October 21, 2007
When we get desperate, tempted to do things by the world’s methods, we need to see that God is graciously, sovereignly at work.
I. Desperate Housewives - Genesis 29:31-30:24
II. Desperate Shepherds - Genesis 30:25-43
I’ve never watched the prime time comedy Desperate Housewives. I visited the web site, read a few plot summaries and decided I didn’t need to watch; I’ve read the book; it’s Genesis, chapters 29 and 30. The desperate measures portrayed on TV are no more misguided than the extreme behaviors of women and men four thousand years ago. This morning we’re going to look at Jacob’s increase - his increase in wives, in children, in flocks and herds. We’ll see wives desperate for children and for love; we’ll see men going to extremes for success. We’ll see desperate measures. But underneath we’ll sense the calm hand of God working out his purposes in his people, and at times piercing their desperation with his sovereign grace. We’ll be reminded that when we get desperate, tempted to do things by the world’s methods, we need to believe that God is graciously, sovereignly at work.
We begin with desperate housewives, but not those on TV. I read a blog this week written by a divorced mother of two named Nicole who married a divorced father of three. She writes of the blessings and challenges, and has a special desperation when writing of her husband’s ex wife. A recent entry was called ‘Curse them all’. She says “The exes, I mean. Why, oh why must she do this all the time? She calls me Monday night, like 9pm. Yeah…that’s right…ME! (not him). Tells me that Tuesday this week won’t work because she a tire keeps going flat on her car. So would Wednesday work? Sure, Wednesday is fine I say. Never mind the plans we’d made.
Then, Wednesday I’ve got everyone ready, waiting at the door, when the phone rings. Guess what? At 6pm she’s telling me she can’t make it because her tire went flat again so she’ll see them on Friday for her weekend. It drives me nuts that she has to do this all the time.” Nicolle contemplates retaliation - having the children be ‘not quite ready’ Friday. Calling them all weekend with schedule changes for next week. Refusing to answer her cell phone when the ex calls. Or even more drastic, moving out of state. At the end she laments “Why oh why do I let her get to me?”
We also recognize a more dangerous desperation in Jennifer’s story. 27 and unmarried, Jennifer has attended single’s groups at several big churches, but found the young men to be excessively immature, both socially and spiritually. She’s gone out with a few guys at work, but there is just no connection. Last year she tried an online dating service, but the men they matched her with were mostly older and divorced.
Recently she googled ‘Christian chat’ and go nine million hits. She decided to try a few chat rooms. In an attempt to attract someone younger, she entered her age as 23, described herself as just graduated from college, and posted an earlier picture of herself. Still, most of the guys she chatted with were obviously losers.
Except Chad. 28 years old and never married, Chad struck up a conversation with her and seemed really nice. He asked good questions, gave thoughtful answers, and was fun to talk to. Soon he wanted to meet her. At first Jennifer declined, because of the lies she’d told. But she liked him so much she felt she had to tell him the truth. It didn’t phase him. He said her age made them a match. And when could they have a date? Finally she gave in. She gave him her address and he’s supposed to pick her up at 7:00. There’s the knock. Her heart pounds as she opens the door. And there on the step is a big rough looking man, obviously in his late forties, with a wedding ring on his hand. “Hi!” he says, pushing his way inside. “I’m Chad.”
I. Desperate Housewives - Genesis 29:31-30:24
Desperation can lead us to foolish thoughts and dangerous acts. Certainly in Jacob’s family there were enough relational issues to make anyone a desperate housewife. Yet God was at work. Genesis 29:31 “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Jacob continued to prefer Rachel, so that Leah was the unloved wife. But she wants to be loved, desperately. She apparently cries out to the Lord - the right thing to do when you’re desperate. And God answers: Leah quickly bore sons for Jacob, while Rachel didn’t.
Verse 32: Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, "It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now." In that culture you gave children descriptive names: Isaac was ‘laughter’; Jacob was ‘deceiver’; Esau was ‘hairy’. Rueben means ‘see, a son’, implying ‘the Lord has seen my misery’. Her hope is ‘surely Jacob will love me now’ How many women over the years have thought that ‘once we have children, he’ll settle down.’ It rarely happens, and not for Leah. Verse 33:”She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too." So she named him Simeon.” Simeon comes from the verb ‘to hear’. Do you see Leah’s faith? She may be desperate, but she testifies with her first son ‘the Lord has seen’ and with her second son ‘the Lord has heard.’
