My wife Karen and I may be the only two people in the whole of Canada who do not lament the disappearance of door-to-door mail delivery. About a month after we moved back to Halifax last summer, Canada Post erected a new “superbox” diagonally across the street from our house. For the little while, almost every time we went to pick up mail, it gave us the opportunity to meet our new neighbours and introduce ourselves—and I don’t think it could possibly have happened otherwise.
I remember being present at a presentation some years ago where the speaker made the comment that one of the early factors that have led to the decline of the sense of community in our society over the past 150 years has been the disappearance of the community well. (It has also led to the disappearance of dysentery and cholera, but that’s another issue!) The point he was making was that the well provided a place for people to gather and also a place where they could exchange information and catch up with one another—much like our community mailbox.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that in the Bible wells are often the places where significant conversations transpire. This morning, for example, in the gospel reading, Jesus meets with a woman at a well, who not only discovers where she can find living water but that the person she is speaking with is the Messiah. Last week we saw how Abraham’s servant found a wife for his son Isaac at another well. And in this morning’s Old Testament reading we witness yet another pivotal meeting at a well, as Jacob sets his eyes for the first time on his cousin Rachel and the two fall instantly and incurably in love.
The story of Rachel and her relationship with Jacob is one of the great romances of the Bible. It is hot and passionate, as Jacob displays the strength of a superhero, dashing across to lift an enormous stone from the mouth of a well so that she and her sheep can have access to its cool, refreshing waters. It continues as he embraces and kisses her and begins to weep aloud, abandoning all the customs and conventions of the day. He is hopelessly smitten with this rapturously beautiful woman.
I wonder how many of us generally think of the Bible as a romantic book. If you’re like me, you’re probably more inclined to go to it to learn about doctrine. I was brought up on the inductive method of Bible study: observe, interpret, apply. And I have no desire to knock that method. It brings a discipline and a focus to Bible study that are vitally important. But the Bible is not just about doctrine—and one thing that the story of Rachel teaches us about, if nothing else, is romance, passion.
Rachel and Jacob’s attraction to each other was instantaneous, as passionate as anything you might see at the movies. Yet it was far more and far deeper than a summer love affair or temporary fling. Theirs was a love that sustained them through time. For seven long years Jacob and Rachel patiently waited for the day her father Laban would allow them to be married. And Genesis tells us, “They seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:20). Then, when Laban substituted his older daughter Leah for Rachel on their wedding night (and Jacob the trickster was tricked!) he was willing to work another seven years to earn the right to call her his wife. It was a love that did not dim in the face of years of family conflict and of the disappointment of childlessness, and that carried them through to the time of Rachel’s death in the anguish of childbirth.
Of course Rachel and Jacob’s relationship is not the only account of romance we find in the Bible. We have only to go as far as the second chapter of Genesis. Think of Adam’s words when he first sets sight on Eve: “At last! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” (Genesis 2:23) Think of the tender love between Boaz and Ruth, of Hosea’s unrelenting pursuit of Gomer in spite of her unfaithfulness—or of the Song of Songs, eight chapters of unabashed and sometimes embarrassingly sensual love poetry. (I once preached a series of sermons on the Song of Songs, but kept an eye to make sure the children were out of the congregation first!)
Against this backdrop R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, draws some broader conclusions. He writes:
As … [Rachel and] Jacob’s hot passion illustrates, the biblical view treats passion as the engine of destiny, for good or ill… Our loyalty to the future of sin cannot be broken by cool reflection… Only a counterloyalty, a counterlove, can set us free from our bondage to false loves… Only the madness of love and its arrogant disdain for human limitations can motivate us to seek fellowship with God. Thus, the sheer ambition of the promise of salvation encourages a view of the human in which the urgency of desire plays a more fundamental role than deliberations of reason… Christianity and Judaism prize the gift of reason. But neither misconceives its role or overestimates its power… The intellect needs to be informed, but it must also be energized, and to do so the passions must be engaged.
Is it any coincidence therefore that the final pages of the Bible give us a picture of another romance, of a bridegroom awaiting his bride and the overwhelming joy that follows (Revelation 21:2-4)? If Rachel teaches us nothing else, it is that God has made us to be passionate—relentlessly pressing on, as Paul put it, “to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12).
Erica Sabiti was the first African Anglican Archbishop of Uganda. As a boy he had been educated in church schools; he had attended a Christian college, studied in seminary, been ordained to the ministry. Yet through all of that he would describe himself as having for many years been eighteen inches away from the kingdom of God. What did he mean? The eighteen inches between his head and his heart. We need to have a faith that touches us deeply, that invades every area of our lives including our deepest emotions, our passions.
