Sleight of Hand, Genesis 29:15-28
First United Methodist Church, July 26, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Whenever I read the story of Jacob’s family, I’m reassured. The dysfunction that exists in my family is so trivial compared to his. And knowing that even with all that family drama, God blessed Jacob and makes a nation of him, is an encouragement, I think for all of us!
Last week you’ll remember, Jacob was on the run from his twin brother Esau, fearing for his life, as he had stolen his father’s blessing that had been intended for Esau, his firstborn. Their mother Rebekah has continued to maneuver and manipulate, taking advantage of both she and Isaac’s unhappiness that Esau married Hittite women, whom we’re told “were a source of grief” to them, perhaps offering us the first historical documentation of daughters-in-law not quite meeting the expectations of what a young man’s parents might have hoped for. Both Isaac and Rebekah end up blessing Jacob as he sets off to his Uncle Laban’s house, to find an acceptable wife from among his mother’s brother’s daughters. (Got it? )
Upon arrival to the area of Haran where his uncle lives, Jacob stops at a well and talks to some shepherds, waiting to water their flocks. As they talk, he catches sight of one of Laban’s daughters, a shepherdess named Rachel. (Remember how Abraham’s servant first saw Rebekah at a well, and how that relationship began?) For Jacob, it’s love at first sight, and he knows then and there that coming to his uncle’s house was the right thing to do.
After a month, Laban and Jacob negotiate wages and Jacob reveals his love for Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter. He proposes that he will work 7 years for Laban to have Rachel’s hand in marriage. Laban agrees, and scripture tells us that those years seemed like only a few days for Jacob because of his great love for Rachel.
Jacob marks the days off on his calendar and when the appropriate time has passed, he tells Laban and a wedding feast is prepared. But here’s where the sleight of hand happens: Laban brings Jacob his older daughter Leah instead of Rachel, and being the sensitive and observant guy that we already know him to be, Jacob doesn’t even notice he’s with the wrong woman until morning.
I shouldn’t totally bash Jacob for his not realizing who he’s with. In that culture at that time, Jacob would not have “dated” Rachel over those 7 years, but most likely had limited contact with her and few if any conversations. He wouldn’t necessarily know her voice or mannerisms any more than he would have known her older sister’s. Also, pre-Thomas Edison, it was dark. Laban wouldn’t have brought his daughter to her husband’s tent until late in the evening. I’m guessing Laban would wait until it was really dark. Finally, a woman would be heavily veiled on the occasion of her marriage, covered except for her eyes. In the darkness…well, you can see that perhaps it wasn’t too difficult for Laban to outwit Jacob.
The conversation between these two men over breakfast that next morning must have been an animated one: Laban explains that it isn’t the custom of his people to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older is married off. They come to an agreement that Jacob will honor Leah’s bridal week, after which, Rachel will be given to him as a wife as well, in exchange for an additional 7 years of labor.
It seems that the man who once deceived his own father has been equally deceived by his new father-in-law.
In this story I feel sadness for the 2 women whose lives have been affected by all this, without their input, although arranged marriages were a norm at that time. Still, I can’t help but think how Leah must have felt seeing the disappointment on Jacob’s face when she realizes that she is not the one he expected to wake up with.
Knowing this history, we’re not surprised that marriage doesn’t improve family dynamics. Rachel and Leah don’t get along so well, and Leah’s ability to conceive children one after the other while Rachel cannot doesn’t help matters any. The 2 women do come together as a team, however, in support for their husband and his unfair treatment by their father.
There is deception and intrigue all the way down the line that would make any soap opera enthusiast proud. And again, the incredible, amazing, and surprising thing is that through all this, the tribes of Israel arise and the ancestral line of Jesus can be traced.
The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachael and Leah, your God and mine—can bring blessings even in the midst of conflict…even in the midst of dysfunction.
This morning, I’m going to let this biblical story take us into a conversation about relationships. You and I have all kinds of relationships around us—good ones, struggling ones, and ones we’re not so sure about. Relationships with family members…friends…co-workers…neighbors. Relationships can be pretty time-consuming; they can take a lot of energy and effort. Sometimes they’re wonderful, and sometimes they’re not. There are times when we might wonder—is it worth the effort? Do we really need to have relationships? Or would life be a whole lot more peaceful on our own, with no one but our own self to worry about.
