It will be no surprise to you that this story makes me wince. How Laban uses his daughters as chess pieces in a grand-scale game of possession, deceit, and greed. How Leah’s identity is kept secret until the morning after her wedding to Jacob and how Jacob doesn’t notice she isn’t Rachel until then. How Zilpah, Laban’s maid, is traded around from master to master. And yet, the Spirit led my somewhat willing heart to a more sympathetic understanding of this story, of Jacob. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still at odds with the patriarchy at play here but there is more we need to hear. Let us remember together the arc of Jacob’s story:
Jacob and Esau are twins born to Isaac and Rebekah, part of God’s covenant born and bred. Jacob and Esau warred with each other since conception. Jacob stole his older brother Esau’s birthright. Then, with his mother Rebekah’s help, Jacob tricked his blind father into giving him the blessing instead of Esau. Esau found out, threatened to kill him. Jacob fled. He runs as far as he can, putting distance between himself and his family, his land, his everything. It is in this fragile, fearful, fighting state that Jacob arrives at Bethel. Last week, Betty reminded us of Jacob’s dream at Bethel, a dream that comes as miracle, not as nightmare like we might expect. Instead of God telling Jacob he was a scourge on the family name, God reassures Jacob with a boundless hope, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob leaves Bethel carrying only the hope he received from God and travels on to try and live into God’s promise.
Jacob does what we often do – he gets up and keeps walking – even in the midst of profound loss and fear. But the journey is long from Bethel to Haran, in body and spirit. I’d never considered the geographical distance of this journey; just the psychological distance. But then, the wise Chuck Byrd mentioned the daunting map of Jacob’s journeys and according to my Google calculations, Jacob’s journey was hundreds of miles from Bethel to Haran. My best friend and best rabbi, Aaron, reflected that Jacob “carries with him a certain void, an emptiness or even despair… His journey to Haran is filled with uncertainty. He hopes to find a wife, and begin a family. But he is a penniless stranger. He has nothing, no home, and effectively, no family.” By the time he arrived at Laban’s house, I wonder if he was a shell of his former self, emptied of all the sins from which he ran. I wonder if he still carried in his heart the echo of God’s words to him in a dream – I am with you. I am with you. I am with you. Our story, while appearing seamless in terms of time and physical distance, is anything but that. Has Jacob lost the hope he found at Bethel or did it get lost in the long days and longer nights between here and there?
I know that if I walked all that way, I’d be a little more than irritated and instead of filled with hope, I’d be filled with ire and a bag full of bad words. And honestly, it would’ve been very easy for Jacob to spend all those days scheming and returning to his old self, trusting not in God’s good and sure word but in his self, figuring out a way to connive and control whatever came next. But it seems the writers of Genesis had a soft spot – a soft spot for romance because when Jacob arrives at Haran and sees Rachel, the miles walked and the pain endured melts away, the old life is gone and a new life has begun. He sees Rachel and his hope returns. All Jacob hopes for is to be made whole again: to have a family, to have land, to be as full as he was before he stole his brother’s birthright, before he stole his brother’s blessing, before he ran away from home. Rachel is his answer, is his solution, is the way he will get back home. But she is more than a solution; she is his love. He loves her not because she will bring for him the fulfillment of God’s promise but because she gives him the love that most reflects God’s love for him – a love that brings light to the darkest places of his heart. And all great loves are like that, aren’t they? They break us open, and fill us with miraculous, ridiculous, irresistible hope.
So when his uncle Laban asks, “What shall your wages be?” Jacob gives the outlandish offer of seven years of service in order to marry Rachel. Laban sees Jacob as a broken man and pounces, agreeing to the deal. The Original Deceiver, Jacob, is not up to his old tricks but instead is head over heels in love with Rachel, but even more, Jacob is head over heels in hope with God. It is in this magnanimous offer that Jacob begins his devoted life. This is Jacob’s altar call moment. He begins to see what God has seen all along: that the “not yet,” this mysterious future, was not in his control but in God’s. Jacob sees that God’s promise of children and land and a reconciled life will come even if it is not yet. It is as if the scales have fallen from his eyes and he can co-vision with God this future, a future not to do him more harm but to give him a life rooted in hope. Jacob, for the first time in his life, can add a new name to the long list of negative monikers: Jacob, the Hopeful.
