Sermon: Biblical Family

July 30, 2023

Genesis 29:15-28
Romans 8:26-39

This is an era in which legal and social definitions of family have been shifting. I suspect you could say that about most eras, but it does seem quite true of this one.

Amidst all that shifting, some voices have raised and praised the standard of “Biblical marriage.” They describe that standard as being ever and always “between one man and one woman.”

Like, you know, the story of Jacob and Rachel. Oops. I mean Jacob and Leah. And Rachel.

Well, at least they were married. And Jacob only had children by his wives, right? Leah had six sons and a daughter. Rachel had two sons. But Rachel insisted that her slave Bilhah join with her husband to produce two sons, and Leah did the same with her slave Zilpah to birth two more sons. Of Jacob’s thirteen children, four were born to slave women of his household.

As Timothy F. Simpson writes at, “At the present time, some in the church are advocating a so-called ‘biblical definition of marriage,’ despite the fact that nothing like that exists. Instead, as this text exemplifies, what one has in scripture is not a definition of marriage, but rather a series of narrative portrayals of varying configurations of persons whom the text presents as having appropriate sexual contact, sometimes married and sometimes not, sometimes to one person, sometimes not.”

There’s just so much going on here. Neither Rachel nor Leah appeared to have any power to decide for themselves. The arrangement between Jacob and Laban was an economic one, a labor contract, payment for services rendered. What did you get for seven years of agricultural work? One woman. For fourteen years labor, you got two women. What, not even a discount?

Some people today seem to want to live in such a society. I don’t. I hope you don’t.

Jacob’s marriage to Leah took place by deceit. He believed he was marrying Rachel, but between the veil and the darkness he didn’t realize he was with Leah. Lots of commentators spend lots of time speculating on why he didn’t figure out he was with the wrong woman during the night, and I simply don’t want to go there. Laban claimed it wasn’t appropriate for the younger sister to marry before the elder, and that makes some sense, I suppose, but wasn’t there a better way to handle that? He could have let Jacob know seven years earlier that Leah had to be married first, and who knows? Jacob might have helped that to happen somehow. Instead, Laban broke his word, forced both his daughters to do his bidding, and set up a family rivalry that poisoned all their relationships. That sort of thing happens when you lie.

An ‘apapane grandfather knows better than that.

The commentators also frequently mention that this is when Jacob, who’d already won his father’s inheritance and blessing by deceit, was himself deceived. In chapter 29, however, Jacob and Laban hold a contest in fraud, each trying to trick the other into a greater portion of the family’s animal flocks and herds.

By the way, Jacob won that one. And then he fled with the family and the flocks. And Rachel stole Laban’s household gods, which reminds me of the way Jacob had stolen his father’s blessing years before.

As Beth L. Tanner writes at Working Preacher, “To look on this family is to look straight into human brokenness. To look on the culture is to hold up a mirror to our world that still judges individuals on their appearance and treats women as less than men.”

This text illustrates just how difficult it can be to read the Bible. I spent years reading the stories of Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Zilpah and Bilhah without noticing anything wrong. It was the Bible; it must be all right.

Do you really think it was all right for Esau, defrauded of his birthright and blessing? Or Isaac, deceived by his wife and son in his disability? Or Leah, sent to the bed of a man who did not expect her? Or Jacob himself, the deceiver deceived?

If we do not read the Scriptures with some sense of the human pain within these stories, we will miss its warnings. Yes, these are the stories of the founders of the faith. They were faithful people, yes. They were not perfect.

As Valerie Bridgeman writes at Working Preacher, “God’s promises through the saga of human history are messy. Sibling rivalry, heartbreak, births, child losses, barrenness, and more are contained with the narratives.”

The Bible is many things. It contains narratives of people who lived in relationship with God – sometimes doing well, sometimes doing not so well, sometimes doing not well at all. It contains elaborate legal codes for organizing a nation that worked reasonably well in an agricultural setting with low technology, slow communications, and unreliable water sources. It contains historical narratives – not official records, but stories, mind you – that record how much the nations based on those codes struggled to stick to them, and the ways that centralized power and wealth warped and tore them.

The Bible contains astonishing poetry that praises the goodness of God and it contains poetry that petitions pitiless revenge on the author’s enemies. The Bible contains innumerable examples of people who spoke one word and performed different actions. The apostle Paul, who wrote these stirring words, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” had a very bad habit of judging other people, particularly Christians. He also couldn’t see the full meaning of his own wisdom. The one who wrote that in Christ there was no difference between slave or free directed an escaped slave to return to his slaveholder, and didn’t even advise that slaveholder to release him when he returned.

Dr. Bridgeman is right. God’s promises grow in the messiness of human life, with all its pain and sorrow.

People can and do still advocate for some standard of “Biblical marriage.” They’re at liberty to do that. It’s not “Biblical,” however, precisely because there are so many relationships described in a series of books that took a thousand years or more to compose. You’ll find marriages between one man and one woman in the Bible, but they don’t glow with any special virtue of great examples. Paul, you might recall, decided that marriage was really difficult, and recommended against doing it at all. Since he believed that the end of the world was coming soon, he wasn’t worried about a next human generation.

If we want some relationship guidance from the Bible, I think we have to look to those places of human pain, like the pain experienced by Leah, Rachel, Jacob, and even Laban in this story, like the pain experienced by the children in the next series of stories and by Jacob’s brother and parents in the previous series of stories. I think we have to start with a standard of honesty and truth. “Jacob, Leah has to marry first. We’ve got seven years. Let’s see what we can do about that.” “Jacob, Leah isn’t married and you’ve been here seven years. Would you like two wives?”

Oh, yes: “Leah, how do you feel about that? Rachel, how do you feel about that?”

“Brother Laban, I am not going to pretend to be Rachel and deceive someone who’s going to be my husband.”

“Sister Leah, I won’t do that to you.”


I think we also have to allow all people the agency to make their own choices as best they can, at least until those choices cause harm to others. Leah and Rachel stand for generations of women in so many cultures left with few options. Jacob himself represents younger sons of so many cultures left scrambling by uneven inheritances. One remarkable thing about these stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is how much focus they place on the blessing passing to a single child – despite the fact that God has promised to turn Abraham’s small family into a “great nation.” How you create a great nation while at the same time limiting the promise to a single member of each new generation is, well, it’s beyond me.

Respect. Truth. Dignity. Agency. These are not the universal features of human relationships in the Bible, it’s true. Nor are they the universal features of human relationships among us.

But they should be.


by Eric Anderson

Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric preaches from a manuscript, but he does tend to… improvise. The sermon recording does not precisely match the text he prepared.

The image is Jacob venant trouver les filles de Laban (Jacob coming to find the daughters of Laban), by Louis Gauffier, 1787. Digital image by Pyb – Own work, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on July 30, 2023

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