Saturday, July 26, 2014

Family Schemes

Genesis 29:15-30
July 29, 2014
William G. Carter

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years.

This is one of those Bible stories I remember from childhood. Jacob the trickster gets tricked. He gets what’s coming to him. He swindled his brother twice, fooled his father once, and now he gets a taste of his own medicine. The moral of the story: what goes around comes around.

On the surface, that's what the story says. But the longer I have lived with it, the more it makes me blush.

For one thing, one day it dawned on me why Jacob missed which sister he was marrying. Certainly she wore a veil. Curiously she didn't remove it when her father delivered her to Jacob’s tent for the wedding night. Only in the morning did Jacob discover with whom he had consummated the marriage. I thought the trickster was supposed to be astute!

But then I realized that the wedding night was most likely preceded by a big party. The wine was flowing, the band was playing, and the entire community came out to celebrate with great enthusiasm. Imagine the bleary-eyed shock of Jacob when he rolls over in the morning and discovers the wrong girl next to him in bed. And this is in the Bible! It made me blush.

Of course we already know that Jacob has his eye on Rachel. She was a shepherdess and he saw her going to the well. As soon as he laid eyes on her, he hustles over to lift an enormous stone covering the well. A real he man! And then he discovers she is a relative, the daughter of his Uncle Laban. After a month of living with the relatives, Jacob the Heel Grabber wants Rachel. He tells Uncle Laban, he was willing to work seven years for her, and then, as we heard, seven more. The Old Testament says, "Such was the love he had for her." To quote the Little Rascals, how romantical! 

He wants one sister, doesn’t care for the other. But he is married to the ugly one and wants the pretty one, so he marries them both. Two wives, that's complicated. I have had two wives, but only one at a time. That was complicated enough. Anybody who has been married knows one marriage is usually complicated enough. But Jacob has two wives, and they are sisters. It made me blush.

And this business of two wives - we cannot dismiss it by saying, “That was then, this is now.” There are lots of views of marriage in scripture. Usually the culture of the time dictated what a marriage looked like. Oh, I know, Genesis begins by saying, "a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife." But which wife for Jacob? He desires Rachel, gets her sister instead, and then keeps working for Rachel so he can have her too. In the process, Uncle Laban gives him two additional female servants. How generous!

If I might speed ahead two chapters, have you heard of the twelve tribes of Israel? They come from the twelve sons of Jacob, who had four mothers all residing in the same tent. Jacob was serious about God's instruction to be fruitful and multiply. Read further into chapter 29 and 30. It will make you blush.

And then there are the gender politics. If you are the father of two daughters, as I am, how would it go over if you bartered with their suitors for their hands in marriage? Just say to that rosie-cheeked young man, "Work for me for seven years and you can have her." I know how that would go. I have gotten some discounted yard work out of the guys who have been interested in my girls and it has never turned out well. Never. And here was Uncle Laban, playing on the affections of Jacob to get fourteen years of hard labor out of him. He does not appear the least bit interested in the welfare of his girls. It makes me blush.

But what really disturbs me is the honesty of the story: how family members take advantage of one another, how kin use one another, how one generation can sell out the next. That makes me blush. Because the Bible is unabashedly honest about our families.

Maybe not your family. Your family may be the one family on earth that is perfect. But there are an awful lot of families who hear a story like this and begin to blush. They know what it is like to be in a family like this one, with plot twists and unusual connections and relatives you can’t trust. To the neighbors, it might look like they have it all together. But the truth is a different story. Do you know about families like that?

Before I think about my own family, I think about the family of Kathleen Norris, the great writer. She writes about them in her book Amazing Grace. I had heard her grandfather was a minister, but here is how she fills in the rest of the story:

My grandfather Norris, the son of a circuit-riding Methodist preacher, had been a clerk at a lumber company, drifting through life, raising a little hell, and playing banjo in a jug band. He lived in a boarding house until he got his landlady’s daughter pregnant, and married her.

Their marriage, never a happy one, was further strained when my grandfather was “saved” at one of Billy Sunday’s revival meetings. In a way, he was trying to come to terms with his inheritance as a preacher’s son, but the immediate effects were dramatic. He promised Jesus that he, too, would become a Methodist minister and proceeded to work his way through West Virginia Wesleyan, in the town of Buckhannon. It took him seven years, in which he clerked at a clothing store and filled pulpits in the churches of the surrounding area.

