The Battle of the Brides (Genesis 29:31-30:24)
(A Study of Love, Sex, Marriage, and Children)
One of my seminary professors, Dr. Bruce Waltke, used to compare Isaac with Jacob by likening Isaac to a slow leak, while Jacob was a blow-out. That’s not bad, and neither is it far from the truth. The story of Jacob’s marriage and family life leaves a great deal to be desired. In fact, our passage reads much like a modern-day soap opera. The story told is one of competition between two women and their maids, which results in Jacob being shuttled from bedroom to bedroom, tent to tent. Modern-day soap operas deal with a very similar kind of plot. However, God’s “soap” is not intended to encourage us to think sinful thoughts or to commit illicit acts but rather to “clean up our own acts” and to live righteously before Him.
Let us remember that Jacob is, at this point in time, living outside the land of promise. While God has promised His presence, protection, and provision, He is also at work in Jacob’s life to purge out many of the sinful patterns that have characterized him in the past. Consequently, while God is with Jacob, all does not go well with him in these days. Many of the consequences of his previous sins catch up with him. His choice of Rachel on primarily physical grounds and his insistence that he have her, even after he has married Leah, leads to a most distressing home and family life.
As we approach this passage, let us be aware of the fact that Moses has not arranged the events chronologically but topically. With only a little simple mathematics we can quickly discern that too many children are born in these verses to have been born one after the other. There must be some overlap in the births.244 By arranging the births as he has, Moses enables us to feel more intensely the division and competition between Leah and Rachel. We read these verses like someone watching a tennis match, we look first at the one contestant, then at the other, and so on. That is just the way this account is written so that we might be able to identify with these two women, both of whom desperately want to be assured of Jacob’s love and affection.
Leah Longs for Love:
In her early years of child-rearing we find Leah at the high point of her spiritual life.245 God’s loving intervention in her life is evident to her, and she gratefully acknowledges it:
Now the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:31-32).
What a pathetic predicament Leah is in. She is married to a man who never wanted her for a wife and who refuses to give her the love she desperately needs. God lovingly reached out to Leah by giving her a much-desired son, Reuben. Reuben means something like “see, a son” (cf. margin, NASV). It was a great joy for Leah to be able to provide Jacob with a man child, who would become his heir. This child kindled Leah’s hope of being loved by Jacob, whose love for Rachel was so strong that he hardly acknowledged Leah’s existence. The barrenness of Rachel at least drove Jacob to the tent of Leah to provide himself with sons who would prosper him.
Leah’s hopes for a small portion of Jacob’s affection were not realized, as is seen by her response to her second son’s birth:
Then she conceived again and bore a son and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” So she named him Simeon (Genesis 29:33).
No change in Jacob’s attitudes or actions had been perceived by Leah, and so when the second son was born she acknowledged the child as the tender response of a loving God Who knew the very thoughts of her heart. The name Simeon, “he hears,” gave testimony to Leah’s awareness of the grace of her God.
With the birth of her third son, Leah’s hope for Jacob’s tenderness and affection was once again aroused:
And she conceived again and bore a son and said, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi (Genesis 29:34).
Two things have changed since the birth of Reuben, the firstborn. First, Leah has now provided Jacob with three sons, not just one. The mere quantity of children she has borne should impress Jacob with her value to him, especially since Rachel had produced none. Second, her hopes have become much more realistic. She no longer aspires to the high level of love which Jacob had for Rachel but merely for the attachment which any man should have for a wife who is so fruitful. If I understand her words correctly, the attachment which Leah desires is not so much that of affection but of obligation. How can Jacob not feel more kindly toward her because of these sons she has given him?
While three sons did little to change Jacob’s heart, the birth of the fourth was the occasion for Leah’s most devout expression of praise and thanksgiving toward the God Who had heard her prayers:
And she conceived again and bore a son and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing (Genesis 29:35).
Previously, Leah had been grateful to God for the children He had given, but uppermost in her thoughts was the effect this might have upon Jacob. She sought his love so desperately. The pinnacle of Leah’s piety was that point at which she came to recognize that to be loved and led by God was a far greater thing than to be loved by any man. While Jacob’s affection was still something she greatly desired, she was content with the abundant love of God. In Him she was abundantly blessed. To Him she would give praise. And thus it was that the name Judah, which, in effect, meant “praise the Lord,” was given to her fourth son.
