Jacob’s flight from Canaan to Haran, a tribal land north of Palestine, is successful. Jacob tells his uncle Laban everything, and Laban honors Jacob not only by hosting him, but lets Jacob set his own salary. Jacob agrees to work without pay if he can wed Rachel, whom he first encountered upon entering Laban’s territory. The kiss he gave her at that time was a promise which goes 7 years before it can be fulfilled. Note that Laban, who as a young man insisted on Rebekah’s consent to wed Isaac, gives his own daughter away without a word to her, as a participant in the marriage.
Interestingly, the passage suggests Jacob’s deep love for Rachel meant the time flew by rapidly, and he prompted Laban at the end of the 7 years to pay up. Laban duly offers up Rachel, and following custom, gifts a female servant also, and throws a party. But Laban has a secret. He hasn’t told Jacob of another custom that oldest daughters are married first. And he plans to make sure that Leah isn’t left as an elder unmarried sister — a plan he has concealed from Jacob.
We, as readers, are let into the trick before Jacob figures it out. And such a ruse requires probably a lot of strong drink (which was a feature of these kinds of wedding festivals) as well as the bridal veil. And, oddly enough, Leah keeps silent about it on the wedding night…but morning comes, as it must, and Jacob discovers the deception.
So it turns out that Jacob’s a chip off of the old block: he and Laban are cut from the same cloth as they both have the ability to deceive and manipulate family to get what they want. He has gained 2 wives in the course of a week, but the family dynamics are treacherous, and will yield the same cocktail of arrogance, jealousy, and manipulation that was first brewed between Sarah and Hagar. And Jacob’s relationship with Laban is marked with wariness at best before it devolves into downright hostility, as he feels the sting of betrayal that he caused Esau. Despite a happy first encounter, this is not a pleasant or commendable episode…and it isn’t the final one either.
1| In his “Homilies on Genesis,” St John Chrysostom writes
Why are you surprised, dearly beloved, that [Jacob] promised to serve seven years for the maiden he loved? …You see, when someone is smitten with love’s desire, far from seeing any problem he easily puts up with everything, albeit fraught with danger and much difficulty besides, having in view one thing only — obtaining the object of his desire. (55.7)
Think of a time when you have attempted something difficult or challenging. Why did you do it? Was it worth it? What does that experience teach you about Jacob’s story?
2| Do 2 wrongs make a right? Jacob steals the blessing for the firstborn intended for Esau from Isaac; perhaps Laban sees his deception of Jacob as “turnabout is fair play.” After all, Laban makes a point of talking about what the role of the firstborn child is in his country; perhaps he’s driving home his disgust for Jacob’s own past. Is Jacob an unfair victim, or is it fitting that he gets a taste of his own medicine? And how do you think God feels about all the lying and deception?
3| How do you think Leah and Rachel (and their maidservants Zilpah & Bildad) feel about being used like this? We hear the story from Jacob’s perspective (he loves Rachel, and doesn’t love Leah, for instance) but we don’t hear the voices or thoughts of the women. Instead of being included, they’re treated like property by Jacob and Laban both, and so seeds of struggle and family battles are sown for another generation. How do you treat your own family? Do we antagonize certain members or take each other for granted? Or do we show God’s love through mutual respect, concern, and love?
Look upon your servant, O Lord, weak in faith and asking for your strength; cold in heart, but seeking the warmth of your love; assailed by doubt but longing to trust you; abounding in sin, yet begging to be filled with your righteousness; now and forever. Amen.
What happened between last Sunday and this one? Continue the story of Jacob’s journey to Laban’s home by reading Genesis 28:20 – 29:14.
In addition, all the lectionary texts for this Sunday’s worship can be found at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary site.
Resources used in compiling this week’s GPS: Terence E Fretheim’s “Genesis” commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible; A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament by Bruce C Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E Fretheim, and David L Petersen; and the WorkingPreacher.org commentary by Wil Gafney.
Image by Führich, Joseph, Ritter von, 1800-1876. Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54267 [retrieved July 20, 2011]. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.
Prayer by Martin Luther (1483-1546).