September 15, 2019
Christ Church Gardiner
Pentecost 14-Jacob, Rachel and Leah
We have this book at our house called “Women of the Bible,” and it features some of the notable women in our biblical stories alongside famous art portraying them. My daughters have long been fascinated with this book…and I know what you’re probably thinking. Those poor priest’s kids. Even when they aren’t at church, their mom makes them read Bible stories. But this book is exciting and a little bit violent. It tells of biblical heroines like Deborah whose story of helping the Israelites to defeat the Canaanites includes a general getting a tent peg nailed through his head. Or Delilah who cuts off the hair of Samson to take away his strength. Or Judith who cuts off the head of the Assyrian General, Holofernes.
But it is the story of Rachel and Leah that has really captivated the attention of Catherine and Sarah over the years. In the painting by Rossetti that accompanies the story, Leah who, after marriage, will rapidly bear Jacob six sons is wearing a green dress to symbolize life and fertility; while Rachel, who will struggle over the years to give birth and will die when her second son is born, wears purple, a color associated with death.
As sisters who are close, but have their moments of antagonism and jealousy, Catherine and Sarah can understand a bit of the resentment that existed between Rachel and Leah, though hopefully, they will never have the same deep sibling rivalry that Jacob inserted into that sister relationship. They are saddened that in the story, Rachel is loved and wanted, while Jacob treated Leah like a mistake—a burden that must be endured in order to obtain the hand of Rachel. But they are saddened also by Rachel who, while loved dearly by Jacob, struggled to bear children, to prove her worth in a culture that valued giving birth to sons above all other things.
And it was not lost on my daughters that this story plays on a theme that sadly still exists today. Rachel was chosen because she was more beautiful. Despite our insistence that beauty is found on the inside, it is outward beauty, a very particular and conventional kind of beauty, that tends to be rewarded even today.
But perhaps it wasn’t only Rachel’s beauty that attracted Jacob. As second children in a world where the greater share was always given to the firstborn, perhaps they had a certain understanding of each other. Jacob had stolen the blessing due to his elder brother, Esau, and by choosing to marry the younger sister, over Leah, he would have raised her position as well.
But as we heard in the reading, Laban, just as much of a trickster as Jacob, got the last word when it came to the marriage of his daughters. After seven long years of Jacob working for the hand of Rachel, there’s both irony and comedy in the plot twist that has Laban sending Leah to Jacob’s bed in the place of Rachel on the wedding night. Years before it had been Jacob, with the help of his mother, that had fooled his father, Isaac, with disguise and substitution to get the blessing.
Now Laban and Leah, fool Jacob. Jacob wasn’t fooled because he was physically blind like Isaac had been, but the customs of the time would have meant that Leah would have remained veiled until the time came to consummate the marriage, masking her identity. And Jacob would have spent much of the wedding day celebrating with the men and drinking heavily. So by the time nightfall came, he was in no shape to pay close attention to whom came to his bed.
In this plot twist, Jacob, who overturned the order of things in his own home, is forced by Laban to acknowledge the privilege of the older child. Leah’s place will not be surrendered so easily.
We can only imagine what kind of marriage and relationships are to follow such a deceptive beginning. The naming of the sons of Jaco, which falls in Genesis between the readings we heard this morning, shows the conflict and pain felt by Rachel and Leah during that time. And then that pain was etched into the identity of the sons as they begin early on to take sides in the struggle between their mothers. (Karen Armstrong, “A New Interpretation of Genesis,” 88)
You can find the naming of the sons in Chapter 29 of Genesis but here are a few examples of the resentment found in those namings…
Leah named her first son Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” Her second son, she named Simeon, meaning,“Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” After many years, when Rachel finally bore a son, she said, “God has taken away my reproach”; and she named him Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!” Even the birth of the long awaited son only made her anxious for another.
It is in this context of tension and resentment that Jacob decided to leave Laban and take his family back home. Perhaps he realized that he must address the rivalry with Esau and the pain he caused within his family of origin before he can address the rivalry and pain of the family that he has now created. Perhaps he sensed that there could be no peace until he confronted his past and reconciled with Esau. Imagine the pain that was wrapped up in the father-son relationships that we have seen in this line so far. Abraham was willing to take the life of his son, Isaac, to prove his loyalty to God. Isaac blatantly showed a preference for Esau over Jacob, setting the boys up for their dangerous rivalry. And now Jacob has borne children by two sisters and their maids who see themselves in competition with one another and have passed on that struggle and antagonism to their sons.
With this history of pain, is there any wonder that Jacob finds himself wrestling with, we don’t know what—a man, a demon, an angel, or God himself, on his way back home to meet Esau. But this time, Jacob cannot trick his way into a blessing. He must wrestle for it. He must strive. And his reward is a new name. In the ancient world, being named was a powerful thing. When Jacob is given the name, Israel, it is acknowledged that he is a new man—one that has struggled with both God and humans. As he will continue in this struggle for the rest of his life.
This wrestling match in the darkness of the night makes it possible for Jacob to reconcile with Esau in the daylight. It’s as if he has met his demons—faced them—conquered them—and is now free to move on. Though we all know that it’s never quite so simple to put the mistakes of our past behind us. Jacob will find that to be true, as well.
Jacob’s ongoing saga reminds us that God continues to dwell with those who are imperfect, to say the least. These are not stories of heroes in the way we typically imagine heroes. The characters in Genesis are living lives much like ours. Lives that are full of both great joy and great pain. These are people who know all of the emotions that make up our lives, too, even the ones we wish didn’t, like jealousy and anger and resentment and insecurity.
Ultimately, Jacob’s story is about coming home. Karen Armstrong has written a new interpretation of Genesis and in it she claims that, “The patriarchs had to learn that no one could move forward creatively into the future without having made peace with the past.” (90). Jacob returned home to make peace with his past. And in his story is reflected the story of Israel, the nation. Just like Jacob, the nation of Israel will struggle. And they will get lost. Sometimes they will find themselves running away. And at other times, they will be trying to find their way home.
And when the people of Israel would hear Jacob’s story, it would remind them that even the blessing of God that had been promised to their people would need to be wrestled over.
Unfortunately, Genesis doesn’t give us happy endings, not really. As we will discover next week when we hear the story of Joseph, which is the conclusion of the Book of Genesis. Joseph, Rachel’s first son will be betrayed by his brothers and mourned by his father. Happiness seems elusive even for this special family of God.
Throughout Genesis, the biblical authors show us individuals who are not perfect but struggling like Jacob, “for insight and the state which they call blessing.” (Armstrong, 118). The Creation story teaches us that a blessed life is possible for all of God’s creatures, but as we continue to hear the stories of our ancestors, we realize that we must spend our lives striving for that blessing. It is not easy to achieve self-knowledge and to discover the mystery of our own being. It takes time and labor to name the places in our lives where we need to make amends and the relationships that need to be reconciled. But we still have to make peace with the past as best we can so that we can move forward. It will be a lifelong struggle, and one in which most of us will never fully succeed, but it is only through that struggle that we can become a source of blessing to the world and to others. (Armstrong, 119)