January 21, 2018 “Mothers” – Genesis 29:31-30:24

Genesis 29:31 – 30:24
January 21, 2018 –
Third Sunday after Epiphany

Dear Abby,

Can you tell me how to get the father of my children to love me more? I just feel so hopeless and helpless. I met him when he spotted my younger sister and fell in love with her. My father invited him to move in with us. Then one night I sneaked into his room in the dark to hook up with him. He thought I was my sister there. I figured if he just got to know me a little, he would forget about her. But he’s still in love with her and now we trade off sleeping with him.

The thing is, my sister can’t seem to get pregnant, but I sure can. I was confident that when my first baby, a boy, was born, my partner would finally fall completely in love with me. But he still prefers my sister. Even after I gave him three more sons, which really made my sister mad because she hasn’t had any, he’d still rather have her in his bed than me.

What should I do? What’s the matter with men? It seems all they care about is a pretty face and a curvy figure instead of things that really matter, like having children and making a home. Please tell me how to win him over so I can have first place in his heart and life.

Second-fiddle Wife

Beth and I read Dear Abby in the newspaper regularly. Given other letters we’ve seen, we wouldn’t be all that surprised to read one like that one I just made up for Leah. And we would want to answer it with the same rude advice we often wish we could give other women who write in about ridiculous domestic situations. Something like:

Dear Second-fiddle,

What kind of an idiot are you? You’ve shared this guy with your sister for years and you expect that a baby or two is going to change things? Wake up and get with it, woman! You made a pretty stupid choice when you crawled into his bed in the dark and now you are living with the consequences. Take your little ones and get out of there. Find a safe place and get over the notion that you need a man, particularly this man, to feel whole. He’s only going to keep breaking your heart while maybe making you pregnant yet again. The definition of stupidity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results. Hit the road!

Steve & Beth

Yet of course that’s not how it goes at all. Like many of the poor women who write Dear Abby, I imagine, Leah doesn’t follow anything like our rough advice. She stays put right there with Jacob in her father’s house, having more babies. When she does finally leave, it’s with Jacob and Rachel and the two maids and their children. Despite what you and I might think, she stays there in that crazy marital arrangement, suffering the indignity of being the second fiddle wife for the rest of her life. And God brings good out of it.

I am definitely not saying that plural marriage is good, nor that a woman should stay in a situation where she is being abused or her partner is being unfaithful. What I am saying is that God is there, even in the most convoluted messes we make of our lives. He offers grace to those involved and can even bring forth good things out of a bad situation. The gift of children is one of the greatest of those good things.

My mother said for the rest of her life that marrying my father was a huge mistake, perhaps the worst of her life. It only lasted a couple years before he deserted us. But she would always go on to say that God used that mistake to give her the two greatest blessings of her life, my sister and me. God is always doing that for us, taking our sin and foolishness and bringing forth something good.

It doesn’t mean that the sin and foolishness is good. In our reading for today it doesn’t mean that God approved of and thought that Jacob’s plural marriage, or any of the plural marriages or other sinful sexual relationships we read about in the Bible, are good. It just means that God gave us the free-will to sin and make mistakes while working in and through all of it to show us His love and grace.

As for polygamy, yes, the patriarchs of the Bible practiced it. But God was simply allowing His people to figure out over time, certainly by the time Jesus came, that it was a bad idea. He just let it happen until it was clear that God’s true and better plan for marriage was the way things started out with Adam and Eve, one man and one woman. Now in our time, God may be letting still other ways of looking at marriage play out around us, possibly even letting some good come out of bad ideas, until His people realize once again that the alternatives are all much worse than His original plan.

Our text is about a wild baby-making contest. From our advice column perspective, you and I might think these women are having children for the worst reasons and in really bad ways. Leah has children because she wants Jacob to love her. Rachel finally has a child because she is jealous of Leah. In between they both utilize surrogate mothers desperately trying to one-up each other in the baby competition. My wife would say, “poor babies,” brought into the world in the middle of such strife and by such sinful motivations.

Yet God is there in it all. At the very outset, what do we read? “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he enabled her to have children.” As we remember on this Sanctity of Life Sunday, even in bad circumstances, children born in lousy domestic arrangements and for the worst reasons in the world are sacred and precious gifts from God. Leah certainly realized that. She name her firstborn Reuben, which sounds like the Hebrew for “has seen” as she says that “The Lord has noticed,” has seen, “my misery.” Yes, she mistakenly adds, “and now my husband will love me.” But that does not take away the fact that God did notice her and give her a child.

