“The Duel of the Duplicitous Duo”Dr. R. Lee Carter Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11; Romans 8:28, 31-38, Year A - Proper 12 (17) - July 26, 2020
In spite of the vast differences among cultures around our world today and even in spite of the great divide between the ancient world and the modern, there is one thing that connects us all: our love of stories. Stories are vital to holding us together as families, nations and as people-groups. Stories are the storehouses of human wisdom that pass from one generation to another. Stories shape the way we understand the world and how life works. Stories shape the way we perceive ourselves and others. We live our lives through stories.
What I have found amazing in my study of the world’s great stories are the commonalities of plot and the universality of certain character types. Students of mythology use the term “archetype” to describe these universal, cross-cultural character patterns. Examples abound of the hero as dragon killer, the wise old man, the precocious child, the evil villain, the shape-shifter, the damsel in distress, the orphan all alone in the world, the woman warrior, the threshold guardian, the star-crossed lovers, etc.
Among these archetypes is the usurping, double-dealing or wheeler-dealer uncle. You may be familiar with such examples as Hamlet’s treacherous Uncle Claudius or Uncle Pelias, the bugbear of Jason (of Argonaut fame). In Egyptian lore, there is Horus’ usurping Uncle Set. In Roman mythology, there is a similar archetype, the great-uncle Amulius who threatens Romulus and Remus. Hindus tell stories of Krishna’s treacherous Uncle Kamsa and, for many of us, Simba’s Uncle Scar of the Lion King comes to mind.
In our Scripture text for today, we read of Jacob’s sly and cunning Uncle Laban. Now, Jacob and Laban are perfect matches for each other. Jacob’s very name means “usurper” and Laban’s name means “white,” perhaps the perfect name for someone whose outward persona is nothing like the real dark, conniving and deceptive self within.
In our portion of Genesis 29, Laban and Jacob make a deal. Even if one is not familiar with the story, one can guess by what we have already said about these characters, that this is going to be a shady deal. Uncle Laban, after all, is a wheeler-dealer. We first discovered that in the earlier account of Abraham’s servant seeking a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24), where Rebekah’s brother, Laban, has his eyes fixed more on the gold nose ring than on his sister’s well-being (Genesis 24:30).
Although our tendency as Bible readers might be to judge and condemn characters like Laban and view his actions as the epitome of the grievous sinner, perhaps hearers of the story saw in Laban something lost to us: the archetype of the fast-talking, double-dealing salesman or camel trader, an amusing rascal the audience could immediately identify with and whose antics they would anticipate and watch for like a hawk. True, we might not find any humor in such a rogue but perhaps those who lived in that world did.
Every hearer of the story already knew that Laban was a wheeler-dealer and that Jacob was a shrewd-operating hustler himself. In a world without fixed prices and where people bargained for everything they bought, just bringing those two characters together to make a deal would portend amusement.
This same audience doubtlessly enjoyed the story of how Abraham, portraying the quintessential camel-trading huckster, bargained with God Himself over how many righteous people could be found in Sodom in order to spare the city (Genesis 18:16-33). Abraham bargains with such extraordinary skill and verve that he seems to think he can out-duel the Almighty! The absurdity of bargaining with God, although many people still do it all the time, seems to have served ancient hearers, who were expert in such dealings, as the source of great amusement and humor.
So what shall we think of this showdown of such two able scammers? Oddly, Laban, not Jacob, makes the first move. Jacob wants Laban’s sister as his wife. Laban wants whatever Jacob has got. Laban makes Jacob name his price. Laban, playing the role of the gracious and generous relative, asks: “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”
As a super-salesman, Uncle Laban knows how the useful art of reciprocity works. Jacob names his price: “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” That’s the deal. Laban doesn’t say that he’s going to sweeten the deal by bringing Rachel’s older sister, Leah, into the mix. Jacob was too much in love anyway to read the fine print. Like anyone in love, he wasn’t seeing things very clearly. If some translators of Genesis 29:17 are correct in speaking of Leah as weak-eyed (KJV, NIV, RSV), then Jacob is all the more!
