Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Cost of Deception: a Sermon on Genesis 29:1-28

Love Genesis though I do, I admit I'm looking forward to getting back to Jesus next week. I miss him!

This sermon was named early in the week. The name was not so appropriate to the final product. Ah well...

Sermon Series: Family Stories
Sermon: “The Cost of Deception”
Genesis 29:1-28
July 27, 2008

“Sisters, Sisters, there were never such devoted sisters…” Anyone remember Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen singing that song together in “White Christmas”? The song is actually a very clever examination of both sisterly love and devotion on the one hand, and competitiveness and rivalry on the other. In other words, it captures the relationship perfectly. The song begins by emphasizing the way in which the sisters are inseparable, dependent on one another, looking out for one another… and then throws in just a little vinegar to cut all that sweetness: “Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister/ and Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man!” It seems apropos, as we think about Rachel and Leah, not to mention Jacob and his brother Esau, to recognize that all these things… love, devotion, competition, rivalry… can exist side by side, in the same relationship.

We have stories of sisters and brothers today, the relationships of siblings. And by way of background for today’s story, which focuses on the sisters who would marry Jacob, it might be good to remember a few salient points about Jacob and Esau, too. Jacob and Esau are twins, who begin their life by battling it out in their mother Rebekah’s womb. That battle is still raging in the background of today’s story. God speaks to Rebekah, revealing to her that the younger of the twins will be the dominant one, served by the elder, a reversal of the social customs of the day. True to the oracle, Jacob, the younger, is born gripping the heel of his first-born brother. His name, Jacob, means, literally, “he grasps the heel,” or “he supplants,” or even “he deceives.”[i]

Jacob lives up to his name. First, he uses his skills in the kitchen to trick his brother out of his birthright. Esau comes in from the field one day, famished, and Jacob agrees to give him a bowl of the fragrant lentil stew that is bubbling over the fire… but only if Esau will pay for it with his inheritance, the double portion inheritance that belongs to the firstborn. Esau takes the deal. Later as their father Isaac is nearing the end of his life, Jacob, with the help of his mother, manages to steal Isaac’s special blessing for the firstborn. Jacob layers on animal pelts, in an approximation of his brother’s hairy physique. The old man, his eyes dim so that he cannot see, falls for the disguise, and bestows the one-of-a-kind, one-time-only blessing on the younger son. When Esau learns the news, he is enraged. He vows to kill Jacob. Jacob runs, sent by his mother to the home of her brother Laban. En route, he has a remarkable dream of angels, a stairway to heaven. It confirms what was told his mother before he was born: deceiver or not, God’s special blessing is upon him.

Then we arrive at our passage today. The first part of the story is picturesque, a fairy tale.
Once upon a time a strong prince came to a magical well where sheep were watered. The stone covering the well was so enormous it could only be moved by all the shepherds working together. The prince saw a beautiful princess at the well… she was so beautiful he fell in love at first sight, and kissed her, weeping for joy. His love was so strong it enabled him to move the enormous stone, to uncover the well, and to water her flock. They went to see the king, who was overjoyed at the love match. The end.

Well, not quite. Very quickly it dawns on us that all is not well in the familial relations between Jacob and his father-in-law-to-be. At the end of the first part of the reading, Laban declares to Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” These words ring in our ears from the story of the first man and woman in the garden, how perfectly suited they are to one another, how closely related they are. And we can hear these words as Laban’s ringing endorsement of his nephew. Or… we can hear the tiniest hint of warning. If Laban is perfectly suited to his nephew, might that mean that the deceiver has at last met his match?

The next hint that all is not well comes in the question Laban puts to Jacob: “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing?” It’s odd to follow a statement about what close kin they are, bone and flesh and all, with the clear expectation that the younger man should serve the elder. If a warning bell goes off for us, it clearly doesn’t for Jacob. ‘Jacob loved Rachel,’ Genesis tells us, ‘so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”’ And the love match appears to be sealed.

One of the things we’ve been talking about in our bible study is how very complicated is the task of translating scripture from its original language. This passage gives us a wonderful illustration of how different scholars can arrive at very different translations. On verse 16, they agree. In both the NRSV (which we have read this morning) and the NIV, verse 16 reads: “Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.” No translation problems there. Then, consider the same two sources in their translations of verse 17:

NRSV: Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.

NIV: And Leah’s eyes were weak; but Rachel was beautiful of form and face.

Two very different translations. Here’s my translation: “And Leah [had] tender eyes but Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of vision.” I have to concur with the translation that makes an unfavorable comparison between Leah and her sister. Leah, let’s not forget, the elder sister, and Rachel, the younger.

