If you’re of my generation, or if you’ve got a taste for older music, you’ll remember a famous song by the Rolling Stones: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
You know the chorus, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”
It should be the theme song of Jacob, our friend from the Old Testament, as we hear the latest episode in the soap opera that is his life.
When we left Jacob last week, he was headed to Paddan-Aram, the place where his mother’s family came from, to find himself a wife. He stopped and slept on the way, and had a dream that shook him to his very core: God spoke to him and said he was going to lead the nation of God’s people. He made a shrine, an altar to God, using the rock that had been his pillow, and named the place “Beth-El,” the house of God, and then he kept on moving until he got to his uncle Laban’s place. You’ll remember Laban – he was the one who negotiated for Rebekah when Abraham’s servant came looking for a bride for Jacob’s father Isaac. It would seem that Paddan-Aram was the go-to place to find a nice Jewish girl.
We don’t hear the whole story in today’s passage, but Jacob has already seen one of Laban’s two lovely daughters. Here’s what we hear from Genesis about that first meeting:
Genesis 29:10-14 10 Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother's brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother's brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered the flock of his mother's brother Laban. 11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud. 12 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father's kinsman, and that he was Rebekah's son; and she ran and told her father. 13 When Laban heard the news about his sister's son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, 14 and Laban said to him, "Surely you are my bone and my flesh!" And he stayed with him a month.
It’s a twist of the story of the servant of Abraham who went to find a wife for Isaac, Jacob’s father. He spotted the lovely Rebekah at the well, and she was kind to him and offered him water for him and his camels. And now, once again, we have an encounter with a pretty girl at that well, only this time, it is Jacob who sees her and helps her and falls in love.
Well, now we are at the point where it gets interesting.
Laban welcomed his kinsman – of course he would, that’s the nature of hospitality even now when you live in the desert. He said, “Jacob my nephew, you don’t have to work by rolling away the stone from the well. You’re a relative! How can I pay you back for helping Rachel?”
You can imagine Jacob, thinking “Wow, what a question! I know what, or rather WHO, I want. I want Rachel to be my wife!”
But the rules of desert hospitality and kinship meant that there was a certain form to be followed. You just didn’t say, “Give me that girl,” you offered to pay a bride price. So Jacob said, “I’ll work for you for seven years if you let me marry Rachel.” Hard labor, to be sure, but Jacob was on the run from Esau anyway, so he might as well stay here with his kinsmen, even if he had to wait seven years to actually marry the girl. So what if it was a long engagement!
Well, seven years passed. A lot of hours and days and months herding the sheep, working for Laban. Finally the day came, and there was quite the party. A good amount of wine was drunk as they celebrated. The bride was all dressed up, with a veil over her face. That had to be so, because when Jacob woke up the next morning, who should he find on the pillow next to him but Leah! Not Rachel, the graceful and lovely one who he had longed for every day of those seven years. No, Leah, the older sister. Yes, she had beautiful eyes, but she wasn’t Rachel.
Jacob was heartbroken. He went to his father-in-law and said, “This wasn’t the deal! I was supposed to get Rachel!”
And Laban simply looked at him and said, “Around here the older one gets married first, so you get Leah.”
You can’t always get what you want, it seems.
So Jacob, he who had manipulated his way into all sorts of trouble, stealing the birthright from Esau, tricking his father into giving him the blessing that should have been his brother’s, was now himself the victim of what seemed like a cruel trick.
Seems like he finally got his just deserts, doesn’t it?
But Jacob knew what he wanted – Rachel – so he said to Laban, “Okay, I get it. You’ve saddled me with Leah. But I still want Rachel. Let’s make a deal.”
And so a deal was cut – he was to spend a week in their equivalent of a honeymoon with Leah, and promise to give Laban another seven years of labor, and Laban would then also give him Rachel, his beautiful Rachel.
You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.
Now remember, Jacob remembered what God had told him in the dream. He knew he would be the father of a great nation. So maybe it was a good thing that he had two wives, because then he’d have lots of children. Having more than one wife was not uncommon in those days, as long as you could support them.
He got what he needed, right?
Well, not really. It was pretty clear to everybody, especially Leah and Rachel, that Jacob loved Rachel best. Leah was heartbroken. God felt sorry for Leah, so he “opened her womb,” and she became pregnant, but Rachel was barren.
You can’t always get what you want…
The story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel got even more complicated – even their maids Zilpah and Bilhah got into the act – and you’ll hear a little more of it next Sunday, but I think you get the picture. Jacob had a clear idea in his mind of what he wanted, but it didn’t exactly play out as he had planned. It seemed God was a part of the story, too, and things played out as God intended them. Jacob, the manipulator par excellence, was not in control as much as he thought he would be.
You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.
There’s no surprise in the song, or in the story. We, like Jacob, have the things that we long for, the things that we crave. We do what we think will deliver those things into our hands. We do it all the right way, and then it falls apart. We can’t always get what we want. We are not as in control of our circumstances as we think. And the thing we wish for most may not give us what we thought.
It’s like the old proverb, now immortalized in a song by the rap star Eminem, “Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it.” Jacob wished for Rachel, and was sorely unhappy when he got Leah first. But it was Leah who gave him his first three sons, while Rachel continued to be barren. Had he gotten only Rachel, he might have never had his sons.
Jacob is not the only person who found this out.
Have you ever wished you’d get a particular job, only to discover that the boss was awful and you had to work like a dog and never got to spend a waking hour doing anything except the job? Have you ever longed for a hot sports car, only to discover that it always required repair and cost a small fortune to maintain, not to mention the speeding tickets?
Or is it like the song: you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need?
Perhaps when you went to buy that sports car, you discovered that the monthly payments were beyond your reach. Instead you got a slightly more boring sedan, one that you could afford. And you drove that car home and found out that your wife was pregnant, and you’d need to fit a babyseat in the backseat. You got what you needed, and it was good.
Perhaps you were turned down for that dream job, and then another opportunity presented itself, and you took a job that turned out to be a blessing for you and your family, and you were grateful you were there when you discovered that the first company was laying off workers in the office you had longed for. You got what you needed, and it was good.
Perhaps you wanted something, and it was denied you. You can’t always get what you want, after all.
But something else happened. Something that you couldn’t have predicted or hoped for. You got what you needed.
That’s the thing about wishing for things. We don’t always know what is best for us. We react with our hearts or our guts, and we cannot see the full picture of how what we want will affect our lives. But somehow, somewhere, God makes sure we notice what else is right under our noses. The very thing that we need, although we may not recognize it immediately.
We are imperfect in so many ways, especially when it comes to our wants and needs. It’s a good thing, isn’t it, that God looks past those imperfections and helps us find what we really need.
You can’t always get what you want, but God helps you get what you need.
"Let it Bleed," the album pictured above is where you will find the iconic Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want."