Read the text here: Genesis 29:15-28
What Goes Around…
We are about halfway through the Jacob cycle and it might be a good time to pause and consider where we are in the story. We began this entire set of stories with God speaking to Abraham – 1. you will be a great nation; 2. you will be blessed; 3. so that you will be a blessing to the nations. This promise is at the foundation of the entirety of all three narratives. With the Jacob cycle we have shifted the focus from the concern of securing the inheritance and having children of promise to the issue of blessing. And Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob have all bought into the belief that God’s blessings are scarce and unique. This consequently fuels the conflict that divides this family. Jacob tricks Esau into giving up his birthright (which would have included the blessing – Genesis 25); Jacob and Rebekah conspire to deceive and steal Isaac’s blessing for Esau (Genesis 27); Esau is so incredibly angry about this betrayal he resolves to kill his twin brother, Jacob. And so Jacob becomes a fugitive, running away for his life. (Genesis 28) Stopping to rest he dreams, and in the dream he sees a ramp with God’s messengers ascending and descending and then God descends and stands right next to Jacob and repeats the promise: 1. you will return to the land and be a great nation; 2. you will be showered with blessings – I will be present with you no matter what; 3. so that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.
In this text Jacob finally arrives at his Uncle Laban’s camp. Now we met Rebekah’s brother Laban earlier when Abraham sent a servant to secure a wife for Isaac. And we noted at that time that he was crafty and manipulative. The next few chapters are interesting to see how these two very manipulative men manage to trick each other – Laban gets the upper hand first, but eventually he is bested by Jacob. That is later in the story – for now, Laban takes the initiative and perhaps suggests that Jacob should be working if he is going to stay. They agree that Jacob’s wages for working 7 years will be the hand of Rachel in marriage. But at the wedding Laban pulls a fast one and substitutes the older sister Leah and Jacob has to work another 7 years for Rachel (See note below). It is poetic justice that the deceiver gets deceived, that the trickster gets tricked, and that the issue is about who is born first. This, of course, was the issue in Jacob’s deceit when he stole Esau’s blessing. So what goes around comes around. And eventually Jacob marries both sisters and in the text that follows we learn that Leah bears 7 children (6 sons and 1 daughter), her maid Zilpah bears 2 sons, Rachel’s maid Bilhah bears 2 sons and eventually Rachel bears two sons – Joseph and Benjamin (though Benjamin’s birth, and Rachel’s death in childbirth do not come about until we are into the Joseph cycle – Genesis 35. So, that is twelve sons – who are the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel + 1 daughter, Dinah.
This is all pretty mundane stuff. And that is the point. Jacob and Laban haggling and tricking each other over wages for working with the livestock, negotiating and arranging marriages, human deceit and betrayal - that is all very human stuff. But yet, God’s promises are fulfilled though these very mundane, simple and less than holy events. In the dream God descends to Jacob – comes down to his level. In the dream God promises that God will always be with Jacob no matter what and that the promise will be fulfilled. But God doesn’t zap it into being – God works through the mundane events of daily life; through the conflicts and the disappointments and the struggles; God’s promises comes to fulfillment because God is active in the nitty-gritty of human life, even the messy parts and even the dark parts.
This is what “Incarnation” is all about. Every year at Christmas we use this word – “Incarnation.” But then it is like we put it away with all the Christmas decorations. But we simply can’t do that – Incarnation is central to how we understand how God acts in the world and how we experience God in our lives. And this story reminds us that God is at work through the ordinariness of human life – with all of its joys and sorrows, struggles and celebrations and highs and lows. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus – through the cross we are reminded that God is at work in our lives and we experience the presence of God usually not in supernatural ways, but – like Jacob – in ordinary events and interactions: a kindness expressed, people coming together to feed the hungry, to care for those who are lost, welcoming the sojourner, healing the sick, comforting the grieving and so on and so on – we can go on all day and we will never exhaust all of the ways we experience God in our lives. Too often I think we miss it because we aren’t looking in the right place – we expect supernatural, miraculous events. But instead we get a cross – we get the water of Baptism – we get the bread and wine of Holy Communion – we get ordinary men and women striving to live out their faith in the world in a vast variety of ways, some great and some small, but all essential.
We cannot exhaust God’s blessings. God showers blessings upon us all freely. We cannot escape from God’s presence. We cannot earn God’s love – it is given freely. In his interactions with his Uncle Laban, Jacob learns that what goes around comes around – but nevertheless God is at work and is active with him, and with us – now and always and nothing can separate us…
(1) Part of the difficulty with this text is that the process for courtship and marriage is vastly different from our own time. In antiquity and in the bible marriage is a property transaction! Love is not the driving force and is basically irrelevant. Isaac loves Rebekah, we are told in passing, but it questionable whether she feels the same; Jacob is mad about Rachel, but what exactly does that mean and regardless we are never told how Rachel feels. Indeed she has no choice about it at all. Laban, her father makes the deal without consulting her (at least Rebekah got the right to refuse!) and then switches her out with her older sister, Leah. Neither of these girls had anything to say about this. They were property to be traded and used as a commodity. This is not a model for love and marriage for us today. We have come a long way and we have come to understand that both partners have to be committed to a marriage for it to be successful.