“Tradition: Only Part of the Formula,” Genesis 29:15-28, I Kings 3:5-12

One of the all-time classic stories that highlight the lack of male observational powers is the account of Jacob’s wedding night in Genesis 29. Jacob has traveled 500 miles to find the love of his life. He has worked 7 years to earn the hand of his beloved Rachel. 7 years! And yet when his new father-in-law pulls the biggest bait and switch in history on him he doesn’t realize he’s consummating his marriage with the wrong woman until he wakes up with Rachel’s older sister Leah the morning after the wedding.

Jacob is certainly not the only newlywed to ask “what in the world have I done?” the morning after, but this story challenges our ability to suspend our disbelief. I don’t know what weddings were like in Jacob’s day. We learn in the New Testament that Jewish wedding celebrations lasted many days and involved much wine (John 2); so perhaps Jacob was impaired by too much wine. But beyond the practical questions of how this could possibly happen are the important issues the story raises about how we make tough ethical decisions. Jacob obviously has a problem, but so does Laban, his new father-in-law. Laban’s dilemma is his paternal obligation to both of his daughters. The traditions of his culture dictate that the older daughter must be married before the younger (v. 26); and Laban justifies his trickery by appealing to that tradition.

For the last 40 years I have not been able to think about “tradition” without hearing the loveable Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” sing “Tradition!” During that entire marvelous musical Tevye is caught in a tug of war between tradition and his heart. His struggle also involves daughters but is more complicated than Laban’s since three of his daughters challenge the traditions of their family and culture in progressively more radical ways. (Quick synopsis: Tzeitel, the first daughter, challenges the custom of arranged marriage; her sister Hodel falls in love with a revolutionary and moves “far from the home she loves” to Siberia where he is imprisoned; and another daughter, Chava, elopes and is secretly married outside their Jewish faith in a Russian Orthodox Church. For details, rent the movie).

Thinking about the “Fiddler” story side by side with Jacob and Laban’s dilemma exposes the sexism of the Hebrew text. While Genesis focuses on the ethical dilemma from the patriarchal bias of its time, “Fiddler” invites viewers to empathize with the struggles of Tevye, his wife Golde, and their daughters. Genesis pays no attention at all to the plight of Rachel and Leah. They have no voice at all in these life-changing decisions. They are merely pawns, property to be exchanged between Laban and Jacob for the agreed upon price of 7 years of labor per each. (See Gen. 29:27-28 for the details of how Laban and Jacob resolve their conflict by Jacob’s agreement to work an additional 7 years for Laban in exchange for the woman he thought he had married the first time around.) And yes, tradition sanctioned polygamy in those days, in case you’re wondering about Jacob having two wives, and if you read the rest of Jacob’s fascinating story in Genesis you will see that he never gets over his favoritism of Rachel at Leah’s expense.

Tradition! How often do we hear tradition used as the justification for why things are done in a certain way? “We’ve always done it that way.” “We’ve never done it that way before.” Tradition is important. We inherit important life lessons from our culture and our families, from history that enable us to move through life without having to reinvent the wheel every time we are faced with a decision. We Americans don’t have to decide which side of the road to drive on every morning or what a red traffic light means. Most traditions are valuable and useful, but that doesn’t mean all are. Slavery and denial of women’s rights were traditions that humanity in many cultures (including our Judeo-Christian tradition) lived by for centuries, and far too many still do. Why? Because well-entrenched traditions that benefit those in places of power and privilege are not easily changed. Such change usually requires great sacrifice and suffering on the part of brave prophetic persons who dare to ask why we have always done it that way.

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist denomination developed a very useful paradigm for putting tradition in its proper perspective when it comes to making ethical decisions. Wesley’s quadrilateral, as it is known, lists four sources of input that should be consulted when making such choices: Scripture, Experience, Reason, and Tradition. I like the balanced model Wesley provides because it honors the importance of tradition while realizing that traditions are constructs created by fallible humans and therefore can be found to be in need of correction by the other three legs of the quadrilateral.

Making ethical decisions with fewer than all four components of the quadrilateral is like sitting at a table that has one leg shorter than the others, and therefore wobbles like a teeter totter every time anyone leans on it.
There are many examples of complex ethical dilemmas that we postmodern 21st century citizens of the global village must come to grips with. Traditions that worked in previous generations may no longer be viable when new knowledge provided by reason and experience is factored into the equation. Examples include biomedical decisions, the viability of military force to solve differences in a nuclear age, and attitudes toward people with a different sexual orientation. The latter provides a prime example that is dividing the Christian church and consuming vast amounts of time and energy from a church that should be addressing more pressing issues like poverty and immigration and global climate change.

There is no doubt that a few verses in the Judeo-Christian Scripture condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms. That is the position of the Christian right that tries to make ethical decisions based on only two legs of the quadrilateral, Scripture and Tradition. But if we add reason and experience to the equation, namely the scientific and medical knowledge gained in recent decades, the solution to that dilemma changes. Where Scripture and Tradition base their ethical judgments about homosexuality on the assumption that sexual preference is a matter of choice, modern reason and knowledge teach us that such critical matters are predetermined by genetic coding. That may not explain why things are the way they are or how we feel about it, but it should change radically how we treat people of a different sexual preference and the kinds of basic human rights they should be afforded.

Tradition without the rest of the quadrilateral is too often treated as if it were written in stone. The U.S. Constitution is a good example. As insightful and inspired as our Constitution is, it is essentially a tradition created by human hands. The authors of that great document realized it needed to include a process for changing as situations and conditions required. That’s why they included a process for amending the constitution based on new insights and reason and experience and created a judicial system charged with interpreting the principles of that foundational document as they are applied to ever-changing situations. The Second Amendment is a case in point. The right to bear arms as a concept written in the days of muzzle loaders and militia obviously needs to be re-evaluated in a time when people carry AK 47’s into department stores and family restaurants.

To interpret laws and wrestle with ethical dilemmas by balancing Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience requires great wisdom. One of the other Hebrew texts in the lectionary for this week speaks directly to how important true wisdom is. In I Kings 3 a very young Solomon has just succeeded his father David to the throne of Israel, and the new King has a dream where God offers to grant him anything he asks for. Anything at all! What would you request if God made you that kind of offer? Health? Wealth? Fame and fortune?

Here’s what Solomon says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (3:9).

That’s a great request—like one that a parent would be very proud of if his/her child asked Santa for something for a needy friend instead of more toys or gadgets for herself. And God is an equally proud parent. The Scripture tells us, “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” (3:10-12).

As parents, citizens, friends and foes, and especially as leaders of groups and nations wrestling with traditions and cultural situations changing at warp speeds, we all need the Wisdom of Solomon. We feel as overwhelmed as he did taking on the responsibilities of his kingship. And his request is a most relevant prayer for all of us: “Lord, give us understanding minds able to discern between good and evil.”

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