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Of Pain and Family


It can’t be helped, I suppose. Families incubate and perpetuate their brokenness. Until we are finally and fully healed, we will hurt each other – and often in ways that mimic the ways in which we have been hurt. We aren’t as guarded around family, we live in close quarters, and so we bump up against each other’s rough edges and hurt those we love. Every family carries around some pain, but how the pain is managed or dealt with varies widely.


I’ve always been fascinated with the biblical story of Jacob and the junk in his family’s trunk (from Genesis 25:19 until the end of the book of Genesis). Jacob was the younger of twin brothers. He came out of the womb holding onto his brother’s heel, so they gave him the name which meant, “he who grasps the heel.” Deceiver, supplanter. But the parents played favorites. The father, Isaac, loved Esau the firstborn and outdoor stuff like hunting. The mother, Rebekah, loved Jacob the younger, who proved to be a homebody and a momma’s boy. But note the sibling rivalry that was likely spawned by the parents’ divided affections.


Jacob later took advantage of his brother Esau’s hunger by getting Esau to swear to give him his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. When Isaac was old and couldn’t see well and wanted to bless his son Esau, Rebekah and Jacob conspired to trick Isaac into blessing Jacob instead. Jacob dressed up in his brother’s clothes, and Rebekah covered him with goatskins because Esau was a hairy fellow. Jacob took in his father’s favorite food and pretended to be his brother. Isaac was suspicious and kept asking if the person in front of him was really Esau. Jacob kept pretending and deceiving and eventually got the blessing. The ongoing nature of the deliberate deception is quite disturbing to read about.


So Esau is robbed of his blessing and plans to kill Jacob once their father dies. Rebekah finds out about it and sends Jacob away to her brother in Haran, a journey of nearly 500 miles. Jacob lives with his uncle Laban for twenty years, laboring fourteen years for the joy of marrying Laban’s two daughters and another six years for a share of the livestock. Turns out that Laban is a bigger schemer and swindler than Jacob. Jacob thought he was laboring seven years to marry the younger daughter Rachel, but Laban slipped the older daughter Leah into the marriage tent on Jacob’s wedding night (I imagine there was a serious alcohol-induced cloud that made that switcheroo possible)! Poor Leah. Can you imagine how used and rejected she must have felt – not only by her father, but also by her new husband when he awoke and was not well pleased to find the “wrong woman” there?


For the next thirteen years, Laban and Jacob jockey to out-maneuver each other, while Leah and Rachel jockey for their husband’s love and affection. Jacob is attracted most to Rachel and loves her more than Leah, but Leah is cranking out the sons while Rachel is barren. In jealousy, Rachel gives her maidservant to Jacob to try to get children (another weird notion that seems to run in the family – see the Abram-Sarai-Hagar story two generations back) and Leah returns the favor with her maidservant. So Jacob now has four wives and concubines to juggle, and eventually has twelve sons and a daughter from this crazy relational mess. Can you imagine?!


The whole parents-playing-favorites problem was apparently lost on Jacob, perhaps because he was the one who came out ahead of his brother. Regardless, Jacob favors the children of his favorite wife, Rachel. Joseph and Benjamin are the sons of his heart. But they are far enough apart in age, that Joseph really gets all the attention right in front of the face of all his other siblings. Jacob gives Joseph a special robe of many colors, and lets him stay home and keep the books while his brothers are out in the field with the sheep.


No surprise that the brothers are jealous and can’t stand Joseph. To make it worse, Joseph has dreams in which all his family bow down before him, and he is foolish enough to share his dreams with his siblings. They despise him so much that they plot to destroy him. In the fields one day they throw Joseph into a pit, pull him out and sell him to a caravan of Midianite traders, tear his multi-colored robe and dip it in animal blood, and then present the robe to Jacob insinuating that something terrible must have happened to their brother.


What a devastating echo of Jacob’s own deception of his father so many years earlier! Jacob assumes that a wild animal has torn his son to pieces and he goes into an interminable period of mourning for Joseph that wracks his scheming sons with guilt.


Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. No way to confess now that dad is so devastated. No way to undo what they’ve done. The palpable pain of Jacob drags the whole family down into chronic semi-depression. Each son relating to the guilt in their own way, blaming themselves or blaming each other, desperately trying to comfort dad and gain his blessing or approval. The fruit of Jacob’s deceptions and favoritism and that of his sons’ envy and hatred have cast a dark shadow over the entire family and rendered all the relationships so dysfunctional as to make God’s promise to bless the nations of the world through Jacob’s tribe (Gen 28:14) seem an impossibility.


But is anything too hard for the Lord (Gen 18:14)? What Jacob’s sons meant for evil by getting rid of their brother Joseph...? God was actually in the midst of all of that. What they intended for Joseph’s harm, God was intending for their good. It seems that even the deceiving and scheming sons of a deceiver and schemer can’t get one over on God. His schemes prevail.


More on that next time….


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