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The trickster tricked (Jan. 3, 2016)

Scripture passage and lesson focus:
Genesis 29:1-30

Most Christians readily identify Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Old Testament patriarchs. Some may also recognize Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah as the matriarchs. They have often been selectively idealized and even romanticized in our Sunday school stories and songs. Today’s passage helps us see a more realistic picture of these ancient figures as flesh and blood human beings – warts and all.

To understand this passage we need to be aware that it is a carefully crafted account of an episode in the life of the patriarch Jacob. It originated as a masterfully told piece of folklore replete with humor, clever wordplay and trickery. We should remember that God’s covenant to Abraham was passed on to his son Isaac, whom God had spared from a sacrificial death at the hands of his fiercely obedient father Abraham (Genesis 22).

Isaac and Rebekah had two sons, the twins Esau and Jacob. The narrator presents Jacob as a clever trickster whose struggles with his slightly older sibling had already begun in Rebekah’s womb (Genesis 25:22-26). The scheming younger son Jacob (aided by Rebekah!) pretended to
be his older brother and tricked the blind Isaac with lies and deception (Genesis 27:1-29). Unknowingly, Isaac blessed the scheming Jacob. Esau traded the covenant promise for a bowl of soup. As a result, Esau hated Jacob and wished to kill him. Walter Brueggemann says of Jacob, “Precisely in this doubtful character the promise of God is being fulfilled.”

Genesis 29:1-14 — Jacob meets Rachel
Jacob needed to find an appropriate wife, so he returned to the area of Haran, the ancestral homeland. On his way he experienced a vision at Bethel where God assured him of the covenant blessing for his family and all humanity. When he arrived at Haran he encountered shepherds who knew his uncle Laban. They pointed out Laban’s daughter, Rachel, who was bringing her sheep to the well.

As soon as he saw Rachel, Jacob fell in love with her. He demonstrated his strength by removing the heavy stone from the well and watering his uncle’s sheep. Then he introduced himself as her kinsman. The language of family and kinship abound in this passage as Jacob meets Laban, who welcomes him into his house and declares Jacob to be “my bone and my flesh.” It would appear that familial bliss has been established.

Genesis 29:15-20 — Jacob works
Laban has two daughters. Leah, the oldest, had weak eyes according to one translation, although the NRSV translation cautiously describes them as lovely. The translators are not sure of the meaning of the rare Hebrew word that describes Leah. Her younger sister Rachel was gorgeous.

Ancient tradition required that a prospective groom must pay a bride price to the bride’s father. Furthermore, according to custom the eldest daughter should be the first to marry. Certainly Jacob, who had schemed and lied to supplant his older brother, would have been aware of that custom. Rather inconveniently, Jacob is in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, so he agrees to work for Laban for seven years to pay the bride price. Jacob is so in love with Rachel that seven years seemed like “a few days because of the love he had for her.”

Genesis 29:21-30 — Jacob is tricked
Laban gathered his household for a wedding feast. The Hebrew word suggests that it was a drinking party. The fully veiled bride was presented to Jacob, who slept with her only to discover in the morning that his bride was Leah! An angry Jacob asked, “What is this you have done to me … and why then have you deceived me?” Jacob the trickster has been tricked himself.

But Jacob does not give up on Rachel. After completing the seven-day wedding celebration with his wife Leah, Jacob accepted Laban’s self-serving offer to work another seven years to acquire Rachel as his second wife (an acceptable arrangement in
a polygamous culture). Jacob slept with Rachel and the narrator adds ominously, Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah.” Subsequent developments in Genesis arise out of the tension between the offspring of Rachel and Leah.

For discussion
Walter Brueggemann wrote, “Two competitive sisters, a husband caught between them, and an exploitative father-in-law are not the most likely data for narratives of faith.” Are you troubled by this picture or are you encouraged by the fact that God can use a dysfunctional family to achieve God’s purposes? What do you find admirable in Jacob’s character? What is not admirable about Jacob?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.