I always felt for Leah in this Genesis text. It might be that I’ve always had a soft spot for people who are often the butt of a joke, or don’t get the kindness of others that they should, but it pains me every time I read this story to think of her.
See, Jacob loved Rachel. He was wild about her. And he worked a solid seven years to earn her. And on his wedding night, he goes to bed with who he assumes is Rachel, only to be awoken to find Leah there instead. Now, the Hebrew writers and storytellers make this a humorous situation. Jacob, trickster that he is, had the wool pulled over his eyes. He was getting what he dished out. Plenty of sermons focus on just that lesson to be taken from this story. And I can just imagine, before this was written down, men sitting around telling stories of their forefathers, and everyone pauses at the moment when the storyteller takes the turn from the night to the morning to deliver the punchline—“and it was Leah!”
Big laughs all around!
But it wasn’t very funny to Leah, the “get one” of a “buy one get one” deal.
There was a movie some time ago called “Liar, Liar,” starring Jim Carrey. If you’ve never seen it, or need a reminder, the movie involves a high-powered lawyer, Jim Carrey, who makes his living by lying. It’s not even close to how the legal system actually works, but that’s beside the point. Jim Carrey has a son, and he is constantly disappointing his son by making a promise about being there for this or that thing, and then some big case would come up, and the promise would be broken. So his son makes a birthday wish that his dad would be unable to lie for one day. And, naturally, shenanigans ensue.
Carrey’s character, unable to lie, botches his strategy in the courtroom. His inability not to be honest causes all kinds of chaos when he says things people just don’t say. And for his son, the most important thing is that he can’t make a promise that he won’t keep.
But that’s an important thing, isn’t it? When someone makes a promise, we expect them to keep it. And the more someone breaks their promises, the less we are willing to believe them when they make a promise in the future. It’s why someone who keeps their promises is considered so trustworthy. If someone does what they say they’ll do, we can trust that a promise made will be a promise kept.
My brother and I never had the kind of tension and rivalry that shows up so profoundly in this morning’s Genesis text. It might be because we didn’t have the kind of dynamic of parents playing favorites, or maybe it’s that both of us have a very non-competitive attitude about the world. Whatever it is, my brother and I got along well. And maybe it’s part of that happy brotherhood that makes this story of Jacob and Esau so foreign to me.
Because I can put it in the theoretical box, and kind of get at the feelings these two had for each other. Watching other sets of siblings who were really competitive, who had strong rivalries that sometimes veered dangerously close to hatred, is about as close as I can get to understanding it. But maybe that’s not the case for you. Maybe their parents playing favorites and the two of them undermining each other sounds like your own upbringing. But there’s also more than just a simple sibling rivalry going on here.
We’re continuing through the stories of Genesis, and today is a particularly unique story. It’s got a lot of weird elements, from Abraham’s slave Eliezer meeting Rebekah at a well and his insistence on camel-watering as a sign from God; to Laban and Bethuel negotiating with Eliezer over Rebekah, to the touching scene where she sees Isaac off in the distant field. On some level it sounds odd to our ears, but this was a huge story to the Israelites. So huge, in fact, that this is the longest chapter in the whole of Genesis! So what is it a story of, exactly?
This is the ancient Israelite’s version of “How I Met Your Mother.” Only, the mother and father in this case were the ancestors of a nation. So like the story your parents told you of how they met, but important on a national scale. But isn’t that an important story? Most if not all of us have heard the story of how our parents met. Those of us who are married have the cherished story of how we met our partner. It’s a sweet story that’s as humdrum as it is magical.
We’ve gotten into a habit during this pandemic of taking two daily walks, getting some good sunshine and a little bit of exercise. Now, lately Hazel has gotten a bit ornery about getting into the stroller, insisting that now that she can walk on her own, she wants to do it as much as possible. So on our afternoon walks, we usually walk up the sidewalk toward town to see the geese at the river or people watch on Main Street. But as we’re walking, we’re teaching Hazel that she needs to hold one of our hands when we cross any street. Not to brag, but she’s gotten pretty good at it. Sometimes she even holds my hand when we’re not even crossing a street!
But this past week, we were walking, and she was holding my hand like she usually does, and this morning’s Genesis reading suddenly flashed into my mind. I got a sudden, unexpectedly vivid picture of Abraham walking with his son, up Mount Moriah. The story doesn’t say it, but for some reason I couldn’t shake the thought that he had to be holding Isaac’s hand. His free hand. The hand he wasn’t using to carry the wood for his own unknowing sacrifice. Holding his hand to keep him from stumbling over a rock or root as they walked together to a sacrifice.
