Competing for Attention
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
17 July 2005
Once upon a time there was a young man living in a strange land. He fled his home because he had grieved his father and angered his brother. This man’s name was Jacob.
Jacob was now living among his mother’s people, her brother Laban and his daughters. Laban had two daughters. The eldest was Leah. She was a “nice girl. Good personality.” But Rachel was beautiful. And Jacob loved Rachel.
When Jacob arrived in the land, he was waiting at the well for the water to be drawn. That’s when Rachel appeared. Jacob was something of a show off. When Jacob saw Rachel, he jumped up and in a sign of manly strength, rolled the stone away from the well. Jacob watered Rachel’s flock and then grabbed her and kissed her.
Laban seemed glad to have a kinsman around. But old Laban was crafty. He had two daughters. “Daughters can’t do as much work as sons can,” he thought. “Lord knows, I’ve tried. I’ve sent Rachel out there to tend the flocks. This strong young man will sure come in handy.” So, after a month of watching Jacob, Laban makes him an offer. “You are a kinsman and shouldn’t work for me for nothing. Name your wages!”
Young Jacob knew what he wanted. He wanted Rachel. So he says excitedly, “I’ll work for seven years if you give me Rachel.” Laban liked the bargain and agreed to it. So Jacob worked seven years. He was so lovestruck that it only seemed like a few, short days.
But once the seven years were over, Jacob was ready. He went to Laban and said, “Give me my wife so that I can have sex with her!” Laban knows that there is a certain way in which one does these things. Oh the impetuosity of youth! So, Laban plans a wedding feast and invites all the people from the land to be his guest. They celebrate and have a good time. Laban makes sure that Jacob has enjoyed the wine he’s purchased for the occasion. When evening comes, Jacob is horny and drunk and goes to bed with his new wife.
The next morning the sun breaks through the windows. Jacob has a little bit of a headache, but he rolls over to cuddle up next to his beautiful Rachel and screams, waking everyone in the house. For Laban has pulled a fast one. Jacob has married and slept with Leah!
Jacob comes running out of the bedroom, half-naked and encounters Laban. Jacob cries, “What have you done to me!” Laban sits quietly and looks at Jacob matter-of-factly, “We don’t do such things in this land, didn’t you know? We don’t give the younger daughter before the oldest has been married. But here’s what I’ll do. Complete the week of wedding celebration for this one, and then I’ll give you the other one. In return, you work for me another seven years.”
What is Jacob to do? He agrees. A week later, he is married to Rachel whom he loves and gets to have sex with her.
Poor Leah, however. She is unloved, and God sees it. God looks at the situation and realizes that Rachel has beauty and love, what does Leah have? So, God opens Leah’s womb and she has a son.
Leah shouts with exultation, “God saw my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” She gets pregnant again. “Because the Lord heard me; I’ve been given this son also.” She then has a third son. “Now this time Jacob will be joined to me.” But, alas, it is not so. Four sons Leah bears and Jacob still loves Rachel.
Rachel is now furious. She screams at Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob indignantly cries back, “I’m not God!” Rachel realizes what she needs to do. Jacob keeps sleeping with Leah because she is giving him sons. Rachel knows what will appeal to Jacob. “Jacob,” she says, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Why don’t you have sex with her. If she has sons, then they will be mine.” It doesn’t take much to convince Jacob. Bilhah has two sons. After the second one Rachel celebrates, “With mighty wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister and I have won!”
Lean realizes what she needs to do to get into this game. “Jacob,” she says, “I too have a maid. Why don’t you have sex with her.” Well, Jacob is really getting into this game. Two more sons are born.
Well, by this time you’ve got a bunch of kids running around. The oldest son, Reuben, is growing up. He now realizes what’s going on in his family. Like a good son, he wants to help his mother Leah get ahead. While out harvesting the wheat, Reuben notices mandrakes, a common aphrodisiac. Reuben takes the roots and brings them to his mother, but Rachel sees what he’s doing.
In recent weeks, Jacob has been staying in Rachel’s bed, but she is still unable to get pregnant. After seeing Reuben and the mandrakes, she realizes that it is now time to bargain with her sister. First she tries being nice and simply asking for some mandrakes. But Leah will have none of it. Leah looks at Rachel and says sternly, “You have stolen my husband from me. Now you want to take this gift from my son?” Now Rachel realizes she must strike the hard bargain. “If I let Jacob sleep with you tonight, will you give me mandrakes?” Leah looks hard at her sister and agrees.
