Archive for July 24th, 2011

“The Trickster Gets Tricked – a Love Story”

Genesis 29

Daniel J. Ott


I know my wife loves me.  And I think, in general, she’s pretty contented with me as a husband.  But I also think she could probably name a few minor points where I could use some improvement.  And I think one of those would be that she would like for me to occasionally sit down with her and watch what we call a chick flick, a romantic comedy.  But, unfortunately, I just can’t do it.  She is quick to point out that I did watch a few with her back when I was wooing her, but of course everything changes after you’re married.  In my own defense, its not that I think that I’m too macho or that I mean to be unromantic.  The problem with chick flicks for me is their unrealism.  Of course, the unrealism of Star Wars or Batman is completely acceptable, but the point is:  the kind of love that you see in romantic comedies just seems so unrealistic that, to me, it almost makes a mockery of love.

First, there’s the fateful falling in love.  The two bump into each other in the hotdog line at the Cub’s game and immediately there are stars in their eyes.  Or perhaps its slightly more complicated:  Middle aged guy is dating the younger sister, impressing her with his sports car and expensive dinners out.  He reluctantly goes on vacation with her family only to find out that he had once dated the older sister, now divorced.  The two fall in love and the plot untangles from there.  In any case, there’s always magic involved and we see the love in the lovers’ eyes from the moment they spot each other.  Then, comes the conflict.  Some sort of misunderstanding arises.  He says something he shouldn’t, or she sees something and misconstrues it, or he goes out on a night with guys that goes wrong, and as a result the two have a big fight and grow apart.  Of course, this only lasts long enough to play a few sad ballads behind scenes of him looking longingly into the old Italian restaurant where they used to dine and her sitting alone on the edge of the fountain into which earlier in the movie they dived in with all of their clothes on.   Then there’s the obligatory hear-to-heart with the best friend scene, thus leading to the reconciliation scene that takes all of five minutes after which the stars return to the lovers eyes, some uplifting music is played, a frolicking in the park scene, a wedding scene, and cue the credits.  Just like it happens in real life, right?

Interestingly, when our story about Jacob and Rachel begins, it looks like it’s headed to chick flick land.  The setting is common to betrothal scenes in the ancient Near East.  The well cues the reader that romance is on the rise.  Soon after Jacob arrives, it so happens that Rachel appears.  Sparks fly.  Jacob is so stirred by Rachel that without thinking he moves the stone from the well, a feat that would ordinarily require a collection of several shepherds.  After this show of virility, he then shows his caring and compassionate side by watering Rachel’s flock.  Then, in tenderness, he kisses her and even begins to cry.  She’s smitten, too.  She runs to tell her father what has happened and to seek his approval.  And, happily, her father accepts Jacob into his house with open arms.

What happens next is not the ordinary misunderstanding that we might expect from a romantic comedy, but it’s also not a complete surprise for those of us who are getting to know the ‘heel-grabber.’  Laban comes to Jacob with what seems to be a genuinely gracious offer.  Jacob has been tending his uncle’s flock for a month now without pay.  Laban says, “Tell me what your wages should be.”  This is just the opening that the trickster needed.  Without blinking an eye Jacob says, “I will serve seven years for your younger daughter, Rachel.”

Now, at first blush, we might think that there is nothing wrong with this proposition.  Seven years seems like a long time to work in exchange for the right to marry and, besides, the youngsters are in love.  What’s wrong with that?  Well, remember Jacob is in exile.  He has nothing.  Ordinarily, the suitor would offer the father a substantial bride-price, but Jacob has no way to pay.  In fact, where would Jacob stay and how would he work if it weren’t for his uncle taking him in.  Doesn’t Jacob owe Laban his labor just for shelter and sustenance?  Furthermore, Jacob knows full well that the father always offers his daughters in birth order, eldest first.  But of course what does Jacob care for birth order, right?

In any case, Laban agrees, figuring that Jacob is better than any of the other lads he’s seen hanging around.  When the seven years are up, Jacob insists sharply and crudely, “Let me have my wife and let me bed her.”  Perhaps because of this rudeness or perhaps it was his plan all along, Laban then begins to unfold his trick for the trickster.  Laban hosts a feast and gets Jacob drunk.  And when the time comes he makes the switch.  Rather than giving Jacob Rachel, Laban gives him Leah, his eldest.  Here the fairy tale ends.

Jacob is enraged and he shouts at Laban, “What is this that you have done to me?  How could you deceive me?”  One of the old Rabbis also imagined that Jacob complained to Leah herself, “Didn’t I call out Rachel in the night, and you answered me!” She said, “There is never a bad barber who doesn’t have disciples.  Isn’t this how your father cried out Esau, and you answered him?”[1]  The trickster’s tricked and he doesn’t like it one little bit.

Laban makes a concession and offers Rachel for another seven years labor.  When Leah’s wedding week is done, Jacob marries Rachel whom he will always love more.  In fact, the text says that Leah was despised.  ‘Despised’ says what it means in the sense that Jacob harbored ill feelings for Leah, but this term is also a technical term for the un-favored, second wife.

