“This is not done in our country, giving the younger before the firstborn.”
But look what is done in Laban’s country! Two sister wives at the same time, and children begotten by Jacob with his wives’ slaves. A strange and even offensive family, to our sensibilities!
But this family was strange even to ancient listeners, because elsewhere in the Jewish law, it was forbidden for a man ever to marry two sisters. So Jacob’s family story was complicated and unconventional, even in its own historical context.
And it gets stranger. If this wasn’t a communion Sunday I’d have you hear how this family unfolds in the next chapter of Genesis. God is seen as a player in the competition for Jacob’s love and in the giving and withholding of offspring to Leah and Rachel and their slave surrogates. The outcome of this complicated family story is the birth of 12 sons, who will become the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each time a son is born in this back and forth of who bore whom, the balance of power and speculation about God’s favour appear to shift. Yet ultimately all the children of Jacob will be the pride of the Jewish genealogy.
How complicated is your family? Does your family conform to the customs of our time? But then, what are the customs of our time? Depending on our age, and the regions and ethnicities of our origins, the definitions of a “proper” family will certainly vary, even among us. And our own ideas and feelings about what is a “real family” have likely changed during our lifetimes.
I wonder which aspects of this Genesis story would have raised the most eyebrows among it’s early listeners? The trickery of the father-in-law? The initial barrenness of the younger beautiful daughter? The surrogacy of the slave mothers? Which events would have been seen as more or less revealing of each of the characters’ goodness or badness, or their relationships with God? How would people have judged Jacob’s family, back then?
This passage is often subtitled: “The trickster is tricked.” Remember how Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of the firstborn’s birthright and blessing? So is it justice that Jacob is now bested by Laban’s bride substitution? Is this God’s justice? Did Jacob deserve to do another seven years of free labor for his father-in-law? Imagine the speculation in the community. Would everyone weigh in, for or against Jacob, or beautiful Rachel, or Leah with her clouded eyes?
However the community judged this family in one time, history remembers and honours the complicated marriage of Jacob, Rachel and Leah and Zilpah and Bilhah as the source of all the tribes of Israel. Sometimes, with complicated families, time tells a very different tale!
Today we are all witnesses to and participants in changing families. We are aware that family laws, customs and sensibilities do change over time. So perhaps, what was once understood as God’s intervention, in coupling or uncoupling, bringing forth children or infertility, rewarding love or rewarding fidelity, is perhaps best interpreted without any of our human final judgments.
When my first marriage broke up and Bob and I got together, judgment was all around us. Not the least, self judgment. What divorced person hasn’t felt like they wore the label of failure on their forehead? But I discovered that everyone had feelings and expressed opinions about my family. Our children and extended families, of course, but also friends, colleagues and communities, felt they all had a stake in our family. Even strangers took sides. Some advised, some condemned and some fled the scene of a broken marriage.
But the wisest and kindest suspended their judgment and listened to us all, in order to better understand where God’s way of love would eventually lead each and all of us. The wisest ones recognized and acknowledged their own feelings, fears, disappointments and hopes about marriage and family – ours and their own. They did their best to set their own stories aside, in order to understand ours.
The wise ones reserved judgement and waited for history to unfold in our story, while maintaining contact with all of us. They refused to exclude anyone from family events, even though it felt awkward. By staying in relationships and listening without laying down the law, they came to appreciate how healing and love can unfold in changing families. These wise ones are still close with all of us, and we divorced and remarrieds are friends with each other. The Goodfellow-Barrington-Bush clan, two decades along, enjoys our family. We’ve grown experienced in accepting both conventional and unconventional relationships as they unfold. Exes, steps, common-law partnership, singles, adopteds, gay marriage, extra grandparents, honorary aunts – our complicated family has got them all!
How about yours? Is your family changing? How are you responding to the “complications”?
At social events this summer, I’ve twice encountered a family complication that challenges most people not to judge. Men in their sixties having babies with new partners younger than their grown children. In one case a grandchild is older than the expected baby.
At one wedding, the seating plan was complicated by this unexpected, expected baby, but everyone still came. The better to get used to the unfolding of a complicated family. Isn’t it better to embrace any newborn with the entire family’s love?
In the other case, members of my generation are still taking angry sides in a broken marriage, but a 30 year-old new ‘big brother’ proudly shares phone photos of his dad’s new baby with his cousins.
Reflecting on these two situations, it occurred to me with amusement, that in biblical times, this elderly father’s child by a young mother would have been taken in stride. There would have been none of the embarrassment of our initial reactions today. Marriage and family laws, customs and sensibilities do change with time. So who are we to pass the judgment of God?
Wisest and best I think, is to save ourselves the responsibility of deciding whose family is broken and whose relationship is right or wrong. Instead, let’s give every family time to unfold and show us how God’s love can heal and transform relationships, in every kind and configuration of family.
What “just isn’t done” according to our sensibilities might yet prove to be a source of God’s love, in time – and may even be the genealogy that makes history.