Our text for this week is a continuation of the story of Jacob.
Last week, we heard about Jacob at Bethel and the promise God made to him there, the same promise God made to his grandfather, Abraham, (Gen 12:1-3, 7) and to his father, Isaac, (Gen 26:1-5): land, offspring, and blessing. God also said, "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Gen 28:15). It is a very gracious promise indeed for a man who is running for his life, a man who is going into exile from his homeland and from everyone he knows and loves.
In the reading for this week, then, we begin to see the fulfillment of God's promises to Jacob. He has come to his mother's homeland and he has been welcomed by Laban, his uncle. When Laban asks him what his wages should be, Jacob asks for Rachel, Laban's younger daughter, in exchange for seven years of labor. In a lovely turn of phrase, the text says that those years "seemed to [Jacob] but a few days because of the love he had for [Rachel]" (Gen 29:20).
The seven years end, and Jacob is eager to claim his bride. Then, on the wedding night, the trickster is tricked: Laban gives Jacob his older daughter Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob's shock is evident in the text: "In the morning, behold, it was Leah!" (One could mentally substitute an expletive here for "behold" to get the full effect of the Hebrew text.) The man who deceived his blind father is himself deceived while blinded by night, or by too much celebrating.
The sense of poetic justice goes farther than saying the deceiver was deceived, however. Jacob had broken the law of the firstborn when he tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright (Gen 25:29-34) and his blessing (Gen 27:1-40). (The law of the firstborn mandated that the firstborn son got two-thirds of the inheritance; see Deut 21:15-17.) Now, Jacob is caught by another "law of the firstborn." Laban explains that the younger daughter cannot be married off before the firstborn daughter. The trickster is tricked, and the punishment fits the crime.
The situation is resolved by Laban's deal with Jacob: After the marital week with Leah is finished (cf. Judges 14:12), Jacob can also marry Rachel, if he agrees to work for Laban another seven years. Jacob agrees, and the lectionary text ends: "Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife."
What follows the lectionary text is the account of the births of Jacob's children. Leah, seeing that she is unloved, takes comfort in the four sons she bears Jacob. Rachel, like Sarah and Rebekah before her, is barren, and gives her handmaid to Jacob. Leah eventually does the same. Sister struggles with sister for the love of their husband, but out of this rivalry and familial strife, Jacob and his wives eventually become the parents of twelve sons and one daughter. At last, for the first time in Genesis, it looks like God's promise to Abraham of innumerable offspring will be fulfilled. The "great nation" God promised to Abraham all the way back in Genesis 12:2 will spring from these twelve sons.
Granted that this is a good story on its own merits, the question remains: What is a preacher to do with this text? The swapping of brides on a wedding night (not to mention the fact that Jacob doesn't notice the switch until morning) would seem to be strange fodder for a sermon.
First of all, the preacher must put this text in the context of the larger story of Jacob, indeed, the larger story of the family of Abraham. Many adult parishioners will not have heard Jacob's story since Sunday School days (if then). The semi-continuous Old Testament lessons this summer offer a wonderful opportunity to remind people about the stories of Genesis, the foundational stories for the birth of the nation of Israel. A significant portion of the sermon, then, should be spent in simply re-telling the story of Jacob. Such a re-telling engages one's congregation (including children) and allows important themes to emerge from the larger story surrounding the text.
Those larger themes might include a focus on God's promises, promises that are fulfilled in spite of and even through the less-than-admirable actions of the human beings in the story. Though Jacob is a liar and a trickster, God graciously gives him the blessing God gave to Abraham and to Isaac. In addition, God promises to be with him and to bring him back to his homeland. The scene at Bethel is a profound illustration of God's grace, and it starts to be fulfilled in our text for this week. Specifically, the long-standing promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a "great nation" starts to be fulfilled even through Laban's trickery and the rivalry that develops between Leah and Rachel. God is faithful, and God fulfills his promises, even through very flawed human beings.
Another theme that emerges from the story of Jacob has to do with the relationship between God and Jacob. Though the text does not say this explicitly, it seems that God is working with this flawed man to re-make him. Jacob, after stealing Esau's blessing, is caught in a net of his own making. The deceiver is deceived, and the one who broke the law of the firstborn is caught by another version of it. Jacob lives in exile from his homeland, and has to work for fourteen years without wages for love of Rachel. All these experiences will help to re-make the shallow young man we first met in Genesis 25 into the father of the nation Israel. That re-shaping will take a dramatic turn, of course, in next week's lesson, the story of Jacob's wrestling with God at the River Jabbok.