One Colossal Family Mess
The most important nation in the history of the world began as one colossal family mess (at least by today’s standards). Last week Pastor Jonathan said a major theme in Genesis is God’s remarkable ability to weave his masterpieces out of our terrible messes. Despite the darkness, despite our sin, God brings his purposes to pass. And not just despite, but in and through human evil. God weaves our messes into his masterpiece. We see that again today, and oh so clearly, in Genesis 29 and 30. Polygamy. Buying and selling among family when things should be given and received. An uncle tricks his own nephew into marrying the wrong daughter.
This story raises several obvious questions we shouldn’t duck and dodge, nor should we be too distracted by them, and miss the weightier matters here. So, I’ll just bullet a few questions and answers here quickly, before we move into the chapter.
Q: What should we think about cousins marrying each other?
A: These were vastly different times. Perhaps the human genome was purer then, and less affected by the effects of sin. Perhaps they experienced the frequent deleterious genetic effects of it, and didn’t yet know why. Whatever the case four thousand years ago, we do not allow it today for good reason.
Q: What do we say about Jacob marrying two women? Does Genesis condone polygamy?
A: While Genesis does not expressly condemn a man having more than one wife, the clear teaching of Genesis 2, as we saw, is that marriage is a lifelong covenant commitment of one man to one woman. And each of these stories in Genesis where a man has multiple wives (not the least of which is Genesis 29) always spell trouble. It never goes well. As we’ll see. These stories are flashing red lights: don’t do this.
Q: What about the mandrakes (30:14–16)?
A: Our best guess is that they were believed to help with fertility. Thus Rachel’s desire for them. She’s trying everything. In the Bible, mandrakes appear only here and in Song of Solomon 7:13.
Q: What about Jacob having children with his wives’ servants?
A: We saw this with Abraham and Sarah as well in Genesis 16. When Sarah was unable to conceive, she adopted a common practice in her day and convinced her husband to have a child with her servant Hagar. God plainly did not approve, and it did not go well, all too clearly. Genesis has already shown the folly and error of this ancient practice (which even pagans eventually learned was a terrible idea), and when Jacob, Rachel, and Leah take up that practice here, it is not commended but evidence that we indeed have one colossal family mess. An all-out childbearing duel breaks out between the two sisters in chapter 30. This is sheer domestic madness. And this is our spiritual heritage. This is us.
A Colossal Mess
And so we step back and say again, the most important nation in the history of the world began as one colossal family mess. Abraham and Hagar. Then Jacob and Esau. Now Rachel and Leah — and Zilpah and Bilhah.
These are shockingly earthy stories of origin. You don’t make these up. These were dark days. How much do we take for granted, in the church age, the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost? “As yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). Where would we be without the Spirit?
This Is Us
And yet, in it all, with all the sin and distortion, God is at work, bringing into being the twelve tribes of Israel (from the twelves son, and four wives, of Jacob), preserving and proliferating his covenant people, including the line of his Son. God is weaving his masterpiece from a colossal family mess. I hope you take at least some small encouragement from this. Perhaps some part of your life is a mess right now, if not a colossal one. You have been taken advantage of, like Jacob. Or you’ve felt neglected and unloved, like Leah. Or you’ve felt forgotten by God, like Rachel. And this chapter, in all its unsettling disarray, has something to say to you.
Setting the Stage
Let’s set the stage (with verses 1–14) and then consider each of three main characters in this chapter and their pain, and how God meets them in their time of need.
We have seen how God spoke to Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, while Jacob and his twin brother Esau were still in the womb, and the concluding word was “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Esau was the older; Jacob was the younger. The world’s way was to bless the older, but God tells Rebecca that he means to do things differently. He turns the world’s wisdom on its head. And so, as we saw two weeks ago, when it comes time for Isaac to pass the blessing of Abraham to the next generation, he quite naturally chooses Esau, the oldest.
