Sunday, August 7, 2011

Black Sheep


A narrative sermon on Genesis 30: 25-34; 31: 51-55

Preached July 24, 2011 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

(c) Christina Berry

Laban shook his head as Jacob walked away. He should have known that it would come to this. His son-in-law wasn’t a bad man. He was pretty easy to get along with. Now he wanted to leave. This left Laban in quite a bad position, business-wise. Jacob seemed to have a real knack as a herdsman. His livestock were strong, and they gave birth to healthy offspring. Jacob took good care of them, and they seemed to thrive – certainly better than the livestock Laban’s own sons were in charge of.

Laban’s girls, Leah and Rachel, seemed to be thriving as well. They had eleven sons between them. Laban sure did breathe a sigh of relief when Rachel gave birth to Joseph. She’d gotten sons by Jacob on her maidservant, but this one was her own, and that made a big difference. He sure couldn’t figure out why Rachel and Leah were always at odds. He hadn’t raised them to be that way. Sure, he’d given Leah to Jacob first, instead of Rachel. Boy, had there been some drama over that one. But that was just the way they did things in Haran. A man doesn’t let his younger daughter get married before the elder daughter. Maybe he should’ve told them before the wedding, asked Leah at least. Maybe just sending Leah in to Jacob, letting him believe it would be Rachel, well, maybe that hadn’t been the best idea. But it had all worked out fine, even if Jacob did get a little bit mad about it. And Laban had gotten fourteen years labor out of Jacob for the bride price. Okay, okay - Leah was unhappy and unloved. And Rachel still wouldn’t hardly speak to him. But he had done the right thing, hadn’t he?

Now, this leaving thing, taking away the girls and eleven grandsons, that was something else. Not just bad for Laban business-wise, but pretty bad family-wise. Wife-wise. Jacob had something up his sleeve with this bargain he’d made; Laban just knew it, just by the way Jacob had asked. “Don’t give me anything,” Jacob had said. “Just give me every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled goats; and that’ll be my wages.” Then Jacob brought up how honest he was; that always made Laban nervous, when you were making a deal and a guy started talking about his honesty. Laban wasn’t born yesterday, and he wasn’t going to let Jacob go easily. This time, Laban would get one up on Jacob.

After Jacob left, Laban called his sons to him. “Boys, go get all of the billy goats that are striped and spotted, and all the nanny goats and kids that are speckled and spotted, and every one that has white on it, and every little black lamb, and take them to that far north valley.”

The boys stared at him. “Daddy, that far north valley is three days away from here!” “I know where it is!” Laban said.

“But Daddy, you promised Jacob…”

“Did I ask for a committee meeting about this?” Laban growled. “Now gather up all the striped and spotted goats and all the black sheep and get moving!”

The boys looked off to the left, over Laban’s shoulder, and shuffled their feet.

“Now?” one of them asked.

“NOW! Get moving!”

Jacob shook his head as he watched his wife’s brothers gather up the flocks and head for the north forty. He’d expected something like this. His father in law was a cheat, no two ways about it. That man would cheat his own brother!

But Jacob had a plan. He’d learned from the old timers that if you set up a striped pole by the watering troughs, the sheep and goats would see them, and bear more striped kids and black lambs. Jacob cut some rods of poplar and almond and plane, peeled strips of bark off, exposing the white of the rods. He cut them long enough to stick into the ground by the troughs. It wasn’t long before he was getting some striped and speckled goats, and some little black sheep. He kept his livestock separate from Laban’s, and only bred the strongest ones. Pretty soon, he was wealthy, with huge flocks, and plenty of servants too.

Then he overheard one of his brothers-in-law, talking to a herdsman. “Jacob has used our father's wealth to make himself rich at our father's expense.”[1] Jacob didn’t have much use for whiners and blamers. But he noticed Laban didn’t treat him the same anymore. It had always been a good partnership; but now Laban was acting standoffish. It was definitely time to leave.

He wasn’t sure how Leah and Rachel would react to the idea, so he sat down with them one night after supper. “Listen, I notice that your father has changed toward me; he doesn't treat me the same as before. But the God of my father hasn't changed; he's still with me. You know how hard I've worked for your father. Still, your father has cheated me over and over. But God never let him really hurt me. Over and over God used your father's livestock to reward me.” I even had this dream where an angel of God called out to me, and said, “Jacob! I know what Laban's been doing to you. I'm the God of Bethel where you consecrated a pillar and made a vow to me. Now be on your way, get out of this place, go home to your birthplace.'"

