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"Listen Gently" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on July 26, 2020 by Kathy Miller

Listen Gently

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen.

Genesis 29: 15-28

(translation is a combination of NRSV and Common English Bible in attempt to stay as close to the Hebrew as possible while still being clear.)

[After Jacob had stayed with Laban for a month,] Laban said to Jacob, “You shouldn’t have to work for free just because you are my relative. Tell me what your wages shall be.”

 Now Laban had two daughters: the older was named Leah and the younger Rachel. Leah had delicate eyes, but Rachel was beautiful of form and appearance. Jacob loved Rachel so he said, “I will serve you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.”

Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to another man. Stay with me.” So Jacob served for Rachel for seven years, and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast.  But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) So it came to pass in the morning that behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “what is this that you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?”

Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Fulfill this week, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Listen Gently

If I’m honest, my first thought when I read this morning’s text was, “ha! Jacob got what he deserved after last week’s story when he deceived his brother and his father.” My second thought was, “soap operas have nothing on the Bible.” And my third thought was one of chagrin, “it’s no wonder people don’t know the women of the Bible as well as they know the men; who wants to preach stories like this one in which women are treated as property, traded by men, and pitted against one another?”

While the men of the Bible are far from perfect (as we saw last week when Jacob cheated his twin out of his birthright and deceived his dying father in order to steal his brother’s blessing), at least with Jacob we get these redeeming moments when he encounters God and even (as we’ll see next week) moments when he seems to mature and change. Leah and Rachel’s stories, on the other hand, center almost exclusively on the domestic and on their relationships with the men in their lives. Our scripture reading for this morning picked up in the middle of Leah’s and Rachel’s stories, but context always helps, so let’s back up a bit.

Jacob, you’ll remember from last week, has been sent away by his mother in order to escape his twin brother’s anger over his stolen birthright. And he has been sent to his uncle, Laban, his mother’s brother, with the express instruction that he is to marry one of his cousins, Leah or Rachel.

It is Rachel whom Jacob encounters first, and what the text tells us right away is that she is a shepherd—a detail neglected by many translations, which instead simply say that she keeps her father’s sheep. But the title is important because in the Old Testament, shepherd is shorthand for someone who is a leader or who takes care of the people,[1] and Rachel is the only woman in the Old Testament given this title—so we know right away that she is someone who will be important.

It is not until many verses later, in our passage for this morning, that we learn of Rachel’s beauty, and that she is the younger of two sisters. At the same time we learn of Rachel’s beauty, we learn that her older sister, Leah, has eyes that are ‘rakot’. The word ‘rakot’ in Hebrew can mean many things, but in the context of the larger story, sensitive is probably the best translation. But even that fails to get at what the text wants us to know, which is that Leah is someone easily moved to tears, someone sensitive and emotionally vulnerable.

So you can begin to imagine the drama that begins to develop when Jacob falls in love with Rachel at first sight. Rachel, who is the younger sibling—in a culture where the older sibling is meant to do things first. Rachel, who has an older sibling who is prone to tears. Yet, Jacob’s love for Rachel is the stuff of fairy tales. This is the first love story we find in scripture—all previous marriages have been arranged or already in place when we meet the characters, and this is a love story that will set the bar. For the text tells us that Jacob worked for his uncle seven years in order to marry Rachel and that it seemed like only a few days because of his love for her.

And yet, when the time comes for Jacob to marry Rachel, Laban tricks him and sends him into Leah. When Jacob awakes to find Leah in his bed instead of Rachel, Laban simply claims that it goes against the customs of the country to marry the younger before the elder. For Jacob, who has already twice flouted the privileges of the first-born by cheating his older twin out of his birthright and his blessing, Laban’s deception seems pointed and well-deserved. Or it would, were it not for the fact that two women are caught in the crosshairs of this comeuppance. Because, while the text says nothing of Leah and Rachel’s reaction to this deception, it is not hard to imagine the shame and humiliation Leah must have felt upon Jacob’s reaction to her presence in his bed. Indeed, even if Leah and Rachel were in on Laban’s trick, which seems unlikely given the times, the situation sets them up for a lifetime of competition and jealousy.