But Rebecca, knowing what God had told her, conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac so that the blessing comes to the younger. Rebecca is a good woman, and Jacob does well to listen to her. The plot is successful, and Esau is furious and threatens to kill his brother (27:41). So, both Rebecca (27:43) and Isaac (28:2) instruct Jacob to flee, and journey to the house of his uncle Laban, Rebecca’s brother, to find a wife, in the meantime, from their own people.
Last week, we saw how Jacob, bearer of the blessing, had his own personal encounter with the God of Abraham and Isaac. As he slept, he dreamed of a great flight of steps going from earth to heaven and angels ascending and descending on it (28:12). And God stood at the top and spoke to him and personally extended his promises to Jacob (28:13–15).
Now in chapter 29, Jacob arrives after the long journey in the region of Laban’s house and comes to a well (29:2). We saw a well in Genesis 24 (verse 11), when Abraham’s servant came to this same region to find a wife for Isaac. There are shepherds at the well, with their sheep, waiting for other shepherds to arrive in order to move the great stone covering the well. Jacob asks if they know Laban, and they do — in fact, they point out, his daughter Rachel is approaching at the moment (29:6). As Rachel arrives, and Jacobs sees her, he summons the strength to roll away the large stone by himself and waters Laban’s flock, which Rachel is caring for.
Everything seems to begin so well. Jacob tells Rachel that he’s “her father’s kinsman” (29:12), she runs to get Laban, Laban runs to greet Jacob and welcomes him into his home. All seems fine at the end of verse 14.
Jacob Loved Rachel
However, things begin to go sideways in verse 15, after a month, when Laban asks about wages for Jacob. At first, it might sound nice that he’s offering to pay him, but what’s underneath it is he doesn’t want Jacob freeloading, and he’s turning the relationship into a transaction. Jacob left his parents on the run, has no money of his own, is smitten with Rachel, and proposes that he serve Laban seven years to have Rachel as his bride. It’s a high bride price, higher than normal, scholars say, and Laban is ready to take advantage of how taken Jacob is with his younger daughter, Rachel.
Three times we hear how smitten Jacob is. Verse 18: “Jacob loved Rachel.” Verse 20: “Jacobs served [Laban] seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” And verse 30: Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah.”
So, the stage is set for our three main characters in this section: Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. And in this colossal family mess, all three experience pain and hurt, in their own ways, and learn to look to God in their need.
1. Jacob was exploited - by his own uncle. (29:21–30)
The writing has been on the wall with Uncle Laban. Before this chapter we know very little about him, but when we first met him in chapter 24, we caught a glimpse of how impressed he was with the wealth of Abraham’s servant (24:30). Now, we see that he turns kinship into wages (29:15), wants a price for his daughters (his father did not demand a price for Rebecca), doesn’t give Jacob a straight answer about the proposal (29:19) and takes advantage of Jacob’s love for Rachel. Then, in verse 21, Jacob has to demand his wife at the end of seven years, as if Laban lost track. Laban is a swindler and a lover of money.
Laban throws the wedding feast. Likely there’s drinking, and of course it’s dark “in the evening” (29:23) in the ancient world without electric lights, and Uncle Laban sneaks in his older daughter, Leah, to marry Jacob, instead of Rachel. Then we have in Genesis 29:25 one of the great anticlimactic lines, perhaps in the history of the world: “In the morning, behold, it was Leah!
When Jacob asks Laban, “What is this you have done to me? . . . Why have you deceived me?” we see the great irony. Jacob has been the deceiver; now he is the deceived. The trickster has been tricked. The cheater has been cheated. And Laban answers with one of the two most important verses in this section: “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn” (29:26).
At this point, we should start asking about this talk of the older and the younger. Leah is the older; Rachel is the younger. Where have we heard before about the older and the younger? Jacob and Esau, of course. And what had God foretold to Rebecca? “The older shall serve the younger” (25:23). Laban, no doubt, knows Jacob’s story, about the prophecy, and the birthright, and the blessing of Abraham. And Laban says, in essence, in verse 26, “Jacob, we do things the world’s way here, not your God’s way.”
