A Fine Mess
A Fine Mess
What a great promise from God: "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go." We talked about this great promise in the last sermon—a promise God makes to all who are his, all who commit their ways to him. But you might not realize what comes with this promise.
A running commentary on Genesis 29:1-30
We've been studying the life of Jacob in Genesis. Last week we looked at the famous story of Jacob's ladder. In our passage for today, Jacob is on his way to Haran once again, a place nearly 600 miles northeast of his home in Beersheba. I want to read our passage and offer a little commentary along the way. First verses 1-8:
Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples. There he saw a well in the field, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well. The stone over the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well's mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well. Jacob asked the shepherds, "My brothers, where are you from?" "We're from Haran," they replied. He said to them, "Do you know Laban, Nahor's grandson?" "Yes, we know him," they answered. Then Jacob asked them, "Is he well?" "Yes, he is," they said, "and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep." "Look," he said, "the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture." "We can't," they replied, "until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep."
In these verses we find that God guides Jacob to the place where Jacob needed to go—his Uncle Laban's neck of the woods. We also see that once all the flocks are gathered, the shepherds move a big stone to cover the well. Notice that the storyteller wants to be sure we see that the stone is really big. Then, verses 9-10:
While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father's sheep, for she was a shepherdess. When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother's brother, and Laban's sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle's sheep.
He did what? Jacob moved that stone all by himself? That's what the text says! Like a little boy showing off for the cute girl, Jacob moves that enormous rock off the well, and then "he watered his uncle's sheep" so Rachel wouldn't have to. I'd say sparks are flying! Verse 11 continues the romantic scene: "Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud." Cue the strings section, put the camera in slow motion, and move in for a close-up. Then, verses 12-14:
He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father. As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister's son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. Then Laban said to him, "You are my own flesh and blood."
Here we meet Laban, Jacob's uncle, the brother of Rebekah. Actually, we have already been introduced to Laban in Genesis 24, when Abraham sent his servant to this same area—maybe even this same well—to find a bride for his son, Isaac. Now Jacob, Isaac's son, meets this same man for the first time.
Genesis 24 describes Laban. He wore gold jewelry—jewelry Abraham's servant had given to Laban's sister, Rebekah. Laban was the kind of guy who sees the jewelry first He has a currency converter for a brain. He is always working the angles. So when Jacob tells Laban his story, Laban says, "You are my own flesh and blood."
Verses 14-15: "After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, Laban said to him, "Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be." An old saying says guests and fish stink after three days. Nonetheless, Jacob wasn't going anywhere—at least not until he got word that things had cooled down at home. Laban's comment to Jacob is sly. It sounds like "I wouldn't want to take advantage of you," but what here's what he actually says: "Relative or not, you're going to work, and I'm your new boss." In verses 16-18, the plot thickens:
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, "I'll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel."
No one knows how the Hebrew description of Leah should be translated. Maybe it means there was no sparkle in her eyes, a quality highly valued in the Mideast. But whatever it means, Jacob only had eyes for Rachel. In fact, he offers seven years' labor to purchase her as his bride. Verses 19-21 tell us what happens next:
Laban said, "It's better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me." So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her."
That was some romance if seven years only seemed like a few days! By the end, surely Jacob was tired of waiting. But now the story takes an incredible twist in verses 22-25:
So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant. When morning came, there was Leah!
Jacob, of course, is outraged—and think about how Leah must have felt! Verses 25-26 tells us what happens next:
So Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn't I? Why have you deceived me?" Laban replied, "It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one.
My study partner for this series, Doug Becker, pointed out that this verse is dripping with irony. Remember how Jacob had told Laban his whole story? This included, I assume, how he had tricked Esau out of their father's blessing. What Laban is saying here is this: Where you come from, the younger may get the blessing. But in these parts, the firstborn always goes first.
Just like that, Jacob knows he's been had. What goes around comes around! The story then comes to close in verses 27-30:
Finish this daughter's bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work." And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.
The first seven years "seemed like only a few days to him," but I bet the second seven years didn't go by so quickly!
