Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

How do we disrupt unhealthy relational behaviors?

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July 30, 2023

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28

This week’s lesson continues the saga of the ancestors of ancient Israel: how they became the nation that God promised, through human struggle, deceit, and disappointment. This part of the story continues the Jacob part of the saga, after we have learned that Jacob, the trickster, got a blessing in a deceitful way that his father and apparently God honored. That blessing made him have to leave his home. His mother did not want him to marry anyone that was not from family and sent him to her brother to escape the rage that he knew his brother Esau felt from his trickery (Genesis 27:46-28:1). If the preacher has been following this saga in her preaching, this story continues last week’s encounter Jacob had with God, on the way to follow his mother’s instruction. The goal was to keep Jacob from marrying a Canaanite woman, which likely is anachronistic as the Deuteronomic History would later insist that the problem among the ancient Israelites was losing fidelity to YHWH because of intermarriage. An astute reader will note the patriarchal misogyny in such a notion.

In this text, which begins after the first encounter Jacob and Rachel have at the well, the preacher might find the need for the backstory, to bring the listener up to speed. More than “the lesson” for the day, perhaps helping listeners imagine a world like the one of ancient Israel, will help the listeners “travel back in time,” and not make the mistake of trying to make ancient practices of marriage customs “fit” for our day. There might be some other lessons here, however, such as “what happens when two siblings are pitted against each other?” as Rachel and Leah are by Jacob’s choice. What happens when the trickster is tricked? We might refer to the Sanskrit notion of “karma,” in other words, that a person’s moral character is shaped by their actions. Or, the Christian text that is similar to this notion, “you reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7-9). In any event Rachel and Leah are caught between the desires of Jacob and the will of their father, Laban. They are pawns.

Though Jacob showed up to his uncle’s land to get married, it was a month before the subject was broached. He worked for his uncle who insisted he should not work for free. In answer, the text reveals that Jacob “loved” Rachel (29:18). How did he come to love her? What took him a month? Was he observing Rachel and Leah? He had encountered Rachel at the well, where he watered his uncle’s sheep and kissed her and told her he was her kin (29:9-11). She was the one to introduce him to her father and brother. But what we do not know is whether either Rachel or Leah would have a say in the matter, as their mother-in-law Rebekah had a say in marrying Isaac (Genesis 24:58). We don’t know whether Jacob and Rachel had a courtship over those seven years while he worked for his uncle anticipating his marriage night, though even those words are imposing our understanding of relationships onto the text. What we have is a story about the continuing saga of how the covenant will happen. How will God provide land and progeny for Jacob? 

As the story continues, Laban gives Leah instead of Rachel at the end of the seven-year service. If the rule was that the younger could not marry before the older daughter, why had Laban not made it known before Jacob began the work? The trickster is being tricked. There are a number of questions this text raises and the questions might matter for the preacher. How does Jacob not know he is sleeping with Leah? After seven years, did he not know the difference between the two women? Was he drunk for the festivities? Did Laban hope to give only one of his daughters to Jacob? Was Leah complicit? Did Rachel know, either about the promise her father had made to Jacob that she would be his wife, or that her older sister would go into the tent in her stead if she did know? The complications of relationships begin to surface if we ask the questions. Leah would experience herself as being unloved in the coming days, we know, as the text would say that God “saw” that Leah was not loved and opened her womb (29:31). The rivalry between the sisters shows up in their childbearing, as Rachel is barren, the biblical trope most used among women characters. Leah and Rachel, with their enslaved servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, bear Jacob the sons that would become the tribes of Israel, the promise God made. 

God’s promises through the saga of human history are messy. Sibling rivalry, heartbreak, births, child losses, barrenness, and more are contained with the narratives. In her commentary, Esther Menn notes, “The competition between the two sisters for the affection of their husband and for children parallels the earlier sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob for the birthright and blessing (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:1-40). Rachel’s boast that she has wrestled mightily with her sister and has prevailed (Genesis 30:8) foreshadows her husband Jacob’s wrestling with the divine being before being renamed ‘Israel,’ the one who strives with God and with humans and prevails (Genesis 32:28).” In other words, the cycle repeats and that may be a point for the preacher to interrogate. How do we disrupt unhealthy relational behaviors?

As the preacher tries to think through how these stories meet us in our time, perhaps we might look at our distorted notions of love and fidelity, of fairness and care for all those among us. Jacob could only see his desire for Rachel, so much so that he could not see Leah, even when she was in his bed. I wonder whether there are situations and relationships in which we are unaware of our own selfishness and we use people, and people get wounded, as Leah was. I wonder whether we have dismissed or sanctified our own treachery so much so that we discount people? I think we might also be guilty of overlooking the other women in these texts, in other words, the enslaved women Zilpah and Bilhah. It allows the preacher to think about sexual exploitation and human trafficking. It might also give us an opportunity to think about wages, given that Laban negotiates Jacob’s “pay” with the marriage of his daughters. In other words, there is a wealth of possibilities for the preacher to follow.