Rev. Jim Zazzera, Faith Presbyterian Church
This family is a mess! Have you ever said those words? This family is a mess.
You get in a shouting match with your teenage son, with both of you trying to show your manhood by how angry and loud you become. Your parents ground you and banish you to your room for something that wasn’t even your fault. You stop talking to your husband until he figures out and confesses how stupid he was.You finally refuse to clean up the disaster your children made of the house. The thanksgiving dinner is ruined by the rude things your daughter says to you, and you storm off and try to get as far away as you can. Your father totally ignores you and you can think of no way to get his attention.You hide in fear of being yelled at one more time. You cannot believe anyone would call this a family. There is no love—this family is a mess!
We have all been there. In some way or another, our family life falls short of what we hope. In some way or another, our family, no matter how it presents to the outside world—in some way or another our family is a mess!
It is that reality that connects us to today’s reading today. For if they are being honest, the characters in this story, Jacob, Laban, Leah, and Rachel (and the maids Zilpah and Bilhah) would all acknowledge the messiness of their family life.
If you are looking for heroes here — you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for models of family values — you should probably look elsewhere. In fact, I wonder if God ever really wants to give us role models in the Bible. Because it seems that most often what we get are examples of imperfect and broken humanity.
I like to imagine what the four main characters might have said about the situation they find themselves in:
I have heard about my nephew Jacob. The king of deceit. He has played many tricks on others, has even stolen his brother’s birthright—but he hasn’t come up against the likes of me. Let me see if I can get a bit more work out of him than he had planned. If he will work 7 years for Rachel my youngest, why not 14 years for Rachel AND Leah?
This time I came in peace, and even a bit of humility to my uncle Laban and when I saw his daughter Rachel, I knew I had to have her. It is clear that she loves me too. I was willing to give a lot to just be with her. I thought seven years was worth it but I had no idea I would be serving another seven and stuck with Leah for life. I can barely look on her, I can only do my duty as husband.
I do love Jacob, and I do want children. Yet my father has played unfairly in this game of life.
I am like so much property to him and I wonder whether I am any more than that to Jacob. Children would be my glory, my redemption, my hope, but it seems all ways are closed to me. I don’t hate my sister – but I want what she has.
I know that I am not as beautiful as Rachel, and I have never hated her for it. I don’t hate Jacob either, but I can see that he has no care for me. My only hope is in my children. It is they who show me that God is with me. It is they who are my vindication. Having them is worth the hatred of my father, the neglect by my husband, and the envy of my sister.
As you can see, this family is a mess. Filled with deceit. Corrupted by hatred. Motivated by envy. Family values, indeed!
Perhaps is would be good to give an overview of the whole story from chapter 29 all the way through the 24th verse of chapter 30. The story begins in 29:1-15 with Jacob coming to Haran. He has a cordial meeting at a well with shepherd who knows his Uncle Laban.
These people are kind enough to introduce him to his cousin Rachel, with whom he experiences love at first sight. The power of his love is so strong, he is able to lift the covering stone from the well single-handedly. Uncle Laban comes out to meet them both and welcomes Jacob to stay with him.
The next scene is the story we read today from verses 15-28. We discover here that Jacob is not the only one who is capable of deceit and trickery. Laban and Jacob strike a bargain for a wife, perhaps not an uncommon one in that day and time. Laban agrees to give his youngest daughter, Rachel to Jacob if he would only work for Laban for seven years. Jacob’s love of this woman is highlighted in verse 20, “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him
but a few days because of the love he had for her.”
Of course, you all know how this went, after seven years, on the night when the wedding was to be consummated, Leah was the one who shared Jacob’s marriage bed. (It seems that Leah had no choice in the matter and does not say a word here. Neither is she ever addressed directly by Jacob in the story.) Jacob goes directly to Laban “What is this you have done to me?” Acknowledging that he tricked Jacob, Laban works out a new deal with him, that he might have Rachel as his second wife within the week as long as he would agree to work for Laban another 7 years.
