There is a new, young dentist at the practice where we go, who worked on me this week when I had to have some fillings replaced. When she found out both Dan and I are pastors, she said that everyone in our family must always behave well and be happy all the time. In between drillings, I tried to explain that faith in God really meant the opposite—that we can bring our whole selves and all our life experience—even and especially the rotten and the hard stuff, to God. She was relieved since it would be hard to be happy all of the time.
Jacob certainly was not happy all the time, as we discover as his story continues today. After his dream of angels moving up and down a staircase from heaven and God’s promise to be with him, protect him, and return him to this land, Jacob made it safely to his mother, Rebekah’s people and arrives at his uncle Laban’s. He beholds the fair and beautiful Rachel at the well and is smitten from the start—this one will be his wife. He and Laban agree on the deal—he will work for seven years to earn Rachel. We find this somewhat satisfying; for the first time, Jacob works for something rather than bargaining and tricking his way into his desires.
But Laban has his own plans and deceptions; the rules of primogeniture—that the firstborn male gets the inheritance—also applies to females: the firstborn daughter must be married first. Laban will not work outside that system regardless of Jacob’s desires or work ethic. So, the trickster is tricked. The bride is covered during the ceremony and revealed to be Leah, not Rachel in the morning! Jacob must work another seven years for Rachel—but because of his love for her—he is willing to pay the price.
This does not, however, set up happy family dynamics—a family begun in deception leads to sibling rivalry between Leah and Rachel, with competition over the production of babies. Leah is not loved and cherished as her sister, but she is fertile and able to produce more sons, making her an extremely valuable wife. She gives birth to Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Rachel is loved and adored, but, as we have heard many times in the story of the matriarchs already, she is barren and forlorn.
Rachel repeats Sarah’s solution and sends her slave Bilhah in as a surrogate who gives birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah, not to be outdone in the area where she is successful, also sends her slave to Jacob and she produces Gad and Asher. Leah then becomes barren for a while, but later gives birth to Issachar, Zebulun, and even a daughter, Dinah.
Finally, after years of barrenness, God remembers Rachel, and Rachel gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin, the children of Jacob’s old age. Later we will find Jacob’s favoritism to Joseph, the first son born from his beloved Rachel, causes more rivalry and jealousy among the brothers, but that’s for another day.
And the misery and trickery of this story does not end there. Laban is no charmer either. Jacob has made him a wealthy man, but when it comes time for Jacob to return to his homeland, Laban, the greedy, only wants to give him the less-desirable spotted sheep and goats, and then he secretly hides them so Jacob would get nothing.
But Jacob also has more tricks up his sleeve. He engages in what might be called an ancient form of genetic engineering down at the watering hole using spotted sticks for the strongest animals to produce spotted off-spring, giving himself a large flock that Laban cannot refuse him.
When Jacob, with his whole family, staff, and herds finally set off in secret, Rachel decides she needs a memento from home, and steals her father’s idols deceiving both her father and husband. Laban chases after Jacob and his whole entourage, but through a dream is directed by God to make peace with Jacob.
And THAT is how the 12 tribes of Israel began—God built an entire nation that God wanted to be a blessing to the whole earth from this mess of a family. Perhaps we are like the dentist who wants people of faith to be well-behaved and happy all the time—biblical heroes who are daring, honorable, truthful, and courageous. Instead we see limited people struggling with trickery, jealousy, dishonesty, greed, and rivalry. We understand that God is not waiting for them or us to be someone other than themselves, or something other than limited, sinful human beings.
Instead, we hear the truth—the truth about this foundational family, and the truth about ourselves—even if our family rivalries, jealousies, competitions and greed remain unspoken, or if we have family members with whom we do not speak. God is with you anyway. God is with them anyway. God can work God’s purposes anyway. Jacob’s trickster character shaped the family he created, and God found a way to build a nation through them anyway.
Rather than glossing over flaws, faith in God means being able to handle to the truth. Faith means dealing with what is real, to put the truth before God and trust God can work with it, as God has through all the flawed people before us. In twelve-step programs, there is a saying that, “we are only as sick as our secrets.” Psychologists will tell us that human consciousness does not emerge at any depth, except through struggling with our own shadow, our own failures, our wounding, our character flaws.
This also describes the significance of the racial reckoning in our nation today—we need to tell the truth and hear the whole truth of our history and its impact on all peoples, not gloss over it. The very nature of our Scripture stories which are human and wholistic, give us the courage to tell, and to hear the impact of confederate symbols, of sports mascots based on Native American stereotypes, of the fear and frustration systemic racism creates in the lives of so many.
To tell the truth and heal the wounds of our past is much like hearing about Jacob’s messed up family and the beginning of Israel as a nation. Israel did not keep secrets about its story and history and neither need we. We see ourselves and our own limitations, and we see God at work moving a people forward: we find ways to make better choices, to trust God with our transformation, and to make something new from us today. This work is an act of deep love and trust and faith in this country, and most of all in what God can do with who we are, individually and together.
God is not waiting for you to become someone else, someone you are not. You do not have to be perfect or happy all the time. God is with us anyway. God is working God’s purposes through all of us anyway. Jacob, his family, and the nation they are building do invite us to tell the truth about ourselves and to be willing to listen to the truth of others. The more wounds we heal individually and as a nation, the more available we are to consciously participate with God in building the kingdom of justice and love that God calls us to as God’s people and the church.