Rachel Fumes at Leah’s Fertility
Praising God was easy for Leah with four sons at her side; however, seeing her sister’s blessing only aroused jealousy in Rachel:
Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she became jealous of her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die.” Then Jacob’s anger burned against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:1-2)
On this occasion neither Rachel nor Jacob responded in what could be called a pious manner. Rachel, desperately jealous of Leah’s fruitfulness, demanded children of Jacob. Rather than recognize her barrenness as coming from the hand of God, she sought to shift the blame to Jacob. It was all his fault, she insisted.
Jacob did not respond well to this kind of demand. Of course, he was right in the logic of what he said. It was God who kept Rachel from bearing children. Jacob was not able to overrule the hand of God. However, Jacob’s attitude is suspect. His hot response seems far removed from true righteous indignation. I think it was much more one of outrage: “Don’t blame me for your barrenness, Rachel, blame God.” Her demand struck hard at Jacob’s virility and male ego, so Jacob struck back just as fiercely. The fact that he employed spiritual language and used God to rebuke her does not mean that his spirit was right in what he did. We often employ pious words to cut people to the quick.
Like Rachel, Rebekah had been barren, but Isaac’s response was quite different from Jacob’s. He prayed on behalf of Rebekah, and on his behalf God gave his wife children (Genesis 25:21). No such prayers are mentioned here, nor are we told that God answered the prayers of Jacob. We are only told that God heard the petitions of the wives (30:17,22). Elkanah gave Hannah special treatment and tenderness because of her inability to bear children (I Samuel 1:5,8), but no such gentleness characterizes Jacob.
While we are told that Jacob had a great love for Rachel (29:18,20,30), it is not very evident at this difficult time in Rachel’s life. Her jealousy implies that she lacks assurance of Jacob’s love. She fears not having children, and because of that she makes a desperate proposal:
And she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.” So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore a son. Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me, and has indeed heard my voice and has given me a son.” Therefore she named him Dan (Genesis 30:3-6).
There are definite similarities between this proposal and that of Sarai in Genesis 16. Each intended to adopt the child born from the union of her husband and her maid, but here the similarity stops. Sarai made her proposal at a time when Abram had no children (16:1), while Jacob already had several sons through Leah before Rachel’s proposal. While Sarai’s proposal came more from circumstances which seemed to demand desperate measures, Rachel’s demand stemmed from her own pride and jealousy. She must have children of her own, and she would take any steps necessary to get them.
The results were as Rachel had hoped, and her response to the birth of this boy sounded most spiritual. One would think that Rachel had done a most wonderful and sacrificial thing in giving her maid to Jacob. Her words were intended to give credit to God for all that she and He had accomplished together. The name Dan meant “judged.” She claimed that God had judged the matter of her dispute with her sister Leah and had sided with her as proven by the birth of this child. Nowhere are we told that God opened the womb of Bilhah, however. After all, wasn’t the birth of a child the natural result of such a union? Humanly speaking, God would have had to intervene into the normal course of affairs to have prevented this birth, but Rachel was anxious to have God on her side.
The statement made by Rachel on the occasion of the birth of Bilhah’s second son is more reflective, I believe, of her true spiritual state at this time:
And Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. So Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and I have indeed prevailed.” And she named him Naphtali (Genesis 30:7-8).
Rachel saw herself in a great struggle, not with God, but with her sister. This she described as a wrestling match246 which she won. Her main interest and concern is that in the birth of this second child she has won out over Leah. How, I am not sure, for how can two adopted sons win out over four of Leah’s sons? Here God is neither mentioned nor praised. Rachel is preoccupied with the contest between herself and Leah, and she claims to have won. At this point in her life Rachel does not strike me as a spiritual woman in humble submission to the will of God.
Leah Learns a Lesson
How far Leah falls from her grateful acceptance of God’s blessings in previous verses. Rachel, while undoubtedly wrong in proposing that Jacob sleep with Bilhah, at least can be understood to have been reacting to her barrenness; but Leah already has four sons of her own. There was no need to give her maid Zilpah to Jacob for a wife—other than the fact that this was what Rachel had done. Leah and Rachel are in a head-to-head confrontation. If Rachel can employ her maid in this contest, so can she.
When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, “How fortunate!” So she named him Gad. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, “Happy am I! For women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher (Genesis 30:9-13).
Leah’s speech betrays her here. Not once is God mentioned. In the fervent heat of this battle between two wives, little thought is given to the ethics of their actions, only to the expected results. She who previously had viewed her children as a gift from a gracious and caring God now sees these sons as merely good fortune—“How lucky I am,” “How fortunate,” and “How happy am I.” Religious devotion has been thrown to the wind. For anyone keeping score, Leah was ahead of Rachel 4 to 2, but that was not enough. Now she has added two more points to the scoreboard. However, in the process of gaining ground on her sister she has forfeited the godliness she once demonstrated. The focus of her thinking has shifted from God’s estimation of her actions to the praise she would be given by other women (verse 13).
