Breaking the Cycle

Every week a large portion of churches in the world organize their worship of God around the same couple of Bible passages, picked by some learned folks to cover most of the Bible over a three-year cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary. Since I often preach them and always read ’em, I’m going to blog on the weekly passages regularly. If you have any questions about the RCL, this is a helpful resource.

My Mom once told me that her main parenting goal is to do a little better with us than was done with her. Perfect parenting is a myth, according to her – there’s too much you pass on without meaning to, too much that’s out of your control, too much you mess up before you learn better. But you can hope to build, just the tiniest bit, on whatever your parents gave to you, and hope to equip your kids to build a bit on whatever you managed.

The more dramatic version of this vision of parenting is “breaking the cycle” – noticing the patterns in our families that are deeply unhealthy, even if everything else is great, and choosing to be the first not to perpetuate them. This is the Dad who chooses not to use physical violence, the Mom who makes the effort never to berate, the Parent who actively reminds herself to not pressure the kids into her own dreams, because they see how poorly it’s worked out for everyone for generation after generation.

Jacob, the focus of this week’s Genesis Bible story, was the bearer and progenitor of a long legacy of sibling rivalry and cruelty. The whole thing started with Cain, who killed his older brother Abel. Several generations later we had Jacob’s Uncle Ishmael kicked out of the house into a desert in favor of his younger half-brother Isaac. And in this passage, Jacob is only at his Uncle Laban’s house at all because he stole his birthright and his blessing from his older twin brother Esau via Mom-assisted trickery. In a society where birth order and family trust mattered a lot, this is not a good look.

At first, it seems like sibling relations won’t be relevant or recognized in this story. Though older sister Leah has “tender eyes,” Jacob had fallen madly in love with Rachel at first sight, crying out of love for her, and asks for her hand in marriage. The seven years of labor he proposes to give in return seem like nothing. When Laban sneaks Leah in instead, having Jacob marry her against his will, and then extorts another 7 years of labor for baby sister because younger just don’t get to marry before big sisters, we could be forgiven for missing the re-occurrence of the theme in our consternation at the trickery.

But it is there – in a potentially cycle-breaking way. Though we can all agree that consensual, honest marriages would be better than this situation, by giving Jacob Leah when he expects Rachel Laban is honoring the tradition of elder over younger, securing protection for his gentle daughter in a difficult and patriarchal society, and doing it without making Leah and Rachel into enemies of each other.  He makes the choice to enforce different priorities than every previous generation.

This doesn’t change everything – no one would call the sibling relationships between Jacob & Leah & Rachel’s 12 (!) kids ideal. Joseph’s older brothers sell him into slavery, and some are willing to kill him. But they are better than what came before. Nobody dies. Everyone reconciles by the end. They restore their relationships and live in love and peace together by the end of their lives, an improvement over the uneasy detente of Jacob & Esau, the exile of Ishmael, and the death of Abel.

Things never get perfect. We are human after all. But things can get better, little bit by little bit. Whatever the worst thing is that has happened to us, or the thing we’ve done we most regret, it is something we can learn from, and use to do better next time. There’s nothing from which there can’t be recovery, and no pattern of unhealthiness in our lives or our families so ingrained that we can’t make the choice to upend it.

Be like Laban, and like Jacob. Not perfect, and sometimes not even like-able. But following God, paying attention, and doing what they can to grow just a little bit from whatever came before.

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