After finally marrying both Leah and Rachel, the text immediately tells us that Leah was loved less than Rachel and knew it. She names her first child Reuben, whose name means, “the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” Her second son she names Simeon, which means “the Lord has heard that I am hated, [so] he has given me this son also,” and her third son she names Levi, which means “this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Yet, despite even a fourth son, it is childless Rachel who remains Jacob’s beloved. Yet Rachel is unhappy as well. Unable to conceive, she blames Jacob, who seems not to understand her distress, and eventually ends up giving Jacob her maid, Bilhah, to bear children on her behalf; and when Leah stops bearing children she, too (not wanting to be outdone by her sister), gives Jacob her maid, Zilpah, who also bears children. Each of the children borne by the maids is given a name that reflects Rachel and Leah’s struggles with one another over the love of their husband. Indeed, even the children themselves get involved in the drama when Reuben procures mandrakes for his mother, a fruit rumored to have an aphrodisiac effect. When Leah trades the mandrakes with Rachel in exchange for a night with Jacob, she bears yet more children. And when Rachel finally gives birth to two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, we have arrayed before us the twelve sons (and one daughter) of Jacob, who will become the twelve tribes of Israel.

Yet no one is happy, and the family drama is not limited to the wives of Jacob but infects the entire family as sons rape maids and brothers sell one of their own into slavery.

The temptation is to whitewash the entire narrative. To focus on the humor and drama written into the story, to fast-forward into the future when what history will remember of Jacob’s sons is that they became the 12 tribes of Israel, or to forget the misery of the family in favor of highlighting the lore of Jacob’s love or Rachel’s beauty. And, all of these are valid ways to read the text, but if we fail to attend to the pain in this story, we do the characters, the scripture, and ourselves a disservice.

Because if the text had wanted to tell the story of a happy family, it could have done so. But it chose not to and so we are left to ask why. Because we cannot simply dismiss Jacob, his family, or the story, as a cautionary tale. Jacob is one of the primary patriarchs of the Jewish and Christian faith. Indeed, as we shall see next week, he will even be renamed Israel; and his sons, despite their many, many misdeeds, become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

I’d like to suggest that one of the reasons this story is told this way is to remind us to listen. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “In Judaism the highest spiritual gift is the ability to listen—not only to the voice of G-d, but also to the cry of other people, the sigh of the poor, the weak, the lonely, the neglected and, yes, sometimes the un-[loved] or less-loved. That is one of the meanings of the great command Shema Yisrael, ‘Listen, O Israel.’ Jacob’s other name, we recall, was Israel. Jacob wrestles with this throughout his life. It is not that he has a moral failing. To the contrary,” says Rabbi Sacks, “[Jacob] is the most tenacious of all the patriarchs—and the only one all of whose children become part of the covenant. It is rather that every virtue has a corresponding danger. … Those who, like Jacob, have an unusual capacity to love must fight against the danger of failing to [hear] the feelings of those they do not love with equal passion. The antidote is the ability to listen. That is what Jacob learns in the course of his life – and why he, above all, is the role model for the Jewish people—the nation commanded to listen.”[2]

In his newest virtual choir piece, created specifically for these challenging times (and which we’ll hear in a minute), composer and director Eric Whitaker writes, “May we sing together, always. May our voice be soft. May our singing be music for others and may it keep others aloft. May we stand together, always. May our voice be strong. May we hear the singing and May we always sing along. Sing gently, always. Sing gently as one.” In addition to singing gently, I believe one of the invitations of this text, in this time when so many people feel unheard and unloved, is to listen, gently. Amen.

[1] Wilda C. Gafney. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Woman of the Torah and the Throne, (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 2017), “Rachel."

[2] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "Covenant & Conversations—Vayetse (5768): Leah’s Tears," November 17, 2007, accessed July 25, 2020,

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