Every week that I am preaching, I start out by listening to a podcast by biblical scholars. They talk for about twenty minutes on the four lessons, and always have interesting things to say. Sometimes their insights lead me in a particular direction, and sometimes not. This week, these most esteemed scholars had one thing to say: do not preach on the Old Testament lesson. In all my years of listening to them, I do not think they have ever suggested avoiding a text altogether. Their reasoning was sound. They simply felt that this part of the Jacob story – the antics between Laban and Jacob that leave Rachel and Leah voiceless property, objectified and dehumanized – had no good news, no gospel, to offer or preach from this week and should therefore be avoided.
So. Let’s talk about the gospel in Rachel and Leah’s story. To get there, you are going to have to hang through some rough stuff first. Here is the thing about this story: this story of Laban tricking Jacob to marry Leah before marrying Rachel is often depicted as a story only about Jacob and Laban. In fact, usually this story is depicted as being the story of how Jacob finally gets what is coming to him. Perhaps there is some validity to that analysis. Jacob, the trickster finally gets tricked.[i] Jacob, the man who weasels his way into the birthright and his father’s blessing, is weaseled out of his desired bride and is tricked into fourteen years of service for her – a price well beyond anything that would be expected in his day, especially of a relative to the bride’s family.[ii] One could argue that Jacob met his match in his father-in-law Laban – a man equally dishonest, scheming, and self-centered.
And all of that analysis is interesting. But I do not think that is where the heart of the story is today. Today I am more interested in Rachel and Leah. Rachel and Leah have been put at odds probably their entire life. Though Leah is the older sister, Rachel is the more attractive sister. And in their day, and ours, being attractive means wielding some power. Then, Jacob comes along and wants something he cannot really have – a younger sister whose older sister has not yet been married. Then the two women are thrown around as objects, as though they are non-persons. We hear nothing of what Leah feels, being veiled and forced to marry a man who does not want her, without his consent or hers, and then to be scorned the next morning. To make matters worse, a week later, her husband also marries her sister. And let’s not forget about Rachel. We assume she desires Jacob as he desires her, but we are never told about her feelings. Assuming she did want to marry him, she had to stay silent as Leah took what had been promised to her. Then, in order to get the husband she may or may not have wanted, she had to share him with her much more fertile sister. Though we do not read about it today, Rachel’s barrenness is just one more way she is the victim in our story.
But all of those questions and ruminations are just speculation. We know nothing of how either woman felt because the text does not tell us. The text, the culture, the men in our story treat the women like objects; silent property to be manipulated at their will. Rachel and Leah are pawns in Jacob and Laban’s twisted, deceptive lives, with no rights, no voice, and no power. And when we look at their voiceless, powerless, hopeless lives, we may believe, like those scholars, that there seems to be little good news here. We could even ask the harder question: where is God? Where is God when Rachel and Leah are dehumanized and objectified by an entire system and family?
The easy way out of this story would be to suggest that we are lucky because at least we do not live in a society like Rachel and Leah’s. But the reality of treating some people in society as property has long been a part of our identity – thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago, and today. Last weekend, Scott and I had the opportunity to visit Monticello. I had never been and was excited to learn about a respected founding father. And what I learned was not disappointing. Jefferson was a brilliant man: a scientific genius, a profound wordsmith, with a creative, prolific mind. But what drew me in was the slave tour at Monticello. Behind the grandeur of Monticello, the technological advances, and conveniences of the property was the reality of slavery. Behind all of fascinating parts of Monticello were the voiceless, dehumanized, objectified men, women, and children. Behind the thrill of advancement and intellectual prowess was the cold, harsh reality of people whose lives were out of their own control. To be fair, of slaveholders, Jefferson was one of the less physically brutal, and there is a chance that he actually loved at least one of those slaves. But they were still slaves, ever living under the threat of physical violence, and perhaps worse, separation from their partners and children.
