The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Deception and the Hand of God

How Does this Story Look in the Narrative of the Matriarchs?

by Russell Rathbun

Old Testament Reading:  Genesis 29:15-28

For Sunday, July 24 , 2011: Year A—Ordinary 17

Rachel had long had her eyes on the birthright of her elder sister Leah. When she saw Jacob at the well and that he was her kinsman she formed a plan.

Stealing Leah’s Birthright

Rachel asked Jacob to take the stone away, to open the well and water her sheep. When he had done this and his sheep were watered as well, she explained to Jacob that when her father saw that his sister’s son had come to them, Laban would ask him to stay and to take Leah, his first born, as his wife, but that he should instead ask for her.

She warned him that it was known to Laban that God had closed Leah’s womb and that her father would deceive Jacob.

Schemer Meets Schemer?

Jacob was blind to Rachel’s scheming and he loved her. Rachel ran to her father and told Laban of his sister’s son’s arrival. Laban ran to him, looked at him and embraced him. He Jacob stayed with them for a month’s time, and Laban said to him, “Because you are my kin, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be?”

When Jacob said that he would serve Laban seven years for his younger daughter Rachel, Laban was not surprised.  He was not blind. He knew of Rachel’s long desire to take the place of his firstborn. He saw the way she looked at Jacob and caused Jacob to look at her. He thought to himself, “I am not an old man to be deceived by my youngest child.” And he devised a plan.

In the Dark

When the seven years where up, Jacob asked for his wife, Rachel, to be sent to his bed. Laban prepared a feast. He called his youngest daughter to him and ordered her not to leave her own bed. Then he brought Leah to Jacob and to his bed. In the dark, Jacob could not see that it was Leah and so he was deceived.

In the morning, Leah, lay in his bed. He went to Laban and said, “What have you done to me, was it not for Rachel that I served you?” Laban said, “It is not done in our place, to give the younger girl before the firstborn. Serve me another seven years and I will give you Rachel. And so Jacob did.

The Hardest Question

Why did God bless the womb of Leah with four sons, while Rachel’s was barren? Would a matriarchal reading be different than a patriarchal one?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Tamalyn Kralman says:

    This fascinates me. But, what is the “narrative of the matriarchs?” I want to use this in my sermon, but could you please give me some background info?


  2. Rev. Christine Engstrom says:

    I would assume that the “narrative of the Matriarchs” invites us to listen to the voices of Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah as they experience God’s promise making and God’s promise keeping with and through their lives. We have to listen more closely and imagine more deeply since the dominant voice has been and continues to be the “narrative of the Patriarchs.” In the case of the experience of Leah’s story, I would say that

    God’s favor is not restricted by human favoritism. Hagar recognized the God who “sees” her suffering and injustice at the hands of Sarah and acts to save Hagar and Ishmael. So too, God acts to graciously gift Leah with many children. God hears the cry of her heart for love. God who is steadfast love and faithfulness, does not force either love or faithfulness from or upon humans but always acts that way in response to human need. When humans close off hope and new life, God opens new possibilities often through those most marginalized by the more powerful members of families and societies.

  3. Rev. Russell says:

    Rev. Christine, thank you for answering Tamalyn’s question, that is exactly the point I was getting at. The is a subversive Narrative of the Matriarchs present in Genesis, to recover it we have to read between the lines and look under the rugs. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes amazingly about this idea in The Begging of Desire, her book on Genesis.

  4. Rev. Russell says:

    Correction: The Beginning of Desire

  5. Dogba Bass says:

    I have read this story for years. However, I must have missed the details of Rachel’s scheming as you lay out to steal Leah’s birthright. Did the daughters even have birthrights as the sons did? Please tell me where that narrative is recorded. I will return here to get the answer.

How do you read?