Text: Genesis 29:1-30
Summer is the season for weddings. I have learned over the years as I officiate at weddings that something always goes wrong. Often it is a small thing and occasionally it is more noticeable, but when it comes to weddings, everything will not go off exactly as planned.
Years ago I was in a friend’s wedding in Cincinnati. It came time to light the unity candle. Sally dropped the taper she was using to light the unity candle. She dropped it on the open Bible on the communion table. It occurred to me that having the Bible go up in flames at your wedding would not be the best symbol for beginning a marriage.
At another wedding, the couple could not get the unity candle to light and finally just gave up. These things happen. At another wedding, the flower girl refused to go down the aisle, which turned out to be providential, because the 11 year old niece who had wanted to be flower girl but was passed over because she was too old was the emergency substitute and got to be the flower girl after all.
At one wedding, the best man dropped the ring on the floor – and through the register in the floor into the ductwork. At a wedding I attended, the couple used a kneeling bench, and when they kneeled while someone sang the Lord’s Prayer, you could see “Help Me” taped to the bottom of his shoes.
One of the most memorable happened here in this church. Don’t worry; the bride and groom were not from our church and they live in another state. They chose to have recorded music for the processional. The bride was to come down the aisle to “Here and Now” by Luther Vandross. It’s not what we chose to have at our wedding, but it was OK. But there was a snag. An usher was supposed to pull the aisle runner before the bride entered, but he was nowhere to be found. After awhile, the maid of honor told the best man, “We’re going to have to do it,” but he said, “No way.” Finally the maid of honor pulled the aisle runner down the aisle by herself. But by the time she was back in place and the bride was ready to enter the sanctuary, the song was over (this is one reason to think twice about recorded music at your wedding). This was several years ago and the music was on cassette tape. So it is time for the bride to enter, and the next song on the tape begins playing. The next song was “Love the One You’re With.” I am not kidding. After that wedding, we required those getting married here to pay a fee for a sound system operator.
I could go on and on, and maybe I already have, but even the biggest surprises that we may see at weddings pale in comparison to the surprise that Jacob had.
Now remember, Jacob is known as a trickster. His name means literally “heel-grabber,” or “supplanter” – one who takes what belongs to another or overtakes another. In this case, Jacob the trickster is himself tricked.
When we left Jacob last week, he was fleeing from his brother Esau, who wants to kill him. He is traveling to his Uncle Laban’s when he stops for the night, sleeps on a stone pillow out in a forsaken place and has this amazing dream in which he is assured that God will be with him, God will protect him, God will bring him back to his home, and his descendants shall be a great nation.
Jacob finally arrives near Haran, Laban’s home. He strikes up a conversation at the community well with some shepherds, asking them if they know Laban. They tell him that they do, that it is well with Laban and that Laban’s daughter Rachel is coming to the well with her sheep.
Jacob sees Rachel approaching with her flock, and it is the proverbial love at first sight. Because water was a precious commodity, even as it is today, the custom was that you could not lift the stone covering on the well until all the shepherds were there. You could not slip off and water your flock alone. To help enforce this custom, there was a very large and very heavy stone over the well that would take more than one person to lift.
On seeing Rachel, Jacob lifts the stone by himself and waters her flock, breaking the social custom and demonstrating his strength. Jacob, this outsider, shows that he is a person to be reckoned with. Then he kissed Rachel and wept out loud – which men most certainly did not do.
Rachel is Laban’s daughter and Jacob has traveled far to marry one of Laban’s daughters, so we can see the handwriting on the wall. Laban gladly receives his nephew. Jacob stays and works for his uncle for a month and then Laban says, “Just because we are kin, you should not be working for nothing. What should your wage be?”
And then we read about Laban’s two daughters. Leah has “lovely eyes,” and Rachel was “graceful and beautiful.” The Hebrew is somewhat unclear here; The King James says that Leah was “tender-eyed” while the REB and NAB say that she was “dull-eyed” or “weak-eyed.” However it is translated, the gist of it is that Rachel, the younger sister, is more attractive to Jacob than Leah, the older sister.
So we come back to Laban’s question to Jacob: what shall your wage be? Jacob says that he will work for 7 years for the right to marry Rachel. Now, this was the custom of the time, so we need to set aside for now our concerns over buying a wife and dwell on the movement of the story. Why did Jacob make the offer to work seven years? This is not the way a good negotiator works. He presumably could have had her as his wife for less, maybe even for nothing. But he works seven years.