It happens again with Leah’s second baby. She acknowledges God’s gift to her. She names him Simeon, which means “one who hears” saying “The Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me another son.” And it happens with a third and a fourth baby. Levi means “affection” and Judah means “the Lord be praised.” Leah praises God for all her children. But Jacob still doesn’t love her.

As we read in what is the beginning of Genesis 30 in the traditional Bible order, Jacob loved the beautiful but jealous and fiery younger sister Rachel. Like still happens among adult sisters, the success and children of one makes the other bitter and envious. Rachel took it out on Jacob, who responds just like any man would who finds himself way out of his depth with an angry woman. “Am I God?” It can’t possibly be his performance as a husband, so he blames it on God, “He’s the one who has kept you from having children.”

So Rachel comes up with the surrogate idea and hands her young, fertile maid off to Jacob to make a baby for her. It works and soon she has a boy on her knees. She names him Dan, which means vindication. Then another one she calls Naphtali which means “my struggle,” because she’s gaining ground in the baby-making struggle with her sister.

Meanwhile, Leah has had a little lull in the pregnancy department, so she adopts her sister’s strategy and sends her servant Zilpah off to Jacob’s bed. The result is another two boys, named Gad and Asher, which mean “good fortune” and “happy.”

Jacob in all this, again just like a man, seems quite content to do his part in the whole business. Then we get this weird business about mandrakes. Little Reuben has found some of these roots and brought them to his mother Leah. Mandrake roots look a bit like the female human form and were thought to be an aphrodisiac. They certainly have a narcotic effect and are toxic in larger amounts. You can buy it today on Amazon, with the same ancient promise that it will heal diseases and enhance fertility.

Rachel and Leah had another sisterly argument over these ugly little roots. Evidently Rachel had monopolized Jacob’s affections for a while, so Leah’s price for the mandrakes is a night with him. The result is Leah’s fifth son Issachar, which means “reward.” Then some arrangement must have been worked out and Leah has her sixth and last son, whom she calls “Zebulun” which means “honor.” Note that each time she gives God the credit, saying that God has rewarded and honored her. In case you are worried about this male-dominated family, we read in what is verse 21 that Leah had a daughter she named Dinah.

But God’s not done giving children to this crazy household. We finally read that “God remembered Rachel’s plight and answered her prayers.” This time Rachel remembers to give God credit, saying “God has removed my disgrace.” She gives the boy a name of hope, Joseph, meaning “may he add,” to indicate her desire for still more children. We read later on in the story how God did just that, but Rachel’s second son Benjamin cost her life as she died in childbirth.

So what are you and I to make of all this baby-making? This text is not in the lectionary and we don’t read or talk about it very often. That’s one reason I chose it for today. All of God’s Word has some significance for us. And, I’ve already said that it clearly teaches the sanctity of human life. God is the giver of children and that gift is sacred however it comes into our lives, even through mistakes and sin.

Yet there’s another big theme going on here in this childbearing contest. If you’ve read to the end of Genesis this last week, you have already discovered that these babies plus Benjamin are the founders and ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. God uses all that jealousy and strife between sisters to bring into existence a nation of people He loves.

You might get the idea, however, from the remainder of Genesis, that lovely, sparkly-eyed, jealous Rachel wins in the end. It’s her son Joseph who becomes the hero and focus of the rest of the book. As he dreamed as a boy, the rest of his brothers and even his father bow down to him in Egypt. And from the perspective of the time of Moses and those who first read and heard these Scriptures that’s pretty much true.

Put it all into the context of the whole Bible and the perspective shifts. Yes, Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh become huge tribes and ultimately command a large territory in Israel. But in the end, it is not one of Rachel’s children through whom God’s greatest purpose is fulfilled, but one of Leah’s. And that is not even the firstborn Reuben, but the fourth-born Judah. Way down the pecking order, and sinful and foolish in his own right, as you may have read too last week, Judah becomes the tribe of the kings and ultimately the tribe of the Messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Last week I said about Cain and Abel that God did not just choose by some whim to accept Abel’s sacrifice and reject Cain’s. Abel actually offered God a better sacrifice, the best of what he had. God doesn’t just choose who He likes and who He doesn’t for no reason at all. But there’s more to say on that. God also constantly and regularly chooses people who do not have much going for them, who are weaker, lesser and not as attractive in the eyes of the human beings around them. And God has a reason for that too.

