Genesis 29: 15-30
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” said the poet Robert Frost. That’s not quite true of Jacob’s family of origin, but fortunately for him, Frost’s statement it is true of Jacob’s extended family. Upon reaching Haran, Jacob runs into the beautiful and gracious Rachel and gallantly removes the stone from a well for her so that she can water her sheep. When Rachel hurries home to announce to her father, Jacob’s uncle Laban, that a long-lost relative has arrived, Laban rushes to greet the young antihero of our story.
Laban knows and practices all the social graces. In opening his home to Jacob he shows hospitality to strangers, and expresses due joy at this surprise family reunion. Now he intends to do right by his troubled nephew who needs a new lease on life, and a little guidance maybe. “I could use a man like you in my organization. But you’re family. You’re not just another hired hand. Name your price!” Jacob thinks about it and replies, “I will work for you for seven years in exchange for the hand of your daughter Rachel in marriage.”
Jacob has already met Rachel, whom the narrator of our scripture passage describes as beautiful and gracious. These two characteristics don’t always go together. I think of the artificial beauty and bad behavior of the cast of Jersey Shore or any number of pop culture icons (skin baked to an unnatural shade of orange in the tanning salon, mouthy, mean). But Rachel’s not a mean girl. She learned from her father the meaning of words like honor, hospitality, manners, humility, and she coupled those virtues with natural good looks. Rachel is Jackie Kennedy without the pill box hat, or Kate Middleton without the tiara.
But Laban has another daughter, Leah. Now Leah’s distinguishing feature is her eyes, which some translations report as being “weak,” while others report as being “lovely.” Which is it? Is Leah the four-eyed ugly duckling in the family? (I say this as someone who’s worn glasses or contacts since I was 11). Or could Leah star in a mascara commercial?
It’s ambiguous. But there’s nothing ambiguous about Rachel’s qualities, and Rachel’s the one with whom Jacob is smitten.
Laban agrees to Jacob’s terms. Really, it’s a win-win situation. Laban gains a son-in-law and doesn’t lose a precious daughter to someone outside the clan (those considerations ranked highly in that time and place). For his part Jacob gets to marry a gracious and beautiful woman. So Jacob sheared the sheep, pruned the vines, and harvested the wheat for seven years, but for him it passed by like a mere seven days on account of his love for Rachel.
This is the ideal work situation. Some of the more painful and tragic human predicaments arise when people find themselves trapped in work that exploits, degrades, or can’t cover the bills. But Jacob’s toil and the desires of his heart have converged in this contract he’s signed with Laban. We might even be tempted to speak of Jacob’s career in the employ of Uncle Laban as a vocation, a term which the author Frederick Buechner defines as, “Where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And we might add that such is the way with most young men, for whom love and passion is the highest motivator.
But Laban is not a young man. Laban is an old man, and old men aren’t motivated by love. Old men are motivated by money. Laban has two valuable assets to protect, his younger daughter Rachel and his older daughter Leah. Laban’s interests diverge from Jacob, and while a deal is a deal, Laban will see to it that his interests are served in whatever agreement he comes to with his young, romantic nephew.
Times up! Seven years toil means wedding bells should be ringing anytime. Laban is a man of his word. He finds a preacher, reserves the fellowship hall, and invites the entire neighborhood to share in the joy. But that evening, he turns Jacob’s joy to consternation. He sends Leah to the honeymoon suite instead of Rachel. Our narrator captures the shock and embarrassment in the short, eloquent sentence, “When morning came, it was Leah!”
For this switcharoo to work we can assume a couple of things. First, we can assume that the women were veiled. The veil reminds us, as if we needed reminding, that this story is situated in a world in which women were property, which is still the case for many women. Second, we can assume that no small amount of alcohol was consumed between the words “I do,” and the happy couple retiring for the evening. At any rate, the groom awakes to discover that the woman he thought was his sister-in-law is his wife, and that his wife is not his wife, but his sister-in-law. In the dawn’s early light, it dawns on Jacob what kind of man his father-in-law is. Laban’s polish conceals a scheming mind and a heart of stone.
“Why have you deceived me?” Jacob demands to know. A deal is a deal, and the deal was that he’d work seven years for Rachel, not Leah. He has a right to be angry.
Or does he? This is rich, isn’t it? The man who took advantage of his father’s failing eyesight to steal his brother’s blessing wants to complain that in the low light of the bridal chamber somebody got one over on him? Not very self-aware, are you Jacob?
Really the two incidents have nothing to do with each other. At the ground level, so to speak, Laban really has swindled Jacob, and it’s wrong to con people; end of story. It’s even wrong to con con artists.
