Proper 12 (17), Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
26 July 2020
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The story of how Jacob marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel is neither a happy nor a pretty story.
We can’t overlook the fact that the women were never consulted but that their future was decided upon by men.
And I don’t think that the surprise in the story is funny: The moment after the wedding night when Jacob realizes he had spent the night with the wrong bride. I cannot even imagine what the bride may have thought of it, and the Bible is silent on this question, only later do we learn of the rivalry between the two sisters.
And yet, none of this should surprise us, even though we find the story in the Bible and hear it in church. After all, Jacob was shyster. Fredrick Buechner writes about him, “The Book of Genesis makes no attempt to conceal the fact that Jacob was, among other things, a crook.”1
It begins with the story of the birthright sold for a bowl of lentil stew and a piece of bread. The birthright defined your inheritance, and while Esau doesn’t look particularly bright or ambitious in the story, Jacob is the one who takes advantage of Esau’s weakness. He could have just shared his food but chose not to.
And then, years later, he and his mother conspire for him to receive the blessing of his dying father Isaac, while Esau is out hunting for his father. It’s not only that they deceive both of them, it’s also that when Isaac who had gone blind and asks him who he is, he answers, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” When Isaac is still not quite satisfied and asks how it is that he has such quick hunting success, he answers, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.”
Not only does Jacob lie, but he also uses the name of the Lord to cover his deceit.
So, when we come to today’s story, we may be offended, but we should not be surprised. Not everything the Bible tells us is told for imitation, or to justify our injustices, even if at times even the Bible is still unaware of problems we see today.
To be honest, I have always read this story as the story of a dysfunctional family. A story of parents who have favourites, and play them, and play them not only against each other, but also against their spouse. Of course, Jacob did not have to repeat the same pattern, which he did in his relationship with his youngest sons, Joseph and Benjamin), but he did. And I give credit to the Holy Scriptures for speaking so openly about the flaws and sins of its characters. Jacob, despite his important role, is presented as an anti-hero. The scriptures seem to say to us, ‘Don’t try to be like Jacob.’
There are other things the Jacob story communicates. The relationship between Israel and its neighbours is explained as the relationship of estranged relatives. Esau represents Israel’s later neighbour Edom. Esau later marries Ishmael’s daughter, Ishmael being the ancestor of the northern Arab tribes. Further, Jacob’s descendants are born to four different mothers, to Leah and Rebekah, and to their respective maids Zilpah and Bilhah. Jacob’s sons are the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel and their role and importance within the nation of Israel corresponds somewhat to the role and importance of the mother they were born to.2
That the Bible is so honest about Jacob may allow us to also be honest about our families and about our lives. If the Bible does not guard family secrets, perhaps we don’t have to either, and we can give ourselves permission to speak about our families so that our energy does not go into keeping secrets but into healing and taking control of our own story. Such honesty will also make it clear that the church does not endorse or excuse misogyny and all that goes along with it.
Last week’s first reading was the passage often referred to as Jacob’s Ladder, the story of Jacob the fugitive being visited by God. That last week’s reading gave us a glimpse of God’s glory may have made this week’s reading about Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel all the more shocking.
For last week, Jacob was visited by the Lord, and perhaps we may have assumed that that made him pious or deserving.
And yet, the things to remember about Jacob’s experience of God at Bethel is that Jacob was at his wit’s end, he was no longer the master of his own destiny. It is in this situation that he is visited by God, who not only assures Jacob but provides him with a vision of an alternate future. Jacob is a fugitive, his life has unravelled, but God is not yet done.
That Jacob, even though son of the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, is so visited by God may not only be a sign of God’s faithfulness, but perhaps also of the love of enemy that Jesus practises 1200 years later. For God comes to him not because he is deserving but because God is God.
That God would visit Jacob means that God is present not only when things are good or pretty or nice. It means that God is present in dark places and illumines them for us. Golgatha is the ultimate dark place and through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has defeated not only death but powers and principalities, allowing us to live in hope, even in dark times and places.
Those who live in darkness have not been abandoned, and even though Ishmael and Hagar were sent away, God remained faithful to them. Even though others decided about the lives of Leah and Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, God remembered them.
And so I wonder if the point of the story is not only giving us an early history of the tribes of Israel via the family history of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, but an account that God is found in unexpected places, that God does not abandon us, and has regard for the lowly ones.
Perhaps, looking back on our life there are dark times we would not want to revisit, not would we wish them on anybody else, but perhaps, looking back we can see, that while God did not intervene with a flash of lightening, that God was present, and that God preserved us.
When we tell and sing of the goodness and faithfulness of God, we do so often as people looking back on past times in our life and able to say, yes, I walked through a dark valley, but God’s rod and staff comforted me, and led me beside springs of water. And from that knowledge of God’s presence in the past we draw strength for the present and the future.
I wonder what your stories may be, I know what my story is. It is not a story of the absence of darkness but of the presence of God who illuminated my darkness.
That, I believe is what we learn from Leah’s and Zilpah’s, Rachel’s and Bilhah’s stories, as well as Jacobs.
May we see that the ladder is everywhere. May God give us eyes to see.
1Peculiar Treasures, New York: Harper Collins 1979
2See James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible, New York 2007: Free Press, p.158