Relevant Verses: Genesis 25-30
Theme: The Struggles of Life
Leading Question: What are you willing to struggle for in your life?
Who is Jacob? The first time we hear a description of him he is called “a content man” (NIV) and “a peaceful man” (NASB). The Hebrew phrase, ish tam, tells of a simple, quiet, plain, and straightforward man. But that is exactly what he turns out not to be in the lengthy section of Genesis 25–36.
Jacob was born holding on to Esau’s heel. He bought Esau’s birthright. He stole Esau’s blessing. When his blind father asked him who he was, he replied, “I am Esau, your firstborn” (Gen 27:19). Jacob was the child who wanted to be Esau, the firstborn, the strong and muscular man, his father’s favorite. His struggle to be someone other will be long and arduous.
The result is tension between the twin brothers to such a degree that when Esau discovered that his father’s blessing was stolen from him, he vowed to kill his brother once the father had died. Jacob remains the brazen trickster in Laban’s house as well. At the same time, the book of Genesis depicts him as the one whom God had chosen, and from whom the people of Israel will derive.
As the story of Jacob and Esau unfolds in the book of Genesis it weaves Jacob’s deceptive acts, his fears, and his struggles, all through the theme of God’s covenant promises for Israel. At times it seems that even God compromises His character and engages in deceptive acts for the sake of fulfilling His promised covenant blessings.
Question: What should we make of the fact that Jacob the deceiver is God’s chosen one?
Consider, the following scene after Jacob left his father with the blessing that was supposed for Esau. Esau returned from hunting and brought Isaac the food he had requested. We then read this:
“Isaac trembled violently and said, ‘Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me?
I ate it just before you came, and I blessed him – and indeed he will be blessed!’
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry
and said to his father, ‘Bless me – me too, my father!’
But he said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.’
Esau said, ‘Isn’t he rightly named Jacob?
This is the second time he has taken advantage of me:
he took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!’
Then he asked, ‘Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?’”
It is impossible to read this passage and not to feel sympathy for Isaac and Esau rather than Rebecca and Jacob. Phrases like “he trembled violently” and “burst out with a loud and bitter cry” cannot but affect us deeply. Here is an old man who has been deceived by his younger son, and a young man, Esau, who feels cheated out of what was rightfully his. The emotions triggered by this scene will long stay with us as we continue reading the story of Jacob, who has now also become a fugitive.
As we journey with Jacob to the north to Laben’s home in Haran, we hear about one of the great dreams of the Bible. Jacob, afraid and alone, finds himself in an in-between space, between the home he is escaping from and the destination he has not yet reached, between the danger of his brother Esau from whom he tries to escape, and the unknown risks he will encounter and suffer from in the home of Laban. In this space in between—scholars call it the liminal space—Jacob is alone at night, isolated and vulnerable. Here, “he had a dream in which he saw a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Gen 28:12). When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17).
What Jacob realised that morning when he woke from his vision is that God is in this place—not somewhere else.
Question: What are some in-between spaces or liminal moments that help you recognize that God is here, in this place?
When Jacob arrived at Laban’s house and fell in love at first sight with Rachel, he worked seven years for her hand in marriage. On the night of the wedding, however, Laban substituted his elder daughter Leah. The deceiver had been outwitted. Jacob became the deceived. The irony in Laban’s answer to the question, “Why have you deceived me” must have stung hard, “It is not done in our place to give the younger before the older” (Gen 29:25–26). No question, that this reminds of the birthright he had stolen from his elder brother. He then agreed to work another seven years for Rachel. The second wedding took place a mere week after the first.
In a sermon I preached at WWU church on the first Sabbath of this year, I have expounded on the story of Jacob’s family life, his wives and children. I offer an excerpt here for reflection:
When Jacob married Rachel, we read: “And [Jacob] went in also to Rachel, and he loved also Rachel.”
