God, Grace, and the Girl with the Soft Eyes

Fr. Jared’s sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year A on Sunday, July 26 on the story of Jacob and his wives, Rachel and Leah, as related in Genesis 29:15-28.

The audio of the sermon is below:

The video of today’s sermon is online below:

The text of the sermon is below as well:

Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for he.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. 

– Genesis 29:15-28

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

So, if you thought that the story of Abraham sending his servant back to his home to land to get a wife for his son Isaac was kind of a weird story… The first lesson for today is proof that if there is anything strange in Scripture, go far enough and you will probably find something even stranger.

At first glance, perhaps, this seems like a strange love story. We are told that Rachel was a graceful and beautiful woman, that Jacob loved her. He even tells Laban that he will serve him for seven whole years just for the privilege of taking Rachel as a wife. The text even oozes romance when it says that Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and that they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. Laban interrupts these romantic plans by throwing a great wedding feast and in the night, after Jacob is probably had a little too much to drink, putting his older daughter Leah in the tent. Jacob wakes up in the morning and is enraged by the deceit, which Laban explained the way by saying that the local custom is to have the older child married first and that if Jacob wants to serve another seven years, Laban will let Jacob marry Rachel at the end of the bridal week, in advance of the next seven years of work… kind of a downpayment of sorts.

So yes, on first glance, this does seem to be the love story of Jacob and Rachel, with Laban playing the part of the villain who is keeping the two lovebirds apart. On first glance.

But I want to suggest to you that this is actually not a love story at all, at least not that type of a love story. This is a story about how God salvation works.

Remember why it is that Jacob has to work for several years to get married in the first place. After all, when Abraham’s servant came to Laban’s family to get Laban’s sister, Rebekah, to be a wife for Isaac, he brought wealth with him for the bridal price. Laban’s family was enriched by all these gifts. And Rebekah left that very same day because the servant came with seven camels and a lot of money to give to Rebekah’s family as a bridal price. Jacob can’t offer anything for a bridal price. Even though he stole the birthright of his older brother, Esau, that’s not the sort of thing you can cash in on immediately. And so Jacob has fled from his family, especially from his brother, hoping to find safety with his uncle Laban. That was his mother Rebekah’s hope, at least, and he is always been closer to his mother anyway.

Earlier in Genesis 29, when he finally got to the country of Laban, there was an interesting echo of the story of Isaac and Rebekah which he also found Rachel at the well (just like Abraham’s servant had found Rebekah at a well). However, whereas Rebecca had watered the camels of Abraham slave, it is Jacob who waters Rachel’s flock. He then kisses Rachel and weeps aloud, so happy that he has finally found his extended family.

But this is no love story. We are not told that Rachel kissed him back or even that Rachel had any feelings for him. Instead, after Jacob awkwardly kisses her and tells Rachel that he is her family she doesn’t even say anything back, she just goes and tells her father what’s happening. Laban hears someone from Abraham’s family has come for a wife and runs to meet him, probably thinking that he has brought a lot of money in order to marry one of his daughters, remembering all the Abraham’s servant had brought the generation before. But then Laban finds this wandering Jacob all alone, smelling like the flocks he had just watered. What a disappointment he must’ve been.

And remember, Jacob had always been a man of the tent (as he was described earlier in the text), not really one for working too hard, and so the text tells him that he stays with Laban for a month… But not that he’s really doing anything. He’s just enjoying the tent.

So when our text begins and Laban asked Jacob what his wages should be, it’s actually kind of a sneaky question. Because it assumes that Jacob will actually start working and doing something to contribute to the household that is protecting him, no longer scheming and living as his mother’s favorite son, but actually doing something productive.

It’s clear that he has met his match in Laban, who is even greater at deception than Jacob is. but it’s not just deception, it is Laban putting Jacob in his place. That comment about the custom in our country is not to give the younger before the firstborn is clearly meant as a jab at Jacob the younger stealing the birthright of the firstborn—something not done in any country in that time. “I don’t know how things are done back where you are from, but here we give respect for the firstborn.”

And though throughout these chapters of Genesis, we are told a few times how much Jacob loved Rachel, we are never told that Rachel loved him. We are just told how angry she was that her sister was able to have children so easily. It was children that Rachel wanted, Jacob is just a means to the end.

Yes, this is not a love story.

And, to be honest, I don’t even think it’s a story about Jacob and Rachel and the villain Laban. Because when you read the entirety of the story, it is Leah who stands out to me. Remember her, the one with nice eyes? We were told that Rachel was graceful and beautiful… and that Leah had nice eyes. It’s almost like saying, well, she’s got a good personality. Rachel’s name means little lamb, but Leah’s name means wild cow. Leah wasn’t married Jacob arrived and seven years later no one still wanted to marry her. Her father kind of throws her in the tent to get rid of her, but there’s no indication that she had any say in tricking Jacob into this marriage. When the morning comes, the Hebrew is an exclamation, “Behold! It was Leah!” How horrible that must’ve felt for her, to get that response from Jacob. How even worse when her father says that he will give Jacob Rachel too, that she will have to share her husband with that pretty younger sister who everyone always liked more than her… that there is nothing for Leah.

And it’s really unfortunate that the reading for today ends at verse 28, because just a few verses later, in verse 31, we read, “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb.” It’s like when the Lord heard the cries of Hagar, the cast-aside slave of Abraham. It’s like when God will hear the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. The Lord saw Leah and he blessed her because our God has a tendency to always be on the lookout for the unloved, the forgotten, the little people who no one else would ever want to tell a story about.

And Leah went on to have four children, actually, compared to Rachel’s two. True, Rachel did have Joseph, who was always Jacob’s favorite. But it was Leah who had Levi, the ancestor of Moses and the entire Levitical priesthood. It was Leah who had Judah, the ancestor of David and, for us Christians, the ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is Leah the unloved who is the matriarch of God’s blessing and promise in this world. Leah the unloved girl with the soft eyes stands at the beginning of it all, not seen by others, but seen by God.

So if this is any kind of a love story, it is a story about how much God loves the unloved, how much God works to right the injustices the oppressed face. And if you have ever been that person, the one everyone looks over, the one who doesn’t seem as impressive as you might wish, the one with very little to offer… This is a story about how God sees you and loves you. It is a story about how God loves you. It is a story about how you are never as alone as you might feel, particularly on those dark mornings when it seems no one is happy to see you.

And this is a story that should challenge us. Because though we don’t know whether or not Jacob ever learn to love Leah, he did learn to take good care of her by the end. When he gets ready to meet his brother Esau after 20 years of estrangement, he divides his families into two camps and send them away to try to protect them. You see, by the end of Jacob’s story he is no longer making deals to save his own skin, he is giving up what he has in the hope of saving others, to save Rachel, to save Leah… to save his family.

So when we encounter Leah’s of our world, the little people with no voice and no one to speak up for them, much less love them, are we like Jacob at the beginning of the story? Do we hope that the little people don’t screw up our own hope for comfort, wealth, and happiness in this world? Or when we see the little people with no voice and no one to speak up for them do we know that it is our job to sacrifice greatly for them, our job to be the instrument of God’s justice so that they are cared for… So that they know they are seen, at least by us and by God. After all, each and every day, there is a very different love story God is trying to write, one he would very much like you to be a part of. Amen.

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