Genesis 29:31-30:24 ~ 20080309 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org
We are looking at Jacob the patriarch. This is the Jacob that God refers to when he says 'I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob'
And we have been finding out that Jacob was no moral pillar – no shining example of faith and righteousness. He's really not someone we'd want our kids looking up to. He was a smooth man – he ripped off his own twin brother, and then he ripped of his own blind dad. If he showed up at church, we'd have to warn you to keep a close eye on your wallets and purses. He's got a criminal record and he's on the run for his life because his brother's out to kill him. If you see a really angry hairy guy with a bow and arrow – get out of his way – it's Esau and he's looking for Jacob. Jacob is no prize model of Christian virtue – but God has made amazing unconditional promises to Jacob to bless him and work in him and through him. And last week we saw lesson #1 in God's school of transformation – where Jacob the deceiver met his match and was deceived by his uncle Laban into marrying the ugly older sister of the woman he loved. Today, we get lesson #2 in God's school of character development.
Jacob was wronged. He was tricked. He was deceived into marrying a woman that he didn't love. And he was conned out of another 7 years of hard labor because he didn't read the small print on the contract. And apparently Leah went along with her father's deception. Maybe she was realizing that she was getting old and her chances of getting a husband were quickly disappearing. Maybe she thought this was her only chance - if she went to bed with Jacob, she would win his affection. She desperately wanted to be loved and cared for – obviously she didn't get the kind of love and affection that a girl should from her father – he was willing to use her to play a joke on Jacob, and to trade her for some manual labor. Jacob had every reason to be bitter. He was angry and he let Leah know how he felt about her. It is interesting that Jacob was not the favorite son of his father, and now Leah is not his favorite wife, but God is blessing her. Jacob may have had every reason to hate Leah, but God was aware and God came to her defense. God opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.
Leah bears four boys in rapid succession. Although Jacob hated her, he was obviously still fulfilling his obligation to her as husband. Leah names her firstborn 'Reuben' which was a common name that meant 'see, a son', but she gives it significance by the similarity in sound to 'seen my misery' and 'my husband will love me'. She recognizes that God is aware of her situation and God cares about her. She acknowledges that this child is a gift from the Lord, but she wrongly thinks that bearing Jacob's firstborn child will win the affection of her husband. This story is amazingly contemporary. This woman wanted more than anything else to be loved. She was willing to trick this guy into becoming her husband. She thought if she slept with him, she would win his affection. She thought having a baby with him would bring them closer together. She was wrong. Her second son she named 'Simeon' which sounds like 'heard' and 'hated'. The Lord has heard that I am hated, so he has given me another son. Her third son was named Levi, which sounds like the Hebrew word 'attached'. She thought that now with three sons, Jacob would surely become attached to her. God has blessed her with children, but this has not changed the heart of her husband toward her. Leah must learn to find her emotional fulfillment in the Lord alone. Her fourth son she names 'Judah' which means 'I will praise the Lord'. For a moment, Leah turns her thoughts away from her unloving husband, and toward her Lord, and she expresses praise.
Amazingly, Rachel, the younger attractive loved wife of Jacob is jealous of her sister. We always want what somebody else has. Leah has children, but she wants her husbands affection. Rachel has her husband's affection, but all she wants is children. So in her frustration she yells at Jacob. The problem evidently wasn't in Jacob – he has fathered four sons. And yet Rachel demands that Jacob give her children. Jacob's answer is theologically correct, but demonstrates that he has disengaged from his spiritual responsibility as head of the home. Rachel yells at him, so he yells back. It's not my fault. If you want to point the finger at someone, blame God – he's the one that is not allowing you to get pregnant! This, by the way, is the only place in the whole chapter that Jacob speaks. Jacob has been robbed of his humanity and reduced to breeding stock. It's interesting to contrast Jacob's response to his barren wife with the response of his father to his barren wife Rebekah:
Jacob had his theology right- or at least half right. He recognized that it was God who opens and closes the womb. He acknowledged that God is sovereign over everything that happens. What he failed to understand is that God is also good and merciful and loving and loves to give good gifts to his children in response to their prayers. Jacob was prayerless when he met Rebekah, and now years into their relationship, he remains prayerless. Jacob's dad had seen that his wife was barren and he knew the one in control of the womb was ultimately God, so he went to God for help, and God heard and God answered and Jacob and Esau were conceived. Now Jacob is in a similar situation with his wife Rachel, and he knows whose in control and he tells his wife that, but he doesn't go to God in prayer. Jacob could have learned from his parents example. He also should have learned from the mistakes of his grandparents. Rachel decides that rather than let her ugly sister get the upper hand, she would give her servant girl to her husband to get children that way. Jacob should have heard the stories from grandma Sarah about Hagar and uncle Ishmael and how that whole plan really made a mess of things. But rather than learning from history, he blindly repeats it. Rachel names the first child of her servant 'Dan' which means 'God has vindicated me'. Rachel says 'God has heard my voice' which implies that although her husband did not intercede for her, she prayed on her own behalf. It is interesting that three of the first four children that Leah bore, she names in reference to God's covenant name YHWH. When Rebekah names the children that Bilhah bore to her, she uses the generic name for God 'Elohim'.
