Genesis 29 features one of the oddest, often slimiest groups of characters ever assembled outside a North American reality television show studio. Thankfully, then, it’s not oily enough to escape the grasp of God’s strong, gracious hand. In fact, God somehow graciously transforms all of their cheating and resentment into a vehicle for God’s amazing grace.
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday shows part of how God keeps God’s promise to be with and watch over Jacob. In it, after all, God accompanies Jacob to his Uncle Laban’s neck of the woods where he meets not just shepherds who know his uncle, but also his cousin, Rachel. All of this leads Jacob to stay with his uncle for a month.
Yet though Jacob is running for a wife as well as his life, it’s clear that God will have to remove a lot of obstacles before he can find a wife. In fact, it turns out that circumstances aren’t the only obstacles to the success of Jacob’s mission. People also turn out to be problematic.
Jacob’s a cheater. Yet he more than meets his match in his Uncle Laban who calls the two of them “flesh and blood” (14), maybe meaning that in more than one way. After Jacob works for him for a month, his uncle offers to pay him more than room and board.
Yet some scholars hear a jarring note in that offer. It, after all, turns Laban from Jacob’s kindly uncle into his employer.
Laban is, in fact, a very clever boss. He knows Jacob is both on the lam and in love with his daughter Rachel. So Laban is very willing to take advantage of his nephew. Much like Jacob willingly takes advantage of Esau’s vulnerability due to his hunger, Laban takes advantage of Jacob’s raging hormones.
Of course, Laban skillfully disguises his manipulation of his nephew. He, after all, signs a seven-year contract with Jacob. Laban promises Jacob that once he’s fulfilled that contract, he may marry Rachel. After all, he says, it’s better to give his daughter (though he never actually specifies which one!) to a family member than to a stranger.
Seven years seems to most of this article’s readers like a very long time to do the hot, dirty work that is shepherding. It’s longer than most of Jacob’s contemporaries had to work for their fiancé’s dads before they could marry. But, says Genesis’ narrator, “it only felt like a few days to Jacob because he was so in love.”
Finally, Jacob seems to clear all of the hurdles to his return home with at least a wife if not also children. His Uncle Laban even throws him a huge party to celebrate his marriage. After that’s done, Jacob wraps his cloak around his bride who has remained veiled throughout the ceremony. He then brings her to their honeymoon suite whose darkness Jacob’s tipsiness and pent-up desire perhaps heighten. There Jacob and his new bride are intimate.
So now most of the obstacles to Jacob’s peaceful return home with a wife seem removed. Yet it turns out that while he finally has a wife, it’s not the one he wanted. Jacob’s Uncle Laban who’s now also his father-in-law has pulled a fast one on him. The cheater has cheated the cheater by swapping out his oldest daughter for his youngest one.
Just as Jacob used the darkness that was his father’s blindness to cheat him, so Laban uses the darkness of their honeymoon suite to fool his nephew. When, after all, Jacob nudges his new wife awake on the first morning of their marriage, he finds it’s not Rachel’s but Leah’s face turning toward him.
That sends Jacob storming out of his home and toward his father-in-law’s. “What have you done to me,” we can almost hear him yell. “I slaved away for seven years for your daughter Rachel. Why did you cheat me by giving me Leah instead?!” Cheating is, as we’re coming to see, what Craig Barnes calls “something of a family problem.”
Uncle Laban manages to calm down Jacob by referring to the same family customs Jacob and Rebekah had earlier tried to undermine. The younger Jacob may have gotten away with taking away his older brother’s privileges at home. But he will not get away with it at his uncle/father-in-law’s house.
Yet crafty Laban proposes a patch for this broken chain. “First finish your honeymoon with Leah. Then stick around and work for me for seven more years,” he tells Jacob, “and you can have Rachel too.”
Jacob’s story sounds a lot like some of God’s people’s own stories. We believe that God is graciously moving us toward God’s good plans and purposes. Yet there are so many obstacles in the way. Genesis 29’s preachers and teachers may want to explore with their hearers what some of those obstacles may be.
Jacob knocks down one more obstacle to his return home with a wife and children by working seven more years for his father-in-law. Yet Genesis’ narrator doesn’t tell us this stint only felt like a few days to him. No, we can imagine they’re instead days of grief and tension. After all, among other things, while Jacob now has a house full of women (two wives and two maidservants), he loves only one of them.
After seven years, however, it seems that Jacob can finally go home peacefully with wives and children. The promise appears to be back on track. Yet one more obstacle to that return pops up. While Jacob’s beloved Rachel is unable to have children with him, his second choice, Leah, turns out to be a kind of baby factory. She basically starts having babies left and right.