Verse 34: “Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons." So he was named Levi.” The name Levi sound like the verb ‘attached’. This is the only son Leah doesn’t name with a reference to God. I don’t know why, since this is the son who will be chosen by God as the father of the priestly line in Israel.
She does reference God in naming her fourth son. Verse 35: “She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "This time I will praise the Lord." So she named him Juda h. Then she stopped having children.” His name means praise. Judah is the son God will use to be the father of King David and Jesus the Messiah. Lea couldn’t see and probably never knew that she’d been blessed to be the fore-mother of the Lord. But she did cling toGod in her desperation so that despite continuing to be the lesser loved wife, she could praise Him at this moment.
Leah is really a pretty positive model of dealing with desperation. Her emotional poverty left her desperate; her recognition of God’s provision left her praising. But it won’t last, because Rachel is not content to be bested in the area of childbearing. Chapter 30, verse 1: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister.” Rachel may have been the one Jacob loved, but what honor was there in that, if she had no children. She was as desperate in her own way as Leah was. But Leah cries to God; Rachel yells at Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die!" Jacob gets angry in turn: “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?" It’s sad that Jacob’s first reference to God in two chapters is an angry excuse to his wife. But at least he pays lip service to God’s sovereignty.
In her desperation Rachel tries a solution fairly common in that culture. Just as Sarah had offered Hagar to Abraham to obtain children, so Rachel says to Jacob: “Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and through her I too can build a family.” This is a human plan. God never approves an arrangement like this; the line of blessing is never through these concubines. But Rachel attributes the success to God. Verse 4: “So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her, 5and she became pregnant and bore him a son. 6Then Rachel said, "God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son." Because of this she named him Dan.” Dan means vindication. Rachel implies that God has evened the score with Leah. Verse 7: “Rachel's servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8Then Rachel said, "I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won." So she named him Naphtali.” Naphtali means struggle. Bilhah’s children are Rachel’s desperate competition.
And Leah succumbs to this challenge. Verse 9: “When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her maidservant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10Leah's servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11Then Leah said, "What good fortune!" So she named him Gad. 12Leah's servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13Then Leah said, "How happy I am! The women will call me happy." So she named him Asher.” Gad means fortune or luck. Asher means happy or blessed. These sons aren’t named with reference to God; they may in fact be named for foreign gods.
What started as godly desperation quickly becomes superstitious manipulation. Verse 14: “During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, "Please give me some of your son's mandrakes." 15But she said to her, "Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son's mandrakes too?" "Very well," Rachel said, "he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son's mandrakes." 16So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. "You must sleep with me," she said. "I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." So he slept with her that night.” The small orange fruit of the mandrake plant has a strong odor that some find pleasant, and is said to be an aphrodisiac or narcotic.
Both Rachel and Leah want the mandrakes, believing Jacob will desire them. Leah, we note, is still bitter with Rachel because Jacob still prefers Rachel. So even though Leah’s son found the mandrakes, Leah sells them to Rachel in return for an opportunity to spend a night with Jacob. Notice how passive Jacob is in the face of this serious conflict. Like many husband’s, he has severe leadership issues. He allows himself to be hired out to whatever wife seems to have the upper hand.
Verse 17: “God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18Then Leah said, "God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband." So she named him Issachar.” Issachar means reward: ‘God has rewarded me even though I had to hire my husband back.’ Verse 19: “Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. 20Then Leah said, "God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons." She named him Zebulun.” Zebulun means ‘precious gift’ and ‘honor’. Leah’s hopes to be treated well for giving Jacob six sons - and at least one daughter: “Some time later she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.”
Some time after the mandrake incident, God finally turns his mercy toward Rachel, loved but barren and desperate for maybe eleven years at this point. Verse 22: “Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb. 23She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, "God has taken away my disgrace." 24She named him Joseph, and said, "May the Lord add to me another son."” The mandrakes had nothing to do with Rachel’s pregnancy. It was entirely of God, who took away the shame of her barrenness. Rachel names her son Joseph, or ‘added’, in contrast to ‘taken away my disgrace’ and looking ahead to a second son to come.
