Thursday, July 27, 2017

It Was Leah!

I'm not preaching this week, but, even if I was, I don't think I'd preach on Genesis 29 and the story of Jacob working fourteen years to marry his daughters Leah and Rachel. Still, there's a powerful understated nature to that story that I find compelling, and I hope the congregation is able to inhabit it even if there's no mention of it in the sermon.

You may remember that Jacob fled his home after deceiving his father and stealing the blessing that his father had reserved for his older brother Esau. His mother, who was behind the ruse, told him to feel to her kinsman Laban and live there with him for a while until Esau's anger died down. The lectionary skips over the first part of that story, but it picks up with Jacob working for Laban for seven years in exchange for his younger daughter Rachel. One might wonder why Jacob preferred to marry the younger daughter, especially given the NRSV's translation, which describes Leah's eyes as "beautiful." Other translations render that description as "weak." I'm not really sure what weak eyes look like, and I don't know why Jacob picked Rachel, but he did. She was "graceful and beautiful." So for seven years Jacob worked for his future father-in-law in order to earn Rachel's hand in marriage. Maybe it's worth noting what a reverse dowry that represents, but that's another conversation. My interest picks up when the old switcheroo takes place.

After seven years, Jacob enters into marriage with Laban's daughter. The text of Genesis 29 lets the reader know in advance what is happening--that Laban has swapped daughters and presented the older to marry Jacob--but Jacob's knowledge of the swap doesn't come until the next morning. After the wedding feast, Jacob "went in to her," which is to say that they had sexual intercourse and, in that act, became husband and wife. Then, in a beautifully constructed sentence as brief as the surprise itself, we read, "When morning came, it was Leah!" In those few words, we join Jacob in his shock. There was no need to explain again that he had married the wrong person. There is no need to narrate that moment. We can read those six words and see perfectly for ourselves the sun streaming into the room, the naked husband rolling over to gaze upon the bride for whom he had worked and waited for seven years, and the start with which he sat up and screamed: "It was Leah!"

I love understatement. I love how scripture says what needs to be said and leaves the rest to our own emotional engagement. I love how God's work unfolds in mysterious, partly-hidden ways until the light of morning shines upon it. I love how the author resists the temptation to say more than he or she needs to say. I love this story because the whole terrible cycle of love and labor and deceit and surprise and irreversibility are caught up in it. I love that Jacob does it all over again.

The Bible is a beautiful thing. Sometimes it is terrible. Sometimes it is repulsive. Sometimes it is captivating. Occasionally it is explicit. But it is always beautiful. This story reminds me that the whole story of scripture has been written for our learning--and not just intellectual learning but emotional and spiritual and experiential learning, too. These are not merely stories of characters from long ago. We can see ourselves in them because they are humans just like us. Their story really is our story, and it's a story worth reading and relishing again and again.

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