Meditation on Genesis 29: 9-28
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, Ohio
Pastor Karen Crawford
July 26, 2020
Her name was Judith Ellen Brushwood Erickson. She went by “Judy” or “Mom” as her only daughter, Jennifer, said with a smile at her graveside service on Friday morning. Jennifer had driven from Maryland with her husband, Reese, the night before. She had held her mother’s hand as she passed away July 18. Judy was 78. She had been a widow since 1988.
We gathered at the cemetery— a half dozen family members, funeral director, and cemetery workers, who served as pall bearers. They set the casket on the stand under the tent—and then, something I had never seen before. It was opened and set up as if we were preparing for a viewing and visitation. The funeral director invited the family to gather under the tent so the service could begin.
Everyone was wearing a mask, including me, throughout the service. It was particularly strange because I had never seen their faces, and they had never seen mine. We had met for the first time at the grave. We experienced a holy and intimate moment with our faces covered, each of us being careful to maintain social distance.
It was a humbling experience, being led by the Spirit to do something, once again, out of my comfort zone—for the sake of the Lord and caring for God’s people. Later, I thought, truly, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. Our ways are not God’s ways, as Isaiah says. But if we trust Him, he will make his ways known to us. He will be faithful. With each passing moment. Day by day.
Jacob in Genesis 29 is, like so many of us these days, frequently surprised and dismayed at the twists and turns, ups and downs, in his life. He may not be living in a pandemic that we know of, but he will go through some terrible times. He will endure a severe famine that will lead him to pick up and leave the country with his family to live as refugees in Egypt. And perhaps saddest of all, he will lose his beloved wife, Rachel, giving birth to their son, Benjamin, in Genesis 35. She will be buried on the road to Bethlehem.
God confirms, throughout these terrible days, that He is still with Jacob and his family.
In today’s reading in the 29th chapter, Jacob is on his way to Haran, fleeing from his home because of his brother Esau’s threats to kill him for stealing the blessing of the first born. Jacob is also seeking a wife among his mother, Rebekah’s kin.
Is it a coincidence that when Jacob stops for water at the well, he runs into some shepherds who know Laban, his mother’s brother? I don’t believe in coincidence! Soon, he runs into Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter, a shepherdess, at the well, come to water her father’s flocks. He sees her and is moved to serve her, helping to roll the great stone from the well’s mouth so that her father’s flocks may drink. It is love at first sight. He kisses her and weeps aloud before he tells her that he is her father’s relative; he is Rebekah’s son.
It must be love at first sight for Rachel, though we never know, for sure, because the Bible doesn’t say. She IS excited as she runs to tell her father, who runs to meet him, and they embrace and kiss him and bring him into their home. He stays one month with Laban’s family; then his uncle offers to pay him for the work he has been doing. Jacob is such a romantic! He offers to work for free for 7 years if Laban allows him to marry Rachel.
I think the wheels are turning in Laban’s mind right from the start. He didn’t have any plans to give Rachel in marriage to Jacob in 7 years, did he? Listen to the promise he makes. He doesn’t actually lie; he just doesn’t tell the whole truth. Laban says, “Well, it is better that I give her to you than another man. Stay with me.” What he doesn’t say is that he is going to get Jacob drunk at a feast when the 7 years are up and he will send his older, less attractive daughter, Leah, in to Jacob. Once they have spent the night together, she is his wife.
Verse 25 hints at Jacob’s state of mind when he wakes up after his wedding night. “When morning came, it was Leah!” This brief sentence conveys all the shock of his discovery; Laban has deceived him! And the rabbis’ point out, just as Jacob had deceived his father, Isaac, pretending to be his older brother Esau so that he might steal the blessing.
Sometimes it’s true—what goes around, comes around. Or maybe it’s just that the seeds we sow will eventually bear fruit. Good or bad, the choice is ours.
Jacob responds emotionally, “What is this that you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”
You can almost imagine Laban shrugging his shoulders. He doesn’t admit to any deception or wrongdoing. He’s a politician. He puts the blame on Jacob for being an outsider and ignorant of their ways. Jacob should have known better! “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the first born.”