The Purchase of a Potion
Reuben’s innocent discovery of an ancient “love-producing potion” provided the occasion for another confrontation and contest between Jacob’s two wives:
Now in the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Is it a small matter for you to take my husband? And would you take my son’s mandrakes also?” So Rachel said, “Therefore he may lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. And God gave heed to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Then Leah said, “God has given me my wages, because I gave my maid to my husband.” So she named him Issachar (Genesis 30:14-18).
Mandrakes were berries found in that part of the world which were thought to stimulate the desire for “love-making” and also to enhance the chances of conception.247 Leah, I suppose, was more interested in these berries for the former quality, Rachel for the latter. While temporarily not bearing children, Leah’s greatest need was to get Jacob into her tent where nature could take its course. Rachel, on the other hand, had Jacob with her nearly every night, but she seemed unable to become pregnant.
We may tend to be amused at the credulity of these women who supposed that such a love potion would be of any benefit. However, before we become too smug in our sophisticated and enlightened day, let me remind you that millions, perhaps billions, are spent on cosmetics by Americans each year. Every day the tooth paste and the perfume commercials convince us that whiter teeth or cleaner breath or a more “come hither” perfume will do what nothing else can to enhance our love life. So you see, things have not really changed so much over the centuries after all.
Rachel greatly desired to use some of these berries and asked Leah for some of them. Leah’s strong retort reminds us that, in her mind, it was Rachel who had stolen her husband from her. She viewed herself as Jacob’s legitimate wife rather than Rachel, who was merely his romantic preference.
Knowing what it was that Leah wanted from those mandrakes, Rachel proposed a bargain. Leah needed something to get Jacob interested in her, to get him to want to come into her tent. Since Rachel nearly always was the one with whom Jacob spent the night, she could assure Leah that Jacob would sleep with her this night. Thus, whether Leah was appealing or not, she would get what she wanted: Jacob, alone, for the night. In exchange for this one night, Rachel got the mandrakes, which she hoped would enable her to conceive.
What a sad state of affairs Jacob’s marriage had come to. He had so failed as a husband that his wife had to resort to a form of prostitution to purchase his services as her husband. And Rachel was so lacking in faith that she put her trust in mandrakes rather than the God Who made them. Rachel, it would appear, attempted to produce sons like Jacob sought to produce sheep, by the use of magical devices (cf. 30:37-43).
Her night with Jacob did bring about what Leah had hoped for, another son. It was not because of mandrakes but because God had compassion on her that she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. It must be in spite of her bargaining with Rachel and not because of it that God blessed Leah.
I believe that Leah wrongly interpreted the meaning of God’s gift of that fifth son. It was, in my mind, a gift of God’s grace in response to her pitiable circumstances that the son was begotten; but Leah chose to interpret this son as evidence of God’s approval and blessing of her giving her maid Zilpah to Jacob (verse 18). In her days, as in ours, true believers are all too quick to credit God with the “successes” of life which are a result of our sins. We seek to sanctify our sins by saying that God was behind it all. My friends, I sincerely believe that God is given too much credit whenever we make Him our partner in sin. Pious words do not necessarily prove pious works.
Finally, Leah is reported to give birth to a sixth son and also a daughter:
And Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob. Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good gift; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun. And afterward she bore a daughter and named her Dinah (Genesis 30:19-21).
Leah does not return to that high level of praise which we witnessed in Genesis 29:35, but she has certainly recovered some grasp of the grace of God as seen in the gift of the sixth son. The fact that this son was a good gift from God suggested a hope still flickering in the heart of Leah that her husband would somehow, someday, come to value her as a person and to regard her as a wife. The translators of the NASV have chosen to render Leah’s words with the idea of Jacob’s dwelling with her. Thus, it would appear that she desires Jacob to spend more time in her tent as compared with the disproportionate time spent with Rachel. Perhaps, now, with six sons coming from her Jacob will regard her more highly.248
The report of Dinah’s birth is intended to introduce her to us in preparation for the tragic events of Genesis 34. Other daughters were born (cf. 46:15), but she is the one who receives the greatest attention.
Rachel is Remembered
After all of Rachel’s devices and schemes have been exhausted, yet without any children from her own womb, God grants her the desire of her heart:
Then God remembered Rachel, and God gave heed to her and opened her womb. So she conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD give me another son” (Genesis 30:22-23).
Prayer does not immediately occur to Rachel as the solution to her stigma of barrenness, but it does seem to be her last resort. I never cease to be amazed at myself and others who leave prayer in the category of “last ditch” actions.
