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Tricking the Trickster

Genesis 29:15-31 
Jennifer Browne
University United Methodist Church

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This morning’s Scripture text is not the usual fare for a Sunday sermon. Somehow, in just a matter of a few chapters, we have gone from stories about faith in God’s promises to a story about the swapping of brides on a wedding night. And a groom who doesn’t notice he’s with the wrong bride until the next morning! Hmmmm.

The next time you hear someone touting the Biblical model of marriage, you might ask which model, exactly, they are talking about.

Today’s story of Jacob and his two wives also reminds us that anyone who thinks the Bible is a “G” rated document hasn’t really read it. One way of describing the Bible is that it is the record of the human search for God. Today we seem to be very far from our goal. We are deep into stories of deceit and infidelity, greed and jealousy... all the varieties of human foolishness.

As he was in last week’s text, Jacob is running away from home. He's running because his older brother Esau is trying to kill him for deceiving their father and stealing the blessing of Esau's inheritance. Jacob travels up to Haran, where his uncle Laban lives. As soon as he arrives, he sees Laban's daughter Rachel out in the fields with her father's sheep.

It is love at first sight; Jacob is enraptured by Rachel. He starts working for Laban, and they make a deal: in exchange for seven years of labor, Laban will let him marry Rachel.

Finally, seven years later, the big day arrives. There is a huge wedding feast and, that night, Jacob takes his bride into the wedding tent. But the trickster has been tricked. The man who deceived his blind father is himself deceived while blinded by night...or by too much celebrating. Laban had given Jacob his older daughter Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob's shock is evident in the text: "In the morning, behold, it was Leah!" I think it would be fair to substitute an expletive here for "behold" to get the full effect of Jacob’s response. The Bible, remember, is not “G” rated.

When he took his brother’s birthright and his blessing, Jacob broke the law of the firstborn. Now, Jacob is caught by another "law of the firstborn." Laban explains that the younger daughter cannot be married off before the firstborn daughter. The trickster is tricked; the punishment fits the crime.

Laban, demonstrating his mastery of the art of the con, offers Jacob another deal. Jacob will take a week of honeymoon with Leah, and at the end of that time Laban will let him marry Rachel . . . if Jacob will work another seven years on the farm. So Jacob ends up marrying Rachel, the one he fell so madly in love with at the beginning of the story.

This story of deceit and treachery turns out also to be a love story. In fact, it includes one of the most romantic lines in all of Scripture: But even in a love story, there is an underside. According to the text, Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Rachel is loved; Leah is unloved. Because she is unloved, God takes pity on her and “opens her womb.”

I want to stop for just a moment here and share something with you about my personal belief. I’ve been at UUMC for less than a month now. In a year or two, I might skip this explanation. It’s not the focus of this sermon; it is not the central point that we’re investigating today. But in a year or two you will know me, and what I believe, better than you do now. So I want to pay attention for just a moment to this sentence: When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

When this story was told -- maybe a thousand years before the birth of Jesus -- and then when it was written down, and indeed up through Jesus’ time and beyond, people believed that God determined things like fertility and infertility, blindness, disease, sudden death. Some people (many people) still believe this. Maybe some of you here believe this. Clearly there are many parts of the Bible that reflect this belief. This passage is one of them. But I do not believe it.

I do not believe that God treats us like puppets, manipulating us on strings, distributing robust health over here and pain and suffering over there. Our minds and our bodies are strong and wonderful things, but they are also weak and flawed things. I do not believe that those flaws and weaknesses are punishments or tests from God. I do believe that God is able to act with and through our flaws and weaknesses to bring about remarkable, amazing, even miraculous, things. But just because God brings good out of evil and healing out of suffering, does not mean that God purposely chose one person to have cancer and another schizophrenia and another infertility.

Now you know something more about me and my belief. I trust that we have many years ahead of us in which I will get to know something more about you and your beliefs.

Back to our story! Leah is unloved by Jacob, presumably, because there was something wrong with her eyes. The New Revised Standard Version, from which Dan read this morning, reads like this “Leah’s eyes were lovely.” But other translations read quite differently. The New International Version reads: “Leah’s eyes were weak.”

The Bible translators have to make a choice when they come to this word: weak or lovely. The difference between “weak” and “lovely” is quite significant, but apparently the Hebrew word in question means both.

Could it be that both are true of Leah? She is both weak and lovely? Maybe one way of looking at her tells you that something is wrong. She is deficient or inadequate somehow. That’s how Jacob saw her. But another way of looking at her tells you that she is lovely. It just depends on how you look at her.

