Last week’s surprises for Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22) are soon trumped by the big surprise he found in his bed the morning after his wedding! There’s a famous scene in one of the Godfather movies where Jack Woltz is surprised, no horrified, to find a horse’s head in his bed. Jacob is less shocked at the bait and switch Laban, his new father-in-law, pulls on him. But he is quite surprised and a bit angry, and rightfully so. Jacob had a deal with Laban that was very specific. Genesis 29 is very clear that Jacob loves Laban’s younger daughter Rachel. He has it bad for Rachel, so much so that he agrees to work seven long years for Laban to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage.
So imagine the look on Jacob’s face the first morning of his life as a married man. He thought he had consummated his marriage to Rachel in the darkness of their wedding night, only to discover when the sun rose that he was with Laban’s older daughter, Leah, instead.
What are we to make of this strange and rather humorous tale that could be an episode of the TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother?” First, let’s suspend our disbelief about how this could actually happen. We can speculate about how much wine Jacob drank at the wedding reception or how heavily veiled brides were in those days, but there are far more relevant issues in this story worth exploring for our lives today.
1. There is sweet, ironic justice that Jacob, who had plotted and schemed to cheat his older brother out of his birthright, literally from birth, should now be the victim of deceit himself. Dare we say “what goes around comes around” or more biblically, “we reap what we sow?”
2. Both the Jacob and Esau story and the Leah and Rachel story involve issues of cultural sensitivity. The prevailing customs in those days were very patriarchal and sexist. The eldest son got the birthright and lion’s share of the inheritance, and the eldest daughters were to have their marriages arranged and consummated before their younger sisters. Jacob tries to overturn both of these traditions, and a good argument can be made that both of those cultural norms were unjust and in need of change.
How does such change happen most effectively? First, by being aware and sensitive to what cultural norms and customs are. President Richard Nixon ran afoul of several cultural norms in this country, leading to his resignation from the Presidency. But one of the more humorous faux pas he made was on a trip to Latin America where, as he did everywhere, he flashed his famous “V” for victory sign to a large crowd gathered to greet him. To his chagrin and that of his handlers, a lesson about avoiding Ugly American syndrome was learned the hard way. In that culture the “V” gesture was used in the same way the obscene middle-finger salute is used in ours. Oops!
Once an unjust cultural custom is recognized it takes time and patience to change. We cringe today to think of arranged marriages as they were done in Jacob’s time, but it took over 3000 years from that period of history before women were given the right to vote in our democratic process. It has only been in our lifetime that the change was made in the wedding ritual so brides no longer have to promise to obey their husbands. And in some wedding ceremonies the bride is still “given away” by her father and/or mother as if she is a piece of property being transferred to another owner. Cultural customs change at a glacial pace, but that does not make the change less valid or necessary. I am always pleased to share with couples in pre-marital counseling that the United Methodist marriage ceremony 20 or 30 years ago replaced the “giving away” of the bride with asking both families for their blessing on the marriage.
3. “That isn’t Fair!” Even if the rules are not perfect, and even if Jacob got his just desserts, there’s a part of us that recognizes the unfairness of what Laban did to Jacob. Why didn’t he tell Jacob up front about the necessity of the older daughter being married first? We don’t know, but the relevant question for us is how do we respond when life deals us a bad hand? When something isn’t fair, are we tempted to fall into the victim mode and have a pity party. Jacob starts down that path when he says to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Why have you deceived me?” (Note the victim’s focus is always what has been done by someone or something To Me.) But then Jacob seems to suddenly mature as Laban explains the customs of that culture to him. Jacob may have prayed that part of the serenity prayer that says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Because when Laban says, “OK, here’s the deal. Work for me seven more years and you can have Rachel too,” the text simply says, “Jacob did so.”
A very simple three-word sentence speaks volumes. “Jacob did so.” When faced with tragedy, failure, grief, or unpleasant circumstances that cannot be undone, the sooner we accept reality and ask ourselves, “what next?” and do what is required, the better it is for everyone. My six year-old grandson was in the hospital this spring and had to have an endoscopy and a colonoscopy done, which are never fun for anyone. This little boy was miserable during the prep and long wait without food or drink for his tests to be done, and he let us know it. So when the nurse came in to tell him she needed to do another enema, all of us, the nurse especially, were flabbergasted that he simply said “OK” and rolled over on his tummy. He had accepted what he couldn’t change and knew that fighting it would only make things worse.
4. “You aren’t the person I married!” Can’t you just hear Jacob saying that to Leah on the morning after? All of us who are married have felt that at times, haven’t we? We can be on our good behavior while dating, but sharing a bathroom and a TV remote and a closet 24/7 will expose anyone’s true nature. No matter how long you’ve known your spouse before the wedding, there are always surprises. Some of them are pleasant and bring smiles to our hearts. Other irritating habits or quirks discovered on the honeymoon quickly help us learn why that “for better or worse” part is in the marriage vows. We are all fallible human beings; we all have flaws and weaknesses. Sure, we all know that the “happily ever after” ending to love stories is just a fairy tale, but it is still a rude awakening when the bubble of our own romantic notion bursts and the hope that somehow we are exempt from that reality of the human condition is shattered.
That’s when we learn that love is not something we fall into or out of, it’s a choice we make every day, even on those day we don’t like each other very much. Change is inevitable. All of us are either growing or regressing. The journey of life is like one of those moving walkways at the airport. You can’t just mark time and stay where you are. When we bemoan the fact that our spouse is not the person we married, aren’t we really saying he or she isn’t the ideal, romanticized person we hoped we were marrying?
Judith Versed, in Love & Guilt & the Meaning of Love, came up with a humorous distinction between love and infatuation that applies here:
“Infatuation is when you think that he’s as gorgeous as Robert Redford, as pure as Solzhenitsyn, as funny as Woody Allen, as athletic as Jimmy Connors and as smart as Albert Einstein.
Love is when you realize that he’s as gorgeous as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Connors, as funny as Solzhenitsyn, as athletic as Albert Einstein and nothing like Robert Redford in any category. But you’ll take him anyway.”
Even if it were possible, would you really want to go back to living with or being the immature person you were at 20 or 25? Sure, it would be nice to have the stamina and energy we had as teenagers or twenty-somethings, but do we really want to give up the hard-fought lessons and wisdom we’ve earned from the years of life experience we’ve had since then? Selective amnesia fools us into believing the good old days really were. The theme song to the old Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford movie, “The Way We Were,” says it well: “what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.”
Rather than wishing for the perfect spouse or the perfect life and being frustrated because perfection is not humanly possible, our marriages and families and all relationships can be greatly improved if we heed the advice of Wilferd Peterson, who says in “The Art of a Good Marriage,” “It is not just about marrying the right partner, it is being the right partner.”
We can also learn a great deal from our old friend Jacob, who accepts what he cannot change, that Leah is not the woman he thought he had married, and makes the relationship work anyway. Thank God the same is true for our relationship with our Creator. God must wake up most mornings and look at us and say, “These aren’t the people I created!” But God loves us anyway, “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” And God’s deal is even better than marriage, which is “till death do us part.” God’s guarantee of love is not just for this life, not for 5 years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first. God’s love is unconditional and forever. Thanks be to God.