Rachel and Leah said, "It’s not like he’s treated us any better! Aren't we treated worse than outsiders? All he wanted was the money he got from selling us, and he's spent all that. Any wealth that God has seen fit to return to us from our father is justly ours and our children's. Go ahead. Do what God told you."[2]

Jacob loaded the children and his wives on his camels. He gathered all his livestock and all of his possessions. He packed up every last thing he had, and he managed to keep it quiet. The children didn’t even whisper a hint to their grandfather. For once, Rachel and Leah were getting along, laughing as they packed their household goods, joking with him and with the boys.

When Laban went out to shear sheep one morning, Jacob’s family caravan moved out toward Canaan. They were three days down the road, across the Euphrates, almost in Gilead, when Laban finally found out. Predictably, Laban rounded up the family and came chasing after them. He caught up to them in the hill country. Jacob saw them coming, so he left their tents pitched, and sat down and waited. They looked down the mountains at the winding train of camels as it crept up the slope like a brown snake in the green grass. By the time Laban arrived in the mountains, all of Jacob’s camp waited expectantly, almost eagerly, anticipating the confrontation between Laban and Jacob.

They helped Laban’s men pitch their tents when they arrived. Laban wasted no time in storming up to Jacob, so angry he was almost spitting.

“What do you mean,” said Laban, “sneaking off like that, taking my daughters off like prisoners of war? Why did you run off like a thief? Why didn't you tell me? I would have sent you off with a great celebration – music, timbrels, flutes! But you didn’t permit me so much as a kiss goodbye for my daughters and grandchildren. It was a stupid thing for you to do. If I had a mind to, I could destroy you right now, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, 'Be careful what you do to Jacob, whether good or bad.' I understand. You left because you were homesick. But why did you steal my household gods?”

Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid. I thought you would take your daughters away from me by brute force. But as far as your gods are concerned, if you find that anybody here has them, that person dies. With all of us watching, look around. If you find anything here that belongs to you, take it.”

Neither Laban nor Jacob noticed that Rachel, who had been standing off to the side, turned and hurried back to her tent. Rachel hadn’t really thought much about taking her father’s household gods. She’d been in her parents’ tent while Jacob was packing up. She’d heard what her brothers had said about her husband. And she knew what her father was trying to do, trying to cheat him out of the promised pay. Her father was a liar, and a thief, that was all there was to it. So she took the gods, the small wooden figures that looked like people, like dolls a child might play with. It was easy to conceal them under her robes and pack them in with her clothes.

She didn’t really know what she was going to do with them. They were of no use to her, for her husband, and therefore she and her children, worshiped the God of Abraham and Isaac, this god who honored the younger over the elder, and who made promises and kept them. Even Leah didn’t know Rachel had the gods, and Jacob certainly didn’t know. And Rachel wasn’t really certain why she had taken them. They belonged to the head of the household, so maybe she was thinking of Jacob. They were also fertility aids, and heaven knew she needed help in that area. Her little Joseph, the one son of her very own, was a gift, but she still hoped for at least one more.

Deep down, she thought, she had taken them simply to get back at her father. Her blood boiled every time she thought of how he had treated her, and Leah, too, for that matter, like prize breeding stock, or interchangeable merchandise -- “Oh, you love my daughter Rachel, do you Jacob? Well, here, have Leah. Sure, you can have Rachel too. Just give me another seven years free labor.” Were they camels, or goats, she and her sister? To be traded at her father’s whim? All those years she had blamed Leah, but it was really Laban, their father, who had put them in this terrible situation.

There wasn’t really time to reflect on that; she could hear Laban and his men coming. They’d already practically ransacked Jacob’s tent, and then Leah’s, and of course found nothing. She sliced open a camel cushion and stuffed the little gods inside. She quickly sat down on the cushion and looked up, blank-faced, blinking at the flash of sunlight as Laban and his men came into her tent. Her father had blood in his eyes, now, he was so frustrated. Laban hated to lose. Rachel pinched the inside of her hand. She thought if she didn’t, she might start laughing. After they’d looked high and low for the gods, Rachel said to her father, “I would stand up, Father. I’m not being disrespectful. But it is that time of the month – I need to stay seated.’

Laban glared at her and stormed out of the tent. He was so blinded by the sudden sunlight, and by his anger, that he nearly ran into Jacob.