Freezing the story here, we are led to believe that the two sisters were equal in Jacob’s eyes. That is what the repeated word “also” (Hebrew gam) signifies. The deception has – so we must suppose at this point – a happy ending. Jacob has married both sisters. He loves them both. It is possible, we are told here, to love two women equally.
But then, the next word sends our expectations crashing to the ground: “. . . more than Leah” (Gen 29:30).
The effect of this ending is like a sudden discord; it is shocking. Jacob does not love the two sisters equally. He may love them both, but his passion is for Rachel.
The next verse contains an even sharper discord: “God saw that Leah was hated [Hebrew senuah].” This is a phrase that CAN NOT be understood literally. The previous verse has just said that Leah was not hated but loved. The ancient commentators wrestled with this difficulty. They read the word “hated” as “[relatively] unloved.”
Yet, though the word is semantically impossible in that sentence, it makes psychological sense. Leah, less loved, felt rejected, hated, even.
The words “God saw” tell how God identified with her sense of humiliation. Laban’s deception had tragic consequences. Leah surely weeps for the husband whose love is for someone else.
Only now, in retrospect, we understand the significance of the first mention of Leah:
“Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah,
and the name of the younger was Rachel.
The eyes of Leah were weak [Hebrew rakot],
but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful.”
The word about the weak eyes can mean many things: beautiful, weak, or sensitive. But the word is more significant than that in this story. It means, ‘Leah was easily moved to tears.’ She was emotionally vulnerable, sensitive. She knew she was Jacob’s lesser love, and it caused her pain.
The subtlety with which all this is conveyed is remarkable. The narrator has sketched Leah in a few skillful strokes, each of which we will only hear if we are listening carefully.
So traumatic is Leah’s situation, that, “The LORD saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Gen 29:31).
Over the next verses, the Bible makes us hear Leah’s pain in the names she gives her children.
Her first, she calls Reuben, saying: “It is because the Lord has seen (ra’ah) my troubles. Surely, my husband will love me now.”
The second, she calls Shimon, “Because the Lord heard (shama) that I am unloved.”
The third, she calls Levi, “Now at last my husband will become attached (lavah) to me” (Gen 29:32-34).
There is sustained anguish in these words. But Jacob does not hear!!!
The tragedy then takes turn after turn with the two slave women, Bilhah and Zilpah, handed over to Jacob and used to birth “on the knees” of their owners (the haunting trauma narrative of Margret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, captures the biblical scene).
The last part of the story belongs to Rachel only. Jacob has failed to hear the distress of the one he “loved more.”
“When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children,
she became jealous of her sister.
She said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I will die.’
Jacob became angry with her and said,
‘Am I in the place of God?
It is He who has kept you from having children.’”
Now, God will have to listen. And he does without being asked:
“Then God remembered Rachel,
and God gave heed to her and opened her womb.”
The name she gives to her firstborn son, Joseph, “God has taken away my disgrace” (Gen 30:23), reflects on the great emotional and psychological anguish associated with the shame a barren woman would endure in a world that valued fertility more than a woman’s life.
Then, with sad irony, Rachel dies, but not from an absence of children; she dies giving birth to her second child!! She died close to the place where God had come down to Jacob on a ladder.
“Then they journeyed from Bethel;
and when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath,
Rachel began to give birth and she suffered severe labor.
When she was in severe labor the midwife said to her,
‘Do not fear, for now you have another son.’
It came about as her soul was departing (for she died),
that she named him Ben-oni;
but his father called him Benjamin.
So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).
Jacob set up a pillar over her grave;
that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.”
Have you noticed the tears and the wombs? The wombs—the barren wombs and the pregnant wombs—not only of the two main mothers but also of the other two, the ones who had no say in this messy net of Jacob’s family?
Have you wept at the side of the dusty road, between Bethel and Bethlehem, with the one whose open bleeding womb is laid into the ground?
The year is 586 BCE. When the captives of Judah were gathered in the rugged lands and wadis of ancient Palestine, kept in prison camps until they were forced to march in chains into captivity (Jeremiah 40:1–5), a woman’s voice could be heard mourning inconsolably.
