Genesis – Folklore of Faith, lesson 31 – Jacob tricked

Genesis 29: The Trickster is Tricked

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 28, 2006

Craig Atwood

Introduction:             Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. Last Sunday, my youngest daughter had her first dance recital and made her parents very proud. I’ve been going to see daughters in their recitals off an on for nearly 20 years now, and I am very impressed with our local dance school. Some of the routines were very beautiful, especially the ballet scenes. It was nice reminder that we should take the time to experience beauty. I think one of the problems of our own modern world is that we have reduced everything to production and consumption, gain and loss, instead of appreciating the beauty that is around us and inside us.

Today is Ascension Sunday in the Christian calendar and Memorial Day weekend in the national calendar. Both holidays deal with the theme of loss, remembrance, and building on the work of others. In our lesson from Genesis, we are continuing the story of Jacob, who has fled from his parents’ home. He has lost all that was familiar and comforting to him. The boy who loved his mother and kept near the tents has been thrust out into the world to make his own way.

Dreams:                        Last week we looked at the famous story of Jacob’s dream of the stairway to heaven. Off the air, the class had an interesting discussion of religious experiences and the nature of dreams. We talked about how we experience God’s presence in terms that we can understand. Such experiences are expressed in symbols that we can relate to, such as a stairway reaching up to heaven. We also talked about the fact that heaven in this story is not about the afterlife; it is the abode of God. The stairway or ladder visualized God’s connection to this earth and to the dreamer. In the midst of Jacob’s fear and despair, he experienced God’s blessing and encouragement. The stone that Jacob set up not only identified a sacred place, it was a memorial for a sacred moment. The boy had taken an important step toward adulthood, and received the blessing of God. Today we mark these moments with diplomas or certificates of confirmation, but those are granted by external authorities. Jacob set up his own memorial for this key moment in his own journey. What symbols or mementos do you have to remind you of the important stages in your spiritual journey? How do you keep a record of the dreams that give you strength and direction in your life?

Land of the East:            After reading about Jacob’s religious experience at Bethel, we might expect that the dream would be quickly fulfilled, but he still has a long journey in life. When we discussed the story of Jacob deceiving his father, many of us were bothered by the fact that the trickster seems to win. The deceiver is blessed, and then in his dream, God renews the covenant with him. But there is more to the story than that. Jacob will suffer for his actions, and in our lesson for today the deceiver is deceived, and the trickster is cheated. He may be chosen and blessed by God, but he does not have an easy life.

            He travels east to Paddan-aram, to the home of his mother. It is interesting that the biblical text simply identifies them as the people of the east, rather than Arameans. As with other stories in Genesis, we can see ancient Middle Eastern politics displayed in these stories. The Arameans were a nomadic people who lived in upper Mesopotamia and Syria in ancient times. They are mentioned in the records of the Egyptians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and other empires, and were a Semitic people closely related to the Israelites. Over time, it was the language of the Arameans that became the common tongue for Middle Eastern peoples and their adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet became the standard written language. Jesus, for instance, spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew. There was quite a bit of conflict between the Arameans and the kingdom of Israel from time to time, despite close connections between the people. We see this close connection and conflict reflected in the story of Jacob and Laban.

            With this in mind, it should not surprise us that we also see a good bit of humor in the Jacob story, much of it at the expense of Laban. We always tell jokes on people that we live in competition with. The French tell German jokes; the English tells Scottish jokes; Americans tell Canadian jokes; the Chippewa tell Sioux jokes; Chapel Hill fans tell Duke jokes; and Swedes tell Norwegian jokes. So this guy goes into a bar in North Dakota and he starts to tell a Swedish joke. The bartender says, “Friend, I should tell you that everyone in this bar is Swedish American.” The guy replies, “Alright then, I’ll tell the joke real slow for you.” Then there was the time that they had to cancel the final exams at State. Both of the tractors were broken. We can be pretty sure that the Israelites 3000 years ago told Aramean jokes and visa versa, but those jokes involved striped sheep and household gods.

            Jacob traveled to the land of the people of the east, to the land of the Arameans. This formula does recall an earlier biblical story, though. You may remember that Cain dwelled in the land east of Eden and took a wife from Nod. By sending Jacob to the east to find a wife, the story teller connects his story of exile with that original exile. This also connects Jacob’s story to the experience of the Jews who were exiled in Babylon, in the east. The ancient family story of Jacob going to his uncle’s home to find a wife becomes a way to remind the Jewish exiles that God is not bound to a single house in Jerusalem. He will be with them in their struggles and wanderings, just as he was with their ancestor Jacob. In this way, a folktale becomes a story of faith. The story of Jacob in Paddan-aram keeps many of his folktale qualities, but they are subsumed into a larger story of pilgrimage and faithfulness.