She names the next son 'Napthali' and she says 'in my struggling with God I have struggled with my sister and have overcome'.
Apparently there was a brief break in the action for Leah, so she followed her sister's example and gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a wife to raise up children for her. The first child, she names 'Gad' – good luck or good fortune! The second she names 'Asher' which sounds like 'women will call me happy' or 'women will envy me'.
This is a most disturbing passage. Mandrakes are a plant that is entirely poisonous. The plant has some medicinal value as an anesthetic, but the mandrake is wrapped up in superstition and magic. It was thought that the mandrake was an aphrodisiac that brought fertility. The Hebrew word could literally be translated 'love fruits'. So Reuben is around 4 ½ or 5 years old and he wanders in from the fields with this poisonous plant. Rachel sees what it is and wants to put it under her pillow so she can get pregnant. Leah is obviously on edge a bit – she explodes at the suggestion: 'You stole my husband – now you want to steal my son's mandrakes!!' But Rachel is willing to broker a deal: sex with the husband in exchange for the fertility drug. Apparently Jacob has ceased to fulfill his marital responsibilities to his hated wife, and that may be part of why she has stopped having kids. So she is willing to buy his services in exchange for the plant. Jacob had taken advantage of his twin brother's hunger and sold him a bowl of soup for the birthright; Jacob has been reduced to a hired hand on uncle Laban's ranch; now Jacob is given out for hire in the bedroom by his own favorite wife! Rachel's deal backfires on her – the mandrakes do her no good, but Leah gets pregnant – and she names the boy 'Issachar' -God has given me my wages. I imagine these names stung Jacob each time he had to call his kids – Issachar – wages – that's the time my wives bartered for bedroom rights. Reuben – the Lord has seen my misery; Simeon – the Lord has heard that I am hated; Napthali – with great struggling I have struggled. Painful memories of these painful seven years of hard labor under Laban who deceived him like he had deceived his father and brother. And eleven kids from four different women within seven years had to be a painful experience – I wonder how many were in diapers at the same time...
Leah conceived her sixth and last son Zebulun which sounds like 'God has presented me' or 'my husband will acknowledge me as a lawful wife'. Leah the unloved wife is still longing for the acknowledgment and affection of her husband. Later she has a daughter Dinah, and she will show up again in chapter 34.
Six years of marriage and still childless, during which time her sister has had six boys. The chapter begins by God opening Leah's womb because she was hated by her husband. The chapter closes with God remembering Rachel, God listening to Rachel, and God opening her womb. It is clear the mandrakes had nothing to do with it – it was all God. And so Rachel names her first son Joseph 'God has taken away my disgrace' and 'may the Lord add to me another son'. Rachel here finally addresses God by his covenant name YHWH.
Why? Why is this story in the bible? First let me be very clear – it is not here so we say 'well, Jacob was a patriarch and he had four wives so I guess that means it's ok to have multiple sexual partners.' Let me give you a basic principle of interpretation: narrative is not normative. Just because something happened in the bible doesn't mean it has God's stamp of approval and we should imitate the behavior. I think this story makes that painfully clear – Jacob's life as portrayed in this chapter is not every man's dream – more like any man's nightmare. When we're looking for guidance for our lives, we shouldn't go to narrative passages like:
Instead we go to passages where God gives us his instruction, like:
Narrative is not always normative. Precept takes precedence over practice – just because someone in the bible did something doesn't mean it's a good idea – it might be there to warn us not to make the same mistakes they made.
But why do we have to shine a flashlight into the private life of Jacob and see all his faults and failures? Wouldn't we be better off not knowing all these sordid details? Can't we just pretend Jacob was a great guy and we should try to be like him? Let me tell you why I think a passage like this is in the bible; better yet, let me read to you what God says about why things like this are recorded:
When we hear God say 'I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob',
we should remember their stories and take hope. God chose an idol worshiping guy from Ur of the Chaldees and called him to leave everything and follow him. His wife was barren, so God changed his name from 'exalted father' to 'father of a multitude'. When his barren wife was 99, well after she had passed out of her childbearing years and it would be doubly impossible for her to have children, she became pregnant and had a son whom God named Isaac – laughter. All God had asked was that they believe him – trust him. God had supernaturally brought a son and with him brought blessing, joy and laughter into their lives. This son 'Laughter' also takes a barren wife, and God gives him twins through her. But he wants to go against God's word and pass on the blessing to his favorite son, the older, the hunter. Instead, he is deceived by his wife and his younger son Jacob – the deceiver. So the deceiver has to be sent away to save his own life. Jacob proves over and over again that he is not worthy of the blessings that God has promised him, but God doesn't go back on his word. God has determined to work with this self-willed deceiver and break him and change him and shape him into a man who surrenders to God and trusts him.
When I hear that our God is the God of Jacob, I get excited! If God can be the God of a crook like Jacob and make him useful for his purposes, then there's hope for me! God is not looking for really great raw materials to work with; in fact he delights to take sinners – messed up sinners like Jacob; messed up sinners like us – and transform us and use us to bring him glory.