Four Wives and a Heap of Trouble

July 27, 2008



Genesis 29:21—28

21 Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ 22So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. 23But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ 26Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ 28Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


Ladies, I will tell you a secret about men today. This is a dark secret that probably your significant other has never confessed to you.

Every man has fantasized at some time in his life about having more than one wife. That does mean a thing. We fantasize about all kinds of things. We may fantasize about winning the lottery, but we know that it is never going to happen, and we suspect that the multiple wives fantasy would never work out either.

But the cable channel HBO has tuned in so speak on male fantasy and produced a show titled Big Love. The show, set in Salt Lake City, follows the life of Bill Hendrickson, a modern-day polygamist who has three wives and seven children. Big Love demonstrates the one-man-multiple-wives scenario is not as great as we might have fantasized.

Bill’s wives include Barb, whom he married first. She is the mother of the two oldest children, who are teenagers, and one of the younger kids. In many ways, Barb is the most level-headed of the women, but the role of being the steady one begins to wear thin after a while.

Bill’s second wife is Nicki. She is a spender who is always fracturing the family budget; plus, she brings some problems from her childhood in a polygamist group run by her father Roman. That group is a break-off from the Mormon Church. Since the established Mormon church (sometimes called LDS) hasn’t supported polygamy for more than a century, Roman considers his group the true Mormons. Roman has a pious demeanor but a nasty, devious heart, and his latest wife, in addition to the several that he already has, is a young teenage girl. Roman makes lots of problems for Bill, some of them dangerous.

Bill’s third wife is Margene, who is the youngest and is the least inhibited of the three women, which adds its own tensions to the family dynamic.

Each of the sister-wives, as they call themselves, has a different personality, different dreams, different needs and different demands; and, of course, Bill has his own dreams and expectations as well. While they all attempt to work together as a family, there is often conflict, jealousy, sniping and a ton of problems, some of them caused by Roman.

Each wife has her own house, side by side on the same street, and the family members roam freely from one to the other. Each wife has her own car, and Bill has a car as well. Bill owns a chain of home supply stores, but the cost of keeping all this real estate and these vehicles going, coupled with the normal costs involved with a family of 11, is enormous, and Bill is constantly worried about money. What’s more, Barb is the only one of the women who works outside the home.

A further problem comes from the fact that Bill and his wives are trying to live mainstream lives. Many other polygamists in Utah live in compounds, somewhat out of the public eye, as Roman’s group does. But the Henrickson family’s three houses are on a normal street in suburban Salt Lake City. The family does try to keep a low profile about their unconventional arrangement, sometimes passing two of the wives off as single mothers whom Bill is simply trying to help out, but eventually they get outed, and that brings its own problems, including some significant ones to the two teenage children.

We could go on with details, but suffice it to say that if you’ve ever fantasized about living in a multiple-spouse arrangement, this TV show will cure you of it. All of which brings us to Jacob and his 4 wives and his heap of trouble. Like Bill Henrickson, Jacob, too, had a devious father-in-law who made things difficult for him.

However, Jacob himself is not exactly a model of honesty and decency. He arrived in Paddan-aram, the land of his father-in-law, Laban, as a fugitive. He had to leave his homeland in Canaan after cheating his brother out of the birthright that belonged to the firstborn and then deceiving his father about it. But still, here in this new place, Jacob hoped to make a fresh start. Almost immediately, he falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, and to pay the customary bride-price, he agrees to work seven years caring for Laban’s flocks and lands.

Jacob does this, but at the end of seven years, on his wedding night, when Jacob has been drinking far too much wine and is probably not seeing very well, Laban pulls a classic bait-and-switch, and sends Rachel’s older sister Leah into the wedding tent. Leah was veiled from head to toe and Jacob was more than a little tipsy, and Jacob does not realize that he went to bed with ugly Betty until he sobers up the next morning.

You might say, why didn’t Jacob just divorce this unwanted wife? It was not simple in that culture. By sleeping with her, Jacob has reduced Leah’s marriage value of practically nothing. She probably cannot remarry, and thus she must go back to her family and the family must take care of her, which probably will alienate her family and they will never give him Rachel. So basically, if he wants Rachel, he is stuck with Leah.

Jacob confronts Laban about the wedding night deception, who brushes his trick off by saying “This is not done in our country — giving the younger before the firstborn.” Now we don’t actually know that was the custom in Laban’s country. He probably made that up, but in any case there is a kind of poetic justice in Laban’s statement. It’s as if Laban is saying, “You may have stepped ahead of your older brother where you came from, but that kind of thing is not done here.” Laban then says Jacob can have Rachel as well; Jacob can marry her as soon as the one-week honeymoon with Leah is over, but he will have to work another seven years for Laban to pay the second bride-price. So that is what happens.

