While Isaac and Rebekah are raising their twin sons (Jacob and Esau), Rebekah’s brother Laban is raising a couple of daughters back in the old country. Their names: Leah and Rachel. And God is about to write His third chapter of Salvation History.
Chapter one: Abraham and Sarah (along with Hagar)
Chapter two: Isaac and Rebekah
Chapter three: Jacob and ?
After Isaac inadvertently gives his blessing to the younger of his two sons, the older son Esau becomes enraged and vows to kill his usurping younger brother Jacob. Together, Rebekah and Isaac (the parents) decide that the best plan for young Jacob is to have him flee to the old country and find a wife among his mother’s kinswomen.
Basically, it’s time for Jacob to “get out of Dodge” for awhile, and give his brother time to cool off.
Their son Esau has two Caananite wives, a no-no in God’s eyes. Isaac agrees that Jacob’s wife must not be from the Caananite people since she will be the mother of the next heir to the blessing. So Jacob is sent away, to escape a brother’s retribution and to seek a wife among his mother’s people.
Rebekah’s brother Laban proves to be as devious as his sister Rebekah. Jacob is about to get a dose of his own medicine, and the prescribed treatment will last fourteen years.
It is practically love at first sight for Jacob. Before he even reaches the front door, he catches a glimpse of a beautiful shepherdess leading a flock of sheep. When Jacob discovers that Rachel, the lovely girl in the pastoral tableau, is none other than one of Laban’s daughters, it seems almost too good to be true. What luck! No doubt, this girl would have his father Isaac’s approval. This girl would make his mother Rebekah proud. Jacob sets out to do whatever he must do to have Rachel’s hand in marriage.
Laban agrees to give his daughter in marriage to Jacob in exchange for seven years’ servitude on the farm. At the end of seven years, Jacob marries Laban’s daughter, but after the marriage is consummated, the woman lifts her veil and Jacob discovers that he has married the older sister Leah. He is furious.
It is almost poetic justice. Laban’s trick ranks right up there with what Jacob did to his own father and brother. In one of the greatest ironies of Salvation History, the one who stole his older brother’s inheritance is taught a lesson in the protocol of birth order. The older daughters marry first.
The only consolation is that Laban agrees to give his younger daughter in marriage in exchange for seven more years of labor.
It is difficult to understand why Jacob would agree to such manipulation. Perhaps he surmised that it was still too soon to return home. Perhaps he suspected that Esau was still homicidally angry with him. Perhaps the humiliation of being tricked by his new father-in-law convicts Jacob so completely that Jacob’s response is more of a touché to God than anything else.
Whatever the reason, Jacob agrees to the proposal and works an additional seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Finally, Jacob marries Rachel and eventually Jacob reaches the limit of his tolerance for Laban’s shenanigans. Jacob packs up his wives and belongings and heads back home to the land of Canaan.
Holy Scripture tells us very little about these two sisters. We know that Leah had beautiful eyes, but that Rachel was lovely in every way. We know that Jacob loved Rachel more than her sister, which makes Leah a sympathetic character. We know that God blessed Leah with one son after another while Rachel remained barren, but we know that God eventually blessed Rachel as well.
The themes of barrenness and blessing are alive and well in this generation as they were in the two preceding ones. Additionally, the jockeying for position and preference doesn’t end with Hagar and Sarah or Jacob and Esau. Rachel and Leah have their own little rivalry for Jacob’s attention and affection.
In time, however, these two women become the mothers of twelve sons and one daughter. The sons are no ordinary dozen. From ancient times, we have known them as the twelve tribes of Israel.
God began with one man, Abraham. The divine blessing spread to one family, through Isaac and Rebekah. And now the promise finds fertile ground in the sons of Israel (Jacob), the people of God, a holy nation.
Together, these two women, once rivals for attention, now form a composite of Mother Church, and they prefigure the Mother of Our Lord. Just as Sarah prefigured Mary in giving birth to Isaac (Isaac and Jesus both offered as a sacrifice on the same hill by their fathers, both sons of promise rather than flesh), so too the mothers of the twelve tribes prefigure the Mother of the Apostles, Mary, the Mother of the Church.
Just as twelve men become Our Lord’s disciples, laying the necessary foundation that enables the gospel message to reach the ends of the earth, the twelve tribes of Israel (Jacob) lay the necessary foundation so that the Lord of the Gospel message may come to the earth in the first place.
Quite literally, the Messiah that links these two groups of men will come through the tribe of Judah. Our Lord’s foster father will trace his lineage through King David, all the way back to Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. But Holy Scripture tells us that Our Lady also is from the House of David. And so she, too, is part of this lineage. This is the genealogy of God’s son. No matter how you slice it, this is the human family of the Incarnate Word of God.
And though the lineage of the Messiah will run through Leah and Jacob’ son Judah, Rachel will be the mother of a beloved son by the name Joseph, also one of the twelve, who will save his brothers from famine and death (despite more rivalry, jealousy and treachery), so that Judah may survive and propel the lineage to its glorious fulfillment many generations later.
In short, Leah’s sons will need Rachel’s son. If we listen closely, if we study the point at which the lives of these two women and their sons intersect, we can hear the whispers of the salvation that is to come.
Human flaws of pride, deceit, greed and jealousy may seem to drive this handful of people, but the divine will of God triumphs in spite of humanity’s weaknesses. The sisters who rivaled for the bridegroom’s attention have now given rise to the House of Israel. The Bride of Christ can learn a thing or two about building up the People of God when human weakness seeks to bulid up rivalries and focus on yesterday’s mistakes.
And we, throughout the earth, descendents of the twelve Apostles, adopted into the family of the twelve Tribes of Israel, are beneficiaries of the greatest promise the world has ever known. We are living beneficiaries of the redemption, the hope of our salvation.