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Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Weirdest Marriage Arrangement, Maybe Ever

If you want to read a story about a dysfunctional family, Genesis is your book… and Jacob is your guy.

Over the course of several weeks, we’ve been following the odd beginnings of Jacob’s life, from his birth moment, when he grasped his brother’s foot on the way out, to the stealing of birthright and blessing.  There are places in his narrative where we celebrate and other places where we stop to question, “Jacob, what in the world are you doing?”  When you take cultural context into consideration, I guess it’s not substantially different than the ups and downs that all of humanity experiences in everyday life. 

But when it comes to Jacob’s marriage, things get more bizarre than they already were.  Welcome to Sacramental Saturday! 

For some time now, I have been claiming that the grace imparted in sacramental, covenantal marriage must surely be the grace that allows us to live an entire lifetime with one person without killing him or her.  Sounds harsh, but I’ve been married for almost 20 years.  Believe me when I say there are moments when we need that kind of grace.

Ironically, Jacob (who has been something of a master deceiver his entire life) meets his match when he finds the woman of his dreams.  That should be a funny pun, but it’s not, because his match is his future father-in-law… times two…

Here’s the short backstory:

Jacob works for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel (Laban’s youngest daughter), whom Jacob loves.  After Jacob consummates his marriage, he finds out it is Leah (Laban’s oldest daughter) in his bed.  I struggle with this detail.  Really, Jacob?  How did you not know this?  But whatever.  I guess it was dark.

Most people preach this passage with a “poor, poor Jacob” mentality.  A few people might also exclaim, “poor, poor Rachel.”  Several years ago, I finally heard someone lament for Leah.  The daily office picks up with the justifiable reason why, today, beginning with Genesis 29:31 that reads, in part, “Leah was not loved…” 

Leah gives birth to four sons.  The first three times, she believes this will cause Jacob to love her.  The fourth time, she praises God, and then she stops having children.  Never, in any of this, is there any indication that Jacob loves this woman.  Marriage used to be something different than we make it now, but I have to think the whole situation here kind of stunk for everyone involved.

And then it gets worse…

Rachel, who has been unable to have children to this point, gets so upset that she threatens Jacob, Give me children, or I’ll die!” (Gen. 30:1).  Taking a page from Sarah’s book… you know… the page about Hagar and Ishmael… Rachel provides Jacob with one of her servants and takes the two children she bears as her own.  Then Leah also provides a servant and takes a couple of her sons.

And then it gets worse… or maybe it just stays horrible, because at this point it is difficult to rate the degree of awful this whole thing has become…

Leah’s oldest son finds some mandrake plants one day, and Rachel wants them.  Leah says, “No!  You can’t have my kid's plants.  You already took my husband.”  Somehow I find this at least slightly humorous, but you have to remember that this family is serious about their meals (Esau… birthright… bowl of soup), and Rachel really wants those mandrakes. 

So… she trades them for one night of sex with Jacob. 

I’m honestly not quite sure how she gets away with this.  In the patriarchal culture of which they are a part, it seems backwards.  This is the only situation in Scripture that I can recall in which a man is sold into sexual slavery, by his wife… to his other wife…  I have no idea how the deal holds up, but Rachel gets her plants and Leah gets another baby, which she sees as a reward from God for offering up her servant to Jacob.

Leah subsequently gives birth to son number six and returns to her longing to be loved.  Maybe six sons will do what five could not.  And then there’s a daughter.

After all of this, “God remembered Rachel” (Gen 30:22), and she conceived a son of her own. 

End daily office reading for today…


In the coming weeks, I am looking forward to doing some interviews with couples who have been married for various amounts of time.  I feel confident that no one will share a story quite like this one, but I also think there is much to be learned about expectations and the reality of marriage based on the experiences of others.  Stay tuned…

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