This leads us to one of the most important questions in this chapter, apart from the obvious ones we mentioned at the beginning: Isn’t Jacob just getting a dose of his own medicine here from Laban? Jacob deceived his father. Now Laban deceives Jacob. Jacob just gets what he deserves, right?
I don’t think Laban’s comment in verse 26 will let us go there. This is not an equal and opposite deception to get Jacob back for his. The difference lies in the promise. The difference lies in how it relates to God. God told Rebecca (who chapter 24 establishes as a new kind of Abraham, more so than Isaac), “The older will serve the younger.” The God of Abraham doesn’t do things the world’s way. His ways are higher. He makes foolish the wisdom of the world. And yet Laban tells Jacob, That’s not how things work around here. We do it our way, not God’s. It’s a shocking thumbing of his nose at Jacob’s God.
[Just a quick peek into what’s to come: In Genesis 48, when Joseph brings his sons to grandpa Jacob for a blessing at the end of Jacob’s life, Joseph cues up his older son for Jacob’s right hand, and his younger for the left — and Jacob, knowing the peculiar ways of God, crosses his hands! (48:14, 19).]
But Jacob doesn’t lash out. He marries Rachel a week later, as Laban prescribes, and works seven more years for Rachel. In chapter 31, when Jacob is about to finally flee from Laban and return home, he says to Rachel and Leah, “The God of my father has been with me” (31:5). Immature and passive as Jacob comes off in chapter 30, I do believe it was his encounter with God in chapter 28 that gets him through Laban’s deception. Jacob knew God said to him, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15). And he trusted God to do so.
Which might help some of us this morning who find ourselves, like Jacob, exploited, tricked, used, or taken advantage of. Unfortunately, the world is (for now) full of Labans who veil their true selves, speak deceptively, and use their power and position to exploit others. Perhaps you can think right now of some particular person, or multiple people, who are taking advantage of your hard work or skills or finances or knowledge, and you sense the injustice, and wonder if this is left up to you to rectify. Hear this today: God knows. He sees. He will right every wrong. The day of reckoning for all abuse, all exploitation, all unrighteous trickery will come. God will more than make up for how you’ve been wronged. He knows your pain and hurt. And he relieves you from the burden of having to settle the score yourself.
Sometimes God gives us the opportunity to participate in the reckoning, but he doesn’t mean for us to carry the weight. You don’t have to make the world right. You can’t. You don’t have to be God. You can’t. Trust him, and ponder how you might be able to help others and rise up to protect the weak, which is what Jacob does in the next chapter when he leaves Laban in the dust to protect his family.
But sadly, Jacob is not the only one mistreated in this story. Jacob also is the agent of pain for his wives.
2. Leah felt hated - by her own husband. (29:31–35)
Leah is the older sister. She is not the one who has the Disney moment at the well with Jacob. That’s Rachel. We learn about Leah, in verse 17, is that her “eyes were weak.” Maybe she was cross-eyed or had some deformity, or maybe she simply didn’t have that sparkle in her eye. Nor did she have the “form and appearance” of her younger sister. Bottom line: Rachel was beautiful; Leah was not.
And poor Leah, she becomes the emblem of cosmic disappointment in verse 25: “In the morning, behold, it was Leah!” Leah embodies the kind of disappointment we all feel in this life. Tim Keller says,
When you get married, no matter how great you think that marriage is going to be; when you get into a career, no matter how great you think that career is going to be . . . in the morning, it is always Leah!” (Heralds of the King, 65)
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,
The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones.
In this life, it’s always Leah. What a vital truth for us to learn, and what a horrible story for Leah to live. Not only is Rachel loved more than her (29:30), but literally, she is hated (because she is not loved). Verse 31: “The LORD saw that Leah was hated.”