Two stories at Monticello helped me connect with the utter depravity of our story from scripture, as well as the redemption and hope from our story from scripture. The first was of a slave at Monticello who was “leased” to a local townsman while Jefferson was out of the country. She came with three sons. In the course of her time in town, two of her sons came of age and were sold away. Meanwhile, she and the man began a relationship and she had two daughters with him. When Jefferson returned to the country, the slave approached Jefferson herself and asked if she and the man could continue to live together with their children. Jefferson agreed that the man could buy her and the two children they had borne together. But her remaining son he ordered back to Monticello. I was struck by how even though Jefferson was somewhat gracious to her, she still lacked power – she lived at the mercy of others, her children treated as property. Her life was traded like Leah was traded from Laban to Jacob.
But then there was another story. When Jefferson died, he left behind many debts, so the majority of the slaves were sold. One slave was able to buy his freedom, but not the freedom of his wife and eight children. One by one, over time, the former slave bought back his wife and seven children. But one child remained. Eventually the remaining son of that slave was to be sold to a plantation far away, and the man could not gather enough funds to purchase him before he was sold. In solidarity, the former slaves of Monticello pooled their money and were able to help the man finally reunite his entire family. Even in the midst of the sinful institution of slavery that treated our brothers and sisters as dehumanized property, the powerless were able to scrape up some power and find a sense of agency. They found some sense of redemption in their collective power.
I like to believe that there is some glimmer of redemption in Rachel and Leah’s story too. Despite the ways they are objectified, made into commodities to be bartered without input, these two women and their servants give birth to the twelve tribes of Israel – the very fathers of our faith. God moves in human imperfection, and God’s love overcomes human failure to love.[iii] In the face of barrenness, God opens wombs. In the face of oppression, God makes a way out. In the face of Leah’s lesser status, comes the genealogical line that produces Jesus.[iv] This voiceless, unwanted, powerless one produces the man who redeems us all.
It is easy to sit in judgment of Jacob and Laban, or to sit in judgment of the institution of slavery. As biblical scholar Beth Tanner says, “We can sit comfortably on a Sunday morning and condemn their actions and their culture and thank God we have evolved. But that would mean we miss the point of the narrative completely. They are not “them.” They are us. We are far from perfect. Families are messy and often broken. We hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally. We act in our own best interest and against the greater good of others. We forget to ask those with less power about decisions that impact their lives. To look on this family is to look straight into human brokenness. To look on the culture is to hold up a mirror to our world that still judges individuals on their appearance and treats women as less than men. [The story of our ancestors] is not cleaned up to impress the neighbors or provide unobtainable role models for moral living. They are faithful and sinful. They are blessed by God and cursed by their actions. Their culture is on display in this text, and it has a good dose of corporate sin in its sexism and treatment of those with less power.”[v]
In that messiness, in that hopelessness, in that depravity is still gospel light. “Gospel is present because God keeps God’s promises to a sinful humanity. God is faithful when we are busy managing our lives. God is faithful even when God is not overtly part of the narrative. God loves the broken families of the world. God loves so much God will send [God’s] son to ‘the sons of Israel’ and by extension, to us.”[vi] I don’t know about you, but when I am staring into acres of land, contemplating the racism and oppression that began hundreds of years ago, or I am facing a text about the powerlessness of women that continues from thousands of years ago, I am grateful for a God who is faithful to us even when we are not faithful to God. I am beyond humbled by our God who refuses to disown us in our hatefulness, and goes to ultimate lengths to save us from ourselves. And I am thrilled by a God who can make a great nation out of us, despite ourselves. We are not beyond God’s redemption. We are not beyond God’s forgiveness and grace. This text is our reminder that God’s good news is offered fresh, everyday, throughout time, offering us the opportunity to become co-creators of goodness. And that is good news to be preached. Amen.
[i] W. Eugene March, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Batch 2, Proper 12, Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 6.
[ii] Greg Garrett, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Batch 2, Proper 12, Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011),3.
[iii] Garrett, 5.
[iv] Matthew 1.3.
[v] Beth L. Tanner, “Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28,” July 30, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3353 on July 26, 2017.