A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 26 July 2020, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this address: Genesis 29: 15-28
Why do we read the Bible? It’s such a fundamental question. The pious answer is, ‘It’s the word of God.’ It’s a comprehensive answer, because if you believe there is a God, and God is speaking to us today, you’d do well to listen. But then you take a close look at what the Bible says. A quick glance tells you it’s about God’s ways with Israel and about how God’s love is offered to the whole world in Jesus. But a slow glance tells you there’s a whole lot else in there. A good bit of smiting, notoriously, and a fair amount of wrath. A lot of poetry, several letters, and a bunch of kings who each begat their successor.
For many centuries the Bible was regarded as a theory of everything – science, faith, history, law, literature. But in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people began to poke holes in the plausibility, the accuracy and the consistency of the Bible. In Galileo’s words, ‘Science teaches us how the heavens go; the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven.’ This represents a new idea: the Bible is primarily a moral handbook. The reason why people struggle with the smiting and wrath is that our culture has largely bought into this idea of the Bible as a moral handbook; hence the parts that don’t sound very moral present a genuine challenge.
But our passage from Genesis this morning poses a different kind of a problem. It’s a story about a man who travels far to meet his uncle, falls in love with his cousin, and who wakes up after his wedding night to find his beautiful cousin’s elder sister lying beside him instead. ‘So what?’ we might say, especially if we’d come to see the Bible as a theory of everything or a moral handbook. Why do we read a story like that of Jacob, Laban, Leah and Rachel today? What do we expect to gain from it?
Before I answer that question I need to offer a bit more of the story than today’s reading gives us. The bare outlines are well known. Esau came out of Rebecca’s womb first, but his brother Jacob quickly followed, clinging to his elder twin’s heel. Jacob tricked his father into giving him Esau’s birthright. Facing Esau’s fury, Jacob fled. In a dream he saw a ladder of angels. God was beside him and said ‘I will bless the whole earth through your offspring.’ Later, Jacob wrestled with God all night and would not let go until God blessed him. Then Jacob’s sons quarrelled and Joseph was taken to Egypt where Andrew Lloyd Webber made his dreamcoat into a worldwide musical theatre sensation.
Today’s story comes between Jacob seeing the ladder of angels and him wrestling with God. It’s part of a three-chapter sojourn in Haran; an episode Bible readers seldom dwell on. Jacob flees his brother Esau. He comes to Haran, and cosies up to his cousin Rachel, who brings him to her father Laban. Jacob serves Laban seven years for Rachel. Laban then arranges a week-long marriage feast, but overnight substitutes Leah for Rachel. Jacob is eventually given Rachel, but only at the cost of another seven years’ labour. Leah, the unloved sister, has several sons; Rachel envies her sister, and each sister offers Jacob her handmaid. Both handmaids have sons too, before at last Rachel has a son, Joseph. Jacob employs devious sheep-breeding techniques that enable him to prosper at Laban’s expense. Laban’s furious. Jacob takes his whole household and flees back to Canaan. Rachel steals her father’s household gods, without telling Jacob. Laban chases his departed family, and, after a week, catches up with them. Laban searches everywhere for the household gods, but Rachel sticks the household gods up her skirts, and then tricks her father by telling him she’s menstruating so she can’t move. Then Jacob completely loses it, and berates Laban, with all the deceit, manipulation, and exploitation he’s suffered at Laban’s expense. Finally Laban and Jacob make their peace, leaving Jacob, after 20 years of silent enmity, to face his unfinished business with his brother Esau.
What do we do with this story? If we take it as a moral handbook, not a lot. The treatment of women is pretty appalling: Leah’s used by her father to get one over Jacob. The treatment of servants is even worse: each sister uses her respective handmaid as a surrogate mother. There’s no suggestion of consent. Jacob and Laban connive, cheat and steal like two pesky jackals; and this is just within the family: who knows what they’re like with strangers. Jacob engages a vendetta against his brother and his father in law simultaneously, while his wives constantly jockey for status.