In the end, Jacob had just what he wanted and Laban had Jacob just where he wanted him as well. Laban, acting the role of the gracious and reputable negotiator, assures Jacob: “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”
Jacob kept his end of the bargain. He worked seven years for Rachel’s hand. The biblical narrator reflects the charm of Jacob himself when he states (Genesis 29: 20): “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” [Note: Here is my advice to husbands who, like myself have been married a long time: make sure to use that line at your next anniversary party.]
How naive we would be if we thought that Laban would not be up to his duplicitous ways! At the wedding feast for Jacob and Rachel, a time no doubt where there occurred some imbibing in excess, Laban got his new son-in-law, Jacob, inebriated. How inebriated? Well, Jacob didn’t even realize that the woman he was consummating the marriage with wasn’t even Rachel, but her sister, Leah!
Jacob, finally realizing that he had been hoodwinked, complains to Laban: “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” The quick-witted Laban responds: “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn” (Genesis 29:26). Touche’! How can Jacob, the essential usurper, who tricked his own twin brother by violating the customary protocol of primogeniture, respond to that? Mark one up for Laban. It was back to work for Jacob.
Character humor is not absent from the Bible and certainly not in the stories of Genesis 12-50. There we find more adventures of the duplicitous duo, Laban and Jacob. However, the main thrust of all the stories in the second half of Genesis is not about the scandalous plotting of scalawags, but about the working out of God’s promises to Abraham and the mission of the people of God: to bring God’s blessing and salvation to all the ends of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
Inserted into the diverting account of Jacob and Laban is a simple side note that might have slipped past you but it cannot be missed. Laban may have done the switcheroo on Jacob the night of his wedding feast but we also read that “Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.” (Genesis 29:24).
Why should we care about Leah’s maid? What does that add to the story? Well, it may not add much to the episode, but it means a great deal to the larger story. Laban likely never realized how this simple act would change the history of God’s activity on behalf of humanity. The swindler got swindled! It would be through Zilpah that some of the great tribes of Israel, Gad and Asher, would come.
In the end, in spite of human treachery and failings, the will of God still prevails. Our God knows how to overcome evil intention with good. It is the supreme theme of the larger story of redemption. Perhaps it is best expressed by the character, Joseph, at the end of our book of Genesis (50:20): “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
The story of Laban’s trickery is remembered by our Jewish cousins at every celebration of the Passover. As traditionally as a child asks: “Why is this night different form all other nights?,” the answer in the Passover Haggadah is “arami oved avi,” understood as “an Aramean destroyed my father.”
Our versions of Deuteronomy 26:5 don’t point an accusatory finger at Laban, the Aramean, for trying to destroy the Jewish people but this is how some of the great rabbis understood it. What we can all agree on is that our God always finds a way in spite of the evil imaginations and machinations of those who oppose His ultimate will and purpose.
Our appropriate response to the saving work of our faithful God is praise. The author of Psalms 105 directs our minds far beyond the workings of human deception and treachery and elevates them toward the wonderful workings of God, whose dealings with us are not through shrewd and under-handed deals and questionable contracts but through the clarity of his Covenant.
Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered, O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth.
He is mindful of his covenant forever, of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.” (Psalm 105:5-11).
In our hours of grief and disappointments, when we despair that the right shall ever prevail in this world, it is hard for us to see the invisible hand of God at work. But that’s when God slips in a Zilpah unnoticed. We cannot always discern the hand of God at work, but we can learn to place our trust in it.
The promises of God will not fail. Paul offers these assuring words from Romans 8:28; 31-38) that we have learned to take with us wherever life’s journey wends:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose… What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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?
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died- more than that, who was raised to life- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
About the Writer:
The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and serves as the William C. Bennett Chaplain there. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy, and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
Psalms 105:1-11, 45.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
O Day of God, Draw Nigh
Children of the Heavenly Father
O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go
Hope of the World
I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord
And Can It Be that I Should Gain
Like the Murmur of the Dove s Song
Glory in the Name of God — G. F. Handel
The Kingdom — Andre Thomas
The Love of God — Natalie Sleeth
To Love Our God — Mark Hayes
Open the Eyes of My Heart — K. Lee Scott
I m Gonna Sing til the Spirit — Moses Hogan
O Give Thanks — Joseph Martin
Seek Ye First
Open My Eyes That I May See
Open Thou My Eyes