JACOB FINDS A WIFE… OR TWO
As I mentioned last week, over the course of the rest of the summer, we are going to be looking at some of the great stories in the Old Testament. These are the ones that we learned as children in Sunday School but we are going to be looking at them through our experience as adults.
I confess that today’s story is one of the strangest ones in the Bible. also one that contains content that is more than a little challenging. You wouldn’t necessary notice this when reading the story as a child but as an adult, there are certain aspects of this story that might even be described as troubling. I think you’ll understand what I mean by that as we journey through it.
But, again, some background. This continues the story of Jacob. If you recall, last week he fled his home and family because he had cheated his older brother Esau out of a family blessing that should have been his. Esau vowed to kill Jacob and, discretion being the better part of valour, Jacob fled. Last week, he was on his way to find his Uncle Laban, his mother’s brother whom he hoped would welcome him and provide him with sanctuary until Esau’s anger abated and it was safe to go home.
What we discover this week is that Jacob made it to Haran and found Uncle Laban. Laban welcomed him with open arms and allowed him to stay for as long as he wanted. So Jacob went to work for his uncle to pay for his keep and helped to tend the sheep. So far, so good. But this is where the story gets weird. Let’s read what happens in Genesis 29:15-28 (NIV):
Laban said to [Jacob], “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.”
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”
So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her. And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.
When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”
And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.
What we have here is a story in which Jacob’s decision to seek the hand of Rachel in marriage ends up with some unintended consequences. The main one, of course, being that he ends up with two wives instead of one. That’s because in the culture in which these events take place, it is seen as improper for a younger sister to get married before the older sister. It would have been nice, of course, if Uncle Laban had explained that important detail to Jacob when they talked about the conditions of marriage but clearly Laban did not see the need.
I remember reading this story as a child and thinking that Uncle Laban was a real jerk, deceiving poor Jacob like that and passing off his older daughter Leah for the younger Rachel, especially after Jacob had agreed to work for him for seven years. And then he had to promise to work seven more years so that he could marry Rachel who was the one he really loved and wanted to marry in the first place. Uncle Laban was a very nasty man. That is how my child’s brain processed this story.
My adult brain, on the other hand, picks up some nuances that I totally missed when hearing this story through the ears of a child. And, actually, it’s really quite troubling when you think about it. Can you guess what I’m talking about? Here’s the elephant in the room that adults don’t like to talk about. Does anyone have any questions about the nature of these marriages? Jacob marries the daughter of his uncle which means that he is marrying his cousin and not only is he marrying his cousin, he’s marrying two of his cousins. Isn’t that called polygamy? And how do we reconcile that with our understanding of Christian marriage today?
That is a tough question. I’ve heard Bible teachers teach this passage and I’ve heard preachers preach it but I’ve never heard anyone be really honest about what’s happening in this story. Most often, it’s just glossed over and ignored. And when it is addressed, it’s usually with some long theological explanation that dips and dives around the issues rather than confronting them head on.
Here’s the reality we face. We simply can’t reconcile polygamy with our current understand of Christian marriage. The two are incompatible. But while we can’t reconcile the polygamy in the Old Testament we can seek to understand why it happened. And that is not difficult. The answer does not involve deep theology. And we don’t have to dance around the issues. The answer is simply this; in the world 4,000 years ago that’s the way people lived and there were some very good reasons for it.
The Middle Eastern world 4,000 years ago was very different than 21st century North America. Back then, there often weren’t enough men to go around due to men dying in battle and the fact that men are more susceptible to many diseases than are women. Because of the shortage of men and the need for women to have children so that the community could thrive and prosper, they often had to share the men. So polygamy was actually quite common in more primitive cultures. For them it wasn’t a moral question. It was simply a rational and pragmatic one.