Jacob comes in from the field and is heading to Rachel’s to clean up, when Leah encounters him. Leah is tired of trying seduction and romance. She gets straight to the point. “You have to come to my bed tonight. I have hired you in exchange for my son’s mandrakes.” Leah has two more sons and a daughter, Dinah. After this sixth son of hers, Leah says, “Now my husband will honour me.” But her wish is in vain.
Just as God saw Leah’s need and blessed her with a child, God now looks upon Rachel’s need and opens her womb. Rachel has a son. “God has taken away my shame,” she says. “Now give me another son!”
What a story. And what a mess things are in! We began with blessing. God took chaos and brought meaning and order to the void. God looked out on creation and said that it was “very good.” But then things went awry. Adam and Eve disobeyed. Cain murdered Abel. In reaction to the growing violence, God destroyed the world in the Flood.
God then seems to realize that the violence of creation can’t be eradicated that way, so God takes another approach. God will choose a family through which to bless the world. What we learn from the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, and Rebekah is that the life of faith isn’t easy. In the midst of the difficulties of life we encounter a mysterious God whom we can never fully understand. We also encounter a God who hears our cries, fulfills promises, and looks out for the outcasts. The blessings we desire may not come quickly. Like Sarah, we may have to wait and struggle throughout life. And they may not come exactly the way we wanted them to.
Sometimes we get in the way of blessing. It seems to me that these characters are all still trying to learn what it means to be blessed. They don’t seem to have learned the responsibility it calls forth from them. Instead they keep creating conflict and bringing cursing upon one another. The men don’t seem to know how to treat the women. Even the women fight with one another and hurt each other. The privileged continue to mistreat the oppressed. Children are put at risk. And siblings fight with one another.
The family’s inability to learn how to treat each other affects each new generation. Abraham ended his life separated from all of his sons. Isaac is scarred by his past. Rabbis believe his blindness resulted from his binding. But he’s not just physically blind. He seems unaware of the power of his own words and reserves blessing only for one of his sons. Isaac passes conflict and cursing on to his sons. Esau now wants to kill his brother Jacob.
Laban and Jacob are two mischievious, scheming men who will use deceit in their contest with each other. Their trickery and mischief is passed on to Leah and Rachel who enter into this horribly dysfunctional contest with one another. And it is further passed on to the children. Reuben begins to participate in the struggle between the women. The names of the sons reflect the attitudes of the mothers, attitudes that often reflect selfish glee. And at the end, when Rachel receives her blessing from God. She doesn’t simply praise God. She demands more sons. Karen Armstrong writes,
Rachel did not see the birth of children as a God-given blessing but as something that was her due. . . . The blessing of fertility and love had become a source of discord and barren competition.
This family continues to turn its blessings into curses, and these children will be affected. Armstrong writes,
The anger and rivalry expressed in the names of [Jacob’s] sons showed that the conflict and hatred were etched deeply into their identity.
And we know this to be the case, because we know the rest of the story of these sons. They will eventually sell their brother Joseph into slavery and lie to their father saying that he was killed by a wild beast. Simeon and Levi will be guilty of genocide in the destruction of the city of Shechem. Reuben will sleep with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. And Judah’s own sons will be killed by God because of their unrighteousness.
Yes, this story of the women competing for Jacob’s sexual attention is funny and is intended to be funny. But the dark truth of the story is that this family is unable to be the blessing to the world that God originally envisioned when God called Abraham forth from Haran. This family still hasn’t learned how to bless each other. Instead they continue to curse one another by stirring up conflict. And there will be more conflict in their lives and more conflict throughout time.
The authors of Genesis have taken the conflicts of their day and read them back into these ancient stories. The enemies of the nation of Israel are descended from the various characters we encounter in these stories. One example is the Edomites. Edom was a nation that neighborhood Israel to the southwest. Israel had a long and torturous history with the Edomites. During the Exodus, they refused passage through their land for the wandering Israelites. During the reign of Saul, Israel went to war against them. During the reign of Jehoshaphat the Edomites joined an alliance to invade the kingdom of Judah. About Edom, the prophet Amos proclaims this word from the Lord,
because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity;
he maintained his anger perpetually,
and kept his wrath forever.
So I will send a fire on Teman, and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.
When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, the Edomites cheered its destruction. The prophet Obadiah records this oracle:
For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you,
and you shall be cut off forever.
On the day that you stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth,
and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you too were like one of them.
But you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune.