There is a whole other side to Rachel, however, that we cannot neglect—a deeply negative side to her passion, if you will. It is reflected in her fierce competitiveness, her utter unwillingness to settle for anything less than first place, even if that meant resorting to less than honourable means to achieve it. In that regard she was the perfect match for her husband Jacob and it led to what to me are two of the strangest incidents in the Bible.
Rachel had been forced through her father Laban’s trickery to share her marriage to Jacob with her sister Leah. What made matters worse, indeed deeply painful for Rachel, was that for years she was unable to conceive, while Leah gave birth to boy after boy. One day, Leah’s eldest, Reuben, was working in the fields when he came across some mandrake plants. Mandrakes are in fact poisonous, but their fleshy, carrot-like roots often resemble miniature human figures and in the ancient world they were commonly believed to have powers as an aphrodisiac or fertility enhancer. When Rachel saw them, she immediately wanted them. Indeed, so desperate was she to gain possession of them in the hopes of bearing a child that she traded her place in her husband’s bed for them. To her chagrin, it was not she but Leah who became pregnant, and bore Jacob a fifth son.
The second strange incident took place as Jacob finally decided he had had enough of living as a member of his unprincipled father-in-law Laban’s household, where life had become increasingly intolerable. It was during sheep-shearing time, when Laban was safely off with his flocks, that they decided to make a break for it. Just before they left, Rachel sneaked into her father’s tent and stole what our New International Version Bibles describe as Laban’s household gods. The word in Hebrew is teraphim, and it probably refers to a small idol kept in the house as a protective talisman. In 1926 archaeologists discovered an ancient near-eastern document from the 15th century BC suggesting that such figures belonged to the primary heir in a family, that possession of them was the prerogative of the head of the household. So was this Rachel’s way of finally supplanting her older sister Leah? Or was it just a means of finally gaining mastery over her father Laban after his deceitful behaviour all those many years ago? No one really knows, and Rachel’s motives remain a mystery.
It not long before that incident that the Bible tells us that God “remembered” Rachel and she gave birth to a son. Of course God had never forgotten Rachel. Her name means “ewe” and she had always been one of his sheep and always would be. Her problem was that she was so driven, so consumed by wanting to be on top in the worldly sphere, that that eclipsed for her the truth that she was of infinite value to God—that his passion for her burned hotter even than Jacob’s. She was a sheep for whom the Good Shepherd would lay down his life.
Leah the Unloved
Rachel named her first son Joseph. He was the most famous of Jacob’s sons and he would later save the whole family (and as a result the nation that descended from it) from famine. Her second son was Benjamin, from whose lineage would come Israel’s first king, Saul. Centuries later from the tribe of Benjamin would come another Saul, the man who later became Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
However, it would not be through Rachel, but through her sister Leah, that the greatest line, the line to the Messiah, would be traced—Leah, whose name means “weary” and about whom the only thing that is said is that she had delicate eyes. Poor Leah, always having to live in the shadow of her younger, ambitious, outgoing, clever, ravishingly beautiful sister! I suspect that she too may have been at the well that day when Jacob fell head over heels for Rachel. But he would have taken no notice of her. No one ever did. It was as though she was never there. She bore six sons to Jacob, and while he looked after her and was in all likelihood kind and tender towards her, it was always Rachel that he truly loved.
Yet while Rachel was Jacob’s choice from the get-go, God had his eye on Leah. And isn’t this God’s way again and again? As you thumb through the ancestry of Jesus in the gospels, you come across some of the most unlikely people: Rahab, the prostitute who plied her trade so conveniently just inside the town wall of Jericho and is commended in the great gallery of the faithful in Hebrews 11; Ruth, a widow and a Gentile who had no thought of ever finding another husband; David, the least likely of Jesse’s sons to take on the leadership of a nation, who was good for nothing more than to strum his harp among the sheep, but the one whom God had chosen as Israel’s king; Mary, a girl barely in her teens living in a remote village in far-off Galilee—and, what was more—a virgin! “How can this be?” she asked. But it was. And why? Because we have a God who delights in surprising us, who again and again chooses the least likely, the most unobvious people, to be heralds of his kingdom, channels of his grace. And that improbable lineage includes the likes of you and me!
Brothers and sisters, [wrote the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth] think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:26-30)
Rachel’s story tells us about passion. Leah’s story tells us that we must never underestimate what our mighty God can do through us or through others. Indeed, his strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). May their two stories combine to impel us to trust in him with passion.