God Bless This Mess!
Topic: Genesis Passage: Genesis 29:31–30:24
I remember in high school a friend of mine named Billy getting blindsided by a test. He had not studied for it at all and what made it worse was that there were no multiple guess or true or false questions that would give him at least a chance of getting it right. Every question needed to be answered with a paragraph or two of explanation. Which meant that Billy ended up writing two pages of pure gibberish – his hope being that if he wrote enough words the teacher might think he actually knew what he was talking about. But what stood out in my mind wasn’t that Billy wasn’t prepared for the test – I remember taking a lot of tests in high school that I wasn’t prepared for – the reason I remember Billy and that test to this day is that at the end of the test Billy wrote this humble prayer: God bless this mess. Of course, when Billy got the test back, he found that neither God nor the teacher seemed to hear this prayer and Billy got a great big zero on the test.
I think of that story because as we’ve come to the account of Jacob in the book of Genesis what we have is a man that God has promised to bless, and yet his family life is a real mess! It was a mess when he was living with his father and mother and older brother Esau. If you remember from the past two weeks, Rebekah had conceived twins after 20 years of barrenness and because they kept fighting in her womb she asked God what was going on and God spoke to her and told her that two nations were in her womb and the older would serve the younger. Esau is born first with Jacob right behind him grabbing his heel. And from the moment of their birth this is a divided family: Isaac loves Esau but Rebekah loves Jacob and when it comes time for Isaac to give Esau the blessing, Rebekah talks Jacob into deceiving his father into giving the blessing to him. Jacob then has to flee for his life because Esau has decided to exact revenge on Jacob the minute Isaac dies. So Jacob goes to the land of his grandfather Abraham in search of a wife and he falls in love with his uncle Laban’s younger daughter Rachel and offers to serve Laban for seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. But Jacob the Deceiver is going to learn the hard way that what we sow, we will reap and his uncle Laban deceives him into marrying his older daughter Leah and then offers to give him Rachel as well for another seven years of labor. So Jacob ends up with both Laban’s daughters when Jacob only wanted and only loved Rachel and he ends up serving his uncle with fourteen years of hard labor for Rachel’s hand instead of seven. So married life for Jacob starts out bad, but as we will learn this morning, it’s going to get much, much worse.
Gen 29:31-30:24 (let's pray)
For Jacob and his two sister-wives family life is a mess. If this were a fairy tale, it would end with the words, and they lived miserably ever after. The story now centers on three people: Jacob, Leah, and Rachel who each bring their own issues to this marriage, filling their home with bitter rivalry, jealousy, loneliness, shame, and anger. It’s a real mess, but amazingly God works through all this mess – not just in spite of it, but actually through the tangled mess of their lives to bring about His redemptive plan to bless, not only their family, but through them all the families of the earth.
And through it, He also teaches each of them to trust Him – a lesson that we can apply to our lives this morning as well. We all have messes in our lives – ways that we have messed things up through sin, foolishness, failure, or mistakes – and in those moments we can be tempted to trust in our own ability to work things out, or we can be tempted to look at others and blame them for the mess we’re in, but what God is after is that we look to Him and trust Him to work out His redemptive plans to bless our lives and use our lives to be a blessing to others. It can be summed up in this way:
Prop: God will often use the painful messes in our lives to teach us to trust Him
For time’s sake, we’re only going to look at two of the main players: Leah and Rachel, and how God blesses them and teaches them through the drama being played out in their family.
I. God blesses the unloved Leah with sons and teaches her to trust Him
Leah is a hurting woman. She knows her husband didn’t want her for a wife and doesn’t love her – and what makes it hurt more is that the one Jacob does love is her sister. Like the rift between Esau and Jacob, this creates a bitter rift between Leah and Rebekah. And this horrible situation that Laban creates with his deception is a mess that never should have happened. Genesis 2:24 makes it clear that God intended for marriage to be between one man and one woman: A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife (not wives) and they shall become one flesh. Polygamy in the Old Testament is tolerated but never endorsed by God and throughout the Bible we see the heartache and conflict that polygamy results in. But this polygamy is made worse because it involves sisters.
