A sermon for Proper 12: Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, 45b, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
This morning’s story is complex, and we only hear just a part of it; but, it is important to get the bigger picture, so here is Jacob and his Wives, the shorter story.
Jacob leaves Bethel heading to Laban. He comes to a well, and whenever we hear about a well we need to remember wedding bells. Remember Abraham’s servant finds Isaac’s wife at a well, it happens again and again (Gaventa and Petersen). And you are right, Jacob meets Laban’s youngest daughter at the well. He and Rachel fall in love. She takes him to meet her father, who takes a liking to Jacob. The next thing you know Jacob asks for Rachel. We heard that story this morning. Jacob does not have a bride price, yes, in those ancient days men literally bought brides for a bride price; and it is not likely Isaac will give Jcob a bride price, given their recent history. So, Jacob suggests he works seven years for Rachel. It seems strange to our modern-day ears no matter what. And seven years sounds like a really long time; but, it does indicate the depths of Jacob’s love, and his valuation of a dowry for her (Fretheim). The deal is done. Seven years later, Jacob asks for his wife. Laban throws a big wedding feast. And in the morning, it was Leah! Jacob is stunned. He wants to know what happened. Laban tells him that here, the younger daughter is never given in marriage before the older daughter. However, Laban offers Jacob another deal, just seven more years for Rachel. Jacob accepts.
Some observations about this story. Jacob favoring Rachel over Leah is yet one more instance of the Genesis’ tradition of the younger over the older (Gaventa and Petersen). And at the same time Laban’s trickery results in a reversal of Jacob’s deceit of Esau, here the older replaces the younger (Harrelson). Even though he was clever and accomplished at deception it is not completely a surprise that Jacob is deceived, (Tanner). The ancient Near East custom was that the bride was brought veiled to the bridegroom. And it was a wedding with customary festival drinking (Ellingsen, Fretheim). There is an element of turn-about, Laban takes advantage of Jacob’s vulnerability just as Jacob took advantage of Esau. The cheater is cheated, the deceiver has been deceived (Fretheim). It may cause us to wonder if a birthright and a blessing are worth fourteen years of indentured servitude (Bratt). It may cause us to wonder if Jacob feels something of what Esau felt (Fretheim)? I also wonder how Rachel feels that her father replaces her with her older sister. It may be custom, nonetheless, as we shall hear, Rachel deeply loves Jacob. I also wonder how Leah feels that her father agrees to another marriage before her week of wedding celebration has barely started (Tanner).
What follows is as disturbing a story as, well the whole story of Abraham’s family to this point. Jacob makes no effort to conceal his love for Rachel. However, Rachael, following the custom of wives in Abraham’s family is barren. But Leah, Leah is a bit of a baby factory, and has four sons (Bratt). Rachel not wanting to be out done and seeking the honor of bearing children and following Sarah’s example gives her maid Bilhah to Jacob to be a surrogate mother for her (Harrelson). She has two sons. Leah notices she is no longer producing children so she gives her maid Zilpha to Jacob to be a surrogate for her, and she has two sons. Rachel discovers that Leah has some mandrakes which are supposed to improve fertility (Harrelson). Leah isn’t likely to give those up so Rachel makes a deal with Leah and gives her access to Jacob, and Leah has two more sons! and a daughter. And then, finally, Rachel conceives and gives birth to Joseph, who we will hear much more about him. And some years later Rachel has a second son, Benjamin, who we also hear about.
This competition to produce the most child for Jacob, by any means sets up one more dysfunctional set of family relationships and conflicts (Gaventa and Petersen). The whole ugly story is deeply rooted in Abraham’s family history; and foreshadows the conflict between Joseph, a child of Rachel, and his ten brothers who are children of Leah and the surrogates (Fretheim). Maybe, the only redemptive aspect of this story is that, finally, we are introduced to Jacobs twelve sons who become, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.
It is tempting and rather easy to judge Leah and Rachel for their maternal competition. It may be easy to judge Jacob and Laban, for their deceitful manipulative ways. But we judge we miss the point of the story. Beth Tanner writes They are not “them.” They are us (Bratt). Which brings us to the question of how we glean real wisdom from this or any other of the many sordid, despicable stories in the Old Testament.
We tend to, and we have been taught to read it as history, and there is value here. But there is also other deep source wisdom to recognize. It might be interesting to read the Old Testament stories as parables. There is an old saying that the key to success was to care enough about your objective not to care (Epperly). If we can resist seeking historical accuracies or explanations or definitions then perhaps we can allow these stories to tease us into a different kind of active thought wherein we may just catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, we would otherwise miss. Even in Jacob messes, the ones he is in, and the ones he created, we can see the Spirit, we can see God’s purpose moving forward, overcoming obstacles one by one. We can see God’s abundance strewn, seemingly recklessly, everywhere (Epperly). After all, with twelve sons the promise finally seems to be on track (Bratt). Throughout Abraham’s family’s story we have seen and we will see how God’s presence continues to quietly sneak in unannounced influencing the movement of the story of God’s Kingdom on earth.
Have you seen God’s quiet presence sneaking around St. Stephens? I have. In a time when large congregations, in much larger cities struggle to find an organist, in one week two parishioners find two separate organists; and now St. Stephen’s two organist to succeed Ruth; or to follow Ruth, I don’t know if anyone can succeed her. I’ll be honest this is not the outcome I expected. Not only could I not find a pianist, I couldn’t find the little MIDI musical boxes that have these things pre-recorded, I’m relieved.
Another trait of reading the Old Testament as history is that we know all the decisions the characters have made; we know where all the characters have gone, we know the path they have trod. So, imagine for a moment any given Old Testament story is a context, a setting for decisions we face, for paths we have yet to trod, for ventures we are in the midst of, or perhaps have yet to begin (Skinner). They can be the source of imagination that allows us to catch a glimpse of God’s grace, of God’s abundance, of God’s remarkably continual presence, especially when we can’t feel it.
There is one more gleaning truth in the story of Jacob’s children’s birth. Beginning with Abraham and Sarah and through to Jacob, Rachael, and Leah there has been confusion about the story, confusion about who the story is really about. Abraham and Sarah thought it was about them, they thought that they were first. Hagar and Ishmael thought it was about them that they were first. Rebekah and Jacob thought it was about them that they were first. Isaac and Esau thought it was about them that they were first. Rachel thought it was about her and her kids, that they were first. Leah though it was about her and her kids, that they were first. We think it is about us, that we are first, we are being told, again and again “America first.” Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah are all wrong. The Kingdom of God is first. We are wrong, the Kingdom of God is first. Only when we begin with the Kingdom, first and foremost, that we can see how a tiny seed will grow, how leaven can work its way through the entire mass, how a hidden treasure is truly present, how everything will be sorted out (Skinner). Only when the Kingdom is first can we live believing that nothing has been, is, or ever can be, between us and the love of God in Jesus Christ that is right here, right now.
Bratt, Doug. Proper 12A Genesis 29: 15-28. 30 7 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Clavier, Tony. “Training for the Kingdom of Heaven.” 30 7 2017. Sermons that Work.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 30 7 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 30 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Lose, David. Pentecost 7 A: On the Question of Evil. 30 7 2017.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Skinner, Matt. Hide Away. 30 7 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Tanner, Beth L. “Commentary on Lamentations 1:16.” 30 7 2017. Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3020>.