Jacob enters into his seven years of service with this small seed of hope taking root in his soul. Every day, he waters it when he looks at Rachel and sees that God’s promise of a family will come true again. Every day, the seed grows when he imagines with God what it will be like to be back in his homeland. Every day, Jacob blooms more and more into the full creation God has planned for him. It is not sudden nor is it overnight. One might not even notice it in the day-to-day. But in Jacob’s heart and soul, this hope is growing so wildly within him that nothing can uproot it – not the daily monotony of work, not the waiting, not the doubt in the voices of those around him. Jacob’s hope was so rooted in his being that when Laban tricks him with trading out Leah for Rachel on what was to be his wedding night, Jacob agrees to another seven years of service. The years, the Hebrew says, are “but a few days in his eyes.” Jacob isn’t foolish or inefficient. He isn’t wasting time all those years. He isn’t blinded by love. He is committing himself to what Eugene Peterson calls “the long obedience in the same direction.” Peterson writes, “Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions… It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith.” This hope of Jacob’s – this hope we, too, hope to hold on to – is an active hope that needs watering, that needs nourishment, that needs tilling. Jacob spends those seven years in reflection and prayer and labor. He does not twiddle his thumbs, watching the horizon for the next big thing. He doesn’t lament the time that passes. He trusts that God’s promise is that – a promise. And so he gets to work, going about his assigned tasks.
Ron Finley is a farmer in California – in South Central LA. He lives in a food desert, a place where, for 26.5 million Americans, access to food beyond fast food and convenient stores is non-existent. He got tired of seeing his neighbors dying from curable diseases, from being obese and sick. He said in his TED talk, “I was wondering, how would you feel if you had no access to healthy food, if every time you walk out your door you see the ill effects that the present food system has on your neighborhood? I see wheelchairs bought and sold like used cars. I see dialysis centers popping up like Starbucks.” So Ron took his wondering and turned into hope. He planted what he calls a “food forest” in front of his house: fruits and vegetables growing abundantly in what was previously a vacant lot; beets, strawberries, kale, tomatoes. Fresh, healthy food for the taking by anyone who needs it. He tells this story how one night, he saw a mother and daughter in his yard at 10:30. “They looked so ashamed,” he said, “and I told them, you know, you don’t have to do this like this. This is on the street for a reason.” Out of the ashes, hope. Out of a vacant lot, abundance. This is beautiful, right? But what I really love happens at the end of his talk when he offers an invitation to those in the audience, “If you want to meet, don’t call me if you want to sit around in cushy chairs and have meetings where you talk about doing something. If you want to meet with me, come to the garden with your shovel so we can plant.”
On Thursday morning, I heard a woman on the radio talk about how she had no more hope – no hope for the future, no hope for her grandkids. She saw the world as this destructive universe, all bending toward the uprooting of what she and her preceding generations had grown. I know that some of you deeply identify with her, identify with Jacob at this juncture of his story, perhaps in some ways more than others. The feeling of being completely drained by circumstances or decisions you’ve made. The dreadful weight of feeling alone and without family or friends to call your own. The pain of running from a past that haunts your waking hours. The physicality of the constant battle with your body. The sadness that rests behind your eyes and threatens to pour out if anyone looks at you askance. And in the same way, some of you – I pray more of you – deeply identify with Jacob’s hope: a hope that stands knee deep in ashes but is a hope nonetheless. A hope that refuses to be quiet when the voices threaten to drown out your confidence. A hope that shines a small sliver of light in the darkness that surrounds you. A hope that moves those aching bones out of the bed in the morning and keeps infusing you with energy to face yet another day.
Jacob had a choice to either fester and be angry, to try and control the situation yet again, to complain about how long it took him to get to Haran, to blame Laban or Esau or anyone else who stood in his way or – or to get out his shovel and get to work, waiting with hope that God’s promise will come. Don’t we all have that choice? May we live in the not yet, knowing God’s words are echoing in our hearts, too: “I am with you, I am with you, I am with you.” Amen.
 Peterson, Eugene. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. InterVarsity Press, 2000, page 144.