            Before reading our passage for this morning, I want to point out that it is part of a larger unit (chapter 29-31) that is almost like a little novel with its own plot. Jacobs reaches his destination, gets married, has children, and the makes his exit. As with any good novel, there are many twists in the plot, but the outline is secure. This morning we’ll deal only with the first part: boy meets girl, loses girl, finds girl.

Read chapter 29

The Well:            The story opens with Jacob coming upon a well. That is a welcome sight for a thirsty traveler in a strange land, but the well was covered with a large stone. Even though there were three flocks of sheep gathered at the well, it was still covered. This may strike you as odd, but there was a reason for this arrangement. Water is a precious commodity in a dry land. Rather than compete over the well, the owners of the flock agreed that no one would water his flock until the other flocks were assembled. To make sure no one cheated, they put a rock over the well that was so big it would take several men to move it. They would have to cooperate rather than compete for the water. Today, we have stacks of business law that would choke an elephant. Most of it boils down to a simple proposition, though: since people are inherently selfish, we need rules to keep us from destroying others as we enrich ourselves. They didn’t have many lawyers in ancient Mesopotamia, so the shepherds came up with this solution to their problem.

            Of course, the reason they didn’t this system was because they did not trust each other. This was a nice way for the storyteller to bring the issue of distrust into the narrative. We’ll see that theme runs throughout Jacob’s dealings with Laban. Jacob appears to be unfamiliar with this idea of waiting to water the flocks, though, and when Rachel approaches with her flock, he moves the stone and gives water to her sheep. This marks Jacob as a man of action who takes charge in a situation. It also marks him as a man who does not obey convention or even the rules of decency. The storyteller portrays Jacob as physically strong and decisive.

            There may be more to this story of the well, though. You will probably remember that Rebekah was betrothed to Isaac at a well. Moses will also meet Zipporah at a well. Certainly this reflects the centrality of the well in ancient Middle Eastern culture. It was a public area, and it was something that everyone depended on. The well is a symbol of life and vitality, the source of water and health. According to ancient mythology and modern psychology, a well is also a symbol of the womb or of womanhood. It is interesting that the biblical stories about wells often focus on marriage and birth. The symbolism of Jacob opening the well for Rachel foreshadows the birth of his children by Rachel.

Rachel                        The story of Jacob meeting Rachel has parallels with the story of Rebekah at the well, but the differences are notable. You may recall that it was Rebekah who was the main actor in the earlier story. She came to the well to get water, and she was the one who took pity on a stranger and gave him and his camels water. This time, it is Jacob who is the actor. He opens the well and waters Rachel’s flocks for her. He doesn’t offer Rachel gifts, the way Abraham’s servant did. He impulsively kisses her and then bursts into tears.

            This is a bit strange, isn’t it? Even in a culture where men were freer with their emotions than we are in modern America, this seems a bit excessive.  So far in the story, Jacob has appeared to be rather cool and cunning, but here he is impulsive and emotional. I think what the story teller was trying to communicate was Jacob’s relief at having reached his destination. In these tears we can sense the anxiety he felt during his flight from Beersheba, the loneliness and fear that he has lived with. He had survived and now had a place in the world, a family that could take care of him.

            He was also crying because he had met Rachel. Part of the purpose of his flight was to find a wife from among his cousins, and here was his first cousin Rachel. We learn a little later that she was graceful and beautiful. Though his kiss may have been a ritual greeting given to a kinsman, as some commentators suggest, the tears indicate that there was a lot of emotion in that kiss. This appears to be one instance in the Bible of love at first sight – at least for Jacob. We have no idea what Rachel thought of this dirty traveler. She might have been impressed by the way he took the stone off of the well for her, but she might have been equally frightened by this man who did not respect the rules of society, including the rules of courtship. He had no one to negotiate for him in his search for a wife. He had no gifts or signs of status to give her. He didn’t even offer her a nose ring, but he did claim to be a kinsman. We are told that she ran to tell her father, but it is up to us to decide whether she ran in fear, or joy, or excitement or all three.

