The story of the Exodus starts with a new king in Egypt. This king, it’s said, didn’t know Joseph—which either meant somehow the savior of Egypt’s legacy had been forgotten with time, or this new king knew exactly the legacy Joseph had, and he wanted nothing more than to make his subjects forget it. Either way, the line that introduces him is a chilling one because when we forget our history, bad things happen.
And boy were they bad. This king, it seems, felt this overwhelming urge to rally his country against the Hebrews, to eradicate any foreign influence, and to gather power to himself by forcing his subjects to fall into an “us versus them” pattern with these people. So he stoked fear: “these Hebrews will soon outnumber us, and they will side with an enemy should war come!” And then he followed the steps toward greater and greater evil.
Joseph is quite the character in the Bible. His story takes up thirteen chapters in Genesis—a fifth of the book! But last we left him, he was not in a good place. Joseph, after thoroughly annoying his brothers and becoming the unfortunate target of their misplaced anger at their father, was sold to slave traders on their way to Egypt. It wasn’t a good look for the sons of Jacob.
Well, in the intervening chapters (from last week’s reading where he was sold to this week’s reading where everything has changed), a lot has happened. Joseph was sold to an Egyptian as a house slave; he was imprisoned after his master’s wife made a false accusation against him; he languished for a while there until his ability to read dreams landed him in front of the king; and now he had been promoted to the Grand Vizier of Egypt—second only to the king himself. Now he was successfully managing Egypt through a seven-year famine.
Some time ago, Annie was doing this conversation series with her congregation called “Burgers and Big Questions.” And in one of them, the topic was about family dysfunction--kind of a dive into how we will sometimes look to the Bible for advice on having a harmonious and happy family, but looking to see if the Bible had any good examples of functional, happy families. I still laugh about it, because the most supportive, loving, non-dysfunctional family in the Bible is that of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel! Yes, they’re terrible people, but they 100% have each other’s backs in all things.
This is not the case with the family of the promise, Jacob and his twelve sons.
Jacob is quite the character. From the moment he was born, he used his wits to get ahead, tricking whoever he needed to in order to get what he wanted. There’s the time he tricked his brother Esau into selling him his birthright for a bowl of soup—y’all remember that story? And then the time he put on a sheepskin coat and tricked his own father into giving him the blessing intended for his older brother. Then, after all that started unravelling the family and he fled to his mother’s uncle’s place to stay safe, he ended up tricking his uncle, getting rich off his ability to twist words to his favor.
And it made sense. Jacob wasn’t a big, strong guy. He couldn’t just use brute strength to get what he wanted. But he was smart. Really smart, actually. And he used those smarts to outwit people regularly. Until, that is, he got to this point in his life. See, the reading today comes from the time in Jacob’s life that was just after he’d left his uncle (the one he’d swindled) and before he met up with his brother (whom he’d tricked). He’s sent his herds, his slaves, his wives, and his children on ahead of him in such a way that the ones most important to him would be safe in case Esau did anything dangerous.
And now he was alone.
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.