June 24, 2018

Image of God, X: Waking up with Leah

Passage: Genesis 29:16–30

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When morning came, it was Leah! —Genesis 29:25

Some of you of a certain age will remember the influential 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer, with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep as a couple going through a bitter divorce.

Much of the movie takes place in divorce court, and apparently they filmed those scenes in an actual courtroom with an actual court reporter sitting behind her stenography machine recording the proceedings, and Dustin Hoffman was curious about her life and during a break in filming he walked up to her and said, “So this is what you do?  Divorces?”

And she said, “Oh, I did them for years. But I burned out. I couldn’t take it anymore. It was just too painful.” And then she visibly brightened and said, “I really love what I’m doing now.” “What are you doing now?” asked Mr. Hoffman. “Homicides,” she said.[1]

This sermon is about seeing the image of God in, and being the image of God toward, someone who has disappointed us in an intimate relationship, or someone whom we have disappointed, which may be even harder.

The Christian Church is not very good about caring for people who have suffered from fractured relationships, marriage or otherwise. In some parts of Christendom, divorced people are shunned or censured.

You’ve been following the story of the prominent Southern Baptist preacher Paige Patterson. A woman confided in him that she was considering a divorce from her abusive husband. He told her it was her Christian duty to stay married to him. A couple of weeks later, she came to church with two black eyes. She said to the Reverend Patterson, “I hope you’re happy now.” He said, “I’m very happy, because I noticed that your husband was in church this morning after a long absence.”[2]

A few years ago, Pope John Paul II told Roman Catholic lawyers that they should never accept divorce cases. “Lawyers must always decline to use their professional skills for ends that are contrary to justice, like divorce.”[3]

Carolyne Call is a United Church of Christ minister who was shocked to find herself divorced after seven years of marriage to another Christian minister. The Christian Church was not very helpful to her in her trauma. She says that the Christian Church is better at dealing with death than with divorce. I think she’s right about that, isn’t she? The Church shines when someone becomes a widow or widower. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a widowed parishioner who didn’t rave about how important the church became to her after she lost the love of her life. We know how to care for that person. We know who the victim is. But we don’t know who the victim is in divorce.[4] And so we fail to come close to someone suffering from a fractured relationship.

And we miss the opportunity to reach out to a sizable minority of Americans. Divorce rates have been falling for 20 years; still, almost half of all marriages will end in divorce: 41 percent of first marriages, 60 percent of second marriages, and 73 percent of third marriages.

Here are things you can do to maximize your chance of staying married till death do you part:

  • Try to come from a family where your parents are happily married. Your chances have improved 14 percent.
  • Go to college. Your chances have improved 13 percent.
  • Wait till you’re 25 to get married. Your chances have improved 24 percent.
  • Don’t live together before marriage; cohabitation increases the chances of divorce by 40 percent.
  • Become a Democrat. There are more divorces in red states than in blue states.
  • Choose your religion carefully. The divorce rate is highest among Baptists and lowest among atheists.

There’s this wonderful story in Genesis about someone who is surprised by the person he wakes up with. Some background.  Jacob is the Bible’s Trickster.  His totem or spirit animal is the raven or the coyote. Jacob, you will remember, conned his older brother Esau out of Esau’s rightful inheritance and then sealed the deal by deceiving his blind, aged father on top of it, and then of course the whole family is so furious with him that he has to flee far from home, so he heads straight for his mother’s hometown, and when he stops for a drink at the well on the city limits the first person he sees is his cousin Rachel and he is instantly smitten. Her beauty is legendary and her personality at least as attractive. Jacob and Rachel have never seen each other before, but this does not stop Jacob from kissing her on the mouth and then bursting into tears.

The verb ‘kiss’ appears 47 times in the Bible. Twice, the kiss is between two women. Thirty more times, the kiss is between two men, but outside the Song of Songs, which is essentially a collection of love letters between two besotted teenagers, this is the only time in the Bible that a man kisses a woman. One Bible scholar said that Rachel is the most loved woman in the Bible.[5] Presumably this includes even Mother Mary.

Jacob makes a deal with Rachel’s father, his Uncle Laban. “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage,” says Jacob, a kind of dowry in reverse. And the Bible tells us that the seven years seemed but a few days to Jacob, he loved her so much.

Rachel has an older sister named Leah, and the Bible leads us to believe that she is not quite as beautiful as Rachel. At the end of seven years, Jacob claims his bride. The festivities are staged. The bride is veiled. It is dark. Everybody has had a lot to drink. The bride and groom retreat to their bridal chamber to consummate the marriage, and then the most wonderful line. The Bible has this inimitably droll sense of humor. When Jacob wakes up the next morning, the narrator says, “And behold, it was Leah!” Or, better, “Oh wow, it’s Leah!”

It turns out that Rachel’s father has pulled a fast one on his nephew. The Trickster has been tricked. Uncle Laban wants to marry off his older daughter Leah before his younger daughter Rachel, so either at the wedding or in the bridal chamber, Leah steps in where Rachel belongs. “Behold, it was Leah!”

This event where a person is surprised when he finds out the identity of his bed mate is a common plot device in literature across the ages. It is called The Bed Trick. Chaucer uses it, and Boccaccio. Both Hercules and King Arthur were, according to those respective myths, sired by fathers pretending to be someone else when those sons were conceived.