The name “Joseph” is significant in two ways. The Hebrew word ’asap, “has taken away,” has reference to the removal of the barrenness which had so plagued Rachel. A similar sounding word, yosep,249 “may … add,” expresses the further hope of Rachel that she be given the privilege of having yet another son to present to her husband.
It must have been nearly seven years after her marriage to Jacob that Rachel finally bore him a son. There may be significance to this delay. Jacob, due to his deception and deceit, was delayed in the process of getting a wife for himself. Perhaps Rachel was delayed in her attempts to have a child for the same reasons. She, too, was willing to employ questionable methods to obtain a son. Only after all these futile efforts were thwarted and shown to be without result does God open Rachel’s womb, and that may be in answer to her prayers. Rachel is yet to have another child, but he will come at the cost of her own life (35:16ff.).
The implications of this text are so numerous that I can only mention some and suggest that you give them more thought.
The nation Israel, which first read this book from the pen of Moses, learned the wisdom of the Law, which forbade a man to marry a woman and her sister (Leviticus 18:18). Furthermore, this account of the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel must have proved to be most humbling to the nation, for it was hardly a story which inspired national pride. Perhaps at the time of the exodus and during the days of the conquest of the land the people began to think too highly of themselves (cf. Deuteronomy 6:10ff.). They might falsely have concluded that God had blessed them because of their greatness and noble “roots.” This story would serve to remind them that their “roots” were no basis for pride whatsoever. They must never trust in their heritage, as the Jews of Jesus’ day did (cf. John 8:33,39), but in the God of their heritage. This is why God instructed them to recite their origins at the presentation of the first-fruits:
And you shall answer and say before the LORD your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation” (Deuteronomy 26:5).
We may be inclined to read this account of the struggles between Leah and Rachel and think of it as the “long ago” and the “far away” and thus of little application to us. Such could not be farther from the truth. There are differences between the culture of that day and our own, but, as one of my friends observed, the only difference between the practice of Jacob in his day and that in our own is that he lived with his four wives simultaneously, while we live with ours consecutively. We do with divorce what Jacob did with polygamy.
A distinct cultural turnover in values has occurred since that day as well. Women of that era tended to determine their value on the basis of how many children they could produce for their husbands. This seems to underlie the words of Leah: “Happy am I! For women will call me happy …” (Genesis 30:13).
Nowadays, women consider children a burden rather than a blessing. Children are considered a hindrance to fulfillment rather than its means. Consequently, birth control devices are thought to be the key to freedom, and abortion is a necessity for a woman’s happiness.
I would like to suggest that life’s meaning should not be equated with either. Rachel and Leah were both in error by making a good gift from God (children) the ultimate touchstone of fulfillment and happiness. Leah could tell you that this did not prove out. So, today, a career will not bring a woman (or a man) fulfillment either. Leah was far closer to the truth at the time of Judah’s birth, for then she looked to God for her worth, meaning, and approval rather than to any man, including her husband. The worship of God is man’s highest and most noble end. Neither children nor careers will replace it. The biblical position seems to be that mothers who raise their children to be faithful worshippers of God have fulfilled their calling in life (cf. I Timothy 2:15).
Now I wish to press on to several lessons from this text pertaining to love, sex, marriage, and children.
(1) Sex, love, marriage, and family can never be fully satisfying unless enjoyed within the confines of the will of God and the Word of God. I see the family life of Jacob as a disaster. I believe that Moses is showing us by inference that while Jacob is outside the land of promise he may belong to God and be assured of His presence, protection, provision, and future promises; but he can never be happy there. Love, sex, marriage, and family are all gifts from a good and loving God, but their enjoyment cannot be complete apart from fellowship with Him.
(2) While love without sex may be frustrating, sex without love is folly. This is a lesson which we learn from Jacob. Surely those years with Rachel where sex was not possible or permissible were frustrating (cf. Genesis 29:21), but sex without love is just as bad. Jacob engaged in sex with his wife Leah, but there was no fulfillment in it. In fact, it degenerated to mere prostitution where Leah had to purchase his presence.
I do not think that this kind of bargaining with sex occurred only in the distant past. In our present day sex is often a commodity which is bargained for various considerations. That is mere prostitution. Sex without love is tragedy.