Next, verse 31 – 35 may be the most important, if overlooked, part of the story. This, in a way, is where we see the hand of God at work most profoundly. Listen to verse 31, the words are quite bold and direct:
When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.
God is somehow involved here in the giving of children. And this giving highlights God’s promise of descendants.
Now before I go on, I need to say a word here. The story deals quite frankly with concerns about childbirth and infertility. I know that some of what is addressed here touches on sensitive issues for those of us who have dealt with issues around infertility and having children. I was reminded by a friends this week that a word like “barrenness” can be a painful and harsh word to many of us. So let me say two things as we move ahead. First, I think this story has next to nothing to say to us about infertility in a 21st Century context. This is not about God’s judgement on a man or a woman or a couple. Secondly, I want to take this text on its own terms, where childbearing was a sign of wealth and blessing and where lack of children was a cause for shame.That is the premise of Jacob’s world.
So, let’s return to Leah. This section introduces us to the presence and work of God in this story.
Leah is the unloved. Leah is the one with “weak eyes” as one translation puts it – not lovely eyes However we translate this phrase, clearly her beauty is no match for Rachel’s. That may be part of the reason Laban was compelled to trick Jacob. Yet God was to choose her for enormous blessing. Remember – the story of the Hebrew people is all about how God will fulfill God’s promises of land and children.and Leah is the first one to be mother of the sons of Jacob/Israel.
God saw Leah’s state, that she was lowly and unloved—and gave her children. Each time she has a child, she uses the occasion of the child’s naming to express some sentiment about her life. First, Rueben is born—and he is given this name to signify that God has seen her pain, and that perhaps in this birth she would receive her husband’s love. Second, Simeon is born—and the name is given as a lament for the fact that though she was hated by Jacob, she was heard by God. Third, Levi is born—and this name is given as a prayer that her husband would finally be joined to her. Fourth, Judah is born—and his name is simply an act of praise to God.
This is where God begins to show up in the story. God is revealed In the giving of children to fulfill God’s promises, and in the giving of children to show love and affirmation to Leah, the one who deeply felt the experience of being unloved, by both her husband and her father.
One writer puts it this way in describing how God relates to Leah:
…it is the occupation of God to care for the lowly, unloved, second-born, and barren ones.
Think about that.
But what of Rachel? That’s where the next section begins:
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”
She was the one who was favored, chosen by Jacob—but now she struggles. Note, the Bible doesn’t say she hates Leah, only that she envies her. Later on we find that she “wrestles” with Leah, much as Jacob did with the angel, but it will not do to reduce this story to sibling rivalry. Jacob is no help at this point – “Am I god?” he says. So Rachel begins with what she knows.
In those days it was traditional that a woman’s maid (a slave, really) could be the mother of her children if she could not, so she sends her maid Bilhah to have intercourse with Jacob. As a result of these encounters, the maid has two children, whose naming points to Rachel’s reflection on how harshly judged she feels and how much she is “wrestling” with her sister in this. In the midst of this – Leah continues to have children though her maids.
Then, near the end of the section, an interesting little story highlights both Leah’s desire to be loved by her husband Jacob, and Rachel’s deep desire for children. As if to conspire together Leah trades to Rachel some fruit called mandrakes. (Mandrakes were throughout to be aphrodisiacs and perhaps helpful for fertility.) What Leah receives for this trade is some additional nights with her husband. (It may be that Rachel was able to block access to Jacob.)
What Rachel receives (perhaps having something to do with the mandrakes, perhaps not)
is spelled out in verse 22 & 23:
Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach
Joseph is born, and in the wake of all the births to Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah, we are almost to the end of the birth of those who would make up the twelve tribes of Israel. The fact that this portion of God’s work is coming to a close is reflected in Jacob’s comment in verse 25 that he is now ready to leave Haran. Jacob heirs are now nearly fully in place. Now he can go.
So what is going on here in all this? How is God present in the messiness of this family?
