Sunday, July 24, 2011

Genesis Ugliness

Babies fighting each other in the womb, selling birthrights for a quick meal, bizarre givings of women to men for marriage, plus plenty of lies, cheats, and basic bad behavior.

Is it any wonder that I’ve been doing my best to ignore the Genesis readings for the last few weeks?

Spending time with these stories in Genesis is not my idea of uplifting Christian preaching.

One can say that I at least tackled the worst one a few weeks ago: Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.

And yet, in some ways, it is the easiest to preach because it’s point...however twisted in getting clear: traditionally the text demonstrates Abraham dedication and trusting of God.

I made the point in that sermon of suggesting that it would have been better for Abraham (and for us, his descendants), if he had told God that he could not do violence to his son. “Take me, if you want Lord: I am yours, but I cannot sacrifice him as you ask.” Real fidelity to God is not shown by hurting another. If Abraham had said no to God, ironically he would have better shown what it means to be made in God’s image.

So I was able to address the story’s point even as I challenged the way the story is classically understood. I believe that, in this way, I honored the text, even as I rejected part of its conclusion.

Genesis is, for the most part, NOT set up for short stories with concise points. It is a broad HISTORICAL FICTION: meant to use figures from the past to relate to situations and customs of the audience it was intended for.

So, on first encounter with our ancient stories, I think we must try and place them in the hearing of the people they were meant for, and then attempt to discern what they were trying to say.

As we do so, we might find ideas that are worthwhile in the story. But it also means that we have to wade into some ugly places of the past, and realize that the point of the story may include the advocating of something that is now unacceptable to us.

It is not only okay, but right to reject certain parts of Biblical stories as either being outdated, uninformed, or simply wrong.

For example, in this morning’s excerpt, we encounter incest, polygamy and women as property. These positions are unacceptable in our society for good reason.

Now, none of these are the point of the story: it is not attempting to advocate these positions. So it’s okay to suggest that there may be something of value still to be found for us today, so long as we also acknowledge its problems. Looking for the message in this story does not mean we have to accept the givens about how things were.

For this particular passage this morning, I have to start with this confession:

I cannot make this a good, uplifting, feel-good story. It isn’t one, and was never intended to be one. All I can do this morning is explain some of the “why’s”.

We have to start by going back a few paragraphs. Last week, we had Jacob’s vision of a ladder to heaven, and was awed by the power of God. This is the same Jacob who, to this point, had been a scoundrel, liar, and cheat. Jacob was in the process of fleeing his homeland so his older brother Esau would not kill him for stealing his birthright and his father’s blessing. After this encounter with God, it seems like he felt some remorse for what he had done: he made a vow to God, which included the hope that he would one day come to his father’s house in peace.

He continues on his journey. Where is he going? At his parents request, he is going to his mother’s brother’s house, Laban, so he can marry one of his daughters.

Jacob meets Rachel first, and learns she is Laban’s daughter. The text tells us that he is completely moved by her:

Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father.

When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.” (Genesis 29:11-14)

This is all before this morning’s text: and it enlightens what is to come. Jacob breaks forth with a change to honesty, telling Laban of all that has transpired. Laban responds “surely you are my bone and my flesh!” On the surface, this is about genealogy. But in reality, Laban recognizes Jacob as a fellow schemer and rogue. After a month of observation, the uncle is primed to get the best of his nephew.

Laban says:

“Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” (Genesis 29:15)

Crafty Laban has quite a plan. He saw from the beginning that Jacob was infatuated with Rachel, and a month’s time would have confirmed it.

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel....Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
(Genesis 29:16 & 18)

This was, of course, in leu of simply taking her as his wife and leaving, striking out on their own. Laban agrees. Seven years pass, and Laban pulls off the great switch: lo and behold, Jacob has married Leah! When he protests, Laban replies:

“This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” (Genesis 29:26-27)

What a scam! He gets 14 years work out of Jacob on a technicality. And the great irony: what had Jacob been rebelling about, even in the womb? Being second born! His deception has come home to roost.

Beaten, Jacob agrees to Laban’s demands: he cannot escape that he is the younger brother, even in a far off land.

(This sets up the jealousy and scheming between sisters Leah and Rachel that is to come in the next section of the story.)

Jacob pays dearly before his early path of deception. Certainly those hearing this story would see that Jacob, on some level, deserves what he gets. They would marvel at the way things turned out.

And yet, surprise surprise, beyond this morning, as the Genesis account continues, the unexpected does happen and the younger brother is blessed: suggesting that the trials and tribulations one experiences after “coming clean” is worth the effort.

I’ll let you decide if you like this story or not: I can’t say that I do. Thankfully we need not like, or even agree with the point of our ancient stories: but I believe we will be better people by having honest struggles with the texts that have been passed down.


(Based on a sermon on Genesis 29:15-30 given at All Saints' Littleton on 7/24/2011)

1 comment:

Kurt S. Wiesner - Illinois said...

Kurt: Good sermon! Interesting to read your words and recall the homily given at St. Andrews Downers Grove, IL by Father Jim Von Dreele of The Seamen's Church Institute - Philadelphia, PA. Jacob certainly wasn't very discerning on his wedding night!