A more modern example of this is the experience of plural marriage in the Mormon religion. When I was studying theology at Emmanuel College I took a class on the growth of new religious movements. I remember writing a paper Mormonism which, of course, for many years was polygamous. Interestingly, Mormonism didn’t start off as polygamous. When Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in the late 1820’s, there was not a hint of polygamy anywhere to be found. But by 1840 it was widely practiced. What happened?
The Mormons will tell you that Joseph Smith had a vision from God in which he was told that plural marriage was okay. What really happened was that female converts to Mormonism outnumbered male converts by a ratio of about four to one. There just weren’t enough men to go around. It was as simple as that.
Mormons officially ended the practice of plural marriage in 1890. Why? Again, it wasn’t because of a special vision from God. It was because they had moved out to Utah and increased greatly in number. They had requested Washington to make Utah a state of the United States but statehood was denied to the Utah Territory because of polygamy. Once polygamy was officially banned by the Mormons in 1890, it cleared the way for Utah to become a state in 1896. One of the conditions of become a state, however, was that the new state constitution had to include a ban on polygamy, the first state ever required to do so. But by then, it really didn’t matter because the ratio of men and women had evened out.
So polygamy started for very practical reasons and it ended for equally practical reasons. The same thing was true back in Jacob’s day. We sometimes find it hard to get our minds around that kind of stuff because we live in a society where the ratio of men to women is almost 50:50. But here’s a thought experiment. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. What if another one came along that wiped out 80% of men but virtually no women? Would our attitude toward plural marriage change? I don’t know but it’s an interesting question to ponder.
In all of this, I am not defending polygamy and I’m not suggesting that anyone try it. I know that I have one wife whom I love very much and I think that’s plenty. I’m just putting some context on this story to help us it make sense of it.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on with this story. The reality in Jacob’s mind is that he ends up with far more than he bargained for. His honest heartfelt desire to have Rachel as his wife results in unintended consequences. He ends up with two wives. And it isn’t because he did anything wrong and it isn’t because he didn’t think things through properly. He just didn’t have all of the information. He didn’t know of the local custom that said that older sisters had to be married before the younger sisters. He didn’t know because no one told him and he didn’t even know enough to ask the question.
But here’s the reality that we all face. When we make decisions, when we make choices, just like Jacob, we do so with incomplete information. And we do it all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter but sometimes it does. I want to share a video clip that illustrates this point very well.
A shipwrecked man sees a rescue balloon passing overhead. He wants to get the attention of whoever is piloting it so he sends up a flare. And the flare goes in exactly the wrong spot, hitting the balloon and bringing it down into the ocean. No more rescue.
We’ve all had similar experiences. We’ve all done things that resulted in unintended consequences. I was talking with a military friend of mine recently– we served together for a number of years. I had heard that he had an accident so called him to see how he was. He’s a horse lover and has a number of them on his farm. It seems that about six weeks ago he was finishing up for the day. It had been a long day. He was tired and just wanted to go into the house a relax. So he decided to cut some corners and not be quite as careful a he normally would have been with the horses. After all, what could go wrong?
Long story short, as he was handling a young untrained horse, he slipped and fell which spooked the horse that proceeded to step backward on him, in fact right on his face with all of its 1,200 lbs. When he finally woke up in the hospital a few days later, along with a concussion, he had broken ribs, a broken arm, lacerations to his face and a damaged eye. Who would have guessed? By the way, I can also say report that he is doing well and expected to make a full recovery but he won’t be cutting corners with his horses anymore because, as he discovered, that can result in unintended consequences.
We’ve all don’t things that we look back at and say, “What was I thinking?” If only I could have, I would have, I should have. But that’s what happens when we work with incomplete information. There are always unknowns that can come back to bite us.
This is no more true anywhere than in the church. The church is a very strange organization in a lot ways. In fact, it’s rather unique. It’s an organization, created by God, that consists mostly of volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds who share a common faith. Other than a few staff members, ninety-five percent of people don’t get paid. In fact, rather than being paid, they’re sort of expected to put a significant portion of their hard earned income into the offering plate. They’re also expected to volunteer their time and talents to make the organization run effectively.
