So let’s just say, right out the gate, that we feel sorry for Leah. An unknown relative shows up at your family doorstep, penniless. Your dad fawns all over him and, in the end, your family life is never the same again. The relational carnage cannot be quantified. To start with, the Hebrew text that introduces Leah is “uncertain.” In other words, Biblical linguists have examined this adjective about Leah and they have several different possible translations that they offer with a disclaimer. It’s about Leah’s eyes–you know, the windows into the soul? Depending on the translation, this oldest daughter’s eyes were weak, lovely, tender, dull, or delicate. In contrast, the description of the younger sister, Rachel, ranges from beautiful with a lovely figure to beautiful of form and face. We can only imagine that Leah, the elder, had lived in the shadow of her sister’s natural good looks for what seemed like a lifetime.
But this story from Genesis 29 has a sense of cosmic justice to it. Jacob, the schemer, gets scammed! When he met his Uncle Laban, he met his match in duplicity. And that’s saying a lot because Jacob got straight As at every level of his Masterful Manipulation coursework! The story began with warm feelings and heartfelt embracing. Jacob arrived at his mother’s homestead, the endpoint to his pilgrimage. When Laban learns that Jacob is his long-lost sister’s boy, he welcomes him home. After a month of making himself useful on his uncle’s land, Laban asks Jacob to set his terms. It’s probably not the answer Laban expected. Instead of bargaining for a suitable hourly wage with benefits, Jacob professes his love for the younger daughter, Rachel. He offers seven years of labor in exchange for her hand in marriage. This sounds generous but you have to understand that there was always an expectation of a dowry for a bride. That’s just the way things were done in that era. And Jacob, who fled from his own family compound, arrived penniless. He would merit his bride through hard work. The passage tells us that those seven years seemed as a few days to the smitten suitor. Living in the same family compound, anticipating a sweet wedding day, Jacob is floating on air while going about his daily chores.
Here’s my warning: This is the high point of the story. It only goes downhill from this Hallmark movie scene!
After the seven years are up Jacob reminds his uncle that he’s done his time and asks for the marriage date to be set. Seven years, a biblical time frame that represents perfection and completeness, have passed. Yet Leah, the eldest daughter with the weak, tender, delicate, dull eyes, is still unattached. In a culture when women were married off in their teen years, this tells us something. Poor Leah hadn’t attracted even one serious suitor in spite of her father’s significant assets. If, for no other reason, it seems some guy would have sought her out as a bride to get a piece of her daddy’s real estate somewhere down the line. But not one person showed up to court poor Leah.
Laban pulled together a misteh, the Hebrew word that means a gathering of the male elders of the community. They had their version of a bachelor party the day of the wedding. Let’s just state the obvious: this is not a good idea! It is altogether probable that Jacob, when he finally found his way to the altar, was not fully in his right senses. He pledged his love and fidelity to the heavily veiled bride and they made their way to the bridal suite. As the morning light filtered through their windows in silvery streaks, the Bible lets us in on a surprise: “In the morning, behold it was Leah!” There’s an exclamation point in this biblical statement. Meanwhile Rachel was probably in her own tent, eating the new Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor, “Cancelled Wedding Cake.” (It’s true—look for it in your grocer’s frozen dairy case!) Furious, Jacob stepped over the rose petals on the floor of the honeymoon suite and stormed over to his new father-in-law. He demanded an explanation for how he ended up with the doe-eyed daughter rather than the one of his dreams!? Laban reminded Jacob that Leah was the elder and, it was their custom to always marry off the daughters in the proper birth order. Leah needed to be married off before Rachel would be available. That’s just the way things were done in their town. Jacob is outraged. The Deceiver has been deceived! I think of God’s challenge to the reluctant prophet, Jonah, when he pouted over the salvation of his enemies. God quietly asked Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?”
