July 27, 2014

Jacob and Leah and Rachel

Passage: Genesis 29:15-30, Psalm 105:1-11, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Service Type:

So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah.

I have cited this witticism by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde with you before and do so again because of the content of the biblical story we are considering in this sermon. Wilde wrote: “Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.” When you read the story of the marriage of Jacob and Leah and Rachel it is immediately evident that their assumptions about marriage are not ours. While love played some role, love was only part of the story. Kinship and family/tribal alliance played a more significant part in the choice of spouse. In our culture we have a romantic view such that love is believed to be dominant reason or purpose of marriage. Other considerations are secondary. I won’t begin to try and unpack Oscar Wilde’s assumptions on marriage.

We may wonder about the value of reading this story. More to the point, Christians hold that God speaks to us in the scriptures—so what is it that God would have to say in such a story. Polygamy may, in the minds of many, be viewed as the practise of primitive culture. In our culture this may be changing. A goggle search of polyamorous relationships will reveal a wide ranging cultural discussion promoting open sexual or romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. As people have immigrated to Canada from countries where polygamy is common we have welcomed families that resemble the “Jacob and Leah and Rachel” relationship more than that of Isaac and Rebekah.

Culturally speaking, polygamy was a universal practice in the age of the patriarchs. The stories of Genesis show that in every generation polygamy wreaks havoc. Having multiple wives is an absolute disaster—socially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and relationally. The underlying message of the book is subverting, not supporting such practise. God, in his word, shows us the destructiveness of polygamy on that generation and its message is timely today.

Whenever you read the stories from history—any story for that matter—cultural assumptions embedded in the story that go against a reader’s cherished values stand out. Take, for example, the assumptions about women that operate in this story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel. Remember that it was just 104 years ago, in 1918, that Canada extended to women the right to vote. Much has changed with regard to gender equality since then—things we often take for granted today. Things that were hard fought to win. So when we read these stories of other culture such issues jump out at us. This also helps us to see and examine the blind spots in our own assumptions. The question to ask is to what extent this problematic assumption still operates among us or in my own heart.

1. The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg notes that history is the necessary horizon for all theology. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel believed it was serving a living God who was orchestrating an historical progression that proceeded in a linear fashion. History was not cyclical but linear; not just a repeating cycle that kept trudging around the same meaningless circle but actually a story that had a beginning, a middle, and some day a final and glorious end. What motored history forward was the tension between promise and fulfillment and the ways those promises ended up coming to fulfillment.

Even so, however, the Bible and its authors were honest enough to admit that although history proceeds from some past point toward some future point, that line is not usually razor-straight as though drawn with the use of a ruler but zig-zaggy and jagged, full of ups and downs, unexpected tricks and even woeful setbacks. History moves and God acts, but as often as not it happens through the foibles and flaws of real people who lead gritty lives.

Jacob has come to his uncle Laban’s house to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. His idea is that in the course of time Esau’s anger will abate and he will be able to go home. The reason for Esau’s anger was he had stolen the birthright that belonged to Esau. Esau had ostensibly sold it to Jacob for a pot of red stew; Jacob knew how to take advantage of a situation to barter very favourably for himself. And then, with the help and cunning of his mother Rebekah, he pretended to be Esau before his blind and aging father Isaac and received the conferring of the birthright from his father. Esau went ballistic. Jacob bolted.

Isaac, in his mind, sent Jacob to Laban to find a wife after a big hint was dropped by wife Rebekah. Rebekah orchestrated all of this thinking that her brother’s home would be safe haven and she could expect the soon return of the son she loved once she knew Esau’s anger had abated. But Rebekah did not anticipate that Jacob would fall in love or that her brother Laban had some schemes of his own.

In this story of Laban marrying his daughters Leah and Rachel to Jacob, it seems that Jacob is not the only one who could pretend to be someone else or the only one skilled in taking advantage of a situation to barter favourable outcomes for themselves. Now, how Jacob ends up with the wrong sister is a very human story. Its dark, Leah is delivered to the marriage tent by Laban; at the feast Jacob may have had a number of adult beverages so is in a good mood never suspecting Laban would do this; he is eager to consummate his marriage.

When he wakes up and discovers the deception he races off to find Laban to confront him. To understand the—well, let me say “richness”—of Laban’s response we need to review the other universal practise of primogeniture. Primogeniture said the oldest male got everything by birthright, the birthright Jacob had received through deception of his father. It would appear, judging by Laban’s response, that Jacob had told him of having received the birthright; most likely omitting the “pretending-to-be-Esau” detail. Listen to what Laban said to Jacob when confronted with his deception with respect to Leah: “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.” Laban appeals to a modified form of primogeniture with respect to his daughters to explain his actions. “You may not honour the eldest where you come from, but we do here”, is, in essence, what Laban said in his defence.

We like to say, what goes around, comes around. I prefer, “you reap what you sow.” All God’s people have feet of clay. We ought to deplore this and repent of it. But at the same time we ought never to despair on account of it. So very miraculous is God’s grace that we are going to be used of God anyway. God’s work moves ahead despite the sin of God’s servants, including your sin and mine. This is never to excuse sin, their or ours, or to say we shouldn’t repudiate sin. It is to say that God’s love is so marvelous he is ever moving forward weaving the story of our redemption despite such clay feet.

So Jacob ends up marrying sisters. “So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah,” the author of Genesis tell us”. He loved Rachel more than Leah. The fault lines in this family were established early and worked out in all kinds of family problems; including the rivalry of these two sisters for their husband’s affection, a source of much misery for both of them.

