All Saints, Cochrane
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy, increase and multiply upon us your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.
May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
When someone asks me to describe the Old Testament, I often think of the Princess Bride: “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” I love it! The Old Testament is complicated and often confusing when you first read it, but once you spend a bit of time opening it up and digging below the surface it has a richness to it that we sometimes miss in the Gospels or Epistles of the New Testament.
One of the nice things about it being so opaque is that it’s rare in the Old Testament that we stick with a plain interpretation. We understand that there must be more because the surface level interpretation is just too confusing. In the New Testament, we sometimes might be more inclined to accept a surface level interpretation, because it makes enough sense to us. While it might give us a solid interpretation of part of what the Scripture is telling us, in a way, it discourages us from looking for deeper instruction.
In our Old Testament passage today, we definitely have some of these elements I’ve just discussed. From the Princess Bride, we have the beginnings of a story that will involve revenge, giants, chases, escapes, true love and miracles. We also have a passage which doesn’t seem to speak clearly to the character of God, and which demands that we dig just a little deeper below the surface to figure out what’s really going on, and what God is speaking into our lives through these inspired teachings today.
We have Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, who engages in polygamy, is tricked into fourteen years of slavery and who just seems to accept it. Polygamy and slavery are far from Biblical ideals established in the first chapters of Genesis,[i] and where is God’s hand in protecting Jacob from Laban’s duplicitousness? What are we to make of all of this?
First off, let’s do a quick summary of who Jacob is. You see, for some they might say what happens to him here is a reflection of his own character. Jacob was the younger son of Isaac.[ii] His elder brother Esau should have been the one to inherit the first share of his father’s estate and also to receive his father’s blessing. Yet Jacob used his own duplicitousness to compel his brother to give up his birthright[iii] which we actually heard about two Sundays ago.
Then, and perhaps even worse, Jacob and his mother conspire to steal Esau’s blessing through trickery. Isaac, his father, had gone blind, and Jacob disguises himself to try and trick his father into thinking he is Esau in order to receive Isaac’s blessing, which he does receive.[iv] Esau finds out and swears that he is going to kill Jacob for what he’s done, so Jacob flees to Haran.[v] Our lesson last Sunday had his encounter with God at Bethel on the way to Haran, in which God promises to be with him throughout his journey and bring him safely back to his father’s household in Canaan.[vi] Finally, our reading today sees Jacob having already arrived in Haran and wanting to marry, which was the pretext that his mother had used to send him away when he fled from his brother’s wrath.
In his uncle Laban, he finds someone that turns out to be as duplicitous as he is, using trickery to get his way. So, let’s explore these incidents and see where God may have been at work.
Jacob and the Biblical Ideal
Marriage practices in the ancient Near East are quite different than what we expect today. Not only were dowries common, but in this case, Laban arranges a deal with Jacob whereby he will work for Laban seven years in order to be given the honour of Laban allowing him to marry his daughter.
At this point, Jacob has been blessed by God, yet suddenly in his attempts to fulfil the promises of God, he finds himself signing his life away to Laban for seven years followed by a second seven years of servitude. This is far from the Biblical ideal, far from what we would expect for Jacob.
Jacob is the patriarch of Israel. Why does God allow this to happen? St Jerome, the 4th century saint who was instrumental in translating the Scripture from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, focused on verse twenty. “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”
Most of us can relate to this. When there’s something you need to do which you’re really not looking forward to, but the results will be worth it, it can make the boring, difficult or painful task seem to take no time at all. Your focus is on the prize.
For St Jerome, that prize is Christ. To paraphrase him, when we love someone, nothing is too hard to do for them. We need to love Christ and always look for him. If we do that, every difficult task will seem easy and every long task will seem short.[vii]
The Two Wives
This holds true when we look at how God works through Jacob’s life in terms of him falling short of the ideal of marriage, as well. Jacob worked hard for seven years to be able to marry the woman he loved. Then suddenly he is tricked into marrying a different woman. I love how Scripture phrases it: “When morning came, it was Leah!”[viii] He then agrees to serve Laban another seven years, but in all of this moves beyond the Biblical ideal as he then has two wives, Rachel whom he loves and Leah whom he was tricked into marrying.