Ezekiel has these harsh words to say,
Because you cherished an ancient enmity, and gave over the people of Israel to the power of the sword at the time of their calamity, at the time of their final punishment; therefore, as I live, says the Lord God, I will prepare you for blood and blood shall pursue you; since you did not hate bloodshed, bloodshed shall pursue you.
What is the ancient enmity Ezekiel speaks of? What is the anger maintained perpetually that Amos refers to? It is Jacob’s stealing the blessing of Isaac and denying blessing to Esau. For the Edomites are the descendants of Esau.
Israel has this long-abiding enmity with the people of Edom. The story that the Israelites tell is that this enmity has root in this ancient story of two brothers who hated each other. What begins as a domestic conflict of a dysfunctional family spreads out into the world. Instead of blessing coming from this family, cursing results.
The hatred boils within the hearts of these two peoples for many centuries. You see the hatred on the part of the Hebrews by the awful things about Edom that they record in their scriptures. The worst comes in Malachi when they claim that their hatred is actually God’s hatred, “Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau.” Have you seen the slogan that has been going around recently? It says, “You know that you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.”
But we also see the hatred on the part of the Edomites. According to the biblical story, King Herod the Great who ruled Palestine at the time of the birth of Christ came from the group of people descended from the Edomites. It is Herod who slaughters the children of Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew links this story back to the Genesis story,
A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
I think that the Book of Genesis and the entire scriptural narrative is trying to tell us something important. It focuses on the lives of one family in order to make the point. When we engage in conflict with one another, what results is not blessing, not even for ourselves. What results is more and more conflict. What results is a curse.
So over and over again the authors of Genesis show us how this family continues to curse itself and how the curse affects each generation of children. When we read the rest of scripture we see how these conflicts play out in the lives of nations. We even see them claiming God on their side of the conflict; they claim that God is a God of hate.
We can sit here and laugh at the ridiculous competition between Leah and Rachel, but the terrifying sad truth is that in 2005 the world still hasn’t learned the lesson of the Book of Genesis. We continue to sow the seeds of conflict, strife, and cursing. We seem incapable of living together. We seem to be incapable of loving one another. We seem to be incapable of blessing.
Look at what happened just last week. For the first time in world history the leaders of the great powers had at the very top of their agenda alleviating extreme poverty. Each year more than 8 million people around the world die because they are too poor to stay alive. One in six people must live on less than one dollar a day. In 2000 the world realized that this form of extreme poverty finally could be eliminated. That we had the resources and the know-how to do it by 2015. If the major industrial nations of the world commit less than 1% of their annual wealth to fighting extreme poverty, it can be fixed. All we lack in 2005 is the will to make it happen. But finally at this G8 summit, it was to be the main topic of discussion.
And then the terrorists attacked London. The news media had actually been covering poverty issues, which they rarely do. But that changed. The world leaders took time out of their other valuable discussions to deal with terrorism issues. Fortunately, significant progress was still made at the summit. Yet once again conflict within the human family sowed seeds of cursing. Not only Londoners died as a result of those attacks, but countless millions of other lives will end because of extreme poverty. Who knows if without the attacks if even more could have been done at that summit in order to save millions of people.
The story of Genesis, the story of scripture, especially the story of Jesus, is trying to tell us that we cannot be people of conflict. And Genesis tells us that it starts at the most basic level – in our closest relationships with other people. With our families and friends, with fellow congregants and co-workers, with neighbors and strangers we encounter in our daily lives. In these relationships we must start living as people of blessing.
In Holy Homosexuals, Michael Piazza writes that functional families are those where we learn honesty, intimacy, and trust. Though we all fall short of perfection in these areas, we should be striving to do better than families usually do, because, as he writes, “Unfortunately, families are the last place we learn to do those things.” But here I am not speaking only about the traditional, nuclear family, nor is Michael. The new model of family, particularly the GLBT model of family, is the family of choice – “those people who enrich our lives rather than just those with whom we share some common genetic material” – and the family of faith – our church.
We are about forming a radically new kind of community. And I’m not talking about the fact that we are forming a radical kind of church, a gay church. The very concept of the church itself is a radically new kind of community. So, here at the Cathedral of Hope we want to be a group of people formed into a community. A community of disciples of Jesus the Christ. Which means that we will be a group of people that relate to one another in honesty, intimacy, and trust. We will practice forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacemaking. We will work to avoid sowing seeds of competition and discord. Because unless we learn to live a different way, to live the Christian way, then we can never be a place of hope for the rest of the world.