In our faith it is claimed that God chooses to enter into relationship with his creatures, with us, in special ways and at special times, with particular people. It is told that he made a covenant with one man, Abraham, and from that man he made his special people. From them came the man Jesus of Nazareth, the man who is the presence of God himself in creation, the Word incarnate, a man descended from Abraham through Isaac, through Jacob who became Israel, and through Judah, the son of Jacob and Leah and ancestor of King David.
That’s the story the Bible tells: that God is at the same time the creator of everything that exists and also the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; that God is at once utterly different from anything created and also fully present in one man, Jesus.
The Bible also tells us that history, the whole story of everything, has a beginning and will have an end. It tells us that our little stories, our lives, our births, our relationships, our deaths, fit into a single great pattern that is much more than the simple series of one generation after another. It tells us both that the great movement from Genesis to Revelation, is a movement from creation, through the fall, to redemption, and it tells us that each of us individually is infinitely and absolutely valuable in the eyes of God.
We are taught to look for meaning and purpose in our own stories and to do so by understanding how they fit into the big story, to take our narratives of family, of work, of community and to relate them to the sacred history of God’s dealings with the world. At the same time we are to look for the coming of the Kingdom and to respond to the gospel, the good news about Jesus by acting as its representatives. We are to accept the lives God gives us and to make them into acts of service to him.
This can be hard. The succession of days and years, the frustrations and also the joys, can be hard to connect to the Biblical claims. The love we hope for from God, the love we may or may not feel, might sometimes seem distant from the love we feel for the people in our lives, less real or less immediate. The part of our life to do with God can become separate from the rest of it, something for Sunday, or for when we turn deliberately to prayer.
A story like that of Jacob, his wives and his sons, can help us to see that this is not so. Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah are absolutely essential to the narrative that our scriptures tell. It is through Jacob that the promise made to Abraham, of the founding of a holy people, is realised. Jacob’s twelve sons found the twelve tribes of Israel, the covenant goes through them and through nobody else.
Their story, though, is a lurid one. A man in love with a beautiful woman tricked into marrying her plain older sister. That older sister nursing disappointment and pain over his lack of interest in her. The younger sister driven to despair by her childlessness offering her husband another woman to bear sons for him in her name. The rivalry between the sisters souring relationships throughout the family.
Neither of the sisters seems to be happy and fulfilled. Leah, with her six sons yearns for Jacob’s love while Rachel, his beloved, mourns her inability to conceive a child. God gives Leah sons in compensation for Jacob’s indifference. Rachel believes that without children she will die, while Jacob angrily responds that only God has the power to change her situation, as in the end God is moved to do.
Reading it we have no sense that any of the characters know that their lives are of the kind of cosmic importance the Bible gives them. This is a family drama where, from the point of view of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, God acts only to fulfil or to thwart their plans and ambitions, their hopes and dreams. Leah wants Jacob’s love, Rachel wants children, Jacob wants Rachel, wants sons, wants flocks, wants to be reconciled with his brother Esau and wants to see his mother Rebecca again.
From our point of view we can see that this drama is a moment in God’s long relationship with his people. Here the twelve tribes are founded, here the name of Israel is given, here the covenant is renewed and Joseph, who will take the people to Egypt is born.
Jacob, Rachel, Leah and all their sons die, as we all must die. The place of their scheming, competing and striving, their loving and sacrificing, their happiness and their sorrow, in the salvation of humankind is unknown to them. They know nothing of the culmination of the story of their family, their nation, in the birth of Christ is outside their conception.
They don’t know that Jesus will call a group of twelve apostles to take his message out and establish a living community of disciples that will last thousands of years; they don’t hear this echo of their twelve sons in twelve messengers who are the origins of what we call the Church. They know none of this and yet it is the inner meaning of their lives and they know, somehow, that those lives find their significance in God, which is why Leah’s fourth son is called Judah, for her praise of the Lord, her fifth Issachar, acknowledging him to be a reward from God and she greets her sixth and last with the words “God has rewarded me”.
In all the mess, pain and disappointment of their marriages and their lives Jacob, Rachel and Leah hold fast to the presence and the trustworthiness of God. They believe that what unfolds for them and what they feel about it matters, matters not only to them but matters ultimately, even when it seems senseless, when the meaning they seek in the love of their spouse or the lives of their children fails them.
We who belong, through the Church, to that same people of God have lives that are full of ordinary joys and ordinary sorrows as those of Jacob and his family were. For them the key thing was to have children and to occupy the land of the promise, those were the terms of God’s promises to them. The situation is different for us. The Church is not a family or a people in the same sense. It gathers people from their families and their nations into one universal communion. What is the same is that our stories, and the stories of our communities, will only be understood from the end of the narrative of salvation. Only at the end will we know what we’ve contributed and how we’ve mattered. What we can know, right now, is that we do contribute and that it matters, because that knowing is what faith in God demands from us.