So Laban gets 14 years of free labor from Jacob, instead of just 7, as he had offered. Jacob gets 2 wives instead of one, and they come with personal handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah. Servants aren’t usually named in the Bible, but these are important to the family tree. Jacob will father children with them, in addition to Leah and Rachel. For their mistresses will be in competition for who can give Jacob the most children. The servants will be commanded to sleep with their master so they can bear children that Leah and Rachel will claim as their own.
With all this deception and intrigue, I don’t want you to miss that this IS a love story—a story of promises kept by Jacob, one of God’s chosen. Remember, Jacob has the blessing of Abraham, through his father, Isaac. All the families of the earth will be blessed through Jacob’s descendants. Jacob says that the 7 years that passed while he was working for Laban and anticipating marriage to Rachel, “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”
So what does this story reveal about the character of God who can use sinful humanity, such as Laban, to accomplish God’s good purposes? It wasn’t Jacob’s plan to have Leah and Rachel as his wives, but it was God’s plan. This was so that Jacob would father 12 sons, who would become the 12 tribes of Israel. And yes, Rachel would always be his favorite wife, as were her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. His favoritism of Joseph, giving him a special coat, led to his brothers’ hatred and attempted murder, throwing him into a pit and leaving him for dead. But if Laban hadn’t tricked Jacob into marrying both Leah and Rachel, then Joseph would never have ended up in Egypt, where he would become the second most powerful man, next to Pharaoh. After years of struggle and suffering that would shape Joseph’s character, he was in the right place at the right time; God’s gift of dream interpretation to Joseph would change the world.
Joseph would not hold his brothers’ sins against them, years later. They would bow down to him and beg for his forgiveness. “Do not be afraid,” he would assure them in Genesis 50. “Am I in the place of God? As for you, what you intended against me for evil, God intended for good, in order to accomplish a day like this—to preserve the lives of many people.”
This sounds like our Romans reading today! How all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes.
At the service on Friday, I invited the family to share memories of Judy. This isn’t usual for a committal, but then there had been no funeral, and these are extraordinary times. One by one, everyone spoke—telling about the Ohio State grad, who after she moved away, would return to Coshocton and attend OSU football games. She loved to watch the marching band perform Script Ohio. She moved to Maryland, had a daughter, Jennifer, and found work as a librarian for the Engineering Library (EPSL) of University of Maryland. She was a science fiction buff who liked to go to sci-fi conventions and see people dressed up as characters from Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek. She liked to attend Renaissance Festivals. She was a certified master gardener and member of the Beltsville Garden Club. She grew perennials and vegetables and was well known for her tomatoes. She liked to eat them right off the vine, was an expert at canning, and gave many of her canned tomatoes away.
She was a genealogist and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, serving as a docent at the DAR museum. She was a quilter and a good cook.
She was kind and would be remembered for her kindness.
As stories were shared, I was blessed by the life of a soul I had never met. And I got to know some family members who still live here, including her brother, John. I couldn’t see his smile, but his eyes lit up when he told me about all the cans of Judy’s tomatoes that are still in their family home. We joked that maybe they shouldn’t be eaten if they are decades old!
It makes me wonder if these connections that were made that day, relationships that were forged in this unusual time for us and our church, community, and nation, will be important in God’s plan in ways we might never know.
I find comfort and joy in Isaiah’s assurance, that “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways…not our ways.” Especially when I listen to the news, and it always seems to be bad news. We still have Labans in the world: people who break their promises or just fail to tell the whole truth to look out for their own interests. We don’t always know whom we can trust in this world, just as Jacob didn’t know Laban was going to break his promise after he had lived with him and worked for him for 7 years!
We can trust God and His Word. And we can be trustworthy, promise keepers, revealing the goodness of the Lord through our love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We can be like Judith Erickson, remembered for her kindness.
God will be faithful to keep his covenant with us in Jesus Christ, his only Son, who died for our sins. God will keep all his promises to us! We can trust in the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts. The God whose ways are higher than ours.
Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you for keeping all your promises to us—your promise of presence, of forgiveness, of love, of eternal life with you beginning in this world. Forgive us for feeling frustrated when things don’t go the way we want them to go and for doubting your perfect plans for us, no matter what happens. Help us to be content in all circumstances. Strengthen our faith. Thank you for your promise to use us to build your Kingdom and to work through all things in our lives—people, events, jobs, illness and loss—all things to accomplish your good purposes through those whom you have called. Lead us in the way of everlasting, in your ways that are higher than ours. In Christ we pray. Amen.