men until both feel like they’ve gotten a good deal. And the end result is that Leah and Rachel, who’ve been compared to each other their whole lives, are now married to a man they haven’t chosen and who favors one of them over the other. Does that sound like a healthy family situation to you? Spoiler alert: The problems don’t end there.
Dehumanization is a vicious cycle.
Consider the story thus far from Leah’s point of view. She’s grown up in her father’s house constantly being told that she isn’t beautiful like her sister. (Scripture says that her “eyes were weak” [Genesis 29.17], whatever that means.) Then, on the night of what’s meant to be her sister’s wedding, Leah is forced by her father to marry and sleep with a man she has not chosen in an act of betrayal against both Jacob, now her husband, and Rachel, her sister. Could she have done differently? Maybe, if she had known she had a choice. But when a person spends their whole life being treated as less than human, it’s hard not to internalize that view and eventually learn to be helpless.
It’s hard to imagine that Leah wouldn’t come to love Jacob over their seven years of marriage. The story is clear that she at least wants to please him and have a relationship with him. But from the very start, Leah has to share her husband’s time and affection (if she gets any at all) with her sister. Because for seven years, Leah watches Jacob work, knowing that he is not going to be paid with money but with Rachel’s hand in marriage. She brings him water, makes him meals, washes his clothes, and tends to his needs knowing all along that soon, Rachel will be living in the house with them. Soon, Rachel will be Jacob’s wife. And where will that leave her?
In a culture where fertility means everything, it is considered an act of God’s grace that Leah is able to bear children. She may not have been her husband’s first choice, but she is the first to give him a son. Multiple sons, actually. And she uses the names of her children to express her displeasure with her life. She names her first three children Reuben, saying, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction” (vv. 32); Simeon, saying, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated” (vv. 33); and Levi, saying, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me” (vv. 34).
For their whole lives, these men’s names—their very identities—will be defined by the sorrows of their mother. This, too, is an act of dehumanization. Leah treats them as extensions and expressions of her suffering rather than as human beings in their own right.
It’s hard to blame Leah for naming her children the way she does. And she does name her fourth son Judah, proclaiming, “This time I will praise the Lord” (vv. 35). But the names of her oldest sons show that the dehumanization Leah has experienced is now a cycle that she carries on to the next generation. And this cycle carries on.
In the next chapter, Rachel, angry that she is not able to produce children with Jacob, commits her own act of dehumanization. She orders her slave Bilhah to sleep with Jacob in her place and produce children. Bilhah, who has up to this point been treated as nothing more than a piece of property, now becomes a baby-making machine and a pawn in Rachel’s battle against her sister. Rachel takes Bilhah’s baby boys away from her and names them Dan, saying, “God has judged me,” (vv. 6) and Naphtali, saying, “With many wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed” (vv. 8). More dehumanization.
And so it goes. Leah mirrors Rachel and gives her slave Zilpah to Jacob as a wife. She’s already competing with two other women. Why not add another one? At least she’ll be on Leah’s side. Zilpah produces two more children, whom Leah takes away and gives names that celebrate her seeming victory.
Perhaps in the most ironic twist of the whole story, Jacob eventually becomes the victim of the very cycle of dehumanization that he started. Leah wants to sleep with Jacob, but it’s Rachel’s turn. So Leah offers Rachel some food in exchange for Jacob’s bed that night, and Rachel accepts. Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, and she sells him out for a meal! Leah tells Jacob like it is: “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes” (vv. 16).
Just as Rachel and Leah had a price in Jacob’s eyes, so he now has a price in theirs. And so the dehumanization continues. As a result of their night together, Leah has another son and names him Issachar, saying “God has given me my wages” (vv. 18). This entire family is built on the idea that a person’s value is based on what they have to offer, not on their creation in the very image of God. This view of personhood and the disastrous effect it has on everyone in its path is the inevitable result of unchecked dehumanization.
Jacob’s sin of dehumanization is carried on in the lives of his children. He teaches them not to value women by ordering them to stand by silently as their sister Dinah is raped by a ruler of the land (Genesis 34). Rachel does eventually have two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, who of course become their father’s favorites. Joseph’s brothers get sick of him one day and sell him into Egyptian slavery, literally auctioning their brother off as property (Genesis 37). And Judah leaves his daughter-in-law Tamar to die in shame and poverty after the death of her first two husbands (Genesis 38). She’s forced to disguise herself and trick Judah into imprengating her to get him to take care of her. (Yes, that really is in the Bible.)
Are you starting to see how these acts of dehumanization can spiral out of control? It all started with Jacob treating Rachel like a piece of property, and it ended here: hearts broken, relationships in tatters, lives destroyed. But praise God, dehumanization doesn’t have to have the last word.
The cycle can be broken.
The story of Jacob’s family in Genesis ends with Joseph. He understands the devastating effects of dehumanization. He’s seen the way his aunt Leah walks around feeling like she’s worth nothing. He’s seen the jealousy in his brother’s eyes as he receives the favoritism that he never asked for. He’s cried as his own brothers tie him up and send him off to Egypt as a slave in exchange for a few measly coins.
Even in Egypt, Joseph feels the sting of dehumanization. After being bought by Potiphar, he catches of the eye of the master’s wife (Genesis 39). She turns Joseph into her sex object. She harasses him and then accuses him of attempted rape when he refuses to engage her propositions. As a result, Joseph is thrown into prison. An innocent young man turned slave turned prisoner, all because he’s been treated as less than human by those around him.
Somehow, Joseph carries on. He actually thrives in prison. And through a set of bizarre, serendipitous circumstances, Jospeh finds himself in a position of political power (Genesis 40). In fact, he’s second-in-command of all of Egypt! And as he sits on his throne ruling over a nation that he’s saved from the brink of famine, who else would come along asking for help but his jealous, back-stabbing brothers?
This is Joseph’s chance. His brothers don’t recognize him. They’ve told their father that he’s dead, and over the years, they’ve probably come to believe it themselves. In this moment, Joseph has the power to do to them precisely what they did to him when he was a kid: He can devalue them, mistreat them, make them feel like less than human. This is his opportunity to dehumanize them any way he pleases.
But Joseph chooses a different path. He does not allow the cycle continue with him. Instead, he breaks it.
Through tears, Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. He forgives them for what they’ve done to him. He sends for his father and moves his entire family to Egypt so that they can all be together (Genesis 45). Jacob is reunited with his beloved son and dies finally having his family at peace for the first time ever. And in the end, Joseph is able to say to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50.20, emphasis added).
That’s redemption. That’s humanity at it’s best. That’s the grace of God flowing down through a willing servant and repairing generations’ worth of damage through dehumanization. And that, my friends, is beautiful.
We live in a world that teaches us not to value those around us. We see the destructive cycle of dehumanization all around us, and we’ve all participated in it at some point. But the beauty of the gospel is that we don’t have to be a part of the cycle anymore. We can value each other and all human life. We can break the cycle of dehumanization and redeem everything that’s been done in its name. It starts with us; it starts today. Will you be a part?