Can you sense disaster on the wind? Because it’s coming. Jacob does something few of us 21st century people can conceive: he works seven years for the sake of the person he loves. In our world of instantaneous communication and even more instantaneous decisions regarding all kinds of intimacy and relationships… seven years. It’s hard to imagine. At the end of which, thanks to the ancient custom of the bridal veil… in case you were wondering how it was possible…thanks to that ancient custom, Jacob is able to be tricked into marrying, not the object of his devotion but her older sister, the one with tender eyes.

The deceiver is deceived. The trickster is tricked. The younger brother who supplanted the older brother finds that the younger sister whom he loves has been supplanted by her older sister, to his great dismay. And Jacob agrees to another seven years of labor for his love.

It’s hard to read this story without recognizing the truth of the old saying, “What goes around comes around.” Jacob hurt his brother and father desperately. I dare you to not be moved by the description of Esau in chapter 27. He cries out, “with an exceedingly great and bitter cry.” He’s devastated. And there’s nothing that can mend what he has lost… in the strange biblical mathematics of father-to-son blessings, there is only one blessing, and it is gone, and it cannot be called back or re-given or in any way fixed. Esau suffers as a result of Jacob’s deception.

And now it is Jacob’s turn to suffer. Imagine Jacob’s distress on the morning after his wedding, when he realizes the true identity of the woman at his side. And we can only wonder what Rachel and Leah feel and think about all this. The women in this portion of the story are more acted upon than acting, and they are silent about this turn of events. But imagine the suffering of the sister whose wedding night has been stolen from her. Imagine the humiliation of the sister who is sent into the tent of the man she knows does not love her. Is there anyone in this story who is not a victim, in the end?

Sisters, brothers, parents, children, husbands, wives: they are all in this story, and they all do extraordinarily unkind things to one another throughout. But the message of that song holds true: love and devotion and rivalry and competitiveness can exist side by side in the same relationships, in the same people. Is there any hope in this story? Where is God in all this?

God is in our ability to love one another, and to forgive one another. This week I attended two wonderful meetings in which the brother of one of our members made some proposals and suggestions to help Our Church with our stewardship, our membership and our website. “I love my brother,” he told us, “and I want to help this church that he loves.” Who knows what elementary school was like for these two, whether anyone ever short-sheeted anyone else’s bed or worse. In the fullness of maturity, the love remains, even, blossoms. The same holds true for Jacob and Esau. Later in Genesis, Esau and his army will catch up with Jacob, who sends his family on to safety and stands alone to face what he assumes will be his brother’s vengeance. When Esau sees him, we are treated to one of the most emotional family reunions in all of scripture. Instead of pulling out a sword and dispatching him, Esau falls on Jacob’s neck, weeping. All is forgiven.

As for the sisters… Even Rachel and Leah, who have to do what none of us will ever have to do (thanks be to God!)—share a spouse—come to a kind of truce in the end, working out their domestic details with wit and wisdom. Anyone who has ever read Anita Diamant’s lovely book, “The Red Tent,” will remember that she portrays the bond between the sisters as stronger than the ability of any man… even their husband, even their father… to separate them. God is present in their ability to love and support one another.

God is also, throughout these family stories in Genesis, in the last place we would expect. God is with the underdog. Last week, God was with the Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar. Here, God is with the character who has to have been voted “Least Likely to be God’s Favorite,” Jacob. God is in the unexpected place, with the unexpected person. When we are tempted to believe that one of our sisters or brothers has it all over us, really seems to “get it,” is the teacher’s pet of spirituality or intelligence or charisma or grace—it would be good to pause for a moment to remember Jacob. Jacob, the Deceiver, the Trickster, who nevertheless is singled out by God for great things. Not because he, Jacob is so good, but because God is so good.

God is so good. I suppose that might well be the thread running through all these family stories of Genesis. God is so good. God puts a rainbow in the heavens, not to promise that we will be safe forevermore, but to promise that God will not set out to destroy us, no matter how bad we get. God is so good. God walks the covenant line with us, promising to be with us, forever, come what may. God is so good. God lifts up the slave and the fatherless child, the rejected, the outcast, promising to be with them, offering water and hope. God is so good. God chooses the least likely, someone just like we are at our very worst, to be the carrier of grace. God is so good. God helps us find forgiveness somewhere in the corner of our most brittle, angry hearts, helps us figure out how to live together in peace and love. God is so good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 520.
Image: Chagall's Meeting of Jacob and Rachel


Songbird said...

Oh, amen!!

Choralgirl said...

Wow, that was terrific. You had me laughing about the "Sisters" song in the beginning, and I'd never thought of Laban's words as an "Adam" allusion. Cool!

Just really well done, all the way around.

As usual. :-)

jeleasure said...

Hello Magdalene,
In reading about Jacob, here (and honestly, I will tell you that never before) I have remembered that a Jewish acceptance of lies was to
bend the truth in order to spare the feelings of others or end a dispute.

So, I reason, that Laban may have been creating a sheild for Jacob in understanding that "time heals all wounds".

What do you think?