Early in history

* I’ve tried in this piece (which, I admit, strains the definition of a ‘hymn’) to compress both the story of Laban’s deceiving Jacob (himself a peerless deceiver) and a Christian understanding of that story. (Jesus emerged, generations later, from the less than edifying behaviours told of in the saga of Jacob and Laban).


Early in history.midi


A cultural prejudice persuades me to withhold the classification ‘hymn’ from this piece. Its lyric is constructed in the manner of a burlesque of ‘Early one morning’, an English folk-song. By authorial sleight of hand the ‘I’ who narrates from the outset changes to Laban, the subject of the narrative, and then, at the end, back again to the first narrator; all this in order to compress a long and complicated story into a meaningful shape. The piece is composed with a serious purpose, but, since it is primarily an entertainment, can it seriously claim to be a Christian hymn?

The issue turns on the last stanza, which is addressed to ‘Jesus’ Christ, a descendant of Laban. The manner of the address is at first reflective (‘what mystery emerges…’), then performative (‘as I receive thee, I perceive…’). Worshipers review history in a positive light because of how Jesus is perceived: ‘the tree of heaven … lifts all life to you’. Within this understanding one’s receiving of Jesus is confirmed and deepened: Christ is the (embodied) hermeneutical principle by which history is most comprehensively affirmed. As Paul expressed it: We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to his purpose[1]

A further prejudice concerns the un-edifying theme of Laban’s story, which tells of outright deception. Laban accepted the wish of his nephew, Jacob, to marry Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter (whose name meant ‘ewe’), the price being seven years of Jacob’s working for Laban. But at the end of seven years, on the wedding night Laban substituted Leah, his elder daughter (whose name meant ‘wild cow’). A week later Laban relented, and gave Rachel as well to his nephew, the Jacob was bound to pay for this privilege by serving Laban for a further seven years.

Laban had tricked Jacob, but it could be argued that Laban’s role was to mete out justice to Jacob, who had earlier tricked his elder twin, Esau, into giving up his birthright to his younger brother.

In addition to his daughters, Laban gave his daughters’ maids to Jacob. With these four women Jacob, who was later given the name Israel[2], eventually begot twelve grandsons. Matthew and Luke both record that one of them, Judah, was the paternal ancestor of Jesus[3].

But in this song – and this is the point – Laban addresses himself to Jacob, and makes excuse for his devious behaviour: ‘God has made you ancestor of all whose love is true’. There is a double reference here. One is romantic – it might be characterised as epithalamic, focused in the fulfilment of marriage – dedicated to all who persevere in loving through the most trying of circumstances. The other is religious – it might be called fideistic, expressing the conviction that all are worthy to be loved to the death and beyond: it characterises all who ally themselves with Jesus Christ, whose cause is here conceived as the establishing of the rule of inclusive love.

The reference in the last line to ‘the tree of heaven’ is a veiled allusion to Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed[4], in which the smallest of all the seeds grows to be the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and makes nests in its branches. It invites doubters to consider Laban indulgently: from a disreputable action (from Jacob’s point of view) – the smallest of all the seeds – an endlessly hopeful future emerged.

The song is an argument; Laban insists “See it my way. Look back with gratitude”. Worshipers, caught into this attitude of thanksgiving, might find themselves reflecting forgivingly both on deceptions perpetrated on them, and on those that they themselves have perpetrated. For, unseen, but invincibly powerful, mercy is at work in and through it all.

Whether or not this song is accepted as a hymn, its underlying theme offers reflective material to inspire hymn-singers.

[1] Romans 8.28

[2] Genesis 32.28

[3] Matthew 1.2, 16; Luke 3.23, 33-4

[4] Matthew 13.31-33