Today's reading is from the thirty-first chapter of Genesis. If you don't already know the story it's worth backing up, but the short version is that Laban is Jacob's uncle - his mother's brother. And the two seem to be cut from the same cloth. Jacob tricked his brother out of his birthright and then ran to his uncle's home. In turn, his uncle tricked him into marrying not only the daughter that Jacob loved (Rachel) but her sister Leah as well. So finally, Jacob decides to head home. What is awaiting him, by the way, is one of the most poignant reunions in the Bible - right up there with the return of the prodigal son. Jacob will soon confront his brother, Esau, whose birthright he "stole." While that encounter could go a lot of different ways, what happens is an embrace of two brothers amid many tears of joy. (See Genesis 33, it comes up as the reading this Friday.)
Anyway, here is the reading for today:
Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsfolk camped in the hill country of Gilead. Laban said to Jacob, ‘What have you done? You have deceived me, and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword. Why did you flee secretly and deceive me and not tell me? I would have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre. And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? What you have done is foolish. It is in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, “Take heed that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.” Even though you had to go because you longed greatly for your father’s house, why did you steal my gods?’ Jacob answered Laban, ‘Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsfolk, point out what I have that is yours, and take it.’ Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.*
So Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the tent of the two maids, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent, and entered Rachel’s. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them. Laban felt all about in the tent, but did not find them. And she said to her father, ‘Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.’ So he searched, but did not find the household gods.
Then Jacob became angry, and upbraided Laban. Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is my offence? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? Although you have felt about through all my goods, what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsfolk and your kinsfolk, so that they may decide between us two. These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. That which was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it myself; of my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. It was like this with me: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you for fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear* of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked you last night.’
Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, ‘The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about their children whom they have borne? Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I; and let it be a witness between you and me.’ So Jacob took a stone, and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, ‘Gather stones,’ and they took stones, and made a heap; and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha:* but Jacob called it Galeed.* Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me today.’ Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar* Mizpah,* for he said, ‘The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other. If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.’
People ask me sometimes what I love about the Old Testament. This. Theologians, trying to categorize the Bible, tried to say the Old Testament was about "law" and the New Testament about "grace." But this characterization is a very dangerous one. It can very easily lapse into Marcionism. But even when it does not, it distorts both Testaments, which are both about law and grace. If you don't believe me then definitely come back and read the lectionary text on Friday. It will bring you to tears...especially if you have some loose ends in your own relationships.
As for today, what characters. An uncle and his nephew more alike than different, whose time has come to part. What reason does Jacob give for leaving has he did? "I was afraid..." Yet as so often happens in life, fear moves to anger. And yet they do the best they can.
And what about Rachel? In spite of (or maybe because of these two strong men in a patriarchal society) she is no shrinking violet. Laban is her father, remember. But she tells the old man she better not stand up...you understand, Dad. Truth is she is sitting on the stolen merchandise. But she thinks it is the very least her father could do for her...
Life is complicated. Families are even more complicated. In my journeys around the diocese I often hear people tell me their parish is "like a family." Really? With all the shadow that entails, right? All of the complications? The Bible doesn't pretend that "family" is easy. The relationships in this family- father and eldest twin, mother and younger twin, two estranged brothers (but not for long - come back Friday!) - uncle and nephew, husband and sister-wives, sister-wives and their father. Who needs reality television when you have the Bible?
The Bible isn't about what we sometimes think it's about and that's especially true in the Old Testament. Somewhere along the line we got to thinking that the Bible was about pastel colored characters in Bible Land who talked with Elizabethan accents. In truth it's about people who are a mess in many of the same ways we are mess. And God not only loves them anyway, but calls them - and uses their gifts as well as their shortcomings to keep bringing light into the world.