Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017
George Knudson, Preacher
Genesis 29:15-28 (semi-continuous)
Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel
Even from eternity God has chosen us to be beloved in Christ
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Jesus tells parables about the dominion of heaven
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If there were a contest to determine which is the most hilarious verse in the Bible, my nominee would be a verse from our First Lesson for today. Specifically, I would nominate Genesis 29:25, which reads as follows: “When morning came, it was Leah!”
Of course, we’ve learned to take these ancient and fantastic old stories with a grain of salt, but even still, you have to wonder how it could be possible for a newly married couple to get all the way through their wedding night without realizing that they’ve ended up with the wrong spouse!
I can understand that Leah was probably heavily veiled, according to tradition; also that it was probably very dark inside the tent. But you would think that if Leah had even so much as cleared her throat at any point during the night, Jacob would have instantly realized that this was not his beloved Rachel.
In the end, of course, Jacob was able to marry both Leah and her younger sister Rachel, even though he had to work an additional seven years for his Uncle Laban in order to make that possible. And keep in mind that this was back when polygamy was the order of the day, nothing unusual about it.
It was Uncle Laban who deceived Jacob in this way, in the process craftily managing to marry off both his daughters in one fell swoop, and getting seven more years of free labor out of Jacob, to boot.
But another way of looking at it is that Jacob was finally getting a taste of his own medicine. Laban was really no worse than Jacob himself. It was Jacob, remember, who tricked his elder brother Esau into selling him his birthright in exchange for a bowl of lentils, and then later tricked his own father Isaac into giving his final blessing to himself (to Jacob), even though it rightfully belonged to Esau.
[By the way, this whole cycle of stories about Isaac and Jacob, Jacob’s wives and sons, is better than any racy novel you can pick up at the supermarket. If, on the off chance you haven’t recently re-read Genesis 25-36, I highly recommend it. Our text this morning from Genesis is just a small snippet of the whole story.]
So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go ahead and tell you what happens next, after the end of our appointed text. Interestingly, at this point the story turns. Going forward, it is no longer about the the men and their mutual deceptions, but rather about the rivalry between the two sisters, Rachel and Leah, who now share the same husband. In fact, at this point the wives seem to be entirely in control of the game. If Jacob tried to influence the course of the action in any real way, it’s not mentioned in the story. Rachel and Leah pass him around like a card in a card game.
Now remember, it was Rachel whom Jacob truly loved. He was married also to Leah only because he’d been tricked into it. But during the first years of the marriage, it was Leah who kept having children, to Rachel’s consternation. In fact, Leah had four children in a row, but Rachel had none.
Not to be outdone, Rachel gave Jacob her maid, Bilhah, to see if Bilhah could have children by Jacob because, according to the rules in place back then, if Rachel’s maid had children by Rachel’s husband, then Rachel would get credit for them! And, in fact, that’s exactly what happened. Bilhah did have two children. Score two for Rachel, even if they were not her actual children!
But then, that gave Leah the idea to give her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob, and Zilpah had two children. Score two more for Leah!
Rachel was beside herself! In desperation, she even tried using mandrakes, an herbal plant with medicinal properties that was thought to promote conception. But to no avail.
Leah had three more children, two sons and a daughter. All of these children were boys, by the way, with the exception of the one daughter.
Finally, at long last, Rachel and Jacob had a son together, and named him Joseph. Some time later, they had another son, named Benjamin. But sadly, Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, while they were traveling, just outside the village of Bethlehem.
And that’s the end of the story, as far as we’re going to take it. The remaining chapters of Genesis are full of further exciting plot twists and turns, but I encourage you to read about those on your own.
So, with these four women, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, Jacob fathered thirteen children: one daughter, whose name was Dinah; and twelve sons. The names of the twelve sons, in order, were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.
Does those names ring any bells? Well, it was only in hindsight that it became clear that this long, sad, and bizarre tale of trickery, rivalry, jealousy, deception, disappointment, and desperation, was actually the story of the founding of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a story that, in one way or another, is still unfolding to this day. It’s a story that, for Christians at least, leads up to and includes the story of our savior, Jesus Christ.
So what does all this have to do with us, if anything?
Well, for one thing, it means that, if you think you belong to a dysfunctional family, rest assured that there is biblical precedent for that!
I think it also goes to the whole question of how God works in history, and how God works in the unfolding of our own personal lives. We like to believe that God has a plan for our lives and that, somehow, our little lives fit into the larger plan in some significant way. But how can we know what God’s plan for us is? How can we be sure that we are following the course that God wants us to follow?
And what if we screw it all up — what then? What if we make the wrong career choice, or get into trouble with the law? What if we are responsible for bringing the dysfunction into the dysfunctional family? What then? Can we fix it? And, if not, will we throw God’s master plan all out of whack? I’ve known quite a few people over the years who have been very concerned with these kinds of questions.
And such questions are not limited to the personal realm. As an example, we can look at the astonishing events that are unfolding in Washington, D.C., right now, and ask, “Does all this fit into God’s plan, somehow, or has God’s train gone off the rails?” If the world as-it-is doesn’t make any sense to us, do we have reason to be concerned?
Thinking back to Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, I think it is fair in hindsight to agree that God was able to use them and their individual lives as part of a larger plan. But I doubt that they themselves, as individuals, had much of an inkling of what that plan was. It seems that they did their best to screw things up pretty badly, but that didn’t seem to hinder God’s plan in the long run.
I suspect it’s pretty much the same with us. I do believe that God has a plan, an eternal plan, as well as a plan for our lives. But it’s God’s plan, not ours. As much as we would love to peek behind the curtain and see what God is cooking up in the heavenly kitchen, that is a privilege not granted to us. And that fact makes us nervous.
Paul’s word of comfort, from the Romans text for today, is that “…..all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” And what is that “good?” Paul goes on to say that that good is “…..to be conformed to the image of the Son of God.” In other words, the highest good is to be in Christ, joined to Christ, receiving all of Christ’s graces and blessings, and his love.
All things work together for good for those who love God, it’s true. But Paul did not mean that, if you love God, life will be peachy-keen, no problems, smooth sailing. Not at all. If you read this passage from Romans 8 carefully, you can see that the lives of the early Christians could be pretty grim. Paul is able to ask, “If God is for us, who is against us?” just because there were a lot of people against the followers of Jesus. He asks, “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect……who is to condemn?” just because there were lots of charges and much condemnation being brought against the early Christians.
Paul acknowledges the grim realities of life, and he has no illusions about how challenging the life of faith can be. His proclamation is that “…..in all these things we are more than conquerors through [Christ] who loved us.” Christ himself is the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field. He is the one who makes it all worthwhile. He is the one who makes it all possible.
God’s plan for us and our world may be murky, at best, at least from our perspective. “For now we see in a glass darkly,” as Paul says in another place. But in spite of much evidence to the contrary, rest assured that God is working behind the scenes. As Pastor Bruce said last week, God is in the process of destroying evil and establishing the good. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, has already won the final victory. He has made us his own. And nothing in all creation can separate us from his love.
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray.
Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us to be your very own people. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes in our lives and the confusion of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, even your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.