I feel that I must digress for a moment here on the relationship between sex and love, for this is not at all understood, even by Bible-believing Christians. I have read somewhere that “whoever” created men and women and sex must have been a very poor engineer. Men respond very quickly to physical stimuli; women do not. Men reach the peak of their sexual desire earlier in life; women, later. Secular thinking would suppose that this is poor design and that man and woman should precisely correspond in these and other areas. I disagree. These differences are by design. God made man and woman distinctly different so that the ultimate in physical pleasure can only be obtained by a deliberate and conscious love which makes sacrifices of itself for the pleasure of the other. Without sacrifice, love-making deteriorates into mere self-seeking gratification at the expense of the other partner. Love and sex must go together.
(3) Neither sex nor children can create love. Leah would be quick to tell us that she learned no amount of sex could ever earn the love of her husband. Even after six boys, she was still unloved. Love cannot be manufactured through sex.
This is a truth that I desperately desire my girls to learn. I see so many instances of girls who long to be loved giving their bodies in the vain search for love. Sex will produce children, but it will never produce love. I fear that many prostitutes were driven to their profession by the feeling that they were unloved. All they had to give, they supposed, was their body.
I have seen many marriages where the couple had very serious marital problems, and they decided to have children in order to hold the marriage together. This does not work either, for producing children does not produce love. Children are not creators of love but its consumer.
(4) He, or she, who places sex on an extremely high level of priority becomes its slave. I may be wrong, but Jacob’s love for Rachel seems to be largely based upon her physical attractiveness. Jacob appears to have been guided more by his hormones than anything else.
Our society informs men and boys that their masculinity is largely indicated by the number of conquests they can make among women. The more they make, the more of a man they are. Jacob did rather well by these standards. He circulated among his four wives frequently enough to produce a growing family, but look at what happened to him in the process. He was not the master of his harem, but he was mastered by his harem. He was pushed from bed to bed by his wives. He was purchased for the night. The passivity of Jacob in these verses is an indictment of his lack of leadership. He was a slave of sex and marriage, not its sovereign.
(5) Marriage cannot run for long on the fuel of romantic love. I believe that the love of Jacob for Rachel was primarily romantic. Romantic love is not necessarily wrong, for most couples who come to me for counseling and marriage have this same kind of love. I would be very uneasy if they did not. But in our premarriage counseling program we begin to prepare the couple for the stage of “disillusionment,” or the time that is commonly called “when the honeymoon is over.” In the humdrum and pressures of married life, romantic love is not sufficient to carry the relationship along for long. The woman whom we used to see after she had spent hours of preparation for being with us and who looked “fit to kill” is now the woman who has been up all night with a sick child. She comes to the table in a bathrobe and curlers and looks like she has been killed. Romance can quickly come and go.
Jacob does not seem to have worked at deepening and broadening his love. Instead it would appear that his love was largely on the romantic plane. No wonder Rachel should look with jealous eyes at Leah. No wonder she seemed so threatened and desperate. She felt unloved, just as Leah did. Love needs to be meticulously maintained and vigorously strengthened. Jacob must have failed here. May God enable us not to fail in our love, sex, and marriage as Jacob did.
244 “. . . it becomes apparent that in the history of the births, the intention to arrange them according to the mothers prevails over the chronological order, so that it by no means follows, that because the passage, ‘when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children,’ occurs after Leah is said to have had four sons, therefore it was not till after the birth of Leah’s fourth child that Rachel became aware of her own barrenness. There is nothing on the part of the grammar to prevent our arranging the course of events thus.” C. F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I. p. 291.
245 “It is impossible also to avoid noticing what seems to be a declension in Leah’s spiritual life from the time of the birth of her fifth son (xxx. 17-21). In connection with the first four the Lord’s hand was very definitely perceived, but now there is no longer any reference to the Covenant Name Jehovah, and the expressions indicate what is almost only purely personal and even selfish as two sons and a daughter are born to her.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 277.
246 The “mighty wrestlings” of Rachel in verse 8 are literally the “wrestlings of God” (margin, NASV). It is significant, however, to note that the word used for Jacob’s wrestling with the angel in 32:24 is not the same as that found here.
247 “. . . the yellow berries of the mandrake about of the size of a nutmeg. The Hebrew knows them as duda’im, which according to its root signifies ‘love apples.’ The ancients and perhaps, the early Hebrews, too, regarded this fruit as an aphrodisiac and as promoting fertility.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 811.
“Two Hebrew roots, z-b-d and z-b-l are played upon in the two halves of this verse, and it now appears that they are linked by meaning as well as sound, in the light of the Akkadian zubullu, ‘bridegroom’s gift.’” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 162.
“The translation of ‘marriage gift’ is taken because z-b-l has this meaning in Akkadian, and Padan-Aram being in the area of influence, is to be preferred to the meaning of ‘dwell’ from Ugaritic texts. What greater mark of the husband’s affection is there than to be presented with a gift from him!” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 234.
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