So when it turns out that Jacob can’t give her children, a hurt Rachel gives him her maidservant Bilhah. Between Leah and Rachel’s maidservant, Jacob manages to father six sons. When Leah can no longer have children, she gives Jacob her maidservant who has two children with him. God then somehow gives Leah and Jacob three more children together. Only then does God finally give Jacob and his beloved wife Rachel a child whom they name Joseph.
Genesis 29 and 30 tell the startling story of the births of eleven of the heads of what will eventually become the twelve tribes of Israel. They point to the amazing ways God is keeping the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and, more recently Jacob himself. God’s covenant staggers ahead through all sorts of barrenness, dishonesty and underhandedness.
But Genesis 29’s preachers and teachers may feel like they should don a Hazmat suit in order to even handle this story and then take a long, hot shower after they finish it. After all, its roots lie deep in the mud that is Jacob and Rebekah’s deception of Isaac and swindling of Esau. The story is triggered by Esau’s understandable yet still murderous rage toward Jacob.
His Uncle Laban uses Jacob’s lovesickness to turn him into an indentured servant. On Jacob’s wedding night his father-in-law swaps out Jacob’s beloved for his older sister. Uncle Laban then uses Jacob’s undying love to trap his nephew into serving him for seven more years.
And once they finally get out on their own, infertile Rachel becomes jealous of her fertile sister Leah. So Rachel gives her husband her maidservant. When Leah becomes infertile, she gives Jacob her maidservant.
Yet as my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in a memorable message on this passage, “God is in the details, even if the details are tawdry, typical and mundane.” After all, God doesn’t need perfect saints to advance God’s good plans and purposes.
So, as Hoezee continues, there may be ups and downs for all of God’s adopted children, as well as for Christ’s body that is the Church. Yet God providentially keeps things moving forward in, through and sometimes despite God’s people’s lives.
We glimpse part of that in a detail that this story’s readers easily overlook. Both Matthew 1 and Luke 3 present Jesus’ genealogy. While they start with different people, there are many similarities between the two records. Each includes names we know well, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Yet the name of Jacob’s sons through whom those genealogies run is perhaps striking. It’s not Joseph, one of the true heroes of not only Israel but also the Christian faith. It’s not even Benjamin, the son Jacob’s beloved Rachel dies giving birth.
Jacob’s son whom Matthew and Luke identify as the Savior of the world’s ancestor is the otherwise non-noteworthy Judah. And who is Judah’s mother? It’s not Jacob’s lovely, beloved wife Rachel. Our Lord and, by God’s amazing grace, Savior Jesus’ many times great grandmother is none other than Leah.
Leah, whose name may mean “wild cow.” Leah, whose eyes may be soft but don’t seem to have the sparkle her contemporaries prized. Leah, whose sister Rachel’s glowing description in Genesis suggests she outshone Leah in various ways.
The Savior of the world’s great, great grandma is Leah, whom Jacob never really wanted to marry. Jesus’ ancestor is Leah, whose dad had to trick her husband into marrying her. Jesus’ ancestor is Leah, whose husband was enraged when he learned he’s married her, not his beloved fiancé Rachel. Jesus’ ancestor is miserable Leah, whose husband never quite seems to learn to love her.
Almost all of God’s adopted sons and daughters at least sometimes feel as unqualified as Jacob to carry forward God’s good plans and loving purposes. A few may feel like Jacob’s beloved and lovely Rachel. However, some of God’s people also feel as unloved as Leah.
They’re the last chair in the school orchestra or sit at their soccer team’s end of the bench. They’re the ones who stay home on weekends when everyone else is out having a good time. They’re the people others turn to only when they can’t convince anyone else to hang out with them.
They’re the Leah’s who are the second choice of their parents, siblings, supervisors and co-workers. They’re the Leah’s whom others consider unattractive and unloved, on the outside and sometimes on the inside as well. They’re the Leah’s whom others consider second-class because of things like their skin color, sexual orientation or hitches in their English.
Genesis 29 reminds us that it isn’t just the sometimes-slimy Jacob’s of the world that God loves to use for good. It’s also the world’s Leah’s who are its second choice, but God’s first choice to use to bless both the world and everything in it.
In his marvelous book, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row: 1979), Frederick Beuchner says, “The life of Jacob’s wife Rachel was never an easy one. In the first place, she had Laban for a father, and in the second place, she had Jacob for a husband. And then, of course, she also had her sister Leah.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 30, 2017
Genesis 29:15-28 Commentary