Thus says the LORD, a voice on height!
Lamentation can be heard, weeping most bitter.
Rachel is weeping for her sons, refusing to be consoled for her sons,
“Oh, not one is here!”
Directed to no one in particular, and hence to all who may hear, the voice of Rachel travels across the land and through the ages to permeate existence with a suffering that not even death can relieve.
To Rachel the LORD responds:
“Keep your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears.
For there is a reward for your work,
The Lord declares.
They shall return from the land of the enemy.
and there is a hope for your future,
The Lord declares.
God makes a pledge, “they shall return.” Her children are considered and named. Ephraim is the center of attention in the poem. The LORD introduces him: “Truly, I have heard Ephraim rocking in grief.”
Yahweh, the LORD’s voice resounds with words that portray Him as mother Rachel. Just as Rachel cared and mourned the loss of her child, so Yahweh, the LORD, from the divine womb, mourns the same child:
“Is Ephraim my dear son? My darling child?
For the more I speak of him,
the more I remember him.
Therefore, my womb trembles for him;
I will truly show motherly compassion upon him.
Declares the LORD.”
Jeremiah has placed Rachel’s inconsolable weeping over her children and Ephraim’s cry for help into a special section in his book. It is Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation” with the new covenant based on the LORD’s divine womb filled with motherly compassion. It’s goal is for a soft and receptive heart in return. The generations that experienced the disaster of the exile, the displaced—they come back. Rachel’s children are alive, her broken family becomes restored. A more poignant announcement can hardly be imagined by Rachel, the grieving mother.
Hundreds of years passed, and again, the mothers of Bethlehem wept, and their grief rose up in mourning and lamentation.
One couple fled for their lives. Joseph and Mary, warned in a dream, were sent away for safety with the baby Jesus. The holy family left Bethlehem to become refugees in the land of slavery of their ancestors. Matthew, the gospel writer, could not think of any other voice more appropriate, of no other tears more fitting, than Rachel’s. And so, he raises her voice from the grave for a second time:
“Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH,
WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING,
RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN;
AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED,
BECAUSE THEY WERE NO MORE.”
Herod had ordered the execution of the young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn baby. And so it is that mother Rachel finds herself alongside mother Mary at the Christ-child’s bed.
It is often said that the infancy accounts provide the gospel in a nutshell. Mary and Rachel thus form a perfect pair.
The tears of mother Rachel foreshadow the tears of Mary, walking the Via Dolorosa, standing by the cross, embracing her son’s body before burial.
Rachel’s son whome she called Benoni, prefigures Mary’s child, the man of sorrows. Renamed, “Son of my Right Hand,” Benjamin also prefigures the victorious offspring of Mary. The one who overcomes the grave.
In other ways, they are a perfect contrast.
Rachel dies giving life, while Mary lives giving birth to one destined for death.
So it is that Matthew needed to record this somber note about a mother’s tears still flowing heavily even at the new dawn, at the birth of the One who is greeted with joyfulness and worship, with presents of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
For on the edge of a new dawn, tears of sorrow for all the children who were not saved from Herod’s sword mix with tears of joy for those who come from all over the lands of the earth, those . . .
“who were ill,
those suffering with various diseases and pains,
And when He saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain
And sat down and said,
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’”
So it is that the mothers weeping for their Bethlehem children would one day join the mothers weeping along the streets of Jerusalem for the One who made his way up to the cross.
For, how could Rachel wipe her tears as long as the world’s wounds and wombs are still bleeding? As long as there is even one child, one human being, who suffers?
Rachel’s cry refuses to spiritualize, to explain away, to ignore or deny the depth and truth of suffering in this world. She rejects soothing words and superficial sentiments of ‘can’t we all just get along’.
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, we create 15 to 30 gallons of tears each year. Some in this church community may have been high-volume producers over the past year. And even though, as science tells us, we create less tears as we age, by the time we are 80, we could have easily filled up 40 average-sized bathtubs.
Rachel is still weeping for her children.