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Sex, Lies, and Red Tape

July 25, 2011

“Sex, Lies, and Red Tape” Genesis 29:15-35 Ordinary 17A © 7/24/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

This is the story of Jacob. Part 1.

You may know the general outline of his biography. His grandparents were Abraham and Sarah. His father was Isaac. Jacob’s mother Rebekah was selected for Isaac from among family in the old country. Like her mother-in-law before her, Rebekah never could conceive. This was a source of great sorrow to her and to Isaac, for the validation of women in that culture was their ability to bear children. Her husband interceded with God on her behalf, and once again from barrenness, God brought life.

Even before they were born, we are told, the fraternal twins who were Esau and Jacob struggled with each other. Rebekah was miserable with the kids kicking around, so the Lord, Yahweh, clued her in on what was happening. The children would always be fighting; the nations that would descend from them would be divided in the years to come.

And sure enough, the boys never got along. Esau was a hunter. He liked nothing more than to take his bow and bring down a deer, then slap some of the tenderloin on the grill or make himself some sausage. His favorite things were his pick-up truck, his Real Tree camo jacket, and grabbing a six-pack of PBR and hanging out on a weekend night with a good-looking local girl. Because of his love for the outdoors, Esau was his father’s boy, the favorite of Isaac.

Jacob, on the other hand, was an introverted, polite, gentle man, a homebody, hanging out in the tents, living a quiet life. He enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen, learning about breeding animals, and having a philosophical conversation. In his spare time, he wrote poetry. He seldom went into town, and girls didn’t pay him much attention. Rebekah preferred Jacob to the burly, crude Esau. Neither she nor Jacob could come to terms with such a man getting the inheritance. Why should a brief interval between their births mean that Esau got the lion’s share of wealth while Jacob had to be satisfied with leftovers?

Once, Esau, famished from hunting all day, came up while Jacob was making some stew. Not one to let an opportunity pass, Jacob would only give Esau a bowl of the stuff in exchange for the rights of the first-born son. Esau, ever the man of the moment, ever the slave of his appetites, agreed, and Jacob now had claim on the inheritance.

But Jacob wasn’t finished. Much later, with Esau still Isaac’s favorite, Jacob conned his father into blessing him instead of Esau. It is a tragic scene when Esau discovers what has happened. Furious with his brother, he decides to kill him. Rebekah, ever protective, warns Jacob, who flees to the old country, back to his uncle Laban’s house.

On the way, he has a dream in which a ladder extends from heaven to earth. I like to imagine a familiar old spiritual or maybe that classic Led Zeppelin song playing in the background. Jacob hears the voice of God promising him companionship and blessing. It is the first time Jacob is aware in any conscious, intentional way of the God of his father and mother. He is beginning to come into his own spiritually, developing a personal ownership of this tradition into which he was born. He builds an altar and makes a vow, then heads out on his journey.

When at last he comes to Haran, the ancestral homeland, the first people he meets are some local shepherds. They introduce him to a young woman named Rachel, who, it turns out, is the daughter of his uncle Laban, precisely the man he had come to see. In violation of a local custom, Jacob moves a heavy stone from the mouth of a well for her and the other shepherds right then, instead of waiting for all the flocks to gather. Maybe the author intends us to see Jacob as a take-charge kind of guy or at least a very independent one. Jacob introduces himself, and Rachel runs home to tell her father they’ve got company for dinner.

Laban welcomes Jacob, who tells him all about why he’s come. That may have been when Laban decided he probably should watch his back around this nephew. If he tricked his brother and his father, who could know what he might do to another relative?

So we come to the text for the morning. Laban wants to be fair to Jacob, and offers him a job for wages. Having seen Rachel, though, who is incredibly beautiful and moves like a dancer, Jacob can’t think about money. He will work for Laban not for cash, but for this stunning girl who has stolen his heart. Sure, why not, Laban says, might as well be you rather than some guy I don’t know or care for.

So Jacob works those seven years. And romantic that he is, the time passes so swiftly that it seems he’s in a time warp. Not seven years, but seven days. The text has an odd note for a man in that era. It actually admits that Jacob loved this woman.

The moment the seven years are up, Jacob goes to Laban and asks for his bride. Fine, says Laban. Let’s throw a party to celebrate your marriage! The translations obscure it, but the Hebrew makes clear that the point of this “feast” was to get stinking drunk. Laban has something up his sleeve, so he particularly wants Jacob not to be entirely in control of his faculties.

It’s hard for us to understand how what happened next could in fact happen. But consider these possibilities: during the wedding, the bride’s face is covered by a veil. I doubt if she said anything. When her father brings her to Jacob later, it’s dark. And Jacob is still inebriated. But once dawn comes and the liquor wears off, and he looks at the woman beside him, Jacob realizes that he has married Leah! When Jacob raises the issue rather forcefully, Laban says, in effect, oh, didn’t I tell you, we have to marry off the older first. You can have Rachel, too, but there’ll be a price. What goes around comes around; there’s that first-born privilege again. Jacob knows when he’s bested, so he doesn’t object. Just works another seven years.

