In negotiating a labor contract, one man agrees to give another man his daughter in exchange for seven years of service. After the seven years are up, the father of the bride sneaks in his other daughter and tricks the laborer into taking her as his wife, instead. In renegotiation, the laborer agrees to seven more years of labor to get the younger daughter he originally wanted, and the story has a happy ending.
Wait… WHAT???? Is this an episode of “CSI”?? “Criminal Minds”??? “Law and Order SVU”????
Nope. It’s in the Bible.
If the Bible is the “Word of God,” how in the world do we deal with this story in Genesis? Polygamy, slavery, human trafficking, deceit, loveless marriages, bad in-laws — I don’t even know where to start!
Laban is, at the very least, a horrible and unethical employer, and at the very worst, a dealer in human trafficking. The women involved in the story are completely voiceless and without rights. Leah is given away by her father to a man who doesn’t want her, Rachel is cheated out of the marriage she has waited seven years for, and Zilpah, Leah’s maid, is literally a slave. These are the kinds of passages that non-believers use to make Christians look ridiculous.
First of all, let’s review. This already dysfunctional family system, one that has cast out a child and his mother (Ishmael and Hagar), and helped a younger son steal his brother’s birthright and blessing (Rebekah, Jacob and Esau), now is shown to be even more dysfunctional with two wives in a week, one of them through trickery. Laban takes advantage of everyone — Jacob, his daughters, and the other women he possesses — and Jacob treats Leah horribly, not even attempting to hide his contempt for the woman who is now his wife. Eventually, Jacob will bed and impregnate both his wives and both their slaves, having children with all four.
Let’s put it plainly. Laban is a liar and a cheat, and Jacob is a self-centered jerk! I believe that. And at the same time, I hear Jesus teaching, “Before you try to take the speck out of your brother’s eye, remove the two by four from your own, first.” But how do you teach from this? What is there in this story to use for good?
I did some research on sermons that are normally preached from this passage. I’m not gonna lie; much of what I found was appalling: themes of “what goes around comes around” because Jacob got what he deserved after cheating his brother; themes of “good things come to those who wait” because Jacob got the girl of his dreams, but it cost him 14 years of work; themes of “make the most of what life gives you” because Leah had many children even though she was in a loveless marriage; even one sermon on “make the most of every situation” because Laban worked the situation to his greatest gain. Obviously, even preachers struggle with how to deal with a passage like this in our holy book.
So, maybe Jacob is a self-centered jerk in this story. Laban is a swindler. There is slavery, human trafficking, loveless marriage, and disregard of women as human beings. It is what it is. Trying to turn it into some perfect example for us to follow may not be exactly the best thing to do. Maybe that’s not the point.
Maybe the point here is simply this: that God is an amazing God. In the midst of polygamy, slavery, human trafficking, deceit, lies, and the oppression of women, God created the Kingdom of Israel. It is the combination of children from Leah, Rachael, and both their slaves, that become the 12 tribes. A nation is born out of all that pain and ridiculous treatment of one another. Even in the midst of all that bad, God creates good.
Maybe the point is that the world is flawed. Whether it is in Jacob’s time or our time, people are mean. They do horrible things to each other. Children are being held like prisoners at borders. Nations are blowing up other nations. Slavery and human trafficking are still happening even in our own land of the free. Prejudice and hate seem to get worse instead of better. We spend more money on getting our party elected than we do on feeding and clothing children. Countries are torn apart and live under militaristic dictatorships who control the food and water, and watch their people die in war and starvation. Sounds like stuff straight from the Bible, huh?
We cannot point fingers at Laban and Jacob. We cannot judge their culture which allows polygamy and slavery. We have our own sins. And yet… every day there are stories of heroes, those who sacrifice their own wealth or safety to give to or rescue those in need, who change the world one simple act at a time. In the midst of all the suffering and pain on the U.S./Mexico border, every day there are good people who show up with food and prayers to try to help those poor, scared children — God using the bad in that situation to illuminate the good that humans can do.
Maybe the point of this story is simply this: If God can take the broken, dysfunctional mess of a family that begins with Abraham and build a nation that would become his chosen people out of the rot they make of their lives, if no amount of sin, or deceit, or pain, or horror is too much for our God to overcome, then there can’t possibly be anything at all that we can mess up in this world, no fouling up of our own lives that can ever be so big — we can never have sinned so much that we are so lost that God can’t find us, fix us. Apparently, there isn’t anything that we have been, are today, or will be tomorrow, that God can’t use.
15 Laban said to Jacob, “You shouldn’t have to work for free just because you are my relative. Tell me what you would like to be paid.”
16 Now Laban had two daughters: the older was named Leah and the younger Rachel. 17 Leah had delicate eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and was good-looking. 18 Jacob loved Rachel and said, “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.”
19 Laban said, “I’d rather give her to you than to another man. Stay with me.”
20 Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, but it seemed like a few days because he loved her. 21 Jacob said to Laban, “The time has come. Give me my wife so that I may sleep with her.” 22 So Laban invited all the people of that place and prepared a banquet. 23 However, in the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he slept with her. 24 Laban had given his servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her servant. 25 In the morning, there she was—Leah! Jacob said to Laban, “What have you done to me? Didn’t I work for you to have Rachel? Why did you betray me?”
26 Laban said, “Where we live, we don’t give the younger woman before the oldest. 27 Complete the celebratory week with this woman. Then I will give you this other woman too for your work, if you work for me seven more years.”28 So that is what Jacob did. He completed the celebratory week with this woman, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife.
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