Do you do well to be angry, Jacob? You can’t mess with birth order, favored child of your conniving mother! What you pulled off in your own family tent won’t work here! Jacob’s selfishness had blown up his relationship between him and his only brother. But now he has destroyed the harmony in another home where two sisters will never share secrets and swap outfits again. Jacob was forced to take things as they were presented to him. He couldn’t trick his way out of Laban’s deception. So his new father-in-law, who clearly had the upper hand, bargained for Jacob to work for him another seven years to pay the dowry for his second daughter, Rachel. That’s just the way things were done then! But, by the way (he whispered to Jacob behind the barn), you don’t have to wait the full seven years to gain her hand in marriage-wink, wink. Give Leah your full attention as a new husband should for one week. Then next weekend, we’ll throw another party and you can marry the gal you adore! That’s just the way things were done then!
Like I said in my disclaimer at the beginning of this sermon, I feel sorry for Leah with the weak, fragile, lovely, now crying eyes!
As in any dysfunctional family where domestic disaster is generationally perpetuated, everyone became a victim with this wedding night trickery. There were no winners. Looking in on this story we see that being the ones who were considered “blessed”, namely Jacob-the-chosen-man-of-God, and Leah, the mother-of-many-strapping-sons, were not singing a happy tune. The story ends with the affirmation that “Jacob…loved Rachel more than Leah.” Leah may have gotten a husband thanks to her father’s sneakiness but she knew that she would never figure into her new husband’s daydreams, no matter how many heirs she bore him. Rachel ultimately got Jacob and his undivided adoration but she inherited a rift between her and her sister. She found it hard to trust her father as she once did. And, like so many of our foremothers in the Bible, she was barren. That’s about the worst sentence for any wife in those days as bearing children was the sure way to please your husband and family. That’s just the way things were done then! There were victims in every part of this domestic equation and everyone discovered that planning for their future was an exercise in futility!
I wonder how it has been for each of you in your family settings during these challenging days of COVID? Even in the most loving households, it’s difficult to stay upbeat when our world is falling apart. For some spouses this quarantine has reminded them of how much they enjoy time together. However other couples have fallen into increasingly distant silence because the emotional drift that started a decade ago went untreated. For some older siblings, the extra time together has allowed them to have difficult but needed conversations about how they hurt each other in their younger years and to ask for forgiveness. Others learned early into the quarantine to lock other family members out of their rooms and lives. What generational curses that we carry from our ancestors have cropped up as we sat across from each other for yet another Corona virus meal? Which alienated family member surfaced in this time of isolation, looking for healing or money or both?
We are reminded in this story that life in a family can be rough, even for those God chooses and uses. God understood the selfishness in Jacob that needed to be curbed. So Laban became the perfect father-in-law to give the Schemer a taste of his own medicine. To deepen his own spiritual life, Jacob needed to confront his own sin. Expanding our orbit in the world challenges our myopia. When we see a spoiled child who is assured by her parents that she is the princess, we know that her first year in school is going to be a painful lesson. She will be dethroned and put on an even playing field with her peers. The bully is going to be tutored in fair play when he spends time on the playground. God is at work in the domestic disasters where our families reside and Jacob offers us a few lessons. Even when we’re tricked by others, we need to stick to our part of the bargain. Our own integrity matters all the more when the other side has unfairly changed the rules. Inviting pity for our victimization or obsessing over our payback scheme will blind us to the fact that God is near and holds the perfect plan for us and for our least-favorite family member! To recognize this is to open ourselves up to Godly changes through confession, repentance and acceptance of God’s grace. This is not easy! But, when we do this, we can readily forgive others and extend that same gift of unmerited grace.
So what’s ahead for Jacob’s family as we leave this part of his story? Do the sisters make peace with each other? With their deceptive daddy? Does Jacob ever see his own parents again? Does he make peace with his twin brother at some point in his adult life? What we recognize as truth in his family is true in our own: God is at work in all that happens to us and our kinfolk. God chooses and uses us, smoothing our rough edges and magnifying our gifts. God loves us and calls us to work sacrificially toward loving the family rebel, the oddball, the one who left the fold in a huff years ago. As with Jacob’s clan, there will be reunions and rifts, grudges and grace, generational curses and gifts that are passed forward to us. And our job is to sift through all of this and decide what serves God’s purposes for our lives best and what needs to be left behind. We are called to no less than was Jacob: to live with our imperfections in such a way that we will be a means of blessing for those around us and for generations who follow.