Jacob lit into Laban: “Alright, Laban. Just exactly what is it I have done to you, that you badger and accuse me and my family this way? Have you turned up ONE SINGLE THING that belongs to you? No? No! That’s because everything I took with me belongs to ME! For twenty years, I broke my back for you. I never threw a party with a roasted ram or goat from your flock. If a wild animal killed one of the animals, I paid for it – actually, you made me pay whether it was my fault or not. I worked day and night, in blazing heat and freezing cold. I slaved away for FOURTEEN years for two daughters, and then put in another six years for your flock, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not stuck with me, you would have sent me off with nothing! But God knew how it was, and how hard I had worked, and last night El Shaddai rendered his verdict."

Laban had tried to interrupt, and Jacob’s threatening hand had stopped him.

Now Laban erupted. “Those women are my daughters, those children are my children, this flock is my flock - everything you see is mine. But obviously there is nothing I can do about this, or about your ingratitude. I propose that we make a covenant - God will be the witness between us."

Jacob took a stone and set it upright as a pillar, then called his family, "Bring stones!"

Everyone carried stones and heaped them up.

Laban said, "This monument of stones will be a witness, beginning now, between you and me." It is also called Mizpah (Watchtower) because Laban said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.”

Jacob exchanged glances with Rachel and Leah – they wanted to believe it was a blessing, but it sounded more like a warning.

Then Laban went on:“If you mistreat my daughters or take other wives, even if there are no other witnesses, your God will see you and stand witness between us.” Laban gestured at the stones. “This monument of stones and this stone pillar that I have set up is a witness, a witness that I won't cross this line to hurt you and you won't cross this line to hurt me. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor will keep things straight between us.”

Rachel was tempted to point out that Laban had hardly set up the stone pillar, that in fact, Jacob and his family, her family, Leah’s family, had built that monument. But she thought it best to keep silent. That night, Jacob worshiped on the mountain and offered a sacrifice, then called all his family members to a meal. Laban got up early the next morning, kissed his grandchildren and his daughters, blessed them, and set off for home.[3]

Leah wept a little to see him go, but Rachel stood in stony silence, her arms folded across her chest, watching the long caravan as it wound north back to Haran. Then she turned, reached out one hand to her son and the other to her sister, and walked back to her tent in silence. Leah took Rachel’s hand, carefully, concealing her surprise. She followed Rachel back to her tent and helped her prepare the morning meal.

That night, the two sisters sat in companionable conversation and waited while the servant lighted the oil lamp.

“We will probably never see father again,” Leah said. Rachel nodded.

Leah watched her little sister tuck her boy Joseph into bed. “I will miss mother so much. And I think I will miss father, too. Will you?” Leah asked.

Rachel shook her head. “We have Jacob. And our sons.”

“And each other,” Leah said softly.

Rachel held out her arms, and Leah came to her, holding out her own arms.

As they embraced, they wept.

Then Leah stepped back, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve. “I wonder what happened to father’s household gods…” she mused.

Rachel raised an eyebrow, and a mischievous smile played at the corner of her mouth.

“You didn’t!” Leah said.

“Ssshhhhh!” Rachel said. “You’ll wake my boy!” then she burst out laughing herself.

They laughed together quietly until they were in tears again, then kissed goodnight, and went contentedly to sleep.

Jacob heard them, and wondered what they found to be so funny. He was lying on the ground near the dying fire, staring up at the stars. Thoughts of Laban had been pushed from his mind, for he knew that soon they would be entering the land called Edom, which means “red,” called so because of the presence of his brother, Esau, the wild red hunter from whom he had stolen both birthright and blessing.

Jacob’s stomach churned. The God of his father Isaac, of his grandfather Abraham, was with him. But would that God protect him from his brother’s revenge? God would indeed watch between Jacob and Laban, but what would God do between Jacob and Esau? Jacob would not sleep well that night. He lifted up his prayers to God, asking, beseeching the Holy One to fulfill the promises made at Beth-el, and bring him and his family safely back to Canaan.

Jacob prayed then, but he did not have words for what he desired. He thought of his wives, and his sons, his parents, his brother. Perhaps this God of the covenant could turn things around, lead him home, make things right in his family. If he was to be the father of a great nation, Jacob thought, God must be a mighty and powerful God indeed. Jacob thought of his dream, of those angels ascending and descending on that broad stairway from heaven.

He heard again the voice of El Shaddai, -- speaking directly to him! – saying “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

It was more than a dream. It was a covenant.

The last bright stars dimmed as the first rays of sun broke over the mountain.

Then Jacob rose, gathering his cloak about him, and went to wake the camp to prepare for the journey home.

[1] The Message

[2] The Message

[3] The Message

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