And here’s where the real love story begins.  So far, we’ve seen a fairy tale beginning and we’ve seen the kind of twists that a love story can take.  We’ve seen that often love is tainted by tricks and often love for one implies un-love for others.  But the real love story here is not the one about Jacob and Rachel, but the one about God’s love for Leah.

“God saw that Leah was despised and God opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.”  God blesses Leah with sons.  And Leah hopes with each birth that she will finally earn Jacob’s love.  The first son she names Rueben, literally ‘look, a son.’  “God has seen my suffering,” she says, “Now my husband will love me.”  The next she names Simeon – close to the verb ‘to hear.’  “For God heard that I was despised.”  The third she names Levi, a play on the word meaning “will join.”  “This time at last my husband will join me, for I have born him three sons.”  Finally, she gives up on Jacob and gives into God’s love.  She’s blessed with a fourth son, whom she names Judah.  “This time I sing praise to God.”

When Leah suffered, God saw.  When she cried out in despair at being despised, God heard.  When she could not win the love of her husband, when she was loveless, God loved.  Now there’s a love story worth telling.

There’s a Buddhist monk named Tich Nhat Hanh whose teachings have been very important to me in my own spiritual journey.  I often hear his voice in my head.  In the recordings I have of him, he speaks softly and slowly, peacefully and tenderly.  When I read about God seeing Leah’s suffering, I heard his voice and one of his central teachings.  He says that we all suffer very much. We all have inside of us a little boy or a little girl who suffers.  Each of us has inside of us a little girl or a little boy who longs to be loved, who feels forgotten, or despised, or rejected.  And if we want to ease our suffering, then we will need to take good care of that suffering little boy or little girl inside ourselves.  We will need to touch her tenderly and tell her that we know that she suffers and tell her that we love her very much.  And if we want to ease the suffering of our wife or husband, or if we want to ease the suffering of our daughter or our son, or if we want to ease the suffering of our father or mother, or sister brother, we will have to care for the suffering child in them.  We will have to tell that suffering child, “I know that you suffer very much.  I love you.  Let me help you.”

And it seems to me that this is the kind of love story that we see over and over in scripture.  God sees the despised.  God hears the oppressed.  God visits the exiled.  God comes to the loveless.  Over and over again, God comes and says to them and to us, “I know that you suffer very much.  I love you.”

And God also calls us to be agents of this kind of love in the world.  If we want to know what love is, if we want to live our own love stories, then we, too, will need to see the suffering, and hear the cries of the oppressed, and love the loveless.  God calls us to love the suffering and loveless ones in our homes, here in our church, here in our community and even to the ends of the earth.

I want to close by telling you a story about a time when I saw someone answering God’s call to love the loveless.  There was a couple in one of the little churches that I pastored in South Carolina who took in foster children.  The couple didn’t have a lot.  They were your basic working-class folks who lived in a very nice double-wide on a piece of family land.  They took these children in and gave them everything they had, they treated them no differently than they would their own children who had grown and left the house.  I don’t want to make them sound like saints, because that would ruin the story.  They were just generous and loving parents, generous and loving parents like you and me who sometimes get frustrated and annoyed and sometimes do a better job of parenting than others.

Well, one of the little girls that they took in turned out to be a little more than they bargained for.  I think she was eleven or twelve when she came to them.  She was a smart and attractive little girl who liked to sing and fit in well with the other kids at church.  She was doing pretty well, but soon her foster-mother began to tell me that they were having some rough spots at home.  At first, we all thought it was the kind of thing that is to be expected of a foster child in a new home.  But as she began to get a little older and enter into puberty things got worse and worse.  She began to do outlandish things.  She threw tantrums and became violent.  She vandalized some property while away at church camp.  Her foster mother suspected that she might be acting out sexually.  Through all of this, my friends were steadfast in their love for the girl.  Folks at church were praying for her and pitching in to help.  The couple took the girl to counseling and attended family counseling.  They were keeping several appointments a week, working with psychologists, social workers, and others to try to figure out how best to love this suffering child.  Eventually, the psychologist diagnosed her with Reactive Attachment Syndrome.  This means that the girl, probably because of early childhood neglect, was not able to make healthy attachments with others.  Good attention and bad attention didn’t make any difference to her.  She didn’t understand intimacy and sought it from the wrong people in the wrong contexts.  Her frustration boiled over and she lashed out with no inhibition since she was truly incapable of caring and love.  My friends found out that they were truly loving the loveless.

Of course this story didn’t have a fairy tale ending.  Eventually, the girl had to be institutionalized.  But that didn’t stop her new parents’ love.  They visited her and took their pastor to visit her.  They listened patiently to her fantastic stories and her insatiable complaints.  And at the end of every visit they hugged her and kissed her and told her, “We love you, Baby.”

Thanks be to God, for love stories like these.



[1] Robert Alter, Genesis (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1996), p. 155.

Read Full Post »