And while church members share a common faith, they don’t always share common goals or visions of what the church should be like and sometimes there are disagreements and tensions that upset people. Being part of a church is not for sissies.
In fact, I posted a meme to my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago that rather explains a minister’s perspective on how a church sometimes appears to function. This is what it said:
Going to seminary is, I think, a lot like going to culinary school – you learn the basic foundations, some cool party tricks, and by the end you can prepare a gourmet meal.
Pastoring, however, is waking up every day to a new episode of Chopped, where the ingredients are completely random and you’re expected to do something with whatever you’re handed while everyone watches and provides running commentary, and occasionally something explodes.” (The Rev. Sara Juist)
I so get that, especially as we’ve been trying to navigate the crazy ecclesiastical waters of Covid-19 where things are apt to explode on a more regular basis than usual. And not only do I get that, I think the Church Board gets it and the SM&T Committee gets it and the Reopening Task Group gets it and so do many others who are trying to seek the Spirit’s guidance as we move forward. And one of the biggest issues in all of that is we just don’t know what the future holds. We are basing our decisions on incomplete information at every step along the way and, often, that results in unintended consequences.
GOD’S GOT THIS
The decisions that we make as a church will have unintended consequences, that we simply can’t foresee. One of the church builders I truly admire is Walt Kallestad who is the former senior pastor at the Community Church of Joy in Phoenix, Arizona. I’ve mentioned him before. He took a small typical Lutheran congregation and grew it into a church of 12,000 members.
I remember him talking about the unintended consequences of the church making major changes. One of them happened in his church when they built their current campus. They had outgrown their old facility and needed something larger and found the perfect place in an orange grove on the outskirts of Phoenix. It took some time but they purchased the land, raised the funds for the building and built it. And everyone seemed to be onboard. But when they actually moved to the new facility, twenty percent of the congregation left the church.
That’s interesting because if they had known that moving into a new facility would cost them one-fifth of their congregation, they probably wouldn’t have done it because, from our narrow human perspective, that’s a really bad plan. But God has blessed them as God always does. All the ones who left the church were replaced by others and, since then, the church has prospered even more than before. And that is the other side of the story of unintended consequences.
We don’t know all of the information but there is someone who does. That someone is God. I believe that if we knew all of the outcomes of our decisions as a church, we would not make many of the decisions that have helped to us to move forward and improve our ministry.
Those who have been around for a while will remember the pain we went through when we decided to renovate the sanctuary in 2006. We lost some good people over that. If we had known that would happen, we may not have done it but it was the right thing to do. Three years ago, when we decided to pay off what we owed ourselves for the office addition, we had no idea that the bottom was about to fall out of finances six months later. If we had known that, we probably wouldn’t have done it but we did and somehow God has provided. Almost two years ago when we decided to hire a Family Minister and that was a very big move for us, once again, we lost some good people but it was the right thing to do. If we had known the consequences to any of those things, we would probably have thought twice about them. But we didn’t know and so we forged ahead and God has blessed us.
And now we’re focusing in making this church a hub of the community. The hope is that we will reach out to more and more people through things like the Prayer Garden and through Linda’s ministry to families and through the strides we are making to improve our presence on social media and the internet and through our partnerships with other community groups. That’s what we’re about. That’s the kind of church we want to be. Do we make mistakes? Sure we do, absolutely. I know that I’ve made lots of mistakes. Do people fall through the cracks? That happens too and we need to do better job of making sure that doesn’t happen. But we also need to trust God to provide for our needs and bless our ministry as God has done and will continue to do.
One of the things that I truly appreciate about this congregation – and one of the things that makes it unique is it’s willingness to move forward in the ministry of Jesus Christ. You are willing to try new things and make the necessary changes even knowing that there will be unintended consequences.