Most families have a story or two in the family history that are less than flattering. We tend to take those stories and shove them into the far back of the closet, hoping no one asks about them so we don’t have to deal with the discomfort of recognizing not all of our ancestors were good and honorable people all the time. We don’t usually include the slave-owning plantation owner very prominently in the family histories, or highlight the one who ignored the rules of war in the American conquest of the West. We try pretty hard to hide the tricksters and the swindlers in the family line. So it’s really important that we retell this story we hear from Genesis this morning—the sordid tale of how Abraham and Sarah treated Hagar and Ishmael.
We didn’t read about her origins in our Sunday readings this year, but Hagar was a slave that Sarah got while they were in Egypt. She became important when Sarah and Abraham started to get impatient with God’s timing on giving them an heir, and in their impatience they used Hagar as a surrogate. And although Sarah was happy to finally have a son to present to Abraham, the fact that it was Hagar and not her who delivered him gnawed at her, and she took it out on Hagar. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s in there.
We’ve been plopped down into the middle of a pretty important story in Genesis this morning. Most of us have probably heard the story of Abraham, or at least know the general sketch of the story, but let’s take a minute to catch up to where we are now. See, when Abraham still lived in Haran, he was given a promise by God that he would be blessed, that he would receive a land, and that he would be the father of nations.
So Abraham and Sarah followed where God led and had lots of adventures along the way, but when the scene opens in this reading from Genesis, it’s been some thirty years since God made the first promise to Abraham—and he still hasn’t had a son by Sarah yet. Along the way they’d gotten impatient with God’s timing and had a son through Hagar, Sarah’s slave and a whole sermon of its own, but what we hear today is God making a promise that Sarah was going to be just as much part of this promise as Abraham was—and she would have a son.
A few months back, Annie and I got a book on baby sign language from the library to make it a little easier for Hazel to start putting together ideas and words. And it’s been pretty cool when she figures out that when she does the sign for "milk" it means she wants her milk, or when she does the sign for "please" she’s asking please. But on some level, I wondered if she really got what she was saying. Until one day, we were playing with a box where I’d push her around making rocket-ship noises, and when I stopped, she signed “more!” And I was super excited about this, because we had been thinking she was confusing “more” to only mean “food.” Her brain really was making the connection after all!
When that light clicks on—when we go from not understanding to suddenly comprehending, it can be like a spotlight in the night. It’s like if you ever find yourself in a room filled with people speaking, but you have no idea what they’re saying or what they’re talking about, when suddenly you hear someone completely familiar to you—whether it’s English in a room full of Spanish speakers, or a Southern accent in the midst of a bunch of Midwesterners. It’s like when you hear your name over the cacophony of a room. When we suddenly understand, it captures our attention.
Jesus knows how to make an exit, doesn’t he? He makes a pithy parting word, and then is taken up into the clouds and out of the disciples’ sight. It’s like the end of some kind of classic movie where the hero gives a wry parting remark and then rides off into the sunset, the adoring friends transfixed on watching him go. But while an old movie would move on to the credits, our scene turns to the friends watching him go.
“They were gazing up toward heaven.” I feel like this is the right place to use the word “gawk”—they were gawking at the heavens, staring, slack-jawed, filled with awe and wonder and confusion. Jesus, who had somehow undone the bonds of death, had been with them for forty days, teaching them and explaining things. Their rabbi, their friend, had broken bread with them, and passed through doors to get to them, and walked with them along the road. Now, suddenly, he was gone. And they watched where he went, as if by their force of will they could stare hard enough to bring him back to them.
It has been so wonderful in the past two weeks seeing the entire world around us change from the dull browns of post-snow winter to the beautiful yellow and pink and red flowers and bursting greens of springtime. It’s really something we can celebrate: the renewal of life in the world as it wakes up from its winter sleep. But along with the beauty of springtime is the chaos of springtime weather.
Y’all know what I mean. The weeks where it shifts suddenly from a beautiful and balmy 65 degrees and sunny to, overnight, dropping into the forties with whipping winds and dark clouds. Meteorologists try their best to give us an idea of what’s coming, but there have been multiple days where Annie and I rushed to get in a morning walk while it was still sunny, only to discover the rain predicted for the afternoon never showed up. For us, at least, the uncertainty of the weather is just a minor annoyance. For our farmers, it’s a bit more of a problem. If we could know what the weather was going to be like, that certainty would take away a lot of the stress of figuring what we can get done and when.