Monday, 28 July 2014

Jacob gets wives- Gen 29

Jacob’s name comes from the word for “heel”. Jacob was a twin and when he was born he was grasping his brother Esau’s heel, as if he was hoping to pull him back into the womb so he could be the firstborn of the twins. That moment defined his relationship with his twin brother. He desired to supplant and to overtake his brother.
We spoke last week about how Jacob manipulated his starving brother, Esau, into selling him his inheritance for a bowl of stew. Then we spoke about how Jacob stole his brother’s blessing by cooking a meal and tying goat hair to his arms to fool his nearly blind father, Isaac, into believing he was his brother, Esau. Isaac gave him the blessing reserved for the firstborn to be spoken before he died. Esau was rightly furious to have all of his birthright pulled out from under him by his trickster brother, so Jacob fled for his life because Esau was planning to kill him. Jacob flees under the guise of finding himself a wife.       
Jacob goes back to his mother’s family- Abraham’s old stomping ground. He meets Laban his mother’s brother, but more importantly he meets Rachel and it seems to be love at first sight. Jacob works for his uncle and as payment Jacob asks instead for the hand of his younger daughter Rachel in marriage. So Jacob works for 7 years to be able to marry Rachel. Seven years of anticipation. Seven years of yearning. Seven years of seeing her coming and going doing her chores. Seven years could seem like a lifetime, but we read “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gen 29:20).  
Finally the big day came. Laban puts on a feast and invites everyone he knows. He spares no expense. There is an enormous amount of food and drink. There are musicians and dancing. Jacob sits through the feast held in honour of the love he shares with Rachel. She sits near him throughout the feast. She is dressed beautifully. She is wearing a beautiful veil and their eyes sneak glances at each other that express their longing for each other that has grown over the seven years of waiting.  The feast lasts into the night and finally there is a ritual where Rachel is led by firelight into Jacob’s dark tent. The darkness is one last veil of modesty before Rachel becomes a married woman. The feasting and drinking and celebrating and seven years have led to this moment. She is welcomed into his dark tent through a ritual procession of torches that cut through the darkness. The night is full of passion that matches the 7 years of longing.

As the sun rises Jacob wakes up. He reaches over to run his fingers along the cheek of his sleeping bride, seeing her for the first time as his wife. His eyes are sticky with sleep and still unable to focus, but suddenly he sees it is Leah! He doesn’t believe his eyes at first, but as the sleep leaves he sees with eyes fully awake.  The sleeping woman is Leah! It is the older sister- Rachel’s sister! Horrified, Jacob leaves her still asleep and runs to see Laban. He sees Rachel in the corner of the tent making bread. His eyes lock with hers, the passion he thought they shared the night before he knows is an illusion now. Her eyes are red and swollen by tears shed throughout the night. She looks down as more tears fill her eyes that were full of such joy during the previous day’s feast.
Enraged, Jacob confronted Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban responds saying, ‘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 for another seven years.’
The climax of the last seven years was twisted. The passion he reserved for Rachel was given to Leah. The thought of having to live the last seven years over again was hardly bearable. It was cruel and unusual.
There is a strange justice at work. Jacob has stolen the inheritance of the firstborn and the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Through his deceit he has denied the rights of his brother. And now he is deceived into fulfilling the obligation to the firstborn daughter. His deceit has come back to him. The trickster has been tricked. The firstborn has finally prevailed over Jacob. There is a poetic justice at work here.  
Laban promises Rachel to him if he will work an additional seven years. Is this deception to honour Leah, the firstborn?  Or, does Laban not want Jacob to leave and knows he can get his services for another seven years through this deception?  Regardless, the trickster is tricked and Laban will have his way. Rachel is given to Jacob a week later, but it seems impure and anticlimactic. Leah know she has been part of a deception and that the passion she felt from her husband that first night together never really belonged to her. It was a taste of a passion she would never feel again because it rightfully belonged to her sister Rachel. Leah’s tragedy is that she would never again feel that loved and desired again. Leah would be the third wheel. She would forever feel like the intruder. Perhaps she secretly loved Jacob all those years and thought that if she was given the chance she could win his heart. Maybe the deception was her idea. Even if it was her father’s idea, she was a part of the deception. It was tragic though. Now Leah was trapped in a loveless marriage, forever competing with her sister for the attention of their husband. The poet Eva Avi-Yonah wrote a poem called “Leah”:
If I had a little sister,
Rachel with sparkling eyes,
wooed for seven years
and loved by him,
I’d swathe myself in her mantle,
enwrap myself in her night. …
One single night! Rachel,
to taste his tender touch
till day unmasks.
One single night, till dawn.
You will be loved another seven years and more.
Red are my eyes and filled with tears, Rachel.
His glances never follow me.
But I shall bear his sons,
Oh, yes, Rachel!
and bear the harrowing memory
of one night.
One night when I was you, Rachel,
and Leah sat inside her tent and wept.

It is amazing that the history of God’s chosen family is such a mass of deception and lies and dysfunction. It is full of sibling rivalry and family infighting and competition. It seems strange to have stories like this in the Bible. Where is the hero of the story? Where is the lesson to be learned? Many of us can relate to the sibling rivalry, the conflict between parents and children, manipulative parents, and tension with in-laws. This is not an idealized story. It is an incredibly messy story. And there is no lesson here to be learned about how to deal with sibling rivalry. The only true hero in this story is God.
Through it all the invisible hand of God is moving. God is making His promises come true in spite of the messiness and deception. God is bringing His blessing into the world even through them, and so we can be confident that though the world seems unbelievably messy, that it will not thwart God’s plan. God’s invisible hand will move through the mess, bringing His promises into reality as He always has. As messy as we see the world to be- as messy as we see our lives to be- God’s promises will not be stopped.
There is one thing I want us to notice. We read that “Jacob … loved Rachel more than Leah”. I want us to especially notice the tragedy of Leah. We don’t know how much choice she had about the deception. It may have been forced on her. Perhaps her father thought she wouldn’t get married unless some poor sap was tricked into it. Regardless, Leah was trapped in a marriage where she was not first choice. She was a trick, and now she was trapped.
I want us to notice that God noticed Leah. We read that, “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.’ She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also’; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons’; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.”  We can feel the pain of rejection in the naming of her children. God notices her pain and the thing we learn about God here is that God takes sides. God loves everyone, of course, but God has a preference. God is for the afflicted, for those who are hated for no fault of their own, the despised, the rejected, the unloved, and unnoticed.
Through the words of the prophets we will see God’s preference for the poor- the widow, the orphan, the alien immigrant, and the rejected. We see this preference in Jesus too. In Matt 25 Jesus teaches us that the way we have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned will be how we have treated Jesus. To reject them or ignore them is to ignore Jesus. God takes sides. To be on the side of the poor and rejected is to be on God’s side. To be against the poor and rejected is to pit yourself against God.
Jacob, the trickster, stumbles along and is himself deceived as he has deceived others. Leah is a relatively innocent bystander, but is a continuous reminder to Jacob of the way he has been fooled. The promise will flow through her children and she will receive love from them and from God that she did not receive from her husband. This is all incredibly messy, like real life, but God works through the mess.    

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