Of course that is possible. It is true of all of us! Jacob fell in love with Rachel. He fell so deeply in love that those first seven years of labor passed as if they were just a few days. All he could see in Leah was weakness, and all he could see in Rachel was loveliness. You know what it’s like when you fall in love, right? (If you don’t, I am confident that someday you will.) The person with whom you are infatuated is 100% delightful. Yes, he or she might have small flaws – a little sloppy, a little temperamental, lacking in punctuality, likes the wrong kind of music – but these are just quirks, charming idiosyncrasies that make your beloved all the more lovable.

Falling in love is not something you do because you have decided to do it. It just happens to you. You don’t choose to fall in love. But you do have to make choices if you are going to stay in love. Because after awhile, it will become quite clear that the one with whom who

have fallen in love is not 100% delightful. He or she is delightful some of the time, and difficult some of the time. Charming and annoying. Affectionate and self-absorbed. Weak and lovely.

John Gottman is a psychologist and researcher whose work on marriage and divorce has been around for a couple of decades, but who was brought to popular attention by Malcolm Gladwell’s book called Blink. Blink, which is about rapid intuitive decision-making, talks about Gottman because Gottman is known for being able to determine in a short amount of time with a high degree of accuracy which of the couples he studies will end up divorcing and which will remain married. Actually, his research and the degree to which he can predict that kind of thing is more complicated and nuanced than that. But the point is that Gottman has identified 4 emotional reactions that are destructive to a marriage. When he observes the presence of these four in a certain percentage of a couple’s interactions, he can, with great accuracy predict that this couple will split up in the next several years.

The four destructive emotional reactions, which Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. Among these four, Gottman considers contempt the most important. Marriages fall apart when the lens thru which the partners look at each other becomes one of contempt.

Criticism occurs when one person states his/her complaints not as complaints but as defects in the other’s personality. So, instead of saying “I don’t get a chance to say anything about myself,” the critic says “You always talk about yourself.” It moves to contempt when one person speaks from a position of superiority: “You are a selfish pig.” The weakness of the other is all that they can see; not even the loveliness is seen apart from it.

Marriages that work have exactly the same problems, but instead of regarding one another with contempt, the partners regard one another through eyes of humor, patience, self- awareness and affection. Happily married couples, Gottman says, behave like good friends. They handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways. They “kick around” their problems like a soccer ball. “We’ve got this problem. Let’s take a look at it. I see it this way. How do you see it? They kick it around, see it from different points of view, and de- escalate the conflict. They might not ever solve the conflict, but they stay away from gridlock and stick to dialogue. Each knows the weaknesses of the other, but they choose to see each other through the lens of loveliness.

Other relationships work the same way: co-workers, friends, parents and children. Even relationships within congregations. The Bible verse you hear so often at wedding verses? The one from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians? Paul didn’t write it to a bride and groom. He wrote it to a congregation, a congregation that was allowing its arguments to slide into contempt.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

In other words, love regards the other person as lovely, with a few weak spots, rather than as weak, with a few lovely points.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but

then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

God knows all of each one of us, the good and the bad. God knows we are weak and lovely. But God sees us through eyes of love and God chooses to deal with us as if we were lovely, not weak.

So often we feel that either we can be truly known or truly loved, but not both. If we want people to love us, then we can’t let them know the truth about us. If we let them know the truth about us, they will not love us. But God does both. God doesn’t just love the part of us that is lovely, God loves even the part that is weak.

What an extraordinary thing! What a gift! The only possible response we can have to receiving this divine love is to feel so much gratitude that it spills out into our relationships. We can’t eliminate all of our own weaknesses, and we certainly can’t change someone else’s. But we can love others the same way that God loves us: by choosing to see in them, above all else, that which is lovely. And slowly, as we live together in that kind of love, we find ourselves and those we love changing, becoming the people God intends us to be. That’s why we call God’s love transformative. It transforms us and it transforms those we love.

Having been tricked by a cleverer trickster, Jacob has to work for fourteen years for love of Rachel. Years later, as we will hear next week, he returns to his homeland. He spends an evening wrestling with God. He reconciles with his brother. All of these experiences transform him, remaking the shallow young man we first met into the father of the nation of Israel.

Rachel dies in childbirth, and she is buried on the road to Bethlehem. Leah, when she dies, is buried in the family tomb with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Issac. Jacob lives to an old age. Before he dies, he gives his son Joseph instructions to send his bones back to that family tomb. He is buried there with Leah.

When you go home, or to work or school, or to church, and you look into the eyes of another, what do you see? The weakness or the loveliness? It’s your choice.


Kathryn Schifferdecker, Commentary on Alternate First Reading: Genesis 29:15-28, Preaching This Week,, 2008.

M. Craig Barnes, “The Problem with Two Spouses,”, 2008. the_problem_with_two_spouses Wil Gafney, Commentary on Alternate First Reading: Genesis 29:15-28, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

Information on John Gottman from

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Little, Brown and Co., 2005.

The Relationship Institute,