What do we see in this whirl of pregnancies, births and names? Beneath the surface, the truth is profound: God is both gracious and sovereign. Leah and Rachel, despite the desperate manipulations they use to get children, still recognize that God hears, God sees, God remembers, God is merciful. One of my favorite commentators says: “Embedded in this agonizing story of people’s emptiness and self-inflicted pain is God’s gracious gift of hope. These people have half-lives, blocked by sorrow, hostility and competition. To such the Bible offers not reproach or platitudes, but God’s remembering. To those longing for love or stagnated by a sterile world, faith offers not blame or jargon, but one who has come that we might have life.” Amen.
To Nicole, struggling with the ex wife, the temptation to manipulate is always there. But God is there as well. She writes “Do you ever wonder why things happen the way they do? I’ll be the first to admit, I was bad about this. Every time something happened I had to know why, and if I couldn’t control it, I went nuts. Then something changed. I opened my eyes and noticed that God was there. He always had been. I just had to learn to live my life according to what He wanted for me.” This is the point of the text: God is there and we need learn to live trusting him.
To Jennifer, God’s grace was more apparent. When ‘Chad’ burst in, she screamed and tried to slam the door, but he was too strong. He grabbed her and threw her against the wall. She cried “Oh God help.” Then she looked the rough man in the eye and said “Why are you doing this? Do you really want to hurt me?” Somehow that got to him. He dropped his eyes and his hands. He pushed her aside and went out the door. God had heard her and shown mercy. When we get desperate, tempted to use the world’s ways, we’re rescued because God is graciously, sovereignly at work.
II. Desperate Shepherds - Genesis 30:25-43
But women aren’t the only ones who act desperately. Consider a man named Jim, who eagerly wanted his daughter to succeed at sports. It seemed he’d do anything to get her a volleyball scholarship, even though he could afford college. Maybe he really just wanted to excel through his daughter. But he was excessive. He’d enroll her in any tournament, drive any distance, invest any time. Worse, he’d browbeat and demand and compare and shame to get her to play better. Finally, after an injury, he found a way to get steroids. Jim thought this could really make the difference.
Then there are men at work. This may be the place where desperate choices happen most often. I recently read a story about Jeff, who worked for a space station contractor. Jeff was in charge of cost and schedule for the largest project his company had ever had - a major station subsystem. But like many items in the station’s history, the requirements placed on Jeff’s company kept growing. Soon Jeff and his colleagues realized there was no way to deliver the subsystem for the contracted cost. Then they realized there was no way to deliver on time. But management encouraged them to keep on, not say anything, hope something would change. Jeff was forced to fudge progress and cost numbers. He didn’t want to, but his supervisor said ‘Jeff, if you can’t handle this work, I’ll find someone else who can.’ And Jeff buckled.
Desperate men do desperate things. In Genesis 30 two desperate shepherds compete in deception. Verse 25: “After Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, "Send me on my way so I can go back to my own homeland. 26Give me my wives and children, for whom I have served you, and I will be on my way. You know how much work I've done for you."” Jacob has been enslaved to Laban for fourteen years. As a slave under later Jewish law, he would have been entitled to generous gifts from Laban. But Laban has a better idea. Verse 27: “But Laban said to him, "If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you." 28He added, "Name your wages, and I will pay them."” Despite the abundant evidence that God had blessed him through Jacob, Laban used divination to find this truth. Laban is almost purely a pagan, but even pagan methods show him that God has blessed him through Jacob. Verse 29: “Jacob said to him, "You know how I have worked for you and how your livestock has fared under my care. 30The little you had before I came has increased greatly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I have been. But now, when may I do something for my household?"
Jacob knows Laban’s flocks have prospered, and for the first time in a long time, Jacob is discerning enough to attribute that increase to the Lord. It is the Lord who has been at work here, graciously and sovereignly allowing Jacob to succeed.
