Every year, my husband and I go away for a couple of nights to celebrate our wedding anniversary, usually somewhere suitably romantic – rural Derbyshire, Lindisfarne, Fountains Abbey, Paris. So you can imagine my surprise when, three years ago, he announced that he’d found the perfect place to go for our fourth anniversary … Sunderland!
I have nothing against Sunderland – indeed, it occupies a nostalgic little spot in my heart as the first home of my brother and sister-in-law, visits spent wandering the beach at South Shields or going to Beamish. But it doesn’t come top of my list of holiday destinations, romantic or otherwise!
Fear not though – my other half hadn’t failed miserably on the ‘good husband’ front; he’d found a holiday cottage in a lighthouse and a good time was had by all. One of the biggest surprises of the trip was a visit to the Winter Gardens in Sunderland itself. There, in the middle of the city on a sunny-but-cold January day, we found an oasis of beauty in the most unexpected of places.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much beauty in the story of Jacob, many times great grandfather of Joseph and, through him, Jesus. He begins by tricking his brother and father into giving him the birthright of the oldest son, fracturing family bonds seemingly beyond repair. He is then tricked himself by his uncle, deceived into marrying the older of two sisters when it is the younger one that he loves and has worked for. Ultimately married to both sisters, with sons coming out of his ears (not literally!) and favouritism rife, this doesn’t seem to be a family worthy of the Son of God.
The cycle of deception at the centre of Jacob’s story is embedded in the Old Testament workings of justice. Jacob has deceived his father and brother, so his deception at the hands of Laban (his uncle) is, in isolation, a restoring of balance. But this kind of justice is also deeply problematic – for each act of deception, while restoring one balance, creates an imbalance elsewhere, causing further damage. Every time dishonesty occurs, the impact on innocent lives increases, stifling the potential God has created, whether that be the potential of an oldest son to be a good steward of his father’s wealth, or the potential for daughters to be loved and valued in healthy marriage relationships.
Parental responsibility plays its role here – when Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, it is his mother, Rebekah, who instructs him in his dishonesty; when Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his elder daughter, Leah, he makes her complicit in the ruse. Both stories reveal parents encouraging their children in the art of deception, almost teaching them how to deceive. And this parental involvement almost inevitably takes place against a backdrop of favouritism – as the youngest of twins, Jacob was his mother’s favoured son, while his brother Esau was his father’s. This is a mistake which Jacob repeats with his wives, favouring Rachel over her sister, Leah, and later on with his sons, favouring Joseph and Benjamin (Rachel’s children) over their brothers.
I wonder if what we’re seeing here in these cycles is still the fallout from Adam and Eve and the breaking of creation? We can literally see the waves of pain spreading and rippling through the generations, becoming a more and more natural part of how they live their lives.
So, are there any signs of hope in the midst of this destruction?
Yes – for although creation is damaged, God’s image remains reflected in it, however brokenly.
And that means that a man like Jacob, capable of unthinkingly inflicting great pain on his closest family members, is also capable of a depth of love that can only be described as godly. His love for Rachel is characterised by a timeless patience and constancy that made seven years’ labour seem “like only a few days to him because of his love for her.” A reflection of God.
And it means that a woman like Leah, tied in marriage to a man who will never truly love her and forever in the shadow of her more beautiful and beloved younger sister, can name her fourth child Judah – meaning ‘praise’. In the midst of her painful, compromised life, Leah responds to God’s blessing of a son with praise.
It is from this family line - Judah, son of Jacob and Leah - that the genealogy of Jesus comes. From this bleak, messy tangle of relationships, bearing all the rawness of the fall and separation from God, comes Jesus.
And Jesus comes to bring a new kind of justice, showing a better way which wipes out the wrong things we do and releases us from the old cycles causing ever more damage.
Jesus comes into our broken world because God sees his image reflected in us and wants us to fulfil that potential. When Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, he does so with no judgement, no condemnation of her wrongs – but perhaps with a desire to see her recognise the signs of God in herself and become the person he meant her be, to fulfil her potential.
Maybe the lesson to learn from Jacob is to look for and truly see the signs of hope, the beauty among the brokenness, the signs that God is present in the world which shine ever more brightly when they shine in the darkness – perhaps none more so than the baby whose birth we remember each Christmas…