In short order then, Jacob has, in effect, four wives, because both Leah and Rachel come with a maid, and in the custom of that day, they become partners to Jacob as well.

You might say, well all this happened over 4000 years ago—different culture different time. They had different family values. And that is true, but the point is that even by the standards of the ancient Middle East, Jacob’s family was dysfunctional. We don’t know how Jacob felt about the two maids, Zilpah and Bilhah, but Genesis clearly states that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.

On one level, who can blame him? He did not want to marry Leah; he was tricked into it. What’s more, Genesis gives a hint that there may have been something unattractive about her. The NRSV renders verse 17 as “Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.” Or you could read that another way, Leah has nice eyes, but Rachel is drop-dead gorgeous. But the verse is unclear. If you read the KJV, you notice that v17 says that Leah had “tender eyes.” What does that mean? I don’t know. The Hebrew word has several meanings. It could even mean that she has some kind of eye problem.

But however that may be, Leah’s worse fault was that she was not Rachel. And Jacob loved Rachel and made no bones about it and made no secret of it. And this is a constant source of tension in the family. Later, when Rachel’s maid had a son by Jacob, Rachel named the child Naphtali, which comes from a Hebrew word meaning “my struggle.” And she declared “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed” (Genesis 30:8). Not exactly the testimony of a happy home life.

But that is Jacob’s family. Warring sisters, one of whom is unloved by her husband, slave women with no choice, a husband with a shady past and a father-in-law out to get ahead at his son-in-law’s expense. There are no family values here. This is a mess.

What can God possibly do with such a mess? Well, we know what God did with that mess. This family is the beginning of the people of Israel. The 12 sons born to Jacob and his four wives become the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. What’s more, this less-than-ideal family is even the beginning of the church. Christians are the new Israel. Centuries later, when Jesus was born, he was of the tribe of Judah. And notice this little irony. The Judah who was the founder of that tribe was the son of Leah. Jesus our lord came from the tribe of the unloved wife.

So what lessons can we draw from Jacob’s 4 wives and heap of trouble. Perhaps the first lesson is that actions have consequences. This is a messed up family because the people involved made it that way. Let us say what every social worker knows. Dysfunctional families don’t just happen. Individuals in those families cause them to be dysfunctional. Jacob loved Rachel so much, he treated his other wives like dirt. Jacob loved Rachel’s son Joseph so much he treated his other sons like dirt. His favoritism almost destroyed his family. Who was responsible for that? Jacob was. Who was responsible for the tension between Rachel and Leah, Rachel and Leah.

We are coming to a major question here. The question is, how do we reconcile God’s action in the world, with human responsibility for our own actions?

Someone may say, God was working through Jacob and his family to produce eventually Israel, and from Israel eventually came God’s own son, so all this is God’s plan and none of the human beings involved here are really responsible for anything. People were just pawns in some sort of divine game of chess. This view is sometimes called extreme Calvinism.

John Calvin was the founder of Presbyterianism, but I don’t think he taught anything like that, and certainly ARPs don’t believe anything like that. ARP’s have a dynamic view of God that goes something like this. People are responsible for their actions. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. Who did it? I did it. Don’t blame the devil, dont blame God. Don’t blame society. there is ultimately only one person responsible for the actions of Tony Grant and that is Tony Grant. Nothing else makes sense. If we are not responsible for our sins, God is an evil tryant to punish us. Why would you punish someone for something that they had no control over?

So that is the first major point, we are responsible for what we do. That leads us to the next question. What about God? where is God in all this stuff that is going on? God takes all our actions—good, bad, everything we do, and bends them toward the furtherance of his kingdom. Our actions are still our actions and we are responsible for them, but God uses our actions to bring about his will.

We see that in Jacob’s warring, tension-filled family. God used Jacob’s family to fulfill his covenant with humankind. This is not to say that Jacob’s family was admirable and worthy of imitation. It was not. God used that family anyway.

This is a comfort to us today in that sometimes we have difficulty seeing God ‘s work among us. Our economy is a mess. We are looking at the biggest government bailout in history. The war in Iraq is a mess. It is already the most expensive war in history and there is no end in sight. In the last several months, we have been worried about the price of gas. This week we were worried about even finding gas at all.

You might feel like Chicken Little, ready to push the panic button and scream the sky is falling. We could all do with a little positive news right now. So here it is. In spite of human folly, God is still in charge. Things are going to work out. Things are going to be all right. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray that God’s will be done on earth. That prayer will ultimately be answered. You can depend on that. You can believe in that. Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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