Since God is always with us, pray him into your story.
Tell me—as I read the story, did you notice anything missing? God! At least, he's never mentioned in 30 verses. Not once! That brings me back to where we started. In Jacob's dream God had said, "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go." God was certainly with Jacob through the experiences we've just read about, but I don't think Jacob realized all that comes with God saying, "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go." You and I might not realize it either. When God promises to be with you, you may be getting more than you bargained for! There are three implications of God's promise you might not have considered.
To discover the first implication, it's helpful to know that there is a very similar story to this story in Genesis 24. Abraham sends his servant to this same place—Haran—to find a wife for his son, Isaac (Jacob's father). Here we have two stories of two wife seekers making the same trip. They both show up at a well—perhaps the very same well—just as the future wife is arriving. Both discover that the woman is a marriageable relative. Both are invited to Laban's house, and they are welcomed with open arms. Both end up getting the bride they came for. But there is one big difference—in the first story, people pay attention to God. They pray to God, they listen to God, they worship God. All prayerful activity is missing in Genesis 29.
I had a conversation with a friend recently that helped me get a handle on this passage. He was sharing how reluctant he was in his small group to ask for prayer for anything because his life was going well. Job, kids, health—all good. Other people in the group had real problems to pray for. His concerns were pretty ordinary—day-to-day business issues that seemed trivial compared to what other people faced. As I was later thinking about Jacob's story, it occurred to me that Jacob might well have felt like my friend. He had just seen God and heard God's extraordinary promises. Plus, God had even led him to the place he was trying to find. He had met a beautiful girl and gained a place to call home. Life was good! What more could he ask of God? But with the way things unfold, we see that even in the ordinary circumstances of life—even when our lives are extraordinarily blessed—we need to pray God into our stories. Think of all the ways Jacob could have prayed for God's continued blessing, but never once did he offer such prayers. Whatever you face, ask God to help you see yourself honestly.
I used to teach a class at Trinity that examined ministry case studies. These knotty problems weren't actually our problems, of course, so we could all be very dispassionate, very analytical. But I would often say to students, "Imagine you a in this story. Given your blind spots and personalities, your fears and strengths, what would this do to you? Because you are always part of the story." That's what Jacob didn't do in this situation. I wonder how this might have been different if he had talked to God about how deceptive he had been with his family—if he had talked with God about all the damage he had done to his soul.
We are seldom sufficiently aware of our own hearts—our sins, our fears, our baggage from life, our blind spots. These are the things that shape our experiences. In Romans 12:3, Paul wrote, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you." Thinking of myself with sober judgment is something I need God's help to do, so I pray!
Prayer is the chief difference between the stories of Genesis 24 and Genesis 29, and that difference teaches me that whatever I face, I must ask for God's wisdom and guidance. God wants us all to think things through. He doesn't usually make the decisions for us. No good father does that! But he is willing to help us think wisely, to help us see what we might otherwise miss, to weigh big things as big things and little things as little things. Prayer helps us think better—to see God as part of the issue, to evaluate moral aspects. God answers prayers for wisdom by helping us think of factors we've forgotten or factors that have never occurred to us. James 1:5 says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him."
Also, whatever you face, thank God when you see his kindness and faithfulness. That's another difference between the stories of Genesis 24 and Genesis 29. In Genesis 24:26-27, at the end of his own remarkable, God-directed day, Abraham's servant offers profound thanks to God. But Jacob never thanks God for anything—for the safe journey, the remarkable direction, the beautiful girl.
When we're determined to be grateful to God, we develop an eye for God's handiwork in our environments. We spot God's footprints and understand how he is at work. Gratitude develops God-oriented people. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, "Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible."
I wonder how Jacob's story would have been different if he would have acknowledged how God had led him, if he had prayed for wisdom and protection, if he had admitted his faults and needs, if he had talked of God to Laban. The lesson for us is clear: since God is always with us, we must pray him into our story!
Since God is always with us, we will experience his discipline.
There's a second implication for us because of the presence of God. Jacob had God's grace-filled blessing on his life, but he was also in need of some serious character cleaning. I suspect that didn't occur to Jacob on the night God assured him, "I am with you and will watch over you."
