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The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes is president and professor of pastoral theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ


The Problem with Two Spouses

Genesis 29:1,10-12,15-20

Proper 12 - Year A

July 27, 2008

Our text today begins with Jacob running away from home. He's running because his older brother Esau was trying to kill him for deceiving their father and stealing the blessing of Esau's inheritance. Jacob traveled up to Haran, where his uncle Laban lived. And as soon as he arrived, he saw Laban's daughter Rachel out in the fields with her father's sheep. It was pretty much love at first sight for Jacob who was enraptured by Rachel. Jacob started working at Laban's sheep farm, and eventually they hammered out a deal. The deal was that if Jacob worked for seven years, Laban would let him marry Rachel.

We are told nothing about those seven years except, "They seemed to Jacob but a few days because of the love he had for her." But you can imagine how many times he tried to catch a glimpse of Rachel. Every time she pushed that wisp of hair behind her ear, it drove Jacob crazy. You can imagine how many times he passed her a note through her older sister Leah and how many times he spent the night dreaming about their upcoming marriage. This was going to be the blessing for which he had been striving his whole life.

Finally, seven years later, the big day came. We are told that they had a huge wedding feast. Then that night Jacob went into the tent to be with his bride. But in the morning he discovered he was married to Leah! He was furious. He stormed out to Laban and said, "What is this that you have done to me? Did I not serve you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?" Deception, as we keep discovering in this story, is something of a family problem.

Laban gets Jacob calmed down and explains that in these parts you never marry off the second daughter until the first one is gone. Then Laban comes up with another deal. He told Jacob to take a week of honeymoon with Leah and at the end of that time he'll let him marry Rachel . . . if he'll work another seven years on the farm. So then Jacob married Rachel also. But according to the text, he always loved her more than Leah.

I have noticed at all of the weddings I attend, that after the bride walks down the aisle and stands next to the groom, they always do the same thing. They sneak a quick look into each other's eyes. Maybe that's because they know about this story, and they are checking just to make sure this is the right person. But when they do that, I always wonder about that moment that is still to come not long after the wedding. That time, they will take a much harder look into each other's eyes and wake up to the realization that this is not exactly the person they thought.

Whether you are married or not is beside the point. This is actually a story about love, and the chances are good that either you have been in love or are in love or will be. So this is really a story about your relationships.

Whoever it is that you love, that person is both Leah and Rachel. You may love one more than the other, but they are wrapped into the same person. Rachel is the one you love, and you're sure that she will be the blessing to your life. But you can't have Rachel without taking Leah, who you don't love and you didn't think you were getting. Not long after you are together, you discover you didn't get just Rachel. You're also very involved with Leah, and you can work for years trying to turn her into Rachel. Of course, this tension between the love you have and the love you want is as hard for women as it is men. For all we know, Leah could have preferred Esau like most everyone else, but her father stuck her with Jacob.

I find that when people fall in love, they are certain that they are in love with Rachel or Esau or the preferred image. Oh, they notice these little flaws in the other person, but at first they are blind to the power of those flaws. In fact, they don't even think of them as flaws, but as precious little quirks that make the person more colorful. "Well, he's a little sloppy, but it's good not to be uptight about looks . . . Well, she does seem awfully dependent on her father, but I'm sure that will all turn my way in time . . . Well, he has a little bit of a temper, but I could use more passion in my life."

Maybe when you first fall for this person, you think that there is only 5% that bothers you. But a day comes when you're surprised to discover that 5% is taking up 95% of your energy. So if Rachel is the symbol of the perfect love you want, then it's clear that most of the time you are not with Rachel. Mostly, you are trying to improve on Leah. This sets up a tremendous conflict in Leah who knows she isn't Rachel, just as Jacob knew he wasn't Esau. They each try to get rid of that 5% that is not lovable in the other, but it doesn't work. In fact, it just makes them more insecure and defended, which makes them harder to love.

Falling in love is not a matter of the will. It is something that just happens to you. You don't choose to fall in love. But you certainly do have to make choices if you are going to stay in love after you realize that you're involved with a human being. It's pretty hard to make yourself love someone. That is especially true if it is someone who is not who you thought, someone who has disappointed you or hurt you.

The Bible calls us to love even our enemies. So the chances are good that God also expects you to truly love Leah or Jacob, or the parent who was too hurt to love you well, the friend who wasn't there for you in a time of need, or the colleague who betrayed you at work. Those relationships didn't start bad. But somewhere along the way you discovered this person is not who you thought he or she was. The people who were supposed to love you hurt you. When we are hurt, the temptation is great to put as much distance between them and us as possible. But Jesus is persistent in calling you to return the hurt with love. Sometimes it seems like there is no human way you are going to be able to do that. And that is exactly the right starting point. There is no human way to love this person. You will have to turn to something sacred.

If you choose to be more loving, the first place to turn is not to your strained relationship, but to your God who is love. (1 John 4:8) And what do you find when you turn to God? The most amazing grace - God really knows you and God really loves you. Most of the time we think we can have this one or the other - either we can be really known or loved; but if we want people to love us, then we are terrified of letting them know all the truth about us. God really knows and really loves you. That fills our hearts with so much gratitude that the love spills over into our relationships. If your heart is not filled with gratitude, even for the Leah or Jacob in your life, then you missed the miracle of the Gospel.

God doesn't just love the 95% of you that is good. God loves all of you, even the 5% that seems so unlovable. That love is what transforms us, and those we love. You don't get rid of your own flaws. You certainly don't get rid of someone else's flaws by trying harder. You're not asked to improve on those you love. That is up to God. We are only called to love, with devotion. That is not a love that says, "I will love you in spite of the 5%." It is a love that says, "I will love all of you and will settle for nothing less than all of you including the flaws. Otherwise the flaws will always be between us." There may be a blessing for you even in the flaws.

Once you choose to love the flawed people in your life, then you are free to choose how you will perceive these flaws. There is a strange problem in the Hebrew text when it comes to describing Leah's eyes. Our scholars are not real sure how to translate the word. Sometimes it is translated as weak, as to say, "Leah had weak eyes." Some translations such as the New International Version say this. Other times the word is translated as lovely, as to say, "Leah had lovely eyes," which is what the New Revised Standard Version states.

The difference between weak and lovely is significant, but clearly it can be interpreted either way from the text. The Bible translators have to make a choice when they come to this strange word. Will they translate as weak or lovely? It could be translated either way. Leah's eyes could also be translated either way by Jacob when he looked at her. He chose to see them as weak, but he could have chosen to see them as lovely.

When you look into the eyes of your loved one, long after you have discovered who this really is, what do you see? The weakness or the love. Well, that is your choice. Amen.

Let us pray.

O God, we ask that we would be so humbled by the realization that you love all of us that the love and the gratitude would flow out of our hearts into the relationships to which we have been given. This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ who has taught us this love. Amen.


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