Sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost
I have never seen an episode of “Sister Wives,” the TV reality show tracing the story of a modern day polygamous family from Utah, but I have a feeling that it has nothing on this family story from the book of Genesis. “[T]wo competitive sisters, a husband caught between them, and an exploitive father-in-law are not the most likely data for narratives of faith,” writes Walter Brueggemann. “But that is what the narrator has to offer. And by now, that should not surprise us in Genesis. Of such stuff are ‘beginnings’ made.”
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For five weeks now we’ve been reading episodes from the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel, and now we come to one of the greatest of plot twists of all. Having cheated his elder brother Esau out of his status as the firstborn, and having stolen his father’s blessing, Jacob has been forced to flee for safety to the land of his uncle Laban. Arriving in Haran, Jacob meets Rachel at the well, and he is immediately smitten. “Now when Jacob saw Rachel,” the text tells us, “Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.” Tears of relief that after his long journey he’s arrived safely among kin, but paired with the kiss those tears also signal something a little deeper… he’s already falling in love. And as we’ll see very shortly, his love will make the trickster Jacob more than a little vulnerable.
Jacob settles in safely with his uncle Laban’s family, and before long Laban approaches him with a question: “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Laban is a sharp character, and in all likelihood knows what Jacob’s answer is going to be, and so the narrator tells us that, “Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’” To this Laban replies, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” Deal. “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” Do you see how vulnerable his love for Rachel has made our Jacob? The seven long years “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” You can almost see the little stars and butterflies floating around his head every time she walks by. And this, remember, is a figure who to this point in the story has been most notable for his wily and cunning character…
And now we hit that twist in the plot. You need first of all to set aside all of your pictures of a modern wedding celebration, in which the bride and groom look into each other’s eyes to say their vows, stand smiling side by side for endless photographs, sit together at a head table for dinner, and have that first dance together while everyone politely applauds. Think instead of a transaction settled between the groom and the bride’s father, marked by a great feast shared by the men of the community. At some point the groom is taken to the tent where his bride will be brought to him in order that the marriage be consummated; that is the moment the marriage is sealed.
With that in view, the story maybe begins to make a bit more sense. “So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah”—not Rachel, but her older sister Leah—“and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.” But you really have to ask, was Jacob that easily fooled?
I remember the first time I read Frederick Buechner’s telling of these stories in his remarkable—and remarkably earthy—novel, The Son of Laughter. I remember too, talking with Steve Bell after he’d read the novel, and agreeing that for both of us this all now seemed terribly believable… Here, in a somewhat shortened and only very modestly edited version, is how Buechner imagines this episode.
“Seven years of my life I served you for Rachel,” I said.
“I said I would give you my daughter in return,” Laban said. “Did I say which daughter? I am only asking, Jacob. Did I speak the name of the daughter I promised?”
“I spoke it,” I said. “My eyes spoke it. Everything you knew about me spoke it and everything I knew about myself. For seven years you have known which of your daughters was my heart’s desire whether you spoke her name to me when you made me the promise or not.”
“Of course you are right. Anyone could see which of my daughters was your heart’s desire,” he said, “but you did not name her. I mention it only because in matters like this the judges of Haran set great store by the actual words that were spoken or not spoken. I myself set no store by them at all…”
“I trusted you Laban,” I said.
I had trusted my nakedness. I had trusted her nakedness. Surely my flesh should have told me whose flesh I was grasping. Surely her flesh should have told me. But our flesh was as dumb as the clay that the Fear fashioned it from the day when he slew the great dragon and fashioned all things. Together we wrestled and tossed in the dark tent with the scent of the hyssop and the cedar in our nostrils. The power of the wine thrashed in my head like the wings of a bird. We crushed the caper berries with our bodies. We sent the mandrake roots spinning.
Outside, the goatskin drums kept at it far into the night. Faster and wilder they went. Faster and wilder we went… And when the dawn came ruddy through the walls of the tent, we awoke in each other’s arms and my eyes beheld at last the woman I had drowned with… I saw Leah.”
Jacob, the second born twin who even in the womb had fought with his brother, and who had conned and lied his way through life, is outdone by his uncle. “I trusted you Laban.” But on account of his love and desire for Rachel his guard has been dropped, and he’s an easy mark. Laban pleads tradition—“This is not done in our country; giving the younger before the firstborn”—all the while knowing he holds all the cards. Here the Jewish biblical scholar Robert Alter notes that Laban refers to Leah “not as the elder but as the firstborn.” The second-born son Jacob, who had cheated Esau out of his birthright, will not be permitted to do the same to the firstborn Leah. And so Altar continues,
It has been clearly recognized since late antiquity that the whole story of the switched brides is a meting out of poetic justice to Jacob—the deceiver deceived, deprived by darkness of the sense of sight as his father is by blindness, relying, like his father, on the misleading sense of touch.
Knowing he had been bested by Laban, all Jacob can do is ask to marry Rachel as well; a request Laban will quite happily grant… in return for another seven years of free labour, thank you very much.
Presumably Leah had spent seven years thinking that her younger sister was going to be the first one married. Presumably right up until the last moment Rachel had believed she would be the one taken to Jacob on that first wedding night. Any wonder there is some serious tension and resentment between these two sisters? And it will only get worse, as the beloved Rachel is unable to have babies—that’s a recurring theme in the Hebrew bible—while Leah seems abundantly fertile.
Fourteen years Jacob will labour for Laban, after which he’ll begin to feel drawn back toward home, to deal with his broken relationship with his brother Esau. It will take another six of work before he will be able to afford to make that move with his growing family. Babies have been born; in the end twelve sons and a daughter. Rachel will have two sons; first Joseph, and then Benjamin. Yet there is still tragedy, for Rachel will die giving birth to Benjamin, while Joseph’s status as Jacob’s favourite will cause near fatal jealousy amongst the other brothers. This family is—shall we say—rather complicated.
But to return to those words from Brueggemann, “By now, that should not surprise us in Genesis. Of such stuff are ‘beginnings’ made.” Not just “beginnings,” either, for it is difficult to find a biblical family without complexities or a biblical character without deep flaws. We who live with our own flaws and complexities should find that not discouraging, but strangely comforting and deeply hopeful. These are our people. These are our forebears, in spite of all the differences between our worlds and the ways in which their women seem to be sidelined in terms of their own choices and their rights. In spite of the polygamy, in spite of all of that “stuff,” they’re our people, and their complexities and flaws can teach us something about our own. In the midst of it all, in all of these stories God is strangely, deeply, and hope-fully at work. Always at work.