Love needs justice
This week Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer reflects on Genesis 29:15-28
This week there is love and romance in the air. But it comes at a price: the price of both pleasure and pain.
Reading through this passage is like travelling through a foreign land: there is so much that is foreign to our culture, our way of thinking, our values and our society. Yet at the same time there are striking similarities with the emotions and issues that make for our common humanity. For everything that has changed over two or three thousand years, a lot has stayed the same.
Love at first sight
Jacob has now completed his journey from Beersheba to Haran. He has arrived at his uncle, Laban’s, house – in other words, at the place where he is to find a wife. As it turns out, he didn’t have to look that far. In fact, the first one he meets from his uncle’s family, is his cousin Rachel. The narrator tells us that his uncle had two daughters: Rachel, who is described by the narrator as ‘graceful and beautiful’ and Leah, who only draws a comment for her eyes. The NRSV says that Leah had ‘beautiful eyes’, which is not a particularly good translation. The Hebrew word used here literally means ‘soft’ and is often translated with ‘weak’ or ‘lustreless’. Whatever the correct translation is, the point is that Leah does not compare favourably with her more beautiful sister, Rachel.
Unsurprisingly Jacob’s eyes are set on the more beautiful Rachel. It is interesting and important to note that the bible seldom comments on the outward appearances of the characters and when it does, there’s often something behind it. Most biblical characters that are described as good in appearance (for example King Saul) often had other character flaws or one could expect some or other problem in their story. Hence the mere mentioning of Rachel’s beauty already alerts the reader to possible problems waiting…
But Jacob loved Rachel. It was almost love at first sight. The word ‘love’ is mentioned only a very few times in Genesis. However, here in the space of fifteen verses the word occurs three times. Because Jacob loved Rachel, he offers to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry her. Note how the entire arrangement is done without any input from Rachel. Marriage was seemingly an arrangement between the men involved.
Love changes everything
Seven years seem to pass quickly when you’re in love. The text says: the seven years seemed to him just a few days because he loved her. It reminds one of the song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical: ‘Love changes everything”. In fact, it almost sounds as if the song was written about Jacob’s experience: ‘Love changes everything/Love can make the summer fly/Or a night seems like a lifetime/Now I tremble at your name/Nothing in the world will ever be the same.’
After the seven years Jacob claims his reward: Rachel. Laban organised a wedding feast to which he invited the people of his place. For Jacob the day and night of his longing and desire had finally arrived…
However, in the morning when he woke up in his wedding bed, it was not Rachel but her sister Leah who was there with him. Jacob confronted Laban: ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ Laban’s response refers him to tradition: “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.”
You reap what you sow
Two important things are raised here that reminds us of Jacob’s own past: the issue of deception and the privilege of the firstborn. Was it not Jacob that deceived his father to steal the rights of his firstborn brother?
It is indeed impossible to miss the parallels between this story and the story of Jacob’s deception of Isaac: It was Rebekah who took advantage of her husband’s blindness to replace her firstborn with the younger one. Now it is Laban who, under the cover of darkness, replaces the younger daughter with the firstborn.
The early rabbis already noted these parallels but also wondered about Leah and her role in all of this:
“The entire night she pretended to be Rachel; he cried out to her, ‘Rachel’, and she answered him. In morning, ‘there was Leah!’ He told her: ‘You are a lying daughter of a liar! During the night did I not call out ‘Rachel’ and you answered me? She said to him: ‘Is there a school without students? Did not your father called out to you ‘Esau’ and you answered him?”
On a first level the story issues a warning to the listener and the reader: what you do to others, might one day be done to you. Life sometimes has the habit of giving us what we have given to others.
However, the greater danger and more important warning here does not so much concern the lives of individuals but the lives and deeds of nations and peoples. History is replete with examples of how the deceit and injustices inflicted by one group on others have come back to visit them, even if it was years, decades or centuries later.
The past comes back to haunt
‘It is not the future I fear, but the past’ is how American author Kurt Vonnegut once put it. Or in William Faulkner’s even well-known words: ‘The past is not dead, it is not even past.’ In other words, what we do today, how we treat others, not only as individuals but also and especially as nations have consequences deep into the future. This does not mean that there is a causal relationship to everything that happens in our lives and it certainly does not mean that we should think about every tragedy or bad thing that happens to us as some kind of ‘punishment’ or ‘retribution’ for something we have done in the past.
But what it does mean, is that the callous injustices inflicted upon people, the disregard for the dignity of people do not simply disappear in the wake of time’s flow, but that they brood while laying dormant, ready to be remembered and surface when we least expect it.
However, in the context of this story with its romantic overtones and unusual (in the book of Genesis’) focus on love, in the context of the general Christian adoration and affirmation of the word ‘love’, there is perhaps something even more important to take from this, something that flows directly from the way Jacob related to both his family and his wives.
Love is powerful emotion
More than any of the other patriarchs, Jacob seems to have the capacity to love, to do so passionately and also prepared to make the required sacrifices for his love. The author of Genesis does not only emphasise his love for Rachel three times in these few verses, but he also points out three times (in chapter 37) that Joseph loved his son, Joseph. For all his other faults, for all his other failures, Jacob could love and he could do so with patience and perseverance.
But then the surprising thing: at the end of his life, after he was reunited with Joseph, the son that he loved more than his other sons, he looks back on the hundred and thirty years of his life and what it brought to him with words that remind us of his earlier comment how quickly the times passed when we worked for Rachel. Now it appears that even hundred and thirty years passed quickly, but for a different reason, for he says: “Few and hard have been the years of my life.” Literally the text says: “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” (Gen 47:9)
Jacob does not explain why he says so, but perhaps the reason lies exactly in his love. For, in each case where Jacob’s love is mentioned for Rachel and Joseph, his love for them is compared with others: Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah and he loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.
There is no doubt that love is perhaps the most powerful emotion, that love is the strongest bond there could be between people, but the text tells us: that is not enough. Love alone cannot sustain a society.
Love is important but…
Love alone cannot make for peace. Love alone cannot heal the world. Love alone cannot make things right that are wrong.
Love needs justice.
Justice restores the ones that are loved less. Justice heals the unloved. Justice creates the circumstances in which peace becomes a possibility.
This is most succinctly summarised by the prophet Micah, when he asked the question what the Lord requires of us. His simple answer is: To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
A new kind of justice
Note how this combination of love and justice is also a focus point in Jesus’ ministry, especially in his critique of the Pharisees: But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)
In Jesus’ preaching of God’s Kingdom – the new world that He came to inaugurate – it was not so much love, but justice that guided and created this world.
Herein lies the reason that the John 3:16 does not only say ‘For so God loved the world…” but it continues “…that he gave his only Son.” God’s loving kindness finds its fulfilment in the gift of the Son, a gift that includes a sacrifice that establishes a new kind of justice: the justice of grace and mercy.
Love is important. But it needs justice.
Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer, United Theological College