That’s Not the Way We Do Things Here - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8A (Genesis 29)
15 Laban said to Jacob, “You shouldn’t have to work for free just because you are my relative. Tell me what you would like to be paid.”
16 Now Laban had two daughters: the older was named Leah and the younger Rachel. 17 Leah had delicate eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and was good-looking. 18 Jacob loved Rachel and said, “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.”
19 Laban said, “I’d rather give her to you than to another man. Stay with me.”
20 Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, but it seemed like a few days because he loved her. 21 Jacob said to Laban, “The time has come. Give me my wife so that I may sleep with her.” 22 So Laban invited all the people of that place and prepared a banquet. 23 However, in the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he slept with her. 24 Laban had given his servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her servant. 25 In the morning, there she was—Leah! Jacob said to Laban, “What have you done to me? Didn’t I work for you to have Rachel? Why did you betray me?”
26 Laban said, “Where we live, we don’t give the younger woman before the oldest. 27 Complete the celebratory week with this woman. Then I will give you this other woman too for your work, if you work for me seven more years.” 28 So that is what Jacob did. He completed the celebratory week with this woman, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife.
Jacob was a fugitive. He might have gained the family blessing, which was supposed to go to the eldest son. Esau might have a claim to that title only by a second or so, but by law, first one out is the winner. So, Esau should have received the blessing of his father Isaac, but such was not the case. Jacob might be the youngest, but through a bit of deviousness had gained it. With his brother angry at the turn of events, Jacob fled (Genesis 27). Or, was the need for a bride the reason for his journey. Even as Abraham didn’t want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman, Isaac didn’t want Jacob to marry from among the neighbors (Gen. 28:1-5). Whatever the case, Jacob found himself at a well in the land of Haran, the land of his Uncle Laban. It was at that well that Jacob met Rachel, the younger daughter of Laban, and fell in love (Gen. 29:1-14). Apparently, Laban was happy that his sister’s son had come to town, welcoming him into his home. That’s where this week’s story begins.
Conversations arise occasionally in Christian circles about what some refer to as “biblical marriage.” So, what is this “biblical marriage” people keep talking about? When answers are given, the form of marriage proffered looks a bit like a 1950s family structure—a man and a woman, and a couple of kids. But is that form of family life present in scripture? Is there one biblical form or many?
With that in mind we turn to the reading for the week from Genesis 29. Laban has welcomed his nephew to town. He would love for him to work for him. After all, he has two daughters and no sons. So, he asks Jacob what he thinks would be fair compensation. Jacob, who is desperately in love with Rachel, suggests that he would work seven years in exchange for the hand of Rachel, who, we’re told, is quite lovely (she has a nice figure). Now, Laban agrees to the bargain. Did you catch that? Jacob essentially offered to purchase Rachel in exchange for seven years of labor. Laban is happy with this. He tells Jacob, he couldn’t think of a better man to marry his daughter. For Laban, it was a great bargain. He would find a husband for his daughter and free labor for seven years. So, off went Jacob, whistling while he worked for seven years. Now that sounds like a long time, “but it seemed like a few days because he loved her.”
Then came the big day. Seven years were up. Jacob would finally have his prize, the beautiful Rachel. Jacob went to Laban and told his uncle that it was time to pay up. It was time to sleep with Rachel. With that Laban called together friends and family for a big banquet. Everyone partied, and had an enjoyable time. When it came time for Jacob to go into the tent and “sleep” with his new bride, Laban played a little trick on him. Laban sent his elder daughter, the one with “lovely eyes,” into the tent. Jacob dutifully deflowered his new bride, whom he assumed was Rachel. It must have been dark in the tent, because it wasn’t until he woke up the next morning that he realized he had slept with Leah instead of Rachel. Thus, Jacob the trickster was tricked, or so it seems. You can understand why Jacob was mad. He loved Rachel. He had paid the price (seven years of labor). He expected to get the agreed upon payment, but that’s not what had occurred. Jacob feels short changed. Here’s a question—is this what biblical marriage looks like?
When Jacob went to Laban to get an explanation for the exchange, Laban says something interesting. At least I find it interesting. He tells Jacob: “Where we live, we don’t give the younger woman before the oldest.” In other words, he tells Jacob, “I don’t know how they do things in your neck of the woods, but around here we do things a bit differently.” In these parts, the younger never marries before the older.” I find this response interesting, because the way Laban puts it, suggests that there are different customs and patterns in different places. In his context, it would be unseemly for the younger to marry before the older daughter. Think of the message it would send about Leah. If Rachel marries first, then there must be something wrong with Leah. In that context, a daughter was only worth what she could bring in a husband. So, is this biblical marriage?
I use this story as the first chapter/session in my book Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), because it invites us to wrestle with the question of changing customs and values. You can see Jacob’s point. He had made an agreement, and Laban seems to have betrayed him. But think of Laban’s point of view. He had two daughters and he had to think of their welfare (and his return). An unmarried daughter would be a burden that he didn’t want to bear. Of course, looking at this story with modern eyes, we would want to ask how Rachel and Leah felt about all of this. They appear to be pawns in a power struggle between two men. What message does this send?
As the story ends, Laban has a solution. If Jacob will agree to spend the week with Leah and complete the marriage rituals (sleep with her some more in the hope that she would get pregnant), Jacob could have Rachel. All Jacob had to do was work another seven years for his uncle. This time Jacob didn’t have to wait seven years. He got the prize before he put in the work. Obviously, Laban trusted Jacob, or perhaps he simply was glad to have taken care of both daughters, and it didn’t really cost him anything. As for the two women. In a summary statement that doesn’t appear in the lectionary reading, the narrator informs us that Jacob finally got to go in the tent and consummate the marriage with Rachel, and then the narrator points out that Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah” (Gen.29:30).
There are several issues calling forth our attention, starting with the presence of deception in this story? What does that suggest about these important biblical characters? Laban may have betrayed Jacob, but remember Jacob had betrayed Esau. We honor Jacob as an ancestor in the faith, but he, like many others, is not always a good example. That is one angle to take with this text, but I find the marriage angle intriguing. Yes, we could say that this is the Old Testament and that by the time of Jesus things had changed. But did they? Yes, customs may have changed, but is the arrangement described here not biblical? So, what do you make of the fact that Jacob married two first cousins? What does this say to us? Then, beyond that sad comment, did you notice that Jacob married two first cousins? Why is that legal for him and not for us? Did you notice that he had more than one wife? Is that biblical? Finally, do you feel at least a bit uncomfortable with the way Rachel and Leah are treated here? Jacob might have loved her (more than Leah apparently), but she was still a pawn. These are all important questions, but perhaps the most important one for our day concerns what the scriptures might say to us in changing times. The legal definition has changed regarding who can get married in America, but that by itself doesn’t answer the church’s question as to how to proceed in a changing world. Perhaps a text like this (and the others in my study guide) can get this conversation going.
Picture Attribution: Führich, Joseph, Ritter von, 1800-1876. Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father's Herds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54267 [retrieved July 24, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JvFuhrichJosephRachel.jpg.