So what does Leah do? If she can’t get her husband’s love with her looks, perhaps she can secure it by having his sons. Verses 32–35 are the record of Leah seeking Jacob’s love by bearing his children:
Verse 32: Reuben (See, a son): “now my husband will love me”
Verse 33: Simeon (sounds like heard): “the LORD has heard that I am hated”
Verse 34: Levi (sounds like attached): “Now this time my husband will be attached to me because I have borne him three sons.”
Her life is devolving around what she doesn’t have. Finally, in verse 35, after three strikes, she has Judah (sounds like praise): “This time I will praise the LORD.” Instead of trying to earn her husband’s love, this time she will turn to God and praise Yahweh.
There’s more to say, and two more sons, to Leah’s story. But let’s ask about the connection to us: Have you felt hated? Have you been overlooked by someone who mattered to you? Have you been painfully underappreciated? Take comfort in this: God loves to choose the overlooked. He loves to love the hated, to comfort the neglected. He loves to take special notice of those who don’t get noticed. Verse 31: “The Lord saw Leah was hated.” And what did he do? Pile on? Join in the hatred? No, it draws out his heart to help. He is gracious and merciful. This is our God.
3. Rachel felt forgotten (by God) (30:1–8; 22–24)
Of the three main people in this chapter, Rachel is the one in the most spiritually dire circumstances. Jacob’s mistreatment at his uncle’s hand likely draws him closer to God. Leah’s neglect from her husband, as we’ve see, eventually awakens her to her need for God. But Rachel’s barrenness not only causes envy of her sister (30:1) and tension with her husband (30:1–6) but bitterness with God. She comes to Jacob to demand children, like Jacob demanded his wife from Laban: “Give me children, or I shall die!” This is the classic declaration of idolatry. Bearing children is becoming her god.
Don’t miss the tragic irony with these sisters. Leah has children and is dying for her husband’s love. Rachel has her husband’s love and is dying for children. So, like Sarah did in Genesis 16:2 (to horrible effect), Rachel gives her servant Bilhah to Jacob as a wife to produce children for Rachel (30:3). Bilhah does bear two sons, but God has childbirth in store for Rachel. If she had only waited on his timing!
I said earlier that 29:26 was one of two most important verses in this story. The other is 30:22: “Then God remembered Rachel.” Which doesn’t mean that he had forgotten her, but that at long last (after the painful passage of time) God finally took action, having seen and remembered her all along. This is covenantal language:
Genesis 8:1: “God remembered Noah” and brought him through the flood to dry land.
Genesis 9:15–16: God promised to remember his covenant and never flood the whole earth again.
Genesis 19:29: “God remembered Abraham” and saved his nephew Lot before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.
You may indeed feel forgotten by God. But he has not forgotten you. He almost certainly won’t do what you want in your own timing; but he will remember you to help you in his perfect time. God remembers those who feel forgotten, and this very idea of rememberingmeans his timing is often difficult for us, and he wants us to trust him while we wait.
God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Which he does at the birth of Benjamin, as we’ll see in 35:16–21.)
To the Table
As we come to the Table, we look to how each of our three main characters in Genesis 29 (and the first half of 30) anticipate the great hero beyond this story. Jesus will be an even better companion in your pain than Jacob, Rachel, and Leah.
If you’ve been tricked or deceived, Jesus knows what it’s like to be dealt dirty, tricked, lied to, treated unfairly. If you’ve felt forgotten by God in his painful timing, Jesus knows what it’s like to feel forgotten, to feel forsaken, and to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet, like Rachel, God did indeed remember his own Son and raised him from the grave — not immediately, and not without great suffering, but in his perfect timing.
And finally, like Leah, perhaps you’ve felt unloved, even hated. Jesus knows what’s it’s like to be despised and rejected, and rescued for God’s purposes. And Leah is the one who gives birth to Judah, the tribe from which the kingship and the great Messiah will arise. Not only does Leah learn, in being neglected, to turn Godward and not to her husband for her spiritual bearings, but she becomes the one through whom God will save the world in Christ.