But we aren’t watching this story unfold at the ground level. We share the narrator’s omniscient point of view. We know all about Jacob’s history, and we can’t help but conclude that some kind of poetic justice is being served here, even though the Lord God, the ultimate source of all true justice, is absent as a character in this part of the story.
The Hindus have the concept of karma in their religion, the notion that, to put it a bit crudely, what comes around goes around. There’s a similar idea the Christian Bible. In Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, the historical books of the Bible, the Lord often deals with Israel in a tit for tat fashion. If you obey, says the Lord, you will be blessed. But if you disobey, you will suffer. So when Israel’s kings worship idols and oppress the poor long enough, eventually they lose their kingdom to oppressive idolaters. And here in Genesis 29 we see the deceiver himself deceived. Our narrator never says, “This took place in order to punish Jacob for wronging his brother Esau,” but we can’t help but wonder.
And wonder is what we do in our lives. Sometimes God speaks to us directly, as God spoke to Jacob in a dream in last week’s scripture reading. But most of the time, we have to infer God’s will for our lives. Whether life’s banes are crosses to bear or our just desserts, and whether life’s blessings are gifts from God or ill-gotten gains—that’s often a matter of interpretation.
Laban is not only treacherous; he is smooth! When the young man Jacob gets hot under the collar, Laban replies, “Oh, it must have slipped my mind. You see, in our country, the elder daughter has to be married first. I’m sure this seems somewhat arbitrary to you, and I’ll admit that in a perfect world everyone could marry for love or whatever, but a man of my age has learned to respect the value of custom and tradition.” And then Uncle Laban throws his arm over Jacob’s shoulder and adds, “Now look out there at all those people we’ve invited. We can’t let them down, can we? It’s important that we not make a scene. Let’s keep up appearances and complete the reception, and I’ll tell you what. I really want to work with you on this. How about… I don’t know… another seven years, and you can marry Rachel too.”
Now that’s how you do it! Not only does Laban double-cross Jacob, he makes Jacob a party to Jacob’s own exploitation! Waylan Jennings once sang, “Old age and treachery always overcomes youth and skill,” and he could have been singing about Jacob and Laban, couldn’t he?
And if Jacob’s labor of love for Rachel’s hand represents the ideal work situation, then Laban’s underhandedness represents the reality. For when it comes to the exchange of goods and services, the strong, by hook or by crook, arrange things so that their strength is maintained or even increased, all while coming off smelling like a rose.
“This is not done in our country, giving the younger before the firstborn.” Laban’s words remind us that what brought Jacob to Haran was his violation of his brother’s “natural rights” as the elder son. Is this some sort of veiled allusion to Jacob’s past?
I doubt it. While our narrator does report that Jacob told Laban everything upon his arrival in Haran, I cannot help but think Jacob was a bit reticent to supply all the gory details. No. Laban is an accidental prophet. He’s not the only one in scripture. We think of Caiaphas. When Caiaphas prudently and rather cynically sold out Jesus to the Romans, he said, “It’s better that one man die for the whole people.” Had no idea what he was saying. So too with Laban. His words carry a double meaning to which he is blind, but which to us, is abundantly clear. The firstborns will get their revenge!
Where does this all leave us? In the end, Jacob gets twice as much work and twice as many wives as he bargained for—one of whom he loves more than the other. Interestingly, the Lord, who has inexplicably favored the younger son Jacob to this point, now reverses course. Four-eyed Leah, married to a man who doesn’t love her, finds favor in the eyes of the Lord. She bears the majority of Jacob’s children, the eponymous ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Yet the Lord does not overlook Rachel. After all, it’s not her fault that she’s pretty, is it? She too bears a son, Jacob’s youngest. And the conned son-in-law finally gets a leg up on the man who lives in the biggest house on the biggest hill in Haran. Jacob’s flocks outperform his uncle’s, and when trouble brews between Jacob and his jealous in-laws, Jacob flees with his wives, children and flocks, and Laban can’t do a thing about it.
A pattern is emerging. In conflicts in which the power dynamic is unequal, the Lord God seems to put his thumb on the scale of the weaker party to make it a fair fight. At the same time, the successes and reversals which any one particular character in our story experience seem to be of a two steps forward, one step back quality. The Lord, who promised to Jacob that all families on the earth would be blessed in him, really does seem determined that blessing and not curse be the last word pronounced on each of these very questionable people. As we find ourselves in conflicts, whether they are within families or between nations, on the job, in the community or in society, let us not forget God’s hidden thumb on the scale and God’s resolve to bless everyone.