Imperfect Origins

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Psalm 105:1-11;45b

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.

Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works.

 

Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.

Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually.

 

Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,

O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

Romans 8:26-39

In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. 27 The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will. 28 We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. 30 Those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son, he also called. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified.

31 So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him?

33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. 34 Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.

35 Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

We are being put to death all day long for your sake.
We are treated like sheep for slaughter.

37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

Genesis 29:15-28

****    Early on in the pandemic, back in March, April, and May, there were many versions of the same joke: that we could all now finally binge all of the television shows we’d been missing out on — as if any of us don’t already watch enough TV. Lately, the joke is that we’ve watched it all; there’s no more new TV. Of course, for those of you that find yourself on Facebook at 10 a.m. sharp – maybe 10 after 10 some days – you know that there are always new episodes of the DUPC devotional time. Most episodes filmed at my house, live in front of a studio audience, feature one or both of my children as a guest star.

The past few weeks, Elias and I have been reading and discussing the origins of the Jacob saga. We started off with Jacob and his twin brother Esau, sons of Isaac and grandsons of Abraham and Sarah, wrestling in the womb while Rebekah was pregnant with them. Then Jacob gets Esau to give him his birthright because Esau is hungry. And then, the big trick: Jacob, with his mother’s help, pretends to be Esau and receives the precious blessing from Isaac. I think that sometimes we forget how blatant and deceiving this scene is – Isaac repeatedly asks who it is or is it Esau and Jacob repeatedly lies: yes, I’m Esau. Oddly, the justification for all of it can be made by recalling Rebekah’s message from God that the younger would serve the elder, so it was supposed to be Jacob all along.

But message from God or not, Esau is furious and so Rebekah tells Isaac to tell Jacob to go out of the country to his Uncle Laban’s house up in Haran – quite the soap opera plot line. Now the ruins of Haran still exist today, far up north past Aleppo in Syria, across the Euphrates, and into present-day Turkey. So Jacob goes all the way up there, has his ladder dream along the way, and this is where today’s story takes place. Ok, a few more details:

  • He arrives at a community well used for watering herds and flocks. There are men there waiting for the others to arrive so the well’s covering stone could be removed. Apparently, this was a very large, heavy stone that required all of the well’s users to help. Jacob learns that Laban does indeed live nearby and oh look, here comes his daughter with the sheep.
  • We meet Rachel for the first time and in what might be the only occurrence in scripture, she is the shepherd. She’s labeled as such and there is no mention of anyone else with her. Rachel stands out in the story of Genesis in many ways, but I think we need to make a bigger deal about her shepherding skills.
  • Rachel arrives and Jacob decides to make a grand gesture by removing the big, heavy stone all by himself. I’m sure Rachel was very impressed…
  • So then Jacob meets Laban and tells him “everything that had happened,” which presumably(?) includes the part about tricking Isaac and then fleeing for his life, I’m sure.

And after all of that, we come to our passage for today, which begins in verse 14 of Genesis 29.

After Jacob had stayed with Laban for a month, 15 Laban said to Jacob, “You shouldn’t have to work for free just because you are my relative. Tell me what you would like to be paid.”

16 Now Laban had two daughters: the older was named Leah and the younger Rachel. 17 Leah had delicate eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and was good-looking. 18 Jacob loved Rachel and said, “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.”

19 Laban said, “I’d rather give her to you than to another man. Stay with me.”

20 Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, but it seemed like a few days because he loved her. 21 Jacob said to Laban, “The time has come. Give me my wife so that I may sleep with her.” 22 So Laban invited all the people of that place and prepared a banquet. 23 However, in the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he slept with her. 24 Laban had given his servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her servant. 25 In the morning, there she was—Leah! Jacob said to Laban, “What have you done to me? Didn’t I work for you to have Rachel? Why did you betray me?”

26 Laban said, “Where we live, we don’t give the younger woman before the oldest. 27 Complete the celebratory week with this woman. Then I will give you this other woman too for your work, if you work for me seven more years.” 28 So that is what Jacob did. He completed the celebratory week with this woman, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife. 29 Laban had given his servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her servant. 30 Jacob slept with Rachel, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He worked for Laban seven more years.

