“The Trickster Tricked”
October 7, 2007
If you are prayerless and self reliant you are vulnerable to sin and it’s consequences.
I. Jacob prayerlessness and God’s providence - Genesis 29:1-14
II. Jacob’s human strength and God’s discipline - Genesis 29:15-30
Genesis 29 is a disappointingly human story. After God intervened dramatically in Jacob's life in Genesis 28, we expect to see him obviously at work on the rest of Jacob's journey. But God isn't even mentioned in this chapter, and though it's a good story, it seems to be simply a story about Jacob getting poetic justice for his deceitfulness. And it is. It’s the trickster tricked. But it’s more; as I looked at the subtle ways in which contrasts are drawn in this chapter, I finally realized it was Jacob’s prayerlessness and self reliance that left him vulnerable in this text.
So I asked myself ‘is this true in my life and in the lives of others? I found it hard to see that truth working in other people, but quite simple to see it at work inside me. So if you'll forgive me, I'm going to illustrate this truth from some of my own least admirable moments. I trust we're enough alike that you will be able to see parallels in your own life, to see that when you or I have been prayerless or self reliant, we’ve been most vulnerable to sin and its consequences.
I can self-diagnose these symptoms at many points over the years, but the one that stands out is my freshman year in college. I’d been a believer five years when I headed off to Stevens Institute of Technology in beautiful downtown Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson river from Manhattan island. Like Jacob, I arrived at that destination after a significant spiritual high point - I’d been on a work project with my youth group, refurbishing tenement apartments in Newark, New Jersey. I went directly from there to college, from spiritual high to secular immersion. Suddenly instead of being surround by those seeking God, I had to seek him on my own initiative. And I simply failed to do so. I retreated into myself, struggled with homesickness, and lost the sense of God’s presence. I got so dried up you would never even know I had been alive - emaciated like a spiritual corpse. I wasn’t praying, I wasn’t depending, I wasn’t worshiping, and I wasn’t in the word.
And I wasn’t in fellowship. One of the first and worst sins I committed was the sin of spiritual pride. I had the inexcusable idea that the group I had been a Christian in was the ultimate in fellowship and spirituality. I took a superficial look at the Christian Fellowship on campus and said ‘Oh I’ll be running this organization in a couple of years.’ I had no idea of the depths beneath the surface of that group, especially the depth of immersion in the word of God. So I didn’t engage with or get accountable to those believers, and thus I made myself very vulnerable to temptation and open to the sins all around me. At the same time I was trying to deal with the stresses of college in my own weak human strength.
All of this makes me kin with Jacob. After the spiritual high of chapter 28, Jacob falls into these same sins. You may be brother or sister to Jacob as well. I encourage you to learn the lesson he had to learn, that when you are prayerless and self reliant you are most vulnerable to sin and its consequences.
I. Jacob prayerlessness and God’s providence - Genesis 29:1-14
Let’s begin with Jacob’s arrival in Haran and his prayerlessness. Genesis 29:1-14 Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples. 2There he saw a well in the field, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well. The stone over the mouth of the well was large. 3When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well's mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well.
4Jacob asked the shepherds, "My brothers, where are you from?" "We're from Haran," they replied. 5He said to them, "Do you know Laban, Nahor's grandson?" "Yes, we know him," they answered. 6Then Jacob asked them, "Is he well?" "Yes, he is," they said, "and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep." 7"Look," he said, "the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture." 8"We can't," they replied, "until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep."
9While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father's sheep, for she was a shepherdess. 10When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother's brother, and Laban's sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle's sheep. 11Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. 12He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father. 13As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister's son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. 14Then Laban said to him, "You are my own flesh and blood." And Jacob stayed with him for a whole month.
You can’t really appreciate the author’s intent here unless you’ve read Genesis 24, where Abraham’s servant went to Haran to find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. Jacob has the same purpose, to find a wife for himself among Abraham’s kin in the town established by Abraham’s brother Nahor. The two journeys stand in sharp contrast, and by that contrast we identify Jacob’s failures. First we note that he completes the journey when he comes upon a well, just as Abraham’s servant had done. But it was almost certainly a different well, because Abraham’s servant was in sight of the town, but Jacob isn’t; the well he finds is out in the fields.
The author of Genesis explains that three flocks were gathered to be watered, and that the well had a large stone which was removed to water the sheep and replaced to keep the well safe and unused by others. The well near the town didn’t need a stone.
But there is a much more significant difference between Jacob and Abraham’s servant. We have no idea what’s going on in Jacob’s head, but we know for sure that when the servant got to this point he prayed. He asked for God’s guidance. He gave thanks for providence. Now I know interpreters aren’t supposed to argue from silence, but in this case the author has set it up so that the silence speaks volumes; the silence shouts: Jacob is prayerless. He hasn’t learned the lesson of intimacy with God. God said at Bethel: I am with you; I will not leave you. Jacob forgot it or ignored it, just as I did at college. I was living in a state of spiritual deadness and prayerlessness. How about you? Have there been prayerless times in your Christian life? Are you there now? Are you living with no sense of God’s presence? When life gets hard does your soul cry out to him? If not, watch out: dryness leaves you vulnerable.
