Last Sunday in my sermon I indicated that we should be careful not to read the bible and assume we are the goodies of the story. We should also not assume that the biblical characters, even the forefathers are the goodies. Biblical characters like all us humans are complex, not all good or all bad. This seems especially true of Jacob who is a morally ambiguous character if ever there was one. Over the last couple of weeks we have seen Jacob live up to his names’ meaning. Jacob, the cheater or trickster, first buys his older brother’s birth-right and then tricks his father so that he also receives the blessing that was meant for his older brother, Esau. Having enraged his brother Jacob flees to uncle Laban in Haran.
On the way to Haran Jacob come across shepherds tending their flocks by a well. It was also by this well that Jacob first met Rachel, uncle Laban’s daughter. After watering the flock that she was tending he kissed Rachel, and introduced himself as her father’s kinsman, Rebekah’s son. Rachel ran and told her father. When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house.
After a month of staying in Laban’s house Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” (Genesis 29:15). We are told that “Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”” (Genesis 29:18). Rachel, like Jacob is the younger of two children. Laban older daughter is Leah. She had lovely eyes while Rachel, the younger daughter is describes as graceful and beautiful. Laban agrees to Jacob’s proposal. Jacob served Laban the seven years which we are told seemed “but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20). When the seven years are up Jacob says to Laban “Give me my wife… for my time is completed.” (Genesis 29:21).
Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast but instead of presenting Rachel to Jacob he brings Leah. Jacob has finally gotten a taste of his own medicine as this time it is he that is tricked or cheated. It is no surprise that Jacob is outraged when he wakes up after his wedding night to find Leah and not Rachel.
As hearers of the story we can see the irony of Jacob’s fury at being treated the same way as he has treated others. When he confronts Laban saying: “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” It is fair to think “Hey, that’s a bit rich, coming from you mate!” Laban responds saying “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.
In contrast to Jacob’s trickery which is to buck the system this trickery is to maintain the social customs. Again we have an illustration of Jacob’s struggle with the system.
Much about this narrative reveals the distance between the biblical world and our own twenty-first century context. The patriarchal, tribal society in Genesis assumes that marriage is first and foremost an alliance between men involving the exchange of women. The women are pawns, they are not given a voice and we do not know how they feel about entering into this marriage.
As the story goes on we read about the competition between the two sisters for the affection of their husband and for children which parallels the earlier sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob for the birthright and blessing.
These stories of the patriarch families are not told as moral stories of the right way to live, or as examples of immorality, but as illustrations that families are messy and often broken. We hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally. We act in our own best interest and against the greater good of others. We forget to ask those with less power about decisions that impact their lives. To look on this family is to look straight into human brokenness. Their culture is on display in this text, and it has a good dose of corporate sin in its sexism and treatment of those with less power. We do a disservice to the scripture in we simply sit back and judge the ancient culture and thank God things have changed. Rather we should let it hold up a mirror to our world that still judges individuals on their appearance. We need to let it show us where corporate sin still exists in our culture in the treatment of those with less power.
It is those with power that write the rules and they are written in order that those with power maintain power and only the powerful can exercise power. Those in power always claim that God is on their side. But the Bible repeatedly claims that God is on the side of the marginalised, the poor, the weak. So if the rules are constructed to ensure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, perhaps God has to oppose the rules if breaking the rules helps balance out the scales. Perhaps if that’s the only way to level the playing field, God has to take sides with the rule breakers.
Rev Tammy Hollands