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.
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.