What a weird and troubling story! The trickster is tricked! Honestly, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the pros: Jacob loves Rachel, so that’s nice – and, frankly, unusual in most Old Testament depictions of marriages – and he loves her so much that the seven years seemed like a few days to him. For perspective, Julie and I celebrated our seven year anniversary this year and sometimes it’s felt like just a few days and other times it’s felt like it’s all I’ve ever known. Another pro: Jacob doesn’t have to wait another seven years to marry Rachel after Leah, just seven days. And Jacob does love Leah – it’s at least implied – so it’s not completely awkward.

Shall we list the cons?

  • Both sisters are treated like property, traded in exchange for goods and services like anything we might buy at the store, except this is a 14 year layaway. And yes, that was often how marriages were made in the patriarchal time of the Bible, but just because it was common then doesn’t mean I have to like it now. I can accept it as something that happened, but I’m not looking to live my life by it.
  • Laban is blatantly deceitful and misleading and Leah is either in on the ruse or as passive as the absence of her words suggests.
  • What is publicly stated and intended in front of all the people of that place at the banquet – in other words, at the wedding ceremony and party – is cast aside for the technicality of carnal knowledge, and fake knowledge at that.
  • Slavery features prominently in the story, and with two women who become mothers of Israel by force, without any agency of their own. What makes them slaves? Seven years is the usual amount of time a servant would be around and we never hear or see anything about their freedom.
  • Finally, although it is by no means the last issue with the text, none of the women have a single thing to say about any of it. We don’t even know if Rachel loves Jacob back! Genesis says multiple times that he loves her, but nothing about what’s flowing the other direction.

One midrash – the old Jewish rabbinical commentary – gave Leah a voice in an exchange with Jacob from the morning after the wedding.

‘And all night he cried out to her, “Rachel!” and she answered him. In the morning… he said to her ‘Why did you deceive me? Daughter of a deceiver? Didn’t I call out Rachel in the night, and you answered me!’ She said: ‘There is never a bad barber who doesn’t have disciples. Isn’t this how your father cried out “Esau,” and you answered him?’”

On that note, a couple commentaries suggest that this is Jacob’s comeuppance for the trickery with Esau and Isaac and that we, the readers and hearers of the word, are supposed to be entertained by the hijinks. … it’s an engaging story, but I’m not entertained. And I’m not sure that even Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner at the top of their game could have changed that.

So what? What can we glean from this story to enrich our own lives, our own faiths, to improve the life of the church or even the greater world around us? Where is God in a story where God is not mentioned? What is God doing here in Genesis and what does that have to do with what God is doing here in Newport News, in Virginia, in America?

Oddly enough, a saying of Jesus’ sermon on the mount comes to mind. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s a wonderful conclusion to an aspirational section of the sermon, full of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy. But of course none of us are — perfect. We are imperfect vessels of a perfect love shown to us in Jesus Christ. We are imperfect vessels with holes that leak and we slosh and spill but God loves us anyway and God still chooses us to carry God’s love, perhaps not in spite of our imperfection but because of it.

Our reading from Romans bolsters this, especially verse 28: “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” It doesn’t say God works things together for good for the perfect ones; rather it is everyone, all of us who love God.

“The community of faith is fortunate in having a God who does not insist on perfection before choosing to work [us] and through [us]. Israel has a God who blesses Jacob’s family in the very midst of its conflicts, making life possible even within a dysfunctional system. God does not work in isolation, but within a complex context to bring about the birth of Israel’s children and enable goodness to emerge.” (NIBC) Do these imperfect origins for Jacob and his family remind you of anything? Our own constitution – an imperfect document striving for perfection if ever there was one – originally had a three fifths compromise written into it, addressing slavery and enslaved persons without actually mentioning them, just as Genesis does with Zilpah and Bilhah. In a process still ongoing, we have grown and developed as a country to broaden the base of people who have the full rights ensured them by our founding documents, so that slavery is abolished and people of any gender and race can vote and fully take part in society, just to name a few. Similarly, the people of God in the Old Testament change their laws over time, with God’s guidance, to be more equitable and emblematic of the love of God and God himself. Eventually, in Jesus Christ, that love is opened up to all who would seek it.

Both the understanding of God’s people and our own understanding of our nation’s founding documents evolve and grow and expand to incorporate all. This is not a bold thing to state, it is simply the biblical and historical truth. Who is considered worthy of God and God’s love – although all fall short – is a matter of how big creation is and how many people are in it. I say let that love embolden everything we say and do, imperfect though we may be. And even when we do not see God directly in our own stories, let us stay convicted in the divine presence and love, who works all things and all people together for good. And all of God’s imperfect people said: AMEN!