Shakespeare uses it in three of his plays, but what’s interesting about Shakespeare is that whereas in most stories The Bed Trick is used to deceive or to harm a bedfellow, as in the case of Leah and Jacob, Shakespeare always uses The Bed Trick for benevolent purposes; he always uses it to get the lovers together who belong together, who are promised to each other, who are good for each other, who want each other. Gotta love the Bard.

But I love the story of Jacob and Leah because it is a common human experience, comprehensive even, almost universal. Many of us wake up next to someone we didn’t think we’d fallen asleep with the night before. We went to bed with Rachel but woke up with Leah. We go to bed with Jacob, the forefather of a great tribe, but we wake up with a fraud.

She thought she’d married Prince Charming, but it turns out that Prince Charming doesn’t exist. He thought she’d be a great mother, but it turns out she would rather do almost anything than change a diaper or play Chutes and Ladders with a five-year-old. She thought he would be a brilliant entrepreneur, but he struggles to find professional success no matter how hard he works. She fell asleep next to a handsome 25-year-old swain and then you wake up one morning and you’re both 60 years old. He thought she would love him till the last of all his days on earth, but the passion is gone and the romance has fled and your marriage has turned into a business partnership.

Even in the happiest marriages, we all eventually wake up with a partner we never expected to find there. It’s called life. We all change and grow and morph into someone completely different over the years. It would be terrible if we didn’t change and grow. In human personality, to stay the same is to quit; in human character, stasis is death.

Usually we change for the better, but sometimes, not so much. We grow apart. So maybe a marriage shipwrecks on the hidden shoal of excessive expectation. Or maybe a marriage crumbles because like every other marriage on earth it is a coupling of two flawed individuals.

And maybe there are no villains. I like the phrase ‘failed marriage,’ because it puts the blame where it belongs—on the relationship itself, not on one or both partners. It’s possible that both husband and wife are doing all they can to make their relationship rewarding and successful. It’s not necessarily they who fail; it’s the marriage that fails them.

This isn’t always the case of course. Sometimes there can be a genuinely bad actor in a failed relationship. There can be abuse, or indifference, or narcissism, or infidelity.  You know what the commonest cause for divorce has been in the last fourteen years?  I’ve just given you a clue as to the right answer: 14 years. Facebook. Middle-aged married people reconnecting with high school flames. One-third of divorces today cite Facebook as a cause.[6]

But sometimes we just choose badly. For heaven’s sake, most of us had no idea what we were doing or who we would become when we signed up for an infrangible, everlasting commitment. I was 23 years old, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer either, by the way; it’s a miracle it worked out.

But sometimes after waking up next to Leah, you get a second chance at love. Jacob works seven more years and Rachel becomes his as well. And between them, Leah and Rachel become the matriarchal progenitors of The Twelve Sons of Jacob, Joseph and his amazing technicolor brothers, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.

A long time ago when I was serving a church in Grand Rapids, I officiated at the wedding of my friends’ daughter. The wedding was at a Dutch Reformed Church in Hudsonville or Zealand or something, and at the rehearsal, the mother of the bride was sitting in her designated spot in the front pew on the aisle, just weeping copiously. It made me a little nervous; if it was like this at the rehearsal, what would happen at the ceremony?

But afterward at the rehearsal dinner, I sat with the mother of the bride and asked her if she was okay. And she said, “I was just thinking about my own marriage.” And I said, “Oh, sorry to intrude.” And she said, “No, no, no.  I’m so happy for them. I want them to have what I have. My husband just amazes me. After 28 years of marriage, I still don’t take him for granted.”

Her husband was standing a little way off, and I looked over at him, and to me he looked like the most unamazing human being. He was preternaturally shy. His hair was thinning on top and he was a little thick around the middle. He sold auto parts, I think, and not that many. The wedding reception was going to be in the church basement because that’s the best that he could afford. But she thought he was amazing. On her wedding night, she went to bed with Thomas, and 28 years later “Behold, it was Tom!” Not what she expected, but so much more. Not what she ever dared to dream.

And if you can say that too after a long relationship, congratulations. But don’t be so smug about it. You’re probably more lucky in love than skilled at it. You have just been the recipient of the unmerited grace of God.

And if it hasn’t worked out quite that way with you, be kind, to your partner and to yourself, for everyone we meet is fighting a great battle, and we’re all children of God, even those who have surprised or disappointed us, or whom we have surprised or disappointed. More than children of God; the very likeness of God, the image of the One who fires the burning suns and spins the flying planets.


[1]Reader’s Digest, from Vanity Fair, September, 2016, p. 64.

[2]Michael Gerson, “Evangelicals Are Having Their Own #MeToo Moment, The Washington Post, May 7, 2018.

[3]Melinda Henneberger, “John Paul Says Catholic Bar Must Refuse Divorce Cases,” The New York Times, January 29, 2002.

[4]Carolyne Call, “Spiritual Cul-de-Sac: How the Church Fails the Divorced,” The Christian Century, July 24, 2013, pp. 20-22.

[5]Astrid Billes Beck, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008; first published in 1992 by Doubleday), V, 601.

[6]Michelle Drouin, “Online Love and Infidelity: We're in the Game, What Are the Rules?” TEDxNaperville, published Jan 26, 2016