Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 27, 2014

2014.07.27 “Stories from the Family of Faith: Jacob, Rachel (and Leah)” – Genesis 29: 15 – 28

Central United Methodist Church

Stories from the Family of Faith:

Jacob, Rachel (and Leah)

Pastor David L. Haley

Genesis 29: 15 – 28

July 27th, 2014

 Rachel&Leah (Sharon Coleman)

“Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country — giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.” – Genesis 29: 15 – 28, New Revised Standard Version

 

It’s a phrase we’ve heard and likely used: “What goes around, comes around.”  What this phrase refers to is what many religions teach, and what many of us believe: namely, that how we treat others is how we can expect to be treated. If we do good and treat others well, more good will come to us and we will be treated well. But if we do evil and treat others badly, evil will come to us, and we will be treated badly. In our own time, three names come to mind: Saddam Hussein. Moammar Gaddafi.  Osama bin laden.

In Christianity, this idea it shows up in several sayings of Jesus, such as “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” and even the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  St. Paul – quoting a phrase coined long before him – put it this way: “As a person sows, so shall they reap.” (Galatians 6:7)

But do we really believe this?  Because, in reality, sometimes it only seems to apply in fairy tales or Clint Eastwood movies.  All of us know people who are good people, who have had way too many bad things happen to them, people who got treated badly at the hands of others.  Conversely, we have heard of and even known people, who seem to get away with murder, sometimes literally.

What about us? Do we sometimes feel like, while we’ve worked hard and lived a good life, we have only encountered only hardship and trouble in return? Have we ever lived to regret some bad word or deed we did, when we see it come back to haunt us or reappear in our children’s life? As most of us parents have learned, it’s hard to teach your children “we don’t talk that way in our house,” if they have – in fact – heard you talking that way, in your house. (Yes, this is the voice of experience speaking.)

If the primary purpose of today’s story from the book of Genesis is to show us how God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah eventually gets fulfilled, generation by generation; surely it’ secondary purpose is this: to demonstrate that “what goes around, comes around,” at least in the life of one person.  This week, Jacob the schemer gets scammed.

Again this week – as in previous weeks – this ancient story with its strong emotions, sibling rivalry, deception, and loyalty challenges us to think about our lives, and how God works through us and our families, despite our flawed relationships and personalities.  In Jacob’s case, here’s how that happens.

Previously, we’ve seen how Jacob, a trickster from birth, cheated his older brother Esau of his birthright and his father’s blessing. Because Esau then threatened to kill him, Jacob flees home, to return to his mother Rebekah’s country and people.  On the way, he has a dream in which God tells him, undeserving though he is, that he will be the heir of God’s promise to Abraham, to make of him a great nation and people, through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed.  But in order for this to happen, as with his father Isaac, Jacob needs a wife (haven’t we heard this story before?)  How he gets one – not to mention his own comeuppance – is quite a story.

How does Jacob find a wife?  Not Jewish dating online, but in the same place where’s his father Isaac’s servant, found his own mother, Rebekah: at a watering place (no, not that kind of watering place.) Guess wells were the matchmaking sites of the ancient near east.

As Jacob arrives near his mother’s home, he sees sheep and a well, covered with a giant stone. In fact, the stone is so big, they usually had to wait until all the shepherds arrive, so together they could all lift it, to water the sheep. But just then, the young woman Rachel approaches, with a large flock of sheep. Given the kind of guy Jacob is, it’s not clear if he’s more impressed by how many sheep she owns, or by the fact that she was “stunningly beautiful.” At any rate, he got so excited he lifted the stone off the well singlehandedly. Or maybe he was just showing off. And then it says a strange thing: “He kissed Rachel and began to weep.”  Why did he begin to weep? Maybe he hurt his back, lifting that stone. Who knows, knowing Jacob, maybe it was all an act, designed to win sympathy?

Rachel takes Jacob home to meet Dad, who also happens to be his uncle.  Nice guy that Uncle Laban is, he offers Jacob a job.  A month goes by, in which Jacob gets tired of walking into tent poles while staring at Rachel, so he proposes, not to Rachel but to Laban: “I will work for you for seven years for your youngest daughter Rachel.” You can tell how thrilled Laban is with Jacob when he says: “Why not?”  “Better you than some outsider.”

Seven years pass, and the only excuse the author gives us for telling us nothing is this: “They seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”

Finally the wedding day – the day Jacob has been waiting for – for seven years – arrives, and after much feasting and drinking, Jacob winds up in a tent in the dark with a woman whom he thinks is Rachel.

