God Uses Broken Families
In my Sunday School class last week someone quipped a humorous question about what Thanksgiving dinner looked like for Jacob’s family after the births of his 12 children. Given the drama narrated in Genesis 29:31-30:24, family meals with one husband, two wives, two concubines, 11 sons, and 1 daughter (and possibly some animals, too!), must have been anything but quiet. Still, the first image that came to my mind after that question was of Jacob in his patriarchal robes, sitting cross-legged on a cushion by himself in a corner of their tent (assuming the tent was more rectangular than circular), just trying to get some peace and quiet and not think about any problems. Because Jacob is the son of his fathers Isaac and Abraham, who, while certainly men of faith, were also themselves sons of Adam, men who frequently abandoned their post. Sometimes this came in the form of grossly selfish self-protection, sacrificing their wives to the lustful whims of foreign rulers (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18; 26:6-11). Other times this looked like sacrificing obedience to God on the altar of pleasing a wife, or in Jacob’s case, wives.
Genesis 30:2 gives us the only words Jacob spoke in the account of the births of his children: “Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Unlike God, whose speech is always simultaneously true, good and beautiful, Jacob uttered truth that was also evil and ugly. Evil, because he used truth to suppress his wife’s anguish; and ugly, because what could have been a loving rebuke was really selfish stonewalling.
We can also read this story and see the problematic mindsets of Leah and Rachel. Although Leah turns to God with a true and beautiful faith at the birth of Judah (“This time I will praise the LORD”), by the end of the story she succumbs to Rachel’s envious competition and returns to craving her husband’s affection (“now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons”). And Rachel, envious of her sisters fertility and despairing of her own barrenness, first tries to bypass marital sanctity through ungodly custom, and when that doesn’t satisfy her idolatrous demands, she attempts to manipulate God-determined biology with the use of magical fruit.
Surely God had lessons to teach both of these women, and Jacob too, but the story highlights the end of Rachel’s journey. It is only after the failure of human self-reliance that Rachel cries out to God, and then “God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb.”
Among the many lessons of this story, what my friend’s joke about holiday meals highlighted for me is how God used this family as a whole to further his mission, despite their brokenness. Leah, the overlooked and rejected older sister, tending to find her identity in family relationships, was nevertheless privileged with mothering the priestly and kingly tribes of Israel which produced Moses, Aaron, David, and Jesus the Messiah. Rachel, the beautiful favorite who was likely tempted to control through self-reliance and the power of beauty, was nevertheless graced with mothering Joseph, the savior of Jacob’s family and pinnacle of the patriarchal story prior to their oppression in Egypt. And Jacob, although not evident in this particular narrative, and with still more mistakes to come, rises to steadily higher degrees of faith, culminating in his prophetic blessing to his 12 sons and foretelling the continued mission of God to redeem the world through a family that is simultaneously sinful and justified, broken and redeemed, wounded and yet an agent for the healing of the nations.
I don’t know about you, but that is a great reminder for me during this holiday season. I am so like Jacob, likely to be found sitting aloof and unmindful of the chaos and crisis around me. I am like Leah, riding the ups and downs from abandonment to faith and back again. I am like Rachel, willing to relinquish my modus operandi of prideful autonomy only after confronted in no uncertain terms with my spiritual powerlessness. Prayerfully, my family is also like this family, one that will be used by God to bring light into darkness, not merely in spite of, but through our failings, mutual wounding, and wavering faith.