So chap 29:31 tells us that when the Lord saw that Leah was “hated” – that doesn’t mean that Jacob literally hated Leah, but in contrast to Rachel, Leah was unloved - He had compassion for her plight and opened her womb and she has a son.
What’s in a name?
Now a lot of what’s happening in this story is going to be told through the names that are given to the baby boys. From the names Leah that gives her sons we can see that she has a strong faith and sees these blessings as from the Lord. Her firstborn she names Reuben - which sounds like the Hebrew expression, has looked on my affliction – and she rightly interprets Reuben’s birth as the Lord seeing her affliction. She names her second son Simeon – which sounds like the expression the Lord has heard – the Lord has heard that she is unloved and has provided another son. She knew that God saw her affliction and heard her cries. In this, Leah shows herself to be a woman of faith.
But she is also yearning to be loved by her husband and she hopes against hope that Jacob will love her because she is giving him sons. With her firstborn Reuben that hope burns brightly as she says, surely now my husband will love me. With Simeon, she acknowledges that God heard that she is still unloved and gave her Simeon, presumably to change her status from unloved to loved. With her third son, Levi, which sounds like attached, she believes that finally Jacob will be attached (or drawn) to her.
Leah’s pain is a raw pain – it’s a pain she needs to live with every day. And how did she get in this mess? The answer to that is complicated: her father Laban was the main instigator with his deception of Jacob. Jacob is also guilty: he doesn’t make any effort to hide his favoritism for Rachel. Rachel’s smug superiority over Leah isn’t helping things either. But Leah is also guilty – she went along with her father’s plan when she could have loudly protested. She went into Jacob’s tent pretending to be Rachel on their wedding night. Like so many messes, this one is complicated.
But affixing blame isn’t what God is doing here– He’s teaching Leah to trust Him for her life. And there are ways that most of us can relate to Leah. We have all had someone in our lives that we craved approval from but never seemed to get enough of it. Wives who don’t feel loved by their husbands, husbands who don’t feel loved by their wives. Children who grow up with the awareness that their father or mother never seemed happy with them. They hope against hope that the next achievement will win their affection: success at sports, success in their career, success in their family, and they will finally hear their parent say, “I’m proud of you. I love you.” Like Leah, they think of their latest achievement, “now they won’t be able to help but approve of me…love me.”
My dad was a perfectionist and when he would give me a household job to do, I never seemed to do a good enough job. There was always criticism and sometimes it was harsh. To this day when an authority figure asks me to do a task, I fight this feeling that I can’t do it good enough.
This craving of approval and fear of disapproval can go deep. And it’s not a one way street with children always craving the approval of their parents. Parents can crave the approval of their kids and live in fear of displeasing them. Friends can crave the acceptance of their friends. Employees can crave the back slap of their boss and bosses can crave the admiration of their employees. It’s not wrong to want to be loved or appreciated, but our hearts can crave it too much and when we don’t get it, we can become like Leah, trying to do things to win it.
Here’s what we can learn from poor Leah: our horizontal relationships need to flow from our vertical relationship with God. When we learn to draw our identity from Christ, our security from Christ, when we draw upon the love of Christ and are filled with His love, we no longer need to try to “fill” ourselves up from our relationships. We can instead give love and affection without craving it to be returned. We want to be loved and appreciated, but we no longer look to it to be whole. We look to Christ and his love to make us whole. And we look to Christ to bless our lives and make them a blessing to others.
Leah’s longing to be loved is totally natural and understandable – she wouldn’t be human if she didn’t have that yearning. But she needed to find that love in God, and she seems to do that with the birth of her fourth son, Judah. No longer does she hope that it will change her husband’s love for her – now she will simply praise the Lord for His goodness to her. She relates Judah as a gift from God with no reference to how it will affect her husband’s affection for her. God has blessed Leah and is teaching her to trust and praise Him.
God was blessing the despised Leah far more than she would realize: through Levi came the priesthood, and through Judah came the kingly line, including David and Jesus Christ. God chose Leah – the wife that wasn’t supposed to be Jacob’s wife – to carry the line of the Messiah through whom the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jacob didn’t choose her, but the God she trusted did, and she was blessed. Like Leah we want to learn to trust God for His blessings on our lives.