            I think it is good that we have this story of Jacob meeting Rachel for the first time. We don’t have this kind of story in the New Testament, do we? I don’t think there are any grand theological or metaphysical claims in this story. The biblical commentators I’ve read tend to skip rather quickly over it. It is simply a love story, nothing more, they say. And yet, such simple love stories are the fabric of our lives. When we tell the tale of our lives, we do not focus on the grand themes of history. Wars, politics, and scientific discoveries are merely the backdrop for the important events of our personal lives. It is the story of how we met our spouse, the memories of special moments of love and loss that give depth and dimension to our lives. We do not love Jacob the trickster who cheated his brother, but we are drawn to this impulsive young man at the well who kisses Rachel and sends her off to her father. We are drawn to the beautiful Rachel as well, and we remember the joy of youthful longing and the bliss of discovering ourselves in the eyes of the person we love. And I, for one, am grateful that this is also part of sacred history and sacred scripture. Too many Christian theologians and preachers through the centuries have been too suspicious of healthy attraction and romance. But, as the poet said, the path of true love never runs smooth.

The Wedding                        Laban rushed out to greet his nephew Jacob and welcome him. This is the same Laban who rushed out to greet Abraham’s servant years before. No doubt he was expecting a similar showering of gifts and flattery, but Jacob was a poor exile rather than a sheik’s emissary. Jacob has nothing to offer Laban but his story. Laban fulfills his familial duties and takes the boy into his protection, but he puts him to work. After a month he asks Jacob what he wants in wages. For modern Americans this does not sound offensive. We are used to paying family members a salary if they work for us. We may even pay our children for doing their chores, but this talk of wages sounded harsh to ancient ears. Family members should not be treated as hired hands. But Jacob seizes the moment to ask for something he had no right to ask for on his own. He asked for the beautiful Rachel even though he had no money for the bride-price, even though his father had not negotiated the wedding contract. Brash, impulsive. Jacob once again grasps, and he gets what he wants but not in the way he wanted.

            Laban works out a deal with Jacob. Seven years labor for the hand of Rachel. He had traded Rebekah for silver and cloth and camels. Jacob would have to use his labor to make Laban rich. And work he did. Seven years. This is an important message for passionate young men and women today. Passion and desire are good, but temperance and strength are also good. Be willing to wait for the one you love. If a man truly loves a woman the way Jacob loved Rachel, he can wait for years to fulfill that love. And Genesis says, “they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”

            Finally, the contract was fulfilled and the lovers could be united in marriage. Laban did as a father was expected to do. He threw a feast to celebrate the wedding. Again, I really like that this is part of sacred scripture. In the New Testament, all we have is the wedding at Cana to remind us that it is good to feast and celebrate for big occasions such as weddings. There are times when it is appropriate to sing and rejoice. Middle Eastern weddings in our time can last for days. I imagine it they were even bigger affairs in Jacob’s day. No doubt there was more than a little wine consumed at the nuptials. It appears that the groom may have even drunk more than is good. When the big moment came and he was able to be alone with his new bride, he did not notice that she was not graceful and beautiful. She was not the young woman he had kissed seven years earlier at the well. She was not woman he had labored seven years for. When he woke up he found that it was her sister who was lying next to him in the bridal tent.

Leah                        This is one of those moments in which comedy and tragedy blur. No doubt many people have laughed over the past three thousand years as this story has been told. It sounds like a modern urban legend, doesn’t it? A man finally gets to marry the girl he has always loved, but winds up married to her sister. There is a Moravian version of this story from the days when the church arranged marriages. The wife of a missionary in Africa died, and so he wrote back to the elders in Herrnhut to ask for a new wife. He mentioned that he had met a young woman on his last visit and would like her to come to Africa if she was willing. The church wrote back to say that she was. So he went to the boat with eager expectation, only to find they had sent the sister of the woman he had asked for. They were married and had several children.

            In the Genesis story, this is clearly a tale of the deceiver getting deceived. Jacob learned what it was like to have someone switch identity on you. Just as his father thought he was blessing Esau, his brother, Jacob thought he was marrying Rachel that night. There is a comic justice in the story.

            But I have always felt bad for Leah. She is used by her father in a cruel fashion. She is just part of a joke; part of an elaborate trick on his nephew. She is the way that Laban will get seven more years of labor out of the arrogant boy who thought he was good enough to marry his daughter. It is odd that we have heard nothing about Leah in the story so far. Why wasn’t she the one tending the sheep that day? Why didn’t Laban insist from the beginning that Jacob marry her since she was the oldest? 

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