We’ll begin to answer that question by going back to the very beginning: the creation story when God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden. It was good, it was very good. And then God noticed something. Adam was lonely. He had everything around him that he could possibly want or need, and yet he was alone. And so God created all kinds of interesting creatures and even allowed Adam to be a part of that process, which I’m sure was a lot of fun for him, as Adam got to name all the creatures that God placed before him. Adam was pretty creative. He looked at his one and said, “cow.” At that one and said, “cat.” As his confidence rose, he named this one “iguana” and that one a “duck-billed platypus.” But none of those really worked as a companion for Adam. And so God created Eve, and she and Adam were partners and helpmates, and Adam was no longer alone or lonely.
From the creation story, we can see that one reason for us to be in relationship is to put an end to our loneliness.
A second reason why we need one another is so our joys are multiplied. You know, when something good happens, it gets even better when you get to share your joy with someone else.
Have you ever received good news when you’ve been home alone? You might jump up and down and squeal and dance around a bit. Ruffle your dog’s ears. You might shout your good news out the back door. But it’s even better when you have someone who cares to share the news with. Then they can squeal and dance around with you! Plus, it’s always a good thing to hear someone else’s good news. We received good news from a family member’s test results this week, and suddenly a good day became a GREAT day!
Good news becomes even better news when you have someone you can share it with.
The problem is, life isn’t always good and happy and wonderful. We get sick, we get lost, we get worn. And that’s when it’s good to be able to divide our sorrows. When we’re in relationship, we don’t have to carry our burdens alone, but we have someone else who will help hold us up, who will listen to us, who will care for us and about us until the pain lets up enough for us to stand on our own again.
Another reason relationships can bless us is to receive counsel and perspective. I can generally make pretty good decisions, but not always. I make even better decisions when I can talk with someone I trust, to bounce ideas around with, to hear their perspective and suggestions. Sometimes I’m just too close to a situation and can’t be objective. Maybe another person will have information that I don’t: they can fill in my blanks. Maybe it’s something new and different (like precarious domes and pandemics!), and I just don’t have the experience or wisdom to deal with it on my own. Sometimes I just need someone else to say—"that sounds good—go for it.”
That’s the way it is for all of us. Without a doubt, not every decision requires conversation or input, but I’m convinced that big decisions are best made with a trusted friend’s counsel and perspective.
I’m sure there are many more reasons that you could think of as to why we need one another, but the last reason I’d like to talk about a bit is that we need one another so that we have someone to be accountable to. Proverbs 27:17 says “As an iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” As Christians, as friends, we’re called to sharpen the lives of one another. In order to do that, we need to open ourselves up to knowing and trusting someone else, offering them access into our lives. This isn’t something you’ll do with everyone. Not everyone is ready or able or even wants to hear what’s in your head and heart. Not everyone needs to know. But our lives are blessed when we have someone to whom we can say, “Hold me to the truth. Cheer me on. Encourage me. Challenge me. Redirect me. Correct me. Do whatever you have to do because I want to live out God’s truth—not just know it.”
We need each other. We need to be in relationship. We need friends. We need people who will love us, who will positively influence our lives.
I want you to think a bit about what it means to be a friend. You might think of a particular person who is your friend…or the qualities that you believe a friend should have. Here are some of my ideas:
A friend to me, is someone who:
Loves me and accepts me for who I am and what I am.
Is ready to forgive me, even when I’m being dumb.
Can communicate the truth in love (willing to say what needs to be said, but in a way that encourages me, rather than tearing me down).
Is a good listener.
Has time for me, and enjoys being with me.
Is someone I can trust.
Is someone who “has my back”—who is willing to stand up for me and defend me even when it isn’t easy.
Is someone who will patiently explain jokes, politics and sports because I don’t always understand.
I know that when I look for those things in someone else, I need to be these things for them, as well. It’s true, I think—to have a friend, you need to be a friend.
You and I were made for relationship.
Being the real, live human beings that we are, we know that too many of our relationships are less than ideal. In spite of that, the amazing and wonderful thing, is that God can still bless us and work through our relationships and good things can happen.
Hey, if God can work through Jacob, God can work through you and me, too.
That’s good news. Amen.