Genesis 29:1, 15-28
July 27, 2014
“What, sir, would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce.”
Of all the memorable quotes from Mark Twain that I’ve read over the years, that one remains my favorite. I admit that I don’t know its context. I should probably do some research and find out the circumstances in which Mr. Twain uttered those simple but profound words. But even not knowing those particular details, this quote makes me think that Samuel Clemens was ahead of his time in more ways than one.
As we make our way through Genesis, learning again about the patriarchs of our faith – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – we read again and again about the promise and the covenant between God and them; the covenant God was determined to keep. The covenant of blessing and abundant offspring that God made with Abraham continues with Jacob. Jacob, in spite of being a scoundrel and a trickster, has received God’s promise that his descendants will not only be numerous, they will number even more than the dust of the earth. They will inhabit every corner of the world. Through Jacob’s offspring the world, every family, every person, will be blessed.
But in order for this vast population bearing God’s blessing to be realized, one factor is of vital importance. Woman. Jacob can’t start this baby boom by himself. It takes a woman. In Jacob’s case, it takes four.
In last week’s text, the story of Jacob’s dream and the staircase which crossed the line between heaven and earth, we read about Jacob on the run. He has fled his brother’s rage and death threats and traveled to the land of his mother to meet his uncle Laban. What we don’t read in this week’s text is his arrival in Haran. Jacob comes to a large well where the sheep of the field were watered. He sees some shepherds there and asks them if they know Laban. As he is speaking with them, Rachel, Laban’s youngest daughter, comes to the well with her father’s sheep. When Jacob sees Rachel, he walks up to her and moves the stone away from the mouth of the well so that she can water the flock. Apparently, it is love at first sight, because he is so moved by the sight of her that he not only moves the stone away, he kisses her and weeps aloud. He tells Rachel that he is her relative, and she runs to tell her father.
Laban, hearing that his nephew Jacob has come to their land, runs back to the well to meet him. Laban greets Jacob, brings him home, and makes him welcome. Jacob has already stayed with Laban a month when we come to our place in the story.
Laban, seemingly not wanting to take advantage of Jacob, tells Jacob that he can’t work for Laban for nothing. What does he want as wages? Jacob wants Rachel. He asks to marry Rachel. Laban has two daughters. We’ve already met Rachel, who is described as graceful and lovely. But he has an older daughter as well. Leah. The only physical description we are given about Leah is that she has “lovely eyes.” In other versions Leah is described as having “weak eyes.” The Hebrew phrase that is translated as both lovely and weak is uncertain at best. I remember talking about this textual dilemma when I was in seminary. The literal translation reads more like Leah has “eyes like a cow.” There’s obviously idiom involved with this phrase, but no contemporary translator quite knows what that idiom means. I’m sure there are plenty of cows with lovely eyes. There are probably cows with weak eyes as well. But whether Leah had eyes that were cow-ish, weak, or lovely, there was something different about them. There was something about her eyes that stood out. But her lovely, different eyes did not seem to compare to her sister’s graceful beauty. Jacob had no interest in Leah. He wanted Rachel.
He wanted her so badly that he was willing to work for Laban for seven years without complaining in order to win her hand. The text says that those seven years seemed like only a few days to Jacob, his love for Rachel was so deep and strong. The seven years come to an end, and in other stories we might have a happy ending. But here comes the plot twist. Jacob goes to the marriage bed thinking he’s going to be with his love, Rachel. Instead he wakes up to Leah! Laban’s excuse? The younger daughter cannot be married before the older one. The trickster has been tricked. The younger sibling who usurped the rights of his firstborn brother, is now caught by another rule of the firstborn. A rule Jacob obviously didn’t see coming. Laban promises Jacob that Rachel will also be his wife after the initial bridal week. But Jacob must work another seven years for Laban.
This part of the story goes beyond our verses today. Jacob is married to Leah. Poor Leah with the different eyes, she knows she is unloved by her husband, but she is blessed with four sons. Rachel is loved by him, but she struggles with infertility, just as Sarah and Rebekah did. Thanks to their father, these two sisters are in competition for their shared husband’s affections. The sisters both give him their handmaidens, Zilpah and Bilhah, as their surrogates and these women also bear Jacob sons. One man. Four women. Twelve sons. One daughter. Twelve tribes. A new nation. It’s like the show Sister Wives on steroids.
Whatever our cultural and moral disapproval of polygamy, it was an accepted and standard practice in that context. While I’m not thrilled about it, what bothers me even more is the invisibility of these women. True, we know their names, which is more than can be said for other women we read about in scripture. Yet I cannot help but wonder what Leah and Rachel, what Zilpah and Bilhah, thought and felt about their situation. Did Rachel feel the same way about Jacob as he felt about her? Did she want to marry him as much as he wanted to marry her? What was it like for Leah to be snuck into Jacob’s tent so he could be deceived into marrying her instead of her sister? How did she feel about being married through such an underhanded way, as if she had no other prospects for finding a husband? And the two handmaidens? The designation handmaiden sounds gentle, but essentially they were slaves to be given. Not only were they “given” to Leah and Rachel to serve them, they were also “given” to Jacob to bear his children. How did these four women feel about the way they were used and bartered and traded like property? Certainly, that’s just the way it was done in that time and place, but that doesn’t mean that these women didn’t have opinions or feelings or hopes or dreams of their own. They weren’t invisible; they were real flesh and blood humans. But in many ways these women were treated as if they were.
Much of the story of our faith is written from the male perspective. It was the dominant perspective, so it’s not surprising that it’s the lens through which we read their story, our story. But the blessing of God required both the patriarchs and the matriarchs. So it seems to me that this story of two sisters is as equally important as the story of two brothers. Jacob would not be the Jacob we know without Leah and Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah. These sisters, these women, were necessary for the blessing of God to be fulfilled. They were necessary for the descendants of Jacob to be as many as the dust of the earth. These women were as important to the story of God’s purpose being enacted in the world as Jacob was, as Isaac was, as Abraham was. God worked through them all, these flawed and dysfunctional men and women, to bring forth God’s blessing in the world. God worked through them all, calling them, challenging them, loving them, so that the story of God would go on.
Maybe that’s the primary lesson we take from this scripture today. Not only are both men and women necessary and needed for God’s blessing and promise to be fulfilled, but God’s story is told through unlikely characters and strange voices. There is no predicting how God will work through people, but we should know by now that the folks we think least likely are probably the ones God will choose first. The story of God continues to be told. And perhaps the good news is that we are part of that story, unlikely and unworthy as we may feel. But if we are part of God’s ongoing story, promise, and blessing, than so are others; others who look, act, think, and speak differently from us. The story of God is still being written through the scoundrels, the voiceless, the forgotten, the lovely, the loathsome, the quiet, the quirky, the ones who are on the run, the ones who remain. The story of God is still being written through every flawed man, woman and child in this world. The story of God is still being written through every one of us. May we trust and believe that God’s blessing and promise of love, mercy, and grace will be fulfilled through us and all people, in spite of ourselves. Let us give thanks that God’s story continues, that God’s blessing and love is unending, that God’s surprising choices include us. Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.