This showed a couple of things. His love for her was such that he needed to show how much he valued her. I remember back in grade school, Mr. Kirk, our PE teacher, would often show films in health class. I know my memory is cloudy, but I remember health class as consisting almost entirely of bad films. I remember one movie set in Africa about a man who bargains with a young woman’s father over the right to marry her. The currency in that community was cows, and typically a man would give the father of the bride a cow or maybe two or in rare instances even three or four for a young woman considered to be especially good wife material. But in the movie, this man inexplicably offers seven cows for the right to marry this woman. The father is shocked but of course agrees. His friends, and pretty well the whole village laughs at his folly; she was obviously a one-cow woman. But because of the great value he places on her, this woman becomes more beautiful and more confident and more self-assured and more accomplished, and in the end everyone agrees that she was a bargain.
Jacob does not elope. He does not wheel and deal. He doesn’t try to con his Uncle Laban. (Well, not now anyway.) He might have got the birthright for a bowl of stew, but he worked seven years for the right to marry Rachel.
Seven years was a long time in those days, and people married at an early age. I wonder: how many of us would work seven years for the right to marry our spouse? (You don’t have to answer that.) How many want to work seven years for anything? When was the last time you felt strongly and passionately enough about something that you would work seven years for it?
People used to save for years in order to buy a house, but not so much anymore. We might wait for years for something we want, but usually because we have no choice in the matter. The seven years says something about Jacob’s commitment and perseverance and love. The text says that those years “seemed but a few days because of his love for Rachel.”
Part of it is that this was the new Jacob. He had his dream, the Jacob’s ladder dream, and he knew that God was with him, God would keep him, God would bless him.
But you know, there was another reason that seven years might have been appealing to Jacob. He was in no hurry to go back home. He trusted God, but maybe not quite enough to face Esau. Seven years with Uncle Laban sounded better than facing a brother who wanted to kill him.
So, he worked the seven years, it seemed but a few days, and he goes to see Laban. “I have worked my seven years, I’ve held up my end of the bargain, and it’s time for you to hold up your end.”
And the wedding finally takes place. There is a huge party, people are eating and drinking and dancing all day long, the festivities go on late. It is now dark, everyone has had a few too many drinks, and Laban brings the bride, dressed in finery with a veil covering her head and face. She goes into the tent, Jacob goes into the tent, and they are married. There is only one small problem: Jacobs wakes up the next morning and he is lying next to Leah. It is Leah! He has married Leah, not Rachel. Leah, the one with the lovely eyes. On the scale of wedding mishaps this ranks considerably higher than a balky unity candle.
Jacob asks Laban, “How could you do this to me? Why did you deceive me?” These words sound pretty funny coming out of Jacob’s mouth – he is a fine one to ask questions like these. You want Laban to say, “Oh, that’s rich!” Jacob had pulled the same thing on his own father, the old fakaroni, in order to receive the blessing.
“How could you do this?” Laban tells him why, and surely Jacob knows. It was considered inappropriate for the younger daughter to marry before the older. He may have been a trickster and a schemer just like Jacob – they are related, after all - but Laban loved his family and he could not bear the hurt in Leah’s eyes, her lovely, sad eyes.
Jacob had always schemed for his own benefit. At least Laban schemed on behalf of his daughter. He did it to protect her pride and dignity and he feelings. Well, and maybe for himself, too.
Jacob would work 7 more years for Rachel. Fourteen years to marry two daughters. Fourteen years of labor. You can bet that Laban thoroughly enjoyed what he had pulled over.
Deception ran in this family. Rebekah had taught her son Jacob her scheming ways, and Rebekah’s brother was from the same mold. Jacob can’t believe that he has been deceived. In this instance he is a lot like us, because what fault do we see most clearly in others? It’s the fault that we share. Who hates to be talked about the most? A gossip. Who hates to be used by somebody else? Someone who uses and manipulates others. Who really hates to be cheated? A cheater.
While he was still Jacob, while he still had plenty of bargaining and scheming ahead of him, Jacob showed maturity and perseverance he would not have had before. He knew what was important and he was willing to pay a price for it. He marries Rachel and he works for his Uncle Laban seven more years.
Jacob is a mixed bag. He is a conflicted person, a flawed human being capable of treachery and deceit and shocking self-centeredness as well as perseverance and faithfulness and abiding love. In other words, he is like us.
Our actions can have results for years to come. Deception and trickery have repercussions felt over generations. Just as scheming by Rebekah had contributed to the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, scheming by Laban contributes to the rivalry between his daughters Leah and Rachel. And to learn more about that, you’ll have to join us next week.