Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Jacob

Trinity 8A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Genesis 29:15-28 Jacob Marries Laban’s Daughters

15Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ 16Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. 18Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ 19Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ 20So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

21Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ 22So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast; 23but in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25When morning came, Jacob realised it was Leah, and he said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ 26Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ 28Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Is it a case of deceit, or one of comeuppance?

Last week the revised common lectionary gave us the story of Rebekah having the twins Esau and Jacob. Being the first-born Esau had a “birth-right” which allowed him the lion’s share of his father’s estate when Isaac died, and the right for a special blessing as responsibility for the household was handed to the elder son. “Jacob” is the Hebrew equivalent of “taker” or “supplanter”; and “Isaac” is Hebrew for laughter. When Esau came home at the end of a day’s work so hungry that he thought he was dying, an astute Jacob used his culinary skills, and Esau’s hunger, to get his older brother to pass on the birth-right, much to Esau’s displeasure when he had recovered. Furthermore, some years later, Jacob had connived with his mother to deceive a by then blind Isaac into believing that he was giving his elder son the special blessing before he died. That’s one theory. Another is that Isaac knew that Esau didn’t deserve the blessing he would receive, but without being ‘tricked’ custom wouldn’t allow him to give the blessing to Jacob, so he went along with the ruse as that let him do what he wanted without being seen as a rule breaker.

With the birth-right and the blessing now his Jacob absconds and goes to Haram, which was where Abraham had left, hoping to meet up with Rebekah’s brother, Laban (“white”). In the lead up to today’s reading Jacob shows his willingness to break the rules yet again, so that, when Laban’s daughter, Rachel, appears the well is already accessible for her to get water, though it is Jacob, showing his prowess, who actually waters the flock, and ahead of the customary opening of the well when all have arrived. Jacob is already smitten by his love for Rachel, and goes with her to meet her father, his uncle, and to work for him so he can be close to Rachel. Ahh! Play some nice romantic music.

The custom in Haram is that the oldest daughter must marry first, but Laban isn’t going to let Jacob know that. He agrees that Jacob can work seven years for him in order that he might marry the love of his life. One common custom in my upbringing was that a man would ask his potential father-in-law for the hand of the appropriate daughter in marriage. Indeed, my son-in-law-to-be did exactly that some months ago, but would any of us, these days, be willing to wait seven years?

So Jacob toils for seven years in the expectation of getting to marry Rachel, after which Jacob, justifiably in our eyes, asked for Rachel to be his wife. The trickster is about to be tricked. Laban’s elder daughter, Leah, still isn’t married, and custom requires that she marries first.

Weddings, at the time, weren’t the half-hour ceremony followed by photos and a celebration meal before the bridal couple go off to start their honeymoon, like they tend to be today. These were major celebrations, lasting a week, and with people coming from afar to participate at some time during the festival. On the first night of festivities Jacob is presented with Leah, not Rachel. She is heavily disguised with a veil, but you would think that, unless the sisters were very much alike, spoke alike, and smelled the same, Jacob would have realised before going to bed with her. Alas, he might have been under the influence of too much alcohol and food, and didn’t realise he had been conned until the next morning. Got him!

As if he were the totally innocent party, Jacob complains to Laban about being deceived. Only now does Laban tell Jacob the custom of having the first-born daughter marry before a younger daughter. A deal is done between the two tricksters: after making it look, during the time of the festivities, as if nothing was wrong, Laban allows Jacob to take Rachel as a second wife on condition that he works for him another seven years. No, there was nothing “wrong” at the time about polygamy: indeed, it was common. It wasn’t until the Greeks and Romans began dominating the Ancient Near East that monogamy became the norm.

All this, so far, has to do with misbehaving men who should have known better, but what of the women in the story? Rachel and Leah were ‘bought’ by Jacob working for Laban, and verse 24 mentions the maid Zilpah being given to Leah. Even Jacob’s request to Laban: “Give me my wife …” shows that Laban owned Rachel (and Leah). Such treatment of women was common in that era. Hopefully we have a more respectful approach and consider the woman’s choice and desires, not just those of the men, or am I too much of an optimist?

We can read much into the story. Jacob, as the deceitful one early in his life tries to run away but his sins catch up with him. Laban outfoxes Jacob by getting him to marry Leah before Rachel, and, later in this story Jacob outfoxes Laban to take daughters, maids, children, herds and money, only to be outfoxed again by his own children who sell Joseph into slavery. Some call it karma. The treatment of women says a lot about how their roles have changed over the centuries since this story was written, but have we really made any progress?

If you want to read the reflection on Romans 8:26-39 see

18th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Psalm 79

1O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.
4We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us.
5How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name
7for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
8Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.
9Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

We continue through a period of lament, with not only Jeremiah, but also the psalmist bringing the desperation of the people into focus.

Once again, as with Psalm 14, the wording suggests, on the surface, that the cause of the problem is “the nations”. “They” have defiled the temple; “they” have laid waste to Jerusalem. ‘Who is “they”?’ we might ask. If we consider that “we” are doing, or trying to do, what God wants us to do, then “they” includes anyone who is not doing the right thing. In a world where the Hebrew people were supposed to set themselves aside from the peoples around them, and keep to the commandments – better translated as commitments – thought to have been brought to us by Moses, and not to be defiled by the ways of those other peoples, any moves to adopt the ways of non-Hebrews could be seen as going against the will of God. It was the role of the temple leaders to guide the Hebrews away from the pitfalls of other religions, and their way of life, but when the leaders failed to keep the people honest to their task disaster would befall the nation. Time and again the prophets would rail against bad leadership, and against the “false prophets” to whom some leaders turned for justification. If we take the line that failure to honour the commitment to God’s teaching will bring about disaster, then the destruction of the temple and the flattening of Jerusalem in 586BC, which is probably at the heart of this passage, shows that the people had strayed significantly from the ways of God, and the leadership was very much involved in that errant behaviour.

Scripture doesn’t just tell us what happened in the past, but it teaches us how to address issues which affect us today, many centuries after those passages were written. It’s more than a historical record of events from which we can learn: it’s an insight into how we can avoid the problems of the past revisiting us. Given that, what can we learn from this section of one psalm?

First, the Hebrew people were supposed to keep to their faith and not be influenced by the ways of life of those around them, where that would put them in conflict with God’s will. The people were required to be distinct from those around them. Customs associated with their faith took precedence over customs of the others, so mode of dress, days of worship, commitment to worship, decisions about what was good for the community had to be consistent with their faith teaching. Orthodox Jews still maintain a diet free from pork, even though the real reason for its exclusion in biblical times – the way it rapidly becomes unsafe to eat if not treated properly – has been overcome. As Christians, how often are we distinguishable from the rest of the community? How often have we stood up against incursions into the day of rest? When people come to church are they getting the same sort of experience as they would get in any other organisation around? Do we make a commitment to our faith journey such that others are touched by what can be achieved, or do we depend on the church establishment to provide everything, and expect it to be free? Are our churches any better at dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct than other organisations, or businesses? If the answer to any of those questions is “No” then we might be falling into the same pitfalls as the Hebrews were before the destruction of the temple, and we might find that our temple is destroyed. Are we prepared to stand up for our faith, and pick up the pieces after our church institutions come crashing down around us, or are we going to speak up, and act, to repent and change our ways before such destruction happens?

The section of Psalm 79 set for the 18th of September ends with a call to God to help us, to forgive our sins, and guide us back to a righteous relationship with our Creator. This should be an important part of our daily prayer life.