Faith is part of it. God works through people who trust him. Abel trusted God. Abraham trusted God. Leah in her own way trusted God and constantly acknowledged Him as the giver of her children. Yet part of God’s choice had nothing to do with the virtues of any of those people, nothing to do even with their faith. God came to and worked with people who had nothing good going for them, not even their own goodness. You can certainly see that in the deceptive and flaky figure of Jacob.

No, God chose people no one else would choose in order to show us again what we’ve been trying to say all morning, that every person’s life is sacred, that He loves everyone who is conceived in this world. He loves that malnourished little girl in an orphanage in Haiti as much as He loves that happy little girl getting on the school bus in your neighborhood. He loves that smelly ragged guy holding up a cardboard sign on the corner as much He loves you. He loves a wrinkled, demented old woman whom no one ever visits next door at Churchill Estates as much as He loves your vibrant, active, sharp-as-a-tack mother. And he loves both the poor pregnant woman struggling to have a baby by herself and the heart-sick, wounded woman pained by the memory of an abortion. That’s why He chose Leah and Leah’s fourth son. He was showing us that all people on earth are sacred to Him, that every life is His gift, no matter how sad or difficult, and that you and I ought to respect and cherish them all.

That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Simon and Andrew in our Gospel lesson this morning. I’m pretty sure Jesus liked fishing and even more liked fisherman. He chose at least four of them to be His disciples. He went fishing with them more than once. But when it came down to following Him, they had more important business than catching fish. He was calling them to join Him in “catching,” in saving, the sacred lives of people. That’s what it meant to be “fishers of men.” It was all about God loving and drawing to Himself the most valuable creatures on earth, you and me and every other human being.

That means what the video we watched hinted at. There is more to the sanctity of life than just keeping unborn babies from being aborted. That’s a given. Those tiny lives are sacred. But they are also sacred after they are born. Those babies then need to fed and given medical care and loved by all of us. It’s no good to be just “pro-birth,” we need to be completely “pro-life,” protecting and caring for and nurturing human life at any age. The lives of babies are sacred to God and so are the lives of ninety year olds. Our society and the Christian church needs to hold human life sacred from birth to death, for all people of every color and race and nationality.

In I Corinthians 7:31, Paul reminded us that this world is passing away. As C. S. Lewis famously said in his essay, “The Weight of Glory,” the only eternal things, the only truly sacred things in this world are the people around us. Jesus died on the Cross and rose again to save the most precious beings on earth, to save the holy lives of men, women, boys and girls, old folks and babies. Our lives are sacred because Christ gave Himself to save them.

So let’s write a different reply to Leah:

Dear “Second-fiddle,”

You may not be loved by your man, but you are dearly loved by God. You may envy your sister’s beauty, but in God’s eyes the two of you are equally beautiful. You may wonder what good having all those babies has done you, when it hasn’t made your guy appreciate you anymore. But those little lives are sacred and holy to God and He has a purpose for your children that you can’t imagine. You have thanked and praised God for every child He gave you. Rest assured that He has seen and heard and loves you for it. Please quit calling yourself “Second-fiddle.” You are nothing but first and blessed in God’s eyes. If He gives you any more babies, name them “Respect” and “Honor” because that is what the Lord has for you. And be gentle with your sister. She has her own struggles that you may not even realize. God is working through you both.

Your sisters and brothers in the Lord

One last thing. I noticed for the first time reading this all again last week how Jacob and Leah’s story concludes at the end of Genesis. As we noted, Rachel died in childbirth and was buried along the way, near Bethlehem, as they traveled back to where Jacob’s father lived. We’re not told when Leah died. But at the end of Genesis, when Jacob and all those dozen sons are in Egypt, when death approaches for Jacob, where does he choose to be buried? You might think it would be there near Bethlehem, next to his favorite wife Rachel. But no. At the end of Genesis 49 he asked to be placed with his father and grandfather, in the cave where Abraham and Isaac and their wives are buried. Then in verse 31 he specifically adds, “And there I buried Leah.”

So poor unloved Leah ends up lying next to Jacob in the end, waiting for the healing of all our sadness and for the raising of the dead. Maybe Jacob loved her after all. I think God loved her very much. He loves you just as much.


Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2018 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj