Reuben’s Mandrakes

by senseshaper

While writing my last post on Ambroise Paré’s monstrous Phantasy, I came across a reference to Genesis 30 that captured my own imagination. Having researched and written before on the passages from Paré and Montaigne I discussed there, I somehow overlooked the bizarre Biblical reference that appeared in each. In previously thinking about representations of the imagination, I never really considered their dual references to Genesis 30. This time through, however, I decided to turn to the Bible to decipher the references, and, in doing so, exposed myself to the fascinating madness of that chapter. Reading Genesis 30 provides me with a new response tothe religious right’s objections to gay marriage in service of “defending traditional marriage.”

The references in Paré and Montaigne pointed me to the second half of Genesis 30 where Jacob uses a little pre-modern genetic engineering to both separate his own flock from Laban’s and increase his stock. Jacob takes the striped cattle and sheep as his own to separate his flock from Laban’s and increases and strengthens his flock by creating white streaked rods which he sets before the stronger cattle and sheep. As I discussed in my last post, this supposedly occurred because an image set before a human or animal affected its imagination, stamping the influence of the perceived object upon the fetus in the womb.

While Jacob’s system of makeshift genetic engineering has some interesting consequences for my study of the Phantasy, I became even more intrigued by what I found in the first half of this chapter with its unconventional marriages and the mention of Reuben’s mandrakes. While I knew the Bible was full of polygamy and weird sexual relationships, and, while I remembered pausing when combing through medieval and early modern herbals to laugh at the woodcuts and engravings of mandrakes, I wasn’t quite prepared for the weird-ass way they converge in Genesis 30.

Jacob, married to two sisters (who, incidentally, are his cousins), Leah and Rachel, can conceive children with the elder, Leah, but not with the younger, Rachel. As a result, Rachel envies her sister’s fruitfulness and the relationship with her husband the ability to produce children entails. Out of frustration, Rachel offers Jacob one of her maids as a surrogate, and the maid gives Jacob children. As a result, Leah is apparently on the outs with her husband, as Jacob, presumably, is too busy getting it on with Rachel’s maid to pay her any mind, but here is where the marital relations take an even more bizarre turn. Leah’s son, Reuben, goes to a field where he finds a bunch of mandrakes.

In herbals, the mysterious mandrake accumulated all types of miraculous properties and stories. In early texts, the mandrake, which came in male and female varieties, supposedly had a human form, grew from the matter of dead bodies under gallows, and screamed when pulled from the ground. At least by the sixteenth century, herbals began to debunk such myths. Even these mandrake skeptics continued to assert, however, both the mandrake’s poisonous nature as well as its use to promote women’s fertility.The mandrake’s supposed boost to the fertility system helps explain why they attain such significance in the sexual drama that unfolds in Jacob’s houses. After Reuben picks the mandrakes and returns them to his mother, Rachel sees the mandrakes and desires them. Leah, understandably upset that Rachel already has her man and now wants her son’s mandrakes, tells her no. As Rachel has a bad case of mandrake envy, she offers a night with Jacob in exchange for Reuben’s irresistible mandrakes, and Leah, missing her husband, agrees to the deal. Rachel, once Jacob returns home, tells him of the arrangement, and, as a result, Jacob once again shacks up with Leah, producing yet another child.

The mandrake’s link to fertility probably helps explain why such intra-familial tensions emerge regarding Reuben’s find. Of Reuben’s mandrakes, William Turner argues,

…the sede of Mandrag taken in drynk/ clengeth the mother/ and… it appereth that Rachel knowyng the nature of the fruyte of Mandrag…/ for thys intent/ desyred to have the fruyte of Mandrag/ that she might clenge her mother therewith/ and thereby myght be made the fitter te conceyve chylde herselfe as well as Lia her syster/ and Silfa her mayd dyd. (47).

The mandrake’s seed, Turner contends, purges and cleans the womb. While Turner explains that the mandrake’s properties underlie Rachel’s desire for them, he does not address the way in which they become a commodity traded for sex within Genesis 30.

This example of intra-marital prostitution, with Rachel pimping out Jacob for a bundle of mandrakes, made me wonder about the religious right’s push to “defend traditional marriage” and the outcries that gay marriage will “destroy the sanctity of marriage.” I’m left wondering what type of Biblical “marriage” they’re talking about in addition to what their definition of “sanctity” really is. In this one chapter, we find incest (Leah and Rachel are Jacob’s uncle’s daughters), we find polygamy (Jacob is married to Leah, Rachel, and an assortment of maids), and we find intra-marital prostitution (Leah pays for a night with Jacob in mandrakes). God might have made Adam and Eve, but Genesis continues with some very, by the religious right’s standards, unconventional and “untraditional” marriages.

People have a long history of shaping the Bible and objects in accordance with their understanding of the world. As Katharine Maus reminded me, Shakespeare’s Shylock deploys Jacob’s sheep to defend the practice of usury in The Merchant of Venice 1.3.. Shylock justifies his practice by comparing his own practice to Jacob’s; twisting scripture to suit his own interests and defend the forbidden practice. Like the critics of same-sex marriage, he pulls one example from the Bible while ignoring the rest of the text. The practice resembles the “idle drones” who John Gerard claims spend their time

carving the rootes of Brionie, forming them to the shape of men & women; which falsifying practice hath confirmed the errour amongst the simple and unlearned people, who have taken them upon their report to be true Mandrakes. (281).

Just as Shylock perverts scripture and just as shysters fashioned other plants into mandrake-people, some who claim to take a Biblical stance on marriage carve Genesis in a way to confirm their own biases. Fashioning their own scriptural “Brionie” into the shape of “traditional marriage,” they pass off and report them as “true [Biblical] Mandrakes,” only because they find themselves uncomfortable with a Man[ in ]drag.

If Genesis provides the model for what marriage looks like, then perhaps we should turn to the later chapters to reveal what “traditional marriage” really means. Until I hear the argument from an incestuous polygamist who breeds striped sheep using magic rods, I am inclined to question their “literal” understanding of the Bible and their understanding of Biblical marriage. Sure, proponents of taking a Biblical stance on marriage might dismiss Genesis 30’s incest, polygamy, maid swapping, and mandrake funded prostitution as part of the old law overturned by the appearance of Christ, but when I hear people “defending marriage” against the gay menace by referring to the “sanctity of marriage,” my response will simply be, “remember Reuben’s mandrakes!”

…Then again, they will probably respond to me as Antonio did Shylock: “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (Merchantof Venice I.iii. 94), but, yet again, I suppose I could do the same since

An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath! (I.iii. 95-98).

Bibliography

Gerard, John. The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. London: John Norton, 1597.

Montagnana, Bartolomeo. Hortus sanitatis, vel Tractatus de herbis et plantis, de animalibus omnibus et de lapidibus: Tractatus de urinis ac earum speciebus. Johannes Pruess, 1497.

Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. Norton, 1997.

Turner, William. The First and Seconde Partes of the Herbal of William Turner. Collen: [The heirs of] Arnold Birckman, 1568.

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