When we last left Jacob, he was a man on the run. Now he’s a man in love.
Jacob stands around the well with his Uncle Laban’s people. They’re waiting to water the sheep; once all the shepherds are there, they’ll work together to lift the heavy stone and water the animals in equal doses. Jacob, leaning cooly on the well, sees the lovely Rachel walking her dad’s flock up to water… and he falls over himself in love. He lifts the heavy stone in a feat of infatuation. Rachel must be won over by this act of strength, because they kiss. Jacob is moved to tears. Rachel runs to tell her dad about the (kissing) cousin she just met.
We have just witnessed Jacob and Rachel’s meet-cute.
Uncle Laban embraces Jacob without hesitation. He offers his nephew a job: “Just because you’re my kin doesn’t mean you have to work for free; what do you want to be paid?” But it seems the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Tricky Jacob has an even trickier uncle. Maybe as Laban extends one hand out to Jacob, he has the other arm around his beautiful daughter.
“What do you want to be paid, nephew of mine?”
Jacob wants his uncle’s daughter. He is in love and thinking of nothing else. “I want Rachel!” he says. “And I’ll work seven years for her.”
Seven? Seven years? That’s about as unbelievable as Mulder and Scully not crossing the friendship barrier until the seventh season of the X-Files. And yet, Jacob loves her so much that those seven years feel like just a few days. Good grief, this boy is in lust love.
Finally the moment arrives. Jacob is done crossing off days, weeks, months, years on the calendar. He’s served his time and Rachel will be his bride. Laban calls a feast. The food is decadent. The wine is flowing. By the end of the night, Jacob is flying high on love and hormones, wine and celebration. It ends in a bit of a blur.
Wait – have I mentioned that Rachel has a sister?
Rachel has an older sister named Leah. Genesis tells us that her eyes were rakkot. That Hebrew word could mean “delicate” (good) or “weak” (bad), it’s hard to say. Either way, she’s the older sister that Jacob didn’t want.
On the morning after his wedding night, Jacob wakes up to a surprise: it’s the wrong daughter of Laban in his marital bed. He has spent the night with Leah, not Rachel. Jacob goes to his uncle in anger (never mind that he should have noticed the difference). “What have you done to me?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Jacob replies innocently. “We have this tradition around here. You always marry the oldest daughter first. That’s too bad you didn’t know… but… if you give me another seven years, you can have Rachel, too.”
The trickster has been tricked, and tricked good. But Jacob’s love is unrelenting; he agrees to another seven years.
This is another really good story. Like The Princess Bride, it’s got just about everything in it: Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… (Okay, there’s not any monsters or fencing or giants; but you get the point.) This is the kind of stuff that captivates audiences during daytime soaps and 10pm dramas.
But what does it tell us about God?
In order to figure that out, we have to agree that the Bible is not designed to be read at blunt literal value. There are parts of this story that are fun to read and true to human behavior, but that are not meant to be emulated. This is material we have to sift through.
Adam Hamilton uses the image of a colander: just like we sort out carbohydrate water from spaghetti noodles, sometimes we have to sort out material in the Bible. Hamilton suggests using the greatest commandments as the colander, and since we just finished a series on them I think they’d serve us well here. What in this story gets “caught” by the commands to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves? What falls through to be washed down the drain?
Let’s start sifting.
First, there’s a lot of stuff about sex and relationships to sift through. Polygamy falls right through our colander of the greatest commands; it’d be tough to “love your neighbor as yourself” while having more than one spouse. And how about sending your eldest daughter to a loveless marriage where she’s second-rung her whole life? Or spending the night with a woman while being either so intoxicated or self-absorbed that you never carefully look at her face? These are entertaining parts of the story, but they are not parts we should imitate. Let’s sift them out and let them go.
If we keep shaking, we might sift out all the trickery as well. Jacob shouldn’t have tricked Esau out of his blessing; Laban shouldn’t have tricked his nephew into seven extra years of labor. This Bible story isn’t an endorsement to be as conniving as these two men, to work for your own selfish goals by duping others. That doesn’t match with loving your neighbor as yourself.
And while we’re at it, let’s sift out marrying your cousin, just for good measure. Cool? Cool.
We’ve now done a good bit of sorting using the greatest commandments. With those factors gone, what’s left in this story? What sticks in the colander of loving God and loving our neighbor?
Jacob works seven years for Rachel “and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (29:20). Then he works seven more to earn her as his bride. Fourteen years altogether – all because of love.
As 1 Corinthians 13 puts it: “Love is patient” (v. 4). Love endures all things (v. 7). “Love never ends” (v. 8).
That sticks to the way we’re called to love each other. Real love isn’t a flash in the pan; it’s a slow-burning coal that persists over the long haul. Loving our neighbor is more than just one random act of kindness. It’s a love that will be there seven years from now. It’s a love that doesn’t mind doing a little work. It’s patient.
I know this not because of Jacob’s example, but because of God’s example. God’s love for us is patient. Read the Old Testament – all of it – and you’ll see: more than angry, more than smiting, more than commandment-giving… God is patient. The Israelites mess up (again) (and again) (and again and again and again), and God gives them yet another chance.
Pope Francis has written recently about how Jesus Christ embodies this divine patience. Thomas needs to see the marks in Jesus’ hands; Jesus patiently obliges. Peter denies Jesus three times, but Jesus gives him three new chances to claim him. Jesus tells the story of the prodigal, where the father patiently waits and watches every day for his son’s return. Francis calls this “the story of the merciful father.” However long it takes; God is patient.
“Love is patient.” Love endures all things. “Love never ends.”
Have you been wondering whether you’ve worn out God’s patience? Then hear this: not even close. God is like Jacob, willing to work seven years and then seven more (and maybe even your whole lifetime) to bring you into his love. God is a good shepherd, willing to leave 99 sheep and chase after you, if that’s what it takes. God loves you, and God’s love is patient. God’s love endures. God’s love never ends.
Once we accept that patient love – once we stop running from it and start living into it – our lives are forever changed.
We become marked by that patient love, challenged to extend it to others. It’s very easy to get fed up with each other. It’s easy to say, “I’ll be kind to you once, but if that doesn’t work then I’ve got better things to do.” It’s easy to think our job is done if we’ve invited someone to church one time. But that’s not love. Love is as patient as our merciful Father in heaven. If we really know God’s love, then we’re challenged to love others like Jacob loved Rachel: where seven years feels like just a day.
This is a good story, and here’s what makes it so good:
“Love is patient.” Love endures all things. “Love never ends.”