In the sixth year, his wife proved too immature for the responsibilities of mothering, and when their second child was still an infant, she ran away with another man. Friends and relatives helped my grandfather care for the two children until he graduated. Shortly before he was to take his first church, in Wallace, West Virginia, he looked up at a young woman he knew, the daughter of an accountant at one of the lumber companies where he worked. Against her parents’ wishes, she married him, seeing in the proposal her own “calling” to serve the church.[1]

I have heard family stories like that, full of twists and turns, detours and temporary destinations. God never seems to work in a straight line, because families don’t move that way. That’s how it is with every family I know.

You have heard me quote Frederick Buechner in this pulpit from time to time. He is a Presbyterian minister and world renowned novelist, now getting close to his ninetieth birthday. His words have given insight and depth to thousands of people. What is not widely known is his father’s suicide when Fred was a child or his daughter’s struggle with anorexia which almost killed her. In therapy Fred realized her illness came in part from his attempt to tamp down his feelings about his own father. It was the family habit. He kept a thumb on his feelings, he kept a thumb on his daughter’s feelings, and one day it all imploded. It was only decades later, as Buechner wrote honestly about the mess of his own family, that he could find some sort of healing. As somebody said to him, “You have been a good steward of your own pain.”[2]

Isn’t this how it is? Little in our families will move in a straight line. Terrible things happen. Relatives stop talking to one another. A brother hits it big and never comes home. Two sisters squabble for most of their lives. The addiction of grandparents is bequeathed to their grandchildren. Children die too early. Somebody gets pregnant at an inconvenient time. A lost job pushes the household to move somewhere far away. A couple divorces and then later remarries. A major illness forces people to sell the house. I will bet you know some tales like these – and they may lie closer than you are willing to share.

A man told me about going into the Navy. It was his only way out of the small dirt farm where he lived. Each week, he wrote to the girl he loved back home. Each month he sent home some money to be saved. When he went to an extravagant port of call and found something special, he dreamed of setting up a home with his new wife, so he bought it and shipped it home.

The time came for discharge. He took the long journey home, embraced everybody, and winked at his girl. Then he said, “Where is all the stuff that I sent home?” His folks said, “We sold it. We thought it was for us, and we needed the money. That’s how we do it in our family.” Needless to say, he started daydreaming about leaving home.

Uncle Laban says, “You wanted the younger daughter before the older one? That’s not how we do it in our family.” The irony is thick. He says this to Jacob, the younger brother who swindled the older brother, not once but twice. Jacob is hiding out from his brother – fourteen years in this story alone, with more years to come. The brothers don’t speak, of course. Their parents Isaac and Rebekah don’t come to either of Jacob’s weddings, if they even know where he is or what he’s been doing. No, the distance was built in.

So Jacob the Trickster is tricked. But he will have a few other tricks up his sleeve, including a really big trick for old Uncle Laban. Family life as usual. What goes around comes around.

Meanwhile, where is God while all of this nonsense is going on? Where is God in Genesis 29? Never mentioned in this section of the story, never mentioned until the babies start coming. God may be in the circumstances, but is certainly not pulling the strings of these people as if they are puppets. No, God gives enough free will for people to take advantage of the people they live with. And in the thick of everything, there is always the possibility God will create beauty out of the harshest situations we know.

If God is in the story, it’s like that great line from one of Flannery O’Connor’s novels: “He saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”[3]

So let’s wind this up. Look at how the book of Genesis does theology. Genesis does not impose abstracted principles upon us. No, Genesis tells stories, stories that are close to home. Most of the people in the Bible aren't any better than us -- and we certainly are not any better than them. If there is such a thing as holiness, it comes from God and not from us. The human family of which Jacob’s family is a part is prone to the same missteps and misgivings that we make every day. I’m enough of a Calvinist to know the messes come all the time. Yet the great spiritual mystery is that God is in the thick of it all, offering unrequited love, unexpected blessing, and deep, deep healing.

The Christian church testifies to this. Christians are really no better nor worse than the rest of the human family. But we gather to affirm there is more to life than the messes our families create. We tell of the holy God who blesses one generation after another, the human Jesus who gives his life to reconcile all that is broken within us and among us, and the Holy Spirit who continues to blow free grace on those who are not worthy of it -- yet are invited to respond.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 38-39.
[2] Mr. Buechner tells the story at
[3] Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood.

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