God's promise is actually at work when Laban tricks Jacob. It looks like a classic case of what-goes-around-comes-around or you-reap-what-you-sow, but there is more to it than that. God is doing the work of a loving Father in Jacob's life. Commentator Derek Kidner sums it up nicely: "In Laban Jacob met his match and his means of discipline. Twenty years of drudgery and friction were to weather his character; and the reader can reflect that presumably Jacob is not the only person to have needed a Laban in his life."
Jacob never grasped what kind of man he really was until he met Laban. On that fateful morning-after when Laban said, "It is not our custom here to give the younger before the firstborn," Jacob saw himself for the deceiver he was. Laban was indeed Jacob's "own flesh and blood."
Having God with us means facing ourselves in God's mirror. I've certainly had experiences like this in my life—some too personal to make public. I will never forget one time God made me face myself when I was in college. When I was an upperclassman, there was a freshman girl in the choir named Jan. She was red-headed, giggling all the time, pretty spacey. In other words, she was very easy to tease. But teasing can slip very easily into mocking. Once, while our choir was on a tour of the east coast, I constantly mocked Jan. She took it good-naturedly, but it was probably hard for her. I knew I had crossed a line, but the laughs were intoxicating. One Sunday morning, we were singing in a packed church in New Jersey. When the choir made its way in and out of the church auditorium, I was the leader on one side. We were supposed to come in down the side aisle and go out down the center aisle—or maybe it was the other way around. That was the problem—I couldn't remember then, either! We got to the end of the first section of our program, and I was to lead the choir out. I headed down the middle aisle, everyone watching me, while the rest of the choir all went down the side aisles. Believe it or not, when we came back in, I did it wrong again! I walked in all by myself. Who do you think was the laughingstock of the choir? I immediately knew it wasn't just a mistake. I knew it was about the way I treated Jan—who made it all the worse by being exceptionally kind to me.
Are you facing a situation that is making you face who you really are—what you're really like? That's the way it is when God is with us! We will experience his discipline from time to time.
Since God is always with us, we are part of his grand plan.
There is a third and final implication for us because of the presence of God. Jacob's situation was a tangled, painful, heartbreaking mess. It was a mess with Isaac, Rebekah, and Esau back in Beersheba, and now it is a mess in Haran. But it was not a hopeless mess, because all those gnarled knots were on the back of God's tapestry. We'll talk more about this in the next sermon of our series, but let me remind you of what was happening here on God's main stage. Jacob was, through all this heartache, becoming a man of faith who could one day bless his 12 sons—the 12 tribes of Israel—with God's own Word. Despite the heartache, he is becoming a man who wrestles with God and succeeds. Consider that God gave Leah, the unloved wife, four sons in quick succession. One of them, Levi, became the forefather of Moses, and another, Judah, was the forefather of David, whose line would bring about Jesus Christ. Jacob's life was a mess, but it was a fine mess.
The days of God's people being part of his grand plan are not over. They did not end with the patriarchs. It was a great honor, to be sure, to be the forebears of Christ. But is it any less of an honor to be his brothers and sisters—to be joint-heirs with him. Is it any less of an honor to be his Bride? It was a great honor when the patriarchs were told that from them would arise a great nation too numerous to count, but is it any less of an honor to be citizens of that vast holy nation? It was a great honor for the patriarchs to know that from them would arise a great king, but is it any less of an honor that we are a royal priesthood, and that we shall rule this world with Christ? It was a great honor when the patriarchs were told that through their offspring—Jesus Christ—all the world would be blessed, but is it any less of an honor to be those blessed people, or to be the hands and feet, the eyes and heart of Christ in this lost world? It was a great honor when the patriarchs were promised that they would return to that Promised Land and it would be theirs forever, but is it any less of a blessing that our promised land is the new heaven and the new earth, where God himself lives among us and there is no longer any death or mourning or crying or pain?
Sometimes in life's ordinariness we forget that when God promises you, "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go," it means we are part of God's grand, eternal plan.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.