It’s interesting to me that the folks always seem meet at the well in Genesis. Certainly it’s a life-giving place – a well in the desert, so it has powerful symbolism in the story that way. Abraham’s servant finds Rebekah at the well; Jacob finds Rachel at the well. It’s very romantic and well-timed: the right people at the right place at the right time.
Great things happen at the well – and then they go home to tension in the tents. The servant and Rebekah at the well is a great, romantic feeling story. Even with Jacob running to kiss Rachel, it is powerful. Then they go home to the tents.
why can’t we live at the well
I’m wondering why they just can’t live at the well! They can’t seem to get along too well at home. Rebekah and Isaac have a nice, happy life (though without children) until Esau and Jacob arrive.
I’m sure things were quite nice at Laban’s tent until Jacob appeared. You know, maybe it’s these chosen people who appear in the story – in the tent – who throw a wrench in things. Who knows!
At Laban’s tent, Jacob, for once, works very hard because he loves Rachel. And he works hard for seven years. Jacob then gets tricked by Laban. Perhaps he begins feeling a little of what his brother and father felt as they were tricked (Genesis 27).
By the way, where is Jacob’s father Isaac? He’s almost a small footnote. The one who seemed to live well, prospered, suffered, and then died. He’s almost a missed person, a missed chapter. He’s the reason Jacob is here in the first place because he prayed for his barren wife Rebekah. It almost seems unfair to old Isaac, and it’s certainly sad that his life ends with Jacob running away from his brother.
the tricksters at work
And while we’re wondering about old Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob gets his comeuppance. He gets what he deserved, or so we think. Maybe he gets what he needed to move him toward what God envisioned. After all, how is Jacob the trickster to learn and grow? Is it by being tricked by others? Perhaps.
Jacob spends seven years working for Rachel only to wake up on the first day of the eighth year with Leah. That time he worked for Rachel seemed but “a few days” because of his love for her. Surely the week with Leah seemed like seven years. It’s ironic that the logic of primogeniture which Jacob denied at his parent’s home now becomes the logic behind Laban’s trickery with Leah. As Laban relates, they just don’t give the older sister before the younger.
Then, he received Rachel as his bride, but he has to work seven more years. I’m sure he does it gladly, savoring his time with her.
Laban is tricky; Leah is sad; Rachel is loved; and Jacob is working, hard – outside the tent and inside the tent for this is when all the children are born. It’s a trying and interesting situation with all these folks.
where is God in this too-human mess?
Does it bother anyone that Lead and Rachel were the “wages paid” for the work Jacob does for Laban? It makes us wonder about them – the women; they were just property. It almost makes them seem a little less than human, but they’re not. But we see the struggles they have. Leah is not pretty and not loved (except by her daddy). Rachel is barren, but loved by her husband. They are not ignored for God sees it all.
We might ask where in the world is God in all this mess? Is it just about Jacob learning? Is it just a stopping point? Is it a way to exalt Jacob and deride Laban? Is it about not having more than one wife? Is it just that we shouldn’t live with our in-laws for extended periods of time? How could God in good conscience be involved with these folks?
A way to look at these stories, at these people comes as we step back from the text and examine the larger picture of the narrative. If we want to know where God is, we need to see that God inhabits and surrounds these stories. Two theopanies, or experiences with God, bookend these episodes at Laban’s tent: Jacob sees God at Bethel (Genesis 28.10-32) and Jacob wrestles with God at the ford of Jabbok (Genesis 32.22-32).
the promise of God is at the center
At the center of the narrative (Genesis 29.31-30.24), we find the production of offspring with Jacob and his wives, i.e. the promise of God beginning to be fulfilled (Genesis 28.13-15). In these stories we see Jacob go from an empty-handed loner and fugitive to a prospering husband and father. We see Rachel as a beautiful, but barren woman, go from despair to hope as the mother of Joseph.
We see a complicated narrative with many twists and turns become a vehicle for telling the glory of God. God hears and God remembers (Genesis 30.22-24) in the story of these people.
Ultimately, no human device or plan prevails. The meeting at the well is God-incidental, the children are God’s gifts, the prosperity is God-given. The power and the humor come alive when Rachel sits on the household gods, as if our human devices can ignore or hide the movement of God (Genesis 31.34-5). No god, no device, no plan, no human manipulation can stop the power and the promise of the persistent One [Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 249-260].
who carries God’s blessing?
In the story, however, we see Jacob emerging as the carrier of God’s blessing. What distinguishes Jacob in these stories is not so much his trickiness with Laban or his love of Rachel, but his determination.
Jacob’s determination comes from the promise of God in Genesis 28.13-15. His future becomes transformed as he learns to live by the promise of God.
God is the only One able to form the future in terms of fulfilling the promise. No human plan or device frustrates God’s plans; God continues to make his plans operate through these people in these situations. That’s what is so crazy.
We look at this story, and we realize that it is God who makes these things happen. The people are important because they really are like us – unloved, beautiful, hurting, needy, tricky, hard-working, planning, loving – and moving from day to day with the Lord.
it seemed like just a few days
All these things – working for Leah, Rachel, and the flocks – took many years. It’s very much like the Abraham story with the promise of Isaac taking twenty-five years to fulfill.
The lasting touch of this story in our lives is that what we read in a few chapters in Genesis really transpired over many years. Jacob labored for Rachel over seven years of hard work, but it seemed to him but “a few days.”
Our lives are probably a little like that. We love, labor, and live, and it seems like it took such a very long time to get here. But, as we look into the past remembering the good times and the bad, it only seems like a few days because we can somehow see God moving.
Just like this story, God inhabits and surrounds our lives; God is the one moving us toward fulfillment of his promises in our lives.
Isaiah 12.2-6 tells us: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
You know, we may not always be able to live at the well, but we sure can go there. “With joy [we can] draw water from the wells of salvation” knowing that God inhabits and surrounds our lives, fulfilling all his promises to us.
A text for the table: Genesis 29.15-30.