So let’s try a different approach. The story works on a grand and a small scale at the same time. On a grand scale it’s a story written hundreds of years later, helping Israel come to understand its special status, the origins of its often hostile neighbours, and the grounds for their hostility. Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. His struggles prefigure Israel’s later antagonisms. The story presents the Edomites as descendants of Esau, and thus inheritors of a rivalry that goes back to Rebecca’s womb. Likewise the Aramaeans are descendants of Laban. Genesis is a narrative tribal geography of the neighbours with whom Israel later came to struggle.
On a small scale, the story’s bursting with infectious humour and biting irony. The scene with stripey, speckled and spotted sheep is like a rhyming satire. The description of how Rachel tricks her father by shoving the household gods up her skirts and then pretending she can’t move because of her period not only makes a pantomime fool out of Laban but ridicules the whole notion of household gods. Most of all, the story portrays Jacob, the trickster who supplanted his own brother, getting his comeuppance when Laban won’t let him snatch the younger daughter ahead of her older sister. Jacob thinking he’s spent the night with Rachel, then walking up to find it’s Leah is worthy of a scene from the bawdiest Restoration comedy. We have to imagine these stories being told around the fireside among the folktales of Israel. We shouldn’t be surprised by elements that owe more to farce and comedy than to solemn instruction.
And that brings us to the answer to our question. Why do we read the Bible, given it’s saturated with dubious dealings, compromised characters, endemic enmities and rumbustious ribaldry? We read it for two reasons – both of which are just as evident in this obscure and puzzling story as in the New Testament stories of Jesus or letters of Paul.
Reason One is that it shows us who we are. We trust the Bible not because all the begats can be historically verified or because every miracle has been medically attested or because someone found a scroll in a cave that dated back to biblical times. We trust the Bible because it knows exactly who we are. We’re people who get into lifelong rivalries with our siblings, whose success or otherwise in having children causes envy, anxiety, self-doubt and pride, who are perpetually manipulated by our in-laws, who play childish tricks on our parents, who take absurd pleasure in getting one over our neighbours, who think it’s ok when we subvert the rules but are infuriated when someone cheats us in return. We’re the ones who search the past for explanations for why we’re in trouble, who storm off without saying goodbye when we’ve been taken advantage of one time too many, who end up making face-saving agreements having previously said unrepeatable things about each other. The point is not whether the stories are precisely historical – it’s whether they’re real. And this story of Jacob and Laban and Rachel and Leah is plenty real, as well as being hilarious and close to the bone.
Reason Two why we read the Bible is that it shows us who God is. No one comes out of the Jacob story very well. That’s not the point. The point is that God is wholly invested in people who don’t come out of stories very well. This isn’t a story about how Jacob believed in God. This is a story about how God believed in Jacob. That’s the difference between morality and theology. Morality’s about us living well with each other in the light of who we’ve seen God to be. Theology’s about recognising how badly we live with each other, and discovering how God invests in us anyway. The Bible does not teach that we should be good and kind, and if we are, God will keep us safe and well and make us rich and happy, and beyond death will give us harps and clouds and blonde curly hair. The Bible proclaims that we can deceive, betray, manipulate, flee; be hypocritical, envious, hostile, self-righteous; act foolishly, selfishly, craftily and deceptively – and God will still say, ‘You can’t stop me folding every one of your flawed actions into a story of hope and healing.’ As Joseph tells his brothers at the end of Genesis, ‘You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.’
But these two reasons are only the background to the true reason we read the Bible. We read the Bible because it shows us how who we are and who God is become fused in one being – Jesus Christ. Here’s two mistakes we easily make about Jesus. One is to forget he’s fully human. That’s why we have the Bible, to show us what full humanity really means. The other is to forget he’s fully God. That’s why we have the Bible – to meet Jesus, and to discover, more deeply and more truly every day, who Jesus is. The Bible isn’t a moral handbook. A moral handbook would be a way of living a good life without coming to face with our humanity and face to face with God.
We read a story like that of Jacob, Rachel, Leah and Laban because it shows us the wondrous ways of God, interlaced with the feckless ways of people who love, labour, loot and lie. It hints at a grand story, but it’s actually a rollicking tale spiced with humour and satire. It leaves us with two questions – questions that bring us to our knees in worship. First, does God want to take flesh as a human being, if this is what people are really like? Second, does that mean – does that really, truly, astonishingly mean… there could even be a place in this story for me?