Naturally, Jacob is highly resentful of Leah, and treats her like dirt. Despite the way she’s regarded, though, she’s desperate for the affection of this man. Jacob fathers a bunch of children, but of course he could do that without loving her. Boy babies don’t win his affection. Rachel is still the favorite.

What a soap opera, huh? And the story gets worse as we read more. You’re probably asking why I’m wasting time on this stuff; it’s not a worthy story for preaching. Why is such a tale even in the Bible? It’s so earthy, even sordid, certainly demeaning to women. Give us the soaring poetry of Second Isaiah or the beautiful cadences of a favorite psalm. Let us hear again Paul’s reassuring affirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God or the comforting word of Jesus that even the smallest faith in a big God can move a mountain. Not this offensive, even ridiculous story in the same vein as bad beach-reading novels and sub-B grade reality TV.

But we mistake the character of the Bible if we insist that all of it be uplifting and inspirational, good family fare or the sort of thing we recite in our time of need. This story is tame compared to some others. The Bible is so full of violence and bloodshed, sex and seduction, and lies and deceit that if it were done realistically as a movie, it would be restricted only to adults. The people in the Scriptures are not nice. And that’s just the ones God seems to like!

Which is the point. It is precisely through the scheming of a crook like Jacob, the deception of an uncle like Laban, the customs of a country, physical attractiveness, the dysfunction of a family, the stuff of life in general, that God works. The Lord picks people we would never think were candidates for holiness or blessing and in their lives works out a plan that would eventually bring into the world a Savior. If he can do something with such material, can he work his purposes through you? Through me?

So in a general way, we can learn something about the Bible and about the strange choices of God from this text. But there are a couple of other items that deserve our attention.

There is for one the way in which custom and insider knowledge are used as weapons against Jacob. Now, I dare say he deserves such treatment as he gets. And it’s hard to imagine how he could have lived seven years in that country and never heard of the tradition. Maybe when he excitedly talked about marrying Rachel, others just nodded their heads, then laughed behind his back.

The point is, though, that tradition and custom and knowledge of them are used here not to order life and bind folk together, but to separate people into us and them. We are reminded of the disdain in this comment: “I don’t know where you come from, but we don’t do things like that here.” That’s a cousin, isn’t it, to “we’ve always done it that way”? We also think of communities and families that routinely practice deceit and secrecy. These are the typical unspoken rules: don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t think, don’t ask questions, don’t trust. These conditions for continuing membership are never articulated in any overt way until they are broken by some member of the household or the congregation, who is then promptly punished with sarcasm, ostracism or some other sanction.

When otherwise good or value-neutral customs and traditions are used to exclude and exploit and categorize, I am sure the gospel condemns them. And it demands repentance and change from who employ custom and tradition in such ways, whether ancient uncle Laban or someone in our day, including us. Practices of a community can close it to others or they can open its life to all who would choose to bond with it. The gospel calls us to the latter, to an open story with no hidden agendas and no red tape, hoops or secret knowledge, no in crowds, no us and them. The church at its best and most faithful is and must be a community where all participate on equal terms, as sisters and brothers in faith, all standing as priests before the throne of God and around the Table of Christ. The church at its best is always engaged in renewal, in self-critique, in seeking to be faithful to Jesus in all its practices. The church at its best is “Reformed, always to be Reformed by the Word of God.”

But if we learn something here about how customs may be used, we also hear a word about justice. Jacob can hardly object to his treatment. He has cheated, lied, deceived, stolen. And now in Laban he has met his match, a man just as devious as he is. We are reminded of Jesus’ words: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Paul said: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” Here is a man held accountable, through circumstances of his life, for his actions. He is indeed reaping what he sowed. And so shall we all.

But there is another kind of justice operating here. It is the care of God for those on the margins. Like poor, hapless Esau, scammed out of his inheritance for a bowl of soup. For people like him, who need somebody to look after their interests, somebody to trust for good advice and up-front dealing. Like unloved Leah. For people like her, maltreated and maligned and unhappy, longing for affection. Indeed, for her sister, too, for both women are abused by their father by being exploited for his purposes, and have no say in the matter. For all these and more, God is an advocate. God sees. God remembers. He looks on affliction. These are the only sorts of folk who can claim with any biblical warrant: “God is on our side.”

Over and over in the Bible, we discover that God is biased for the poor and the outcast. The flip side of that is how God judges the oppressor, those who thwart community, and those who depend on themselves and promote themselves and their own power. Such was the theme of Mary’s song in Luke. Such was the message of Jesus’ ministry. Sometimes we may fall into the category of those against whom Mary sang and whom God opposes because we have set ourselves up as our own savior. But there are plenty of other times when we cry aloud with Leah, we rage with Esau against trickery, we feel the burden when life comes down hard. Then, we can take heart, and say with the hymn-writer: “Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side.”

The story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel continued. There were more lies, more sex, more red tape. But through it all the purpose of God did not fail. God still uses the everyday stuff of life and ordinary people, flawed and broken, to accomplish his will and bring his kingdom.

What is God going to do through you and me today?

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