2. A few weeks ago we explored the story of the marriage of Jacob’s parents, Isaac and Rebekah. It is found in Genesis 24. We explored the idea of discerning God’s will for our lives by observing Abraham’s thoughtful and prayerful reflection of God’s word to him in seeking a bride for his son; of the prayer-filled actions of Abraham’s servant who goes to find a wife for Isaac; of Isaac’s patient prayerful waiting on God for answer to such prayer.

Someone observed that the chief difference between that story of Isaac and Rebekah and this story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel is prayer. Prayer may not be the only difference but it clearly is prominent in one story and all but absent in the other.

Such difference teaches me that whatever I face, I must ask for God's wisdom and guidance. God wants us all to think things through. He doesn't usually make the decisions for us. However he has given us so much in his word—the Bible—much can be discerned by thoughtful reflection on what God has already spoken to us. Sometimes we expect God to address things afresh as if he hasn’t said enough already. Is this laziness on our part? The Apostle Paul said that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) When we read this story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel does God need to say more that this for us to know that polygamy is not his idea for marriage? We sing the answer to this question in the first stanza of the hymn How Firm A Foundation. How firm a foundation, you servants of God, is laid for your faith in God's excellent word! What more can be said than to you has been said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

At the same time God is willing to help us think wisely, to help us see what we might otherwise miss, to weigh big things as big things and little things as little things. Prayer helps us think better—to see God as part of the issue, to evaluate moral aspects. God answers prayers for wisdom by helping us think of factors we've forgotten or factors that have never occurred to us. "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him," wrote the Apostle James.

3. No doubt you have noticed, and maybe bristled at, the way that Leah and Rachel are treated in this story. To put it in terms of social structures, these women are regarded as chattels; as property of fathers and husbands. Laban treats his daughters as pawns in a game of securing alliances with wealthy relatives. Recall that Jacob has likely disclosed his family position as heir and Laban wants to keep him around. This why he negotiates 14 years of labour from him. When Jacob first meets Laban, Laban has only daughters. Jacob as son-in-law could be his heir; a secure future eventually bringing all that was Isaac’s here to Haran. The rift between Laban and Jacob occurs after Laban has sons. (Genesis 31:1)

Consider that Jacob, in essence, purchases Rachel with seven years of labour. Now, to be sure, we are told that Jacob loves Rachel. The Bible also tells us that of these two sisters Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Graceful and beautiful according to how people—largely men—regarded women. When I read that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah and which daughter Jacob was so eager to marry I wonder if appearance did not play some—maybe significant—role in all of this. Now I know that some people are more attractive to us than others, but don’t we need to get beyond such surface considerations and regard one another as equally made in the image of God? The gospel says all are one in Christ Jesus.

If you think we have progressed beyond this today consider a Time magazine report on a study that suggests people rated as more attractive were likely to receive higher grades and land better-paying jobs. The University of Illinois study tracked the life paths of 9,000 people from their late teens to early 30s. On average, women deemed as attractive enjoyed an 8-per-cent wage advantage over regular people, while women with below-average looks paid a 4-per-cent penalty. Good-looking men had a 4-per-cent salary edge over their nondescript co-workers, while less-attractive men took a 13-per-cent penalty.

Further, consider the almost invisible presence of Zilpah and Bilhah, in this Biblical story. You ask who? Right. Such is the precarious status of these slaves. There were personal servants given as wedding gift for each daughter; women who become surrogate mothers for each of these sisters in the ongoing rivalry of the two for Jacob’s affections. Jacob has two wives and two concubines.

And about the matter of treating women as the property of men. Are we that far removed from such attitudes? On July 7 our Canadian Parliament began conducting public hearings on Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which targets the demand for paid sexual services and prohibits profiting from the sexual exploitation of another person. It is our government’s attempt to write new laws regarding prostitution after previous laws were regarded as unconstitutional by our courts.

Julia Beazley, policy analyst with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada—an organization making presentation at these hearings—writes, “In crafting this legislation, the government has taken a big-picture view of the issue of prostitution and courageously challenged the belief that men are entitled to paid sexual access to women’s bodies; or that any person’s body can be considered a consumer good to be bought, sold or traded.” No legislation is perfect but I think we should applaud the efforts of our government in standing against the idea that a women today should be bought and sold as property.

4. When Jacob and Esau were in their mother’s womb it was a difficult pregnancy such that Rebekah wondered if she would survive. She prayed and inquired of the Lord and the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” I often wonder if when she concocted the scheme with Jacob to deceive Isaac in giving the elder son’s birthright to Jacob if they see themselves as helping the fulfilment of God’s promise that “the elder shall serve the younger.”

Sometimes people cloak their real intentions in godly terminology. There is nothing quite like inheritance that exposes what is really in a potential inheritor’s heart. Ask any lawyer who deals with the settling of estates and similar stories of intrigue are common. Our mixed motives issue in the kind of mess Jacob finds himself.

Consider again God’s fulfilling his redemptive purposes despite all of this. Rachel—the loved wife—has two sons. The oldest was Joseph. Yes, he is the son who was sold into slavery by his brothers. He is also the son who, in clinging to God in faith, finds his way to ruling as second in command in Egypt. Through his skill and administrative genius the devastation of a famine was mitigated through preparation that meant salvation for many in that part of the world including his own brothers and father.

Leah—the less loved wife—has four sons. She names the first three with names that reflect her broken heart thinking her husband will now love her. At the birth of her fourth son she said; “This time I will praise the Lord, and she names him Judah which means “praise” or “praised”.
And we read it every Christmas. “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.” Jesus lineage runs through Leah’s womb.

Through Rachel’s son God preserves this family through devastating famine; a preservation that includes Leah’s son Judah. Of Jesus John’s revelation declares: “see, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root Of David, has conquered.”

Only God writes this kind of redemptive story a story he weaves for all who cling to him in faith.