II. God delays the blessing of sons to barren Rachel and teaches her to call on the Lord
This really is a mess: one wife has all the love; the other wife has all the babies. Leah is deeply jealous of her sister Rachel who is better looking and deeply and openly loved by Jacob, and now Rachel, who until now has been smug in her status as the “loved” wife, is bitterly jealous of her sister Leah who always seems to be giving Jacob another son.
At first Rachel does not turn to the Lord, but in anger demands Jacob give her children or she will die. When Jacob reminds her that he is not God and can’t do anything about it, she takes matters into her own hands and offers her servant Bilhah to Jacob to have children for her. What this creates is a baby war between Rachel and Leah. Bilhah gives Jacob two sons and Rachel sees them as her victory in the war. She names the first one Dan, which was an expression that meant something like “God has vindicated me” and the second Naphtali, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and I have prevailed.”
In other words, “I won!” Rachel brings a whole new meaning to the saying, “kicking butt and taking names.” Rachel sees this as a war between her sister and herself. She beat Leah as a wife, and now she’s going to beat her in giving Jacob descendents. But she’s really not winning, and Leah grabs her servant Zilhah and gives her to Jacob and two more sons are born and Leah gloats, naming one “fortunate” and the other “happy” – in other words, hey Rachel, I have six and you have two (and they aren’t really yours). I’m so happy and so fortunate, don’t you agree?
We see how bitter this rivalry has become when Leah’s firstborn Reuben comes in with mandrakes – a plant that was thought to be an aphrodisiac and a fertility aid – Rachel asks for some and Leah’s bitterness spills out: Is it a small matter for you to take my husband? And would you take my son’s mandrakes also? What’s sadly absent is any desire to love each other or care for each other’s hurt – they view each other as rivals and enemies to be conquered. It really is a sad situation.
Rachel barters a night with Jacob for the mandrakes, but they don’t help her infertility as several more years go by with no baby. In fact, Leah has two more sons and a daughter. But here’s the important point: Rachel does everything she can to solve her problem: she demands of her husband, gives her servant to her husband, and puts her trust in mandrakes to produce fertility. Does everything but trust God. And nothing works. In many ways the pain Rachel is feeling now is deeper than the pain Leah lives with: she aches to hold her own baby in her arms, she hurts every time she sees Leah having another baby shower. In those days to be barren was a shame to the woman and Rachel feels that sense of shame deeply. The proud, beautiful, loved Rachel who up to now has little going on spiritually, is being humbled by God through her pain.
Finally, in verse 22 we are told very simply, then God remembered Rachel and God gave heed to her and opened her womb. God remembered Rachel and finally she is ready to acknowledge it as she gives God credit for taking away her reproach and then in verse 24 for the first time we see Rachel mentioning the covenant name of God as she names her son Joseph – which sounds like “add” and she prays, May the LORD (Yahweh) add to me another son.
Through her pain, Rachel, who was physically beautiful but spiritually shallow, is becoming more spiritual. She’s learning what it means to trust God for her life. Out of these two sister’s bitter rivalry the twelve tribes of Israel will be birthed. From them, all the nations of the earth would be blessed through the Jewish people who gave the world the word of God and through whom came the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. The Perfect One didn’t come from a perfect line. He came from a messed up line – because He came to seek and save the lost, the sinful, the messed up. Through faith in Christ we live in that same grace today and can trust God for His blessings on our lives and through our lives to others. (Call band up)
Jesus didn’t die for people who had it all together – because none of us do. Sin has made a deeper mess of things than we know and there’s no way we could clean that mess up. But the blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness. God is in the business of redeeming the messes we make into something beautiful that brings glory to Him and furthers His redemptive plan on this earth.
Where’s your mess? Is it a really bad conflict? Someone you are bitterly angry with? Or is angry with you? Is it someone you are jealous of? Competion with? Someone whose approval you crave? As we close with this song, I want to encourage you to lift your eyes to the Lord and surrender that mess to the Lord. Trust Him with it, and trust Him with your life. Maybe you feel like your life is a total mess – it wouldn’t be wrong to pray: God bless this mess. I’ve made a mess of things, others have contributed, but please work your blessing and plan in my life. Jesus is the master of doing just that.