Prayerless Jacob arrives at the well and talks to the shepherds. Even after he finds out Haran is nearby, he does not give thanks. Even when he finds out Laban is well, he does not praise. It’s only when they point out Rachel to him, Laban’s daughter, coming with her flock that he gets active. And it is not active to pray, or to try to discern if this is one God intends for his wife, as the servant did. Jacob simply sets out to impress this pretty girl. He tries to get the other shepherds to leave: "Look, the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture." But these shepherds, who are probably young boys, are more interested in watching the drama than in efficiency with their flocks.
So Rachel comes up and Jacob, in a show of great strength, rolls the stone from the well and waters her sheep. Note again the contrast. Abraham’s servant used the same moment to assess the character and hospitality of Rebekah when she came out to the well. Jacob isn’t concerned with Rachel’s character at all, just with impressing her. Of course, the servant had a caravan full of treasure; Jacob has nothing to bargain with but his strength; nonetheless, he appears more driven by a human impulse toward this girl than by a godly desire to find the Lord’s will.
Jacob shows off; he waters the sheep, then walks over and kisses Rachel. In our culture this is a shocking bit of effrontery, but in that culture, between relatives, this was a typical greeting. Laban kisses Jacob for the same reason in verse 13. Jacob also weeps, probably from relief at the completion of his journey, possibly because he recognizes the providence of God in this. He tells Rachel they are cousins.
Here we have two vastly different people on similar missions. The servant is prayerful, reverent and deeply aware of God at work. Jacob is spiritually blind. We have no evidence he perceived God at work at all - unless it’s these tears. Yet despite the huge difference between them from a human viewpoint, God shows Jacob the same providence he showed the servant: the potential bride comes out to the well. God had gone ahead of both of them to work out his plan - only the one was fully aware of it, and the other not, and therefore vulnerable to sin and its consequences.
This is when Laban shows up. Verse 13: “As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister's son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. 14Then Laban said to him, "You are my own flesh and blood." And Jacob stayed with him for a whole month.” Deceitful Laban is crafty Rebekah’s brother. Years earlier Laban had been impressed with the gold given by Abraham’s servant. Now he seems impressed by the strength and work ethic of Jacob.
But the place this touches our lives at this point is Jacob’s prayerlessness. Strange though it may seem after his encounter with God. Jacob seems to be walking godlessly through these important moments of his life. In Jacob’s case the immediate outcome was that instead of asking God to reveal if Rachel was the one, as the servant had, he simply assumed she was, followed his desires, set out to impress her with human strength. His behavior was the human response of the vulnerable, prayerless soul.
That was the same problem I had in my freshman year. I was far from God and therefore far from godliness. This led to my spiritual pride, but it also left me vulnerable to other sins. In particular, the door was open in that college setting for me to let immorality dominate my thinking and to pursue it in ways that still haunt me. The consequence of distancing myself from God was opening myself to sin. So how about you? Is there a time period or an event in your life that you can look at and say “Oh, when this was happening, I was not drawing close to God.” You fill in the blank: “Oh, when this was happening, I was not drawing close to God.” And can you see in that time a vulnerability to sin? Did anger or lust or greed or pride or sinful habits rise up and take possession of the God vacuum you’d created? That’s what happened to me; that appears to be what happened to Jacob.
II. Jacob’s human strength and God’s discipline - Genesis 29:15-30
Jacob operates out of his own strength when he encounters Rachel, and that continues as he stays on with Laban. Let’s read verses 15 to 30: After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, 15Laban said to him, "Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be." 16Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. 18Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, "I'll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel." 19Laban said, "It's better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me."
20So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her. 21Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her." 22So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. 23But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. 24And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant.
25When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn't I? Why have you deceived me?" 26Laban replied, "It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. 27Finish this daughter's bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work." 28And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. 30Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.
It’s because of these verses that I’ve been calling Laban a deceiver. He says “Just because you’re a relative, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be?” This is a trick. A family member would work for nothing, but would also receive the benefits of being kin; Laban should treat him generously, help him establish himself. But Laban degrades the blood relationship into an economic relationship; he reduces Jacob to contract labor. Jacob, under the influence of human desire and pride in his human strength, buys into this.
Verse 16: “Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful.” Rachel means ‘cow’ and Leah means ‘ewe’ and the two are certainly treated as property by their father. But contrary to popular opinion, the description of Leah’s weak eyes is probably not a dig at her attractiveness. In fact the sentence may be comparing Leah’s strong point, her soft and loving eyes, versus Rachel’s strong point, her face and figure. Anyway Jacob was already in love with Rachel. This human desire is not sinful, but is a desire that easily disregards common sense and often fails to depend on and wait for God. Jacob’s human desire and his self reliance lead him to propose working seven years for the younger daughter Rachel.