The amazing thing about unintended consequences is that God still works through them to accomplish his purpose. Jacob had no intention of marrying Leah. The only one he wanted was Raquel. But God had told him that he would become a great nation whose people would be like the dust of the earth and that all of the world would be blessed through them. To do this God needed a big family. In fact, God needed twelve sons to establish the twelve tribes of Israel. And God knew that would not happen through Rachel. She had trouble bearing children. In fact, she only bore two, Joseph and Benjamin, and she died giving birth to Benjamin. Leah, on the other hand, was a baby factory, she bore the largest share of the sons that God needed and a daughter too.
Suffice it to say that God worked through the unintended consequences of what happened to Jacob to fulfill his purpose and bless the world. As I’ve often quoted from Romans 8:28 (NIV): “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God worked things for the good with Jacob. God still works for the good of those who still love him.
So don’t be afraid of unintended consequences. Things will happen that you did not intend. Your decisions will not always work out the way you planned but, if we follow God’s will, they will work out the way he plans. You may not have all of the information but God’s got this. No matter what it is, God’s got it in your life, in my life and in the church. So trust in him. Do not be afraid of what may or may not happen but move forward in faith to do what God is calling you to do.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Loving God, your creativity extends from the heavens and covers the earth with good things. Your majesty is experience in the cool evening breezes and song of the birds in the morning sunrise. The butterflies and grasshoppers remind us that you care about all things from the greatest to the least. Your goodness is in the kind acts of your children. We give the glory to you.
Remind us that we are called to live holy lives guided by your Spirit, inspired by your love. In Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, you gave us the gift of eternal life. In him we are born again as creatures of a new creation, washed in his blood and cleansed by your love. We give all of the glory to you.
We lift up in prayer those who will be travelling the roads on vacation. Grant them your safety and grant them the wisdom to drive safely. May they be refreshed during this season of good weather.
We remember those places in the world where you tender touch is so needed. There is still such turmoil and violence in the world. We pray for those who mourn and we pray for wisdom on behalf of those who are making decisions for many.
We remember those of our own congregation and community who need your healing touch their lives. Grant them your Healing and Holy Spirit. We also pray for those who live with broken relationships and loss of security… We pray for those who live with the memories of abuse and victimization… We pray for those who live with doubt and fear… We pray for those who have lost their way and their purpose… God of Life, bring your healing and holy touch into each and every situation.
God, hear our prayers and the prayers of the countless millions who call upon your name for healing, comfort, hope and peace. We raise these prayers in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
July 26, 2020 / Pentecost 8
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:26-39
CALL TO WORSHIP
ONE: Let us give thanks to God
ALL: as we call upon God’s name.
ONE: We will sing songs of praise
ALL: and tell of the wonders of the Most High.
ONE: For the Lord is good.
ALL: Let us seek God with joyful hearts.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
You, O God, are eternal. Your Love is everlasting. Your Mercy extends from the bottom of the deepest oceans to the tops of mountains peaks. Your Justice reaches every corner of the earth. You uphold your Covenant through every age and place. Praise to you, Holy God. Glory to you, our Gracious Creator. Enter our worship and enable us to taste the joy of the inheritance that is ours in Jesus Christ. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
The longings of our hearts are placed before you. Forgive us when we fail to live up to your standards. Forgive us for doubting and failing to trust in your sure and certain promises. In times of affliction, we have forgotten you. In times of celebration, we have ignored you. Forgive us, God of Hope, and enable us to see more clearly the vision of your way. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
The Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. Jesus points us to the path of forgiveness and healing. Believe the Good News. In Christ, we are forgiven and set free from the bondage of sin and death.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Thank you, God, for drawing us into your covenant of love. Thank you for providing for us each day. Our abilities, our inabilities, our gifts and our concerns are all in your hands. We dedicate ourselves to you again, confident that your Spirit will guide us into the way of peace. Amen.
God sends us forth into our life journeys with the promise of the Spirit’s presence. It is the Spirit who lives within and amongst us. Let us leave with enthusiasm, confident in the treasures that God, in love, has provided.