Did I mention that Laban has not one daughter, but two? There was Rachel, and her older sister, Leah? Rachel’s name, by the way, means “Ewe,” as in sheep. Leah’s name, on the other hand, means “Cow.” According to the text, there’s something about her eyes; the Hebrew text is unclear, what it literally says is that they were tender. It’s not clear if that means lovely, weak, crossed, or blue; that’s why you’ll find completely opposite translations in different versions. Who knows, if they all wore veils; maybe they talked so much about eyes because that is all they could see.

At any rate, what came to light the next morning was a shock for Jacob. As the text says, “When morning came, behold, it was Leah.”  As one commentator says, “To get the full effect of the Hebrew text, one could mentally substitute an expletive here for “behold.” (Kathryn Schifferdecker, Working Preacher, 7/27/2008).  To Jacob’s surprise – it’s not Rachel the ewe, but Leah the cow. Uncle Laban had pulled a “bait-and-switch.”

The ironies are delicious. Just as Jacob had cheated his brother Esau, now he is cheated. Just as he had deceived his father through touch and smell, now Jacob is deceived despite touch and smell.

When Jacob protests, Laban reminds him it’s not the custom of the land to marry off the older daughter before the younger. (We’ve never done that here before!)   Seven more years, please, nephew!  In other words, “Bam – got you, sucker!”

I remind you, by modern standards, there’s much in this story not to like. First, Jacob is here marrying not just one first cousin, but two.  Second, he’s a polygamist, not just two wives, but later in the story, also their female servants. Third, the story doesn’t say that any of the women had any say in it; that’s the way it was, in that time and place.  Be careful when you say you want a Biblical marriage; there are some things – maybe more than we know – about that “old time religion” we don’t want. We need to remember, sometimes the Bible is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Go home and read the next couple chapters, to find out how it all turns out. You begin to wonder whether cheating and lying is a genetic predisposition in the whole family. The narrator, writing from a theological perspective, says that because poor Leah is unloved, God smiles on her, and she becomes fertile, bearing Jacob six children. Rachel, on the other hand, Jacob’s beloved, is barren. God hears her prayers, and she finally bears Jacob’s favorite, Joseph, the child of promise.  Even then, after praying so long to become pregnant, in tragic irony, Rachel dies in childbirth while bearing Benjamin. Buried by Jacob on the road outside Bethlehem, her tomb is still visited by tens of thousands of visitors each year.

What do we learn from this ancient sheepherder’s story, which is also the story of our ancestors in faith? Two things, I think.

First, while we may wish it were so, sometimes life is not fair. In this story Jacob the schemer gets his, but in this story, there’s a story that’s untold, and that’s the story of the women, as they are called in China, “half the sky,” half the population of the human race.

There’s Rachel the beautiful, and Leah the “not-so-beautiful,” both of whom largely have their lives decided for them, on the basis of their physical attributes. There are many Rachel’s out there; beautiful on the outside, not so much on the inside. On the other hand, there are many more Leah’s out there, perhaps not so beautiful on the outside, but stunning on the inside. One thinks of children of poverty, girls living in patriarchal societies like Afghanistan, women with disabilities.

As Esther M. Menn, Professor of Old Testament at Lutheran School of Theology points out:

“While most of us will identify with the intense emotions in this tale of inexplicable preference, deception, competition, and jealousy, women in particular may resonate with the feeling of being judged by their appearance, the despair due to infertility, the ecstasy over a baby’s birth, all so poignantly depicted . . . . “The casual introduction of servant women in this narrative raises issues of social class, slave and domestic labor, reproductive rights, and sexual trafficking and abuse, all issues with which we still wrestle in the twenty-first century.” (Esther M. Menn, Working Preacher, 7/27/2014)

Second lesson we learn is perhaps the greatest lesson. Like the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, we too are of impure motives and pedigree, with equal capacities for both good and evil. Yet, even when we are not always able to discern it, it is exactly in this stuff of our daily lives, in our family and our work, in our loves and in our choices, that God’s will gets worked out. Bad things happen, and people get hurt; sometimes others, sometimes us. And yet, our hope is this: in the larger picture, God is watching over us, and farther down the road than we can see, will work out God’s will. If we had read the Epistle today, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 8, we would have heard the way Paul put it in Romans: “That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Romans 8:28, The Message) And so may it is, even from the bad things that happen.

Little did any of the characters in this story know, not Jacob, not Rachel, not Leah, that from their lives and as part of their blessing to the world, would come one many centuries later, who would sit at this same well, and treat another abused woman with dignity and respect, as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 4.  As she would say of him, “Come see a man who knows all about me, and loves me just the same.” Finally, the world began to change.

As we also are changed by him – and such stories as this – may “what goes around, comes around” for us, be only good.  Amen.

 

 

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