Laban’s answer is shrewd: he doesn’t actually make a promise: “It's better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” The economic part I’m all in favor of: stay and work; the Rachel part: we’ll see. So Jacob sets out to earn Rachel by the sweat of his brow, and because of his feelings of love, these seven years ‘seemed only like a few days to him’. But Laban’s got him and he knows it.
He’s taken advantage of Jacob’s passion and pride and Jacob’s lack of spiritual insight to put him into virtual slavery. In fact the fourteen years of slavery Jacob will endure foreshadow the slavery that his sons will enter in Egypt. The word ‘served’ in this sentence is used to describe that later slavery. The same word had been used to say that the older brother Esau would serve the younger brother Jacob. As a direct result of his own deceitfulness and lies in gaining his father’s blessing, Jacob has now been transformed from the one who was supposed to rule to the one who is forced to serve. He’s starting to see that there are consequences to his deceitfulness.
After seven years Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to be with her." Laban seems cooperative: he throws a feast; there’s a lot of drinking going on. Then, late at night when it’s too dark for Jacob to see who’s behind the veil, he substitutes Leah for Rachel in the crucial marriage ceremony, and Leah goes with Jacob to the marriage tent. How poetically the trickster has been tricked: by befuddling Jacob with wine, and using the blindness of the bridal veil and the darkness of night, Laban deceives Jacob, just as Jacob had deceived his blinded father with the hairy skin, the smell of the clothing and the tasty stew.
Verse 25: When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn't I? Why have you deceived me?" 26Laban replied, "It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. 27Finish this daughter's bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work." Laban’s excuse cannot justify his behavior, and Jacob knows it - he uses the same word to describe Laban as Esau had used to describe him: Deceiver! Deceived.
This is the moral consequence of Jacob’s deception. Proverbs says “If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it; if a man rolls a stone, it will roll back on him.” In our culture we say ‘what goes around comes around’. In theology it’s called the law of sowing and reaping. Galatians 6:7 “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” This principle of natural and moral consequences often governs the lives of unbelievers and is still active in the lives of believers.
Someone involved in adultery or sexual sin or multiple divorces is probably pretty miserable. Studies show it to be so. Those who are involved in drugs or alcohol or who are physical or sexual abusers are tormented people, and often suffer severe economic and social consequences. So do those who are their victims. Sin causes misery. And it’s true even for believers. When you lose intimacy with God you begin to operate out of human pride and human strength. But it’s not enough. The temptations of the world are too strong. You will fail and will become miserable. I testify without doubt that I was miserable my freshman year of college.
But the astounding thing about all this is that despite the trickery and sin on all sides, God continues to work out his purposes. Jacob was the heir of God’s promises, the one God had chosen, despite the fact that he obtained his father’s blessing by guile. And Leah, this unwanted wife, was the one who, through her son Judah, would become the fore-mother of King David and of Jesus Christ. In fact I suspect that just as Jacob and Rebekah’s deception of Isaac was used by God to confirm the blessing to Jacob, so Laban’s deception of Jacob was used by God to make Leah his wife. God’s providence takes into account man’s sinfulness.
For me, the misery of that freshman year finally drove me into relationships with the Christians on campus, and into a living situation where God was actively present every day, where intimacy with him was almost unavoidable. Three years later, I graduated as a changed young man, far more immersed in Scripture, less prideful, having gotten a Holy Spirit lid on some of those human desires. I was on the way.
Jacob’s turnaround took a little longer. Verse 28: “And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. 30Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.” Fourteen years of servitude got Jacob the wife he desired, but also got him a family situation as broken and strife-ridden as the one he’d left in Canaan. We’ll see next week how the strife between these wives dominates his life.
But one more thing has to be said: God is using these consequences to discipline and teach Jacob. When the time of his servitude is up, he recognizes, finally that the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac had been with him all along, and had been working out his purposes in Jacob’s life. This is how God works; he is always teaching us. He orchestrates natural and moral consequences for our good and for his glory. My favorite verses teaching this are found in Hebrews 12:“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” Verse 10: “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
So it will be with Jacob, after a number of further trials. So it has been with me. I actually learned some lessons there in my freshman year. Looking back, I can see that God has worked through the natural and moral consequences of my own choices. When I’ve acted out of pride, grown indifferent, followed human desire, or relied on human strength, God has gently but often firmly disciplined me to teach me better, more godly ways of living. If you think of the Christian life as a whac-a-mole game, the moles don’t pop up as frequently as they used to. If you think of passions as boiling over, over the years I’ve been able to put a lid on it. I’m not there yet; like Jacob, I take a long time to learn, but by the grace of God, I’m better.
How about you? Are you reaping the consequences of distance from God? The most striking thing about this passage is Jacob’s silence toward God. Don’t let that be the most striking thing about you, because lack of intimacy with God is the root of all this other stuff. In your prayerlessness you will begin indulging human desires; past indulgences may come back to haunt you. But God is using these natural and moral consequences to discipline your for godliness. Don’t silently fight him like Jacob does, but prayerfully cling to him so that he can work for your good and his glory.