Over the last few weeks we’ve been following the story of Jacob. Last week, we heard how he ran away to his uncle’s house in Haran to escape his brother Esau’s anger. Jacob deceived their father into giving him something that wasn’t meant for him - Esau’s blessing – and Esau wanted to kill him. Jacob escapes into the desert and as he lays down to sleep, he has a dream. In that dream, God makes him an amazing promise. He says to Jacob, “I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on Earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.” (Genesis 28:13b-15a)
But how can God’s promise be fulfilled? To have descendants, to have offspring, you need a wife and Jacob doesn’t have one. Before he left Beersheba, Jacob’s father gave him the instruction to take one of his Uncle Laban’s daughters for a wife and so, with God’s promise and his father’s blessing, he continues his journey to Haran. His mission is to find a wife, but there seems to be some obstacles in the way of God’s promise being fulfilled.
Jacob himself is an obstacle. His faith is questionable. After God makes that amazing promise to him he says, “If God will be with me…and will give me food.. then he will be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-22) Sounds like he’s trying to do a deal with God after God has already told him in the dream that he will always be with him.
Jacob’s character and motives are questionable too. I always imagine him as a sort of lovable rogue… a rascal. Maybe he’s a sort of “Del boy of the desert”, you’re never quite sure whether he’s sincere or not and when he’s playing it straight. For example, as he’s travelling to find his uncle, he comes across a well in a field. He asks the shepherds who are watering their flocks where they come from, “Haran” they reply. This is excellent news for Jacob. That’s ‘wife country’. So he asks the shepherds, “Do you know Laban?” (Genesis 29:5). “Yes”, they reply. That’s even better news! His mission to find a wife is going well. And then, who should arrive bringing her father’s sheep, but Rachel, one of Laban’s daughters. We’re told, when he saw Rachel…and Laban’s sheep…he watered the sheep first before even acknowledging her”. Only after that, did he then kiss Rachel and weep aloud! Now this could have been an act of kindness to the sheep, or to relieve Rachel’s workload, or to protect his vested interest and future wealth. (Read Genesis chapter 30 for more about his interest in sheep). There is a comical air to this too – a humorous overtone – at the well he is clearly eyeing up Rachel and the sheep and this would not have been missed by the original listeners of the story. We don’t know what Rachel’s reaction was, but she does run home to tell her father. I would have liked to have been part of that conversation… can you imagine what it might have been like “Father, there’s some crazy cousin, called Jacob, at the well…he’s after the sheep… and me”.
Despite these obstacles, his questionable faith, his flawed character and his ‘far from perfect’ motives, God chooses Jacob to fulfil his promise and his plan for the world.
Jacob is not the only obstacle though. The people around Jacob and the prevailing cultural norms seem to be obstacles too. Jacob wants to marry Rachel. That’s his mission, that’s his route to having descendants, but his uncle Laban has other ideas. He is better at wheeling and dealing than Jacob is. The rascal Jacob has met his match and the deceiver is deceived! He thinks he’s marrying Rachel, but his uncle Laban tricks him. Instead, he ends up marrying her elder sister Leah and then has to work for another seven years to pay the bride price for Rachel! In Jacob’s time, the cultural norms dictated that the eldest marries first and therefore Laban deceives Jacob into marrying Leah. Brides wore veils and it would have been difficult for Jacob to recognise who he was marrying, but, to add insult to injury, Jacob does not even recognise Leah when he is intimate with her. Poor Leah, it’s obvious she’s not the most attractive of the sisters and she’s treated badly. I wonder how she’s feeling in all this.
The whole episode seems very unsavoury. Jacob’s marital arrangements are of course not a model for us to copy. Neither is his uncle’s behaviour a moral example for us to follow. The treatment of the women in the story does not sit comfortably with us. The story takes place in an alien culture where women are treated as possessions. We can get a sense of what it must have been like for the sisters if we think about how women are treated in Afghanistan or when we hear about forced marriages of young girls on the TV. And yet, despite the brokenness of the situation, the deception, the cultural norms of the treatment of women, and the absolutely wretched situation that poor Leah finds herself in, God works through the obstacles. We’re told later on in chapter 29 that “when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” (Gen 29:31). Even though Rachel does eventually have two sons, the promise of descendants is first fulfilled through Leah who goes on to have six sons and a daughter. We also know that the descendants of all of Jacob’s sons go on to populate the conquered land of Canaan. God’s promise to Jacob is fulfilled – God’s plan comes to fruition; even when there are seemingly impossible obstacles, he works for the good in all things.
What then is God’s promise to us? In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul reminds his readers and us that nothing will separate us from God’s love through Christ Jesus. God promises us His love. Now that’s all very well, but obstacles seem to get in the way; they seem to separate us from God.
Like Jacob and Laban, it might be our own character that creates an obstacle or a resistance to God. We are flawed characters, just take a few seconds to consider what it is you like least about yourself – painful isn't it. And maybe like Jacob, especially when we’re desperate, we try to do deals with God, ‘if this, then that..’. Or perhaps like Leah, the obstacles come from a situation that’s beyond our control. There will be times of suffering, times of loss, times of being unloved, times of loss of freedom. There may be a loss of a past that you preferred and situations in the present you’d rather not be in. Or, maybe like Rachel, you live in fear of the future, when the plan doesn’t quite seem to be coming together and what you thought should happen, doesn’t. And yet God works through our weaknesses and our sufferings, through our brokenness and our limitations, to draw us to him through his Son.
What does it mean to have the promise of the ‘love of God’? Romans 8, verse 32 perhaps best describes it, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Our God’s love is self-sacrificial love. He gave His Son as a love offering on our behalf, he will do anything, give anything, to ensure our spiritual flourishing. His love for us in Christ Jesus triumphs over every power on this earth and beyond. There is no trouble, no hardship, not even persecution or danger – nothing in creation - there is no obstacle … not a single thing, that can separate us from the love of God. And when we are too weak to pray, when the obstacles seem insurmountable, when we have no words to bring to God, when he seems far off and we doubt Him, He searches our hearts and the Spirit intercedes for us with groans and sighs too deep for words. He is present and attentive, and by His Spirit, he joins with our groans, prays for us and prays within us. He overcomes all obstacles and works for the good through them, be reassured, we can have hope in that promise … because nothing …. nothing…. nothing can separate us from His love.
1. Can you think of any situations where you have experienced ‘insurmountable obstacles’ but some good seems to have come out of the situation in the end?
2. When have you experienced the love of God?
3. The Genesis passage is quite challenging. How do you deal with challenging texts in the Bible?