Notice though God is mentioned and affirmed, there are very few places where we are certain that God is acting. This is what we know: God opens the womb of Leah. God remembers Rachel and opened her womb. In a way, that is the summary of God’s work in this story.
All the deceit, all the pain, all the envy, all the wrestling, all the hatred, all the oppression and control of the lowly, all the helplessness in the face of barrenness is reduced to this. God will open. God will bring to pass what God has promised.
Don’t lose sight of the arc of this whole Genesis story—God wants to give this people land and descendants. Without Leah, without Rachel, without Zilpah, without Bilhah—and without Jacob—none of this would be possible. Without this messy family there is no people of God, there is no Israel, there is no promise.
Maybe that is worth thinking about in light of our own lives. When you yell at your daughter, fail your husband, feel betrayed by your sister—remember this: God has a purpose for us all. God chooses to put us in a real and troubled world. God chooses to put us in messy and broken families. In this world and through these families God chooses to work. Mysteriously, for our this is how it is done by our God. The relevant purposes of God are worked out through earthly people. As one person put it “the future will be shaped in God’s promised way.” If you remember nothing else here – please remember this. Gods promises cannot be thwarted. This story is meant as proof of that.
So where does this all connect to our Christian faith? Where does this passage illuminate our relationship to Jesus the Christ? There might be many points of connection, but I would like to suggest one particular one.
This passage is another example of how our God is the God of the overlooked and forgotten. Our God is a God of the lowly, the broken, the oppressed. Surely Leah is overlooked, others were more beautiful. Surely Rachel is overlooked as she struggles to have even one child. Surely Zilphah and Bilhah are overlooked as they serve beneath even these wives to bear children that would not be called theirs. Yet these women have names and power. God uses them to bring about the ultimate purpose blessing Israel with land and descendants. God uses them ultimately to bless the whole world.
I am reminded of another lowly, simple, overlooked, scandalized woman, and of her almost prophetic message about how God works. The words I would like to quote from this woman come from near the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. They are the words of Mary the mother of Jesus when she finds out she is to give birth to the Messiah:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Sounding like an ancient prophet this young woman captures exactly what was true of God in Genesis, what will be true of the God revealed in her own son, and what will be true of God into eternity.
God looks with favor on the lowly. God has done great things. God has shown mercy to God’s servant Israel (to Jacob). No matter how messy, no matter how deceitful, no matter how dysfunctional we are—Gods promises will be fulfilled!
Next Step Questions
1. What kind of dysfunctions appear in families? What kinds of things do we fight over? Are there any dysfunctions in your own family history that you are willing to share?
2. Read Genesis 29:15-28 again (and this time include some additional verses: 29: 29 through 30: 24) What strikes you here? What insights does this give us into this family? IN to God?
3. Why would God use such a messy family (Jacob, Laban, Rachel, Leah) to achieve God’s purposes?
4. Do you think of the characters in the Bible as heroes or role models to emulate? Why or why not? Are there ANY heroes in this story? Who would that be? Is the purpose of the Bible to give us role models?
5. What is Leah communicating in the naming of her children?
6. Jim quotes scholar Walter Brueggemann who comments on this passage with these words, “It is the occupation of God to care for the lowly, unloved, second-born, and barren ones.” Do you think that is true? Where else do you see that in scripture?
7. This is, in some way, a story about the power/lack of power of women in Hebrew society, women who look to God to fulfill God’s purposes. Another Jewish woman expressed similar sentiments many years later. Read Luke 1:46-55. How do these ideas illuminate your understanding of the workings of God in this context?
8. What do you think about the roles of Rachel and Leah in this story? In what ways are they powerless? In what ways can they exert power? Where does God stand in relation to all this?
9. What is the purpose that God is seeking to achieve through this family? How could that purpose have been thwarted? How was it ultimately achieved?
10. Have you ever seen the work of God in the messiness of your own life? What did that look like? Could you have predicted it?