But Laban wants to hire that success:‘what should your wages be?’ The last time he asked that he deceived Jacob with Leah. Clearly he’s plotting something here also. "Don't give me anything," Jacob replied. "But if you will do this one thing for me, I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them: 32Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages. 33And my honesty will testify for me in the future, whenever you check on the wages you have paid me. Any goat in my possession that is not speckled or spotted, or any lamb that is not dark-colored, will be considered stolen." Normally in the Mid-east goats are black or brown and sheep white. Jacob asks for the abnormally colored sheep and goats. This should be a good deal for Laban. But Jacob has had a dream, as we will hear in the next chapter, promising God’s blessing on this approach.
Laban jumps on it, but he still cheats. Verse 34: “"Agreed," said Laban. "Let it be as you have said." 35That same day he removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled or spotted female goats (all that had white on them) and all the dark-colored lambs, and he placed them in the care of his sons. 36Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban's flocks.” Laban cheats: he culls out the abnormally colored animals and sends them with his sons, leaving Jacob no sheep to start his flock. This is Laban’s desperation: ‘sure, you can have the abnormally colored ones - but look, there aren’t any.’ Jacob will later say Laban changed their contract ten times.
But Jacob trusted God, and the abnormally colored animals were born in great numbers. That’s what you wish it said. The sad thing is Jacob failed to trust God and tried to do this by pagan means. Verse 37: “Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood. 38Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted.” Some try to find a scientific reason for this, but the apparent truth is that Jacob tries ‘sympathetic magic’ hoping the sheep to be born will imitate the striped wood. And it works, not because of the branches, but due to the sovereign grace of God.
Jacob will see this eventually: in chapter 31 he’ll say to his wives “God has taken away your father's livestock and has given them to me. If he said, 'The speckled ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, 'The streaked ones will be your wages,' then all the flocks bore streaked young.”
For now though, he’s still desperate. Verse 40: “Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban's animals.” Jacob isolates the spotted and striped animals that have already been born, and tries another form of sympathetic magic by having the white sheep and dark goats stare all day at Laban’s striped and spotted animals. Jacob is trying to do by human means what can only be done by God’s sovereign hand.
Finally, Jacob does a little selective breeding. Verse 41 “Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches, 42but if the animals were weak, he would not place them there. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong to Jacob.” Genetically, this was bound to work. Verse 43: “In this way the man grew greatly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys.” Jacob now obtained all he needed. Why? Not by his treachery, but in spite of it; not by his desperate measures, but in spite of them.
So what have we seen? That desperation is unnecessary because of God’s sovereignty, but that in his grace he continues to work even when we take desperate measures based on human wisdom or belief. Rachel and Leah thought the mandrakes would do the trick - but God provided children quite apart from the mandrakes. Jacob thought the branches would do the trick, but God prospered him quite apart from the branches.
Jim, whose daughter was in volleyball, tried the steroids, and they caused a huge jump in her strength and conditioning. But it backfired. She failed a random drug test and was kicked out. Finally confessed to her father that sports wasn’t what she had really wanted at all. She wanted to be a doctor: volleyball was to have been the ticket. Jim was abashed at first, but when he finally saw his daughter’s real desires he set that aside and became her strongest but least interfering supporter.
Jeff, who worked for the sub-contractor, already knew his behavior was wrong. He found himself deeper and deeper in fudged numbers and faked work. The pressure was increased because Jeff and his wife had become believing followers of Christ, so that Jeff felt more and more convicted. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore. He spoke to several others who knew the real facts, and they agreed that management had to face those facts. Faced with a large number of protests, management finally agreed that it was time to offer the client a more realistic assessment in the hopes of renegotiating a workable contract. Instead, that whole station design went belly up: Jeff’s company was just one of the casualties. But God honored Jeff’s integrity and, with a different contractor, he’s had a major role in the current station.
The point is that God is sovereignly at work. He desires that we cling to him and wait on him and see him and give him praise. But even if we give in to desperation and use corrupt human means to achieve questionable goals, God is still at work, in the background, graciously and sovereignly achieving his purposes. Neither path is without pain, but both are under the sovereign gracious hand of God. So my challenge to you this morning is, when you are desperate, cling to him and do not give in to corrupt human measures. But my comfort is that ven if you do, if you turn from those things, you’ll find that a sovereign gracious God has been at work.