So again, where is God in this? Well, further passages reveal that Jacob came to love both Leah and Rachel.
Immediately following our reading today, God intervenes because Jacob does not love Leah. It’s not to say that things don’t remain messy, this is the Old Testament after all, but we begin to hear about how Leah, Rachel and their two servants begin to bear children with Jacob, the sons that will become the twelve tribes of Israel.[ix] God took the messiness of the deceptions in Jacob’s life and turned it to his purposes.
We see in this that while it is true we each face suffering throughout our lives, those challenges do not characterize them. Our daily lives are a time when we are given an opportunity to turn to God, to build relationship with him and to accept his invitation to enter into our lives to heal our wounds. Our daily lives are an opportunity to be a foretaste of the blessing we look forward to in the eternal life promised to us in Christ Jesus.
When we dig past the surface story, our passage today reminds us that in this life there will be trials, there will be times of disappointment, waiting, of hard labour and conflict. Yet through that, God will be present. Just as he has promised us. Nothing can separate him from us!
The story of Jacob gives us a vision of someone as broken, if not more so, than we are. We see in his story, though, the continued presence of God.
God was present to Jacob when he sold himself into slavery for the love of Rachel, and fixing himself on that love, the years he spent in service felt like mere days. It encourages us to set our hearts on God today, so that our labours in this life will seem like mere days in comparison to the glory of eternity with God in the life to come. As St Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”[x]
The fact that Jacob had two wives was not a Biblical ideal, yet it remains illustrative of how our lives are not the Biblical ideal either. All of our lives in this fallen world are far from the Biblical ideal, but just as God was present in Jacob’s polygamous marriage, he is present in our lives. We see in the story of Jacob how even through the trials of this life, God was at work in him and his wives. He blessed Leah and Rachel with children in answer to their prayers. He was present with them throughout their lives, even when they were enduring trial, just as he is present to us.
In our New Testament reading today, St Paul famously says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”[xi] St Jerome explicitly connected this with the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel.[xii] In both St Paul’s reminder and the story of Jacob and his wives, St Jerome found encouragement in how we are called today to live our Christian lives: lives steadfastly looking towards Christ, God’s promise of healing and reconciliation in and of the world.
When we face trials, we should not turn away from them. When we fall short, we should not give up. Jacob was called to be the father of many nations, and through his enduring these trials, through his trust in God, God was able to turn him from the image of Laban the deceiver to the image of Christ. God asks the same of each of us: to persist, and to seek to be faithful to him, in prayer and in deed, in the midst of the brokenness of this world. We are not alone in this. While we were still sinners—still a mess like Jacob—God sent his only son to die for us on the cross, to heal our broken relationship with him. Christ offers us grace to strengthen us in our daily lives as we seek to live out that healed relationship.
So, dear friends, I want to encourage you to look with fresh eyes for God’s healing in this world. Sometimes we can find it hard to find in our own lives, so I would encourage you first to look at the messiness of your neighbours. Then in that messiness, look for God’s healing grace. When we’ve trained ourselves to see God’s healing work in others, it might just be a little bit easier to see where God is healing us in our own lives, and how we can respond in faith and live into God’s healing.
I have spoken to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] See Gen i. 26-28 for God’s purposes for the creation of humanity and Gen ii. 22-24 for the ideal of Marriage.
[ii] Gen xxv. 24-26
[iii] Gen xxv. 29-34
[iv] Gen xxvii. 1-29
[v] Gen xxvii. 41-46
[vi] Gen xxviii. 10-22
[vii] St Jerome, Epistle 22.40
[viii] Gen xxix. 25
[ix] Gen xxix. 31-xxx. 24
[x] Rm viii. 18
[xi] Rm viii. 28
[xii] St Jerome, Epistle 22.40