Preached (via Zoom) by The Rev. Dr. Michael Peterson on Sunday, July 26, 2020, All Saints, King City, ON, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Readings for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost: Psalm 128, Genesis 29.15-28, Romans 8.26-39, Matthew 13.31-33,44-53
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?’
I said last week that much of Genesis has a quality rather like Coronation Street or some other long-running family drama, in that it’s an account of flawed people in intricate relationships, sometimes behaving well, and often behaving badly. I wonder though if that comparison to a much-loved television series trivializes the problematic aspects of this part of Genesis, particularly gender and servitude as portrayed in today’s reading.. We can’t help but hear today’s lesson as people of our own time, and the way women are manipulated and used in this story, both as daughters and as servants, can be deeply disturbing and even prevent us from hearing anything of value in today’s reading. So my goal today, an ambitious goal for a summer sermon, perhaps, but done in broad brushstrokes, is to propose a way that we might hear today’s Genesis story as a waypoint on our journey with God to our salvation. I want to do that by trying to answer three questions:
Why this portrayal of women and class in Genesis?
First, why Genesis? At its heart, Genesis is an origin story, the account of how God creates a nation, Israel, to represent God in the world. God’s motives in doing so flow from his act of creation – Israel is created out of God’s grace and faithfulness to bear the image that God gives to the first humans. God’s covenant with Israel shows God’s faithfulness and patience with humanity, even when we misbehave. Genesis is our origin story because, as we’ve heard Paul say in Romans this month, God through Christ brings us the gentiles into Israel and we become one people, the church.
Second, why Jacob and why this particular story? Because Jacob is part of that larger origin story. Last Sunday we heard God’s promise to Jacob that his descendants would cover the world like dust and be a blessing to the “families of earth”. The story of Jacob and his wives advances this story because their sons will give their names to the twelve tribes of Israel. Some of the plot twists in the story, like how Jacob is deceived by his kinsman Laban who switches his daughters on Jacob’s wedding night, must have delighted generations of listeners when this origin story of Israel was recounted. The idea of the trickster tricked, as the wily Jacob is tricked, must have elicited chuckles around countless campfires over the long centuries. God’s family, like any family, has its share of scoundrels, and the presence of those scoundrels in our origin story reminds us that God’s plan of salvation is for all of us, and not just for a saintly few.
Third, what do we do with this portray of women and class in today’s story that is, frankly, disturbing? Laban’s willingness to offer his daughters as barter – one daughter is worth seven years’ of labour – in order to cement an alliance with Jacob and his clan is a patriarchal arrangement that has nothing to do with marriage as we understand it today. As part of this arrangement, the sisters have very little agency. While the story does tell us, twice, how much Jacob loves Rachel, we hear nothing about what Leah felt about being substituted for her sister (whereas in Gen 24, their aunt Rebekah at least was asked if she wanted to marry Isaac Gen 24.58).
Even more troubling is that in the story that follows today’s reading, the two sisters compete with one another for Jacob’s affections, a competition made worse by Rachel being barren, reminding us that women’s primary worth for much of human history lay in their production of heirs. Likewise the two maids, Zilpah and Bilhah, introduced in today’s reading, are both used by the sisters as surrogate mothers, though we hear nothing about whether they had an opinion about this arrangement. Thus, the word “maid” here seems suspiciously like “slave” to modern ears. In short, while this is an origin story about the first family of Israel, it’s not a story that one could hold up today as an example of biblical family values
The story therefore raises the question of how we relate to Genesis and to the Hebrew Scriptures and their place in the larger Christian story. Do we dismiss it because we find its portrayal of sex, gender, polygamy and servitude to be unwholesome or unpalatable? Do we shrug and say that it is, like much of the bible, a product of its time, and we know better? Both options, I think, risk that we subject the bible to “cancel culture” and thus only hear those parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that we agree with. The church has at times over the centuries tried to cancel the Hebrew scriptures, on the grounds that these stories were not our stories (Marcionism), or that they were racially impure (the Nazis considered them non Aryan), or just generally because many bibles contain just the New Testament and the Psalms.
As I said at the outset, a summertime sermon is not the time to make a detailed case for why the church needs the Hebrew scriptures but let me try to make a quick summary of why they should matter to us.
First, they stress God’s faithfulness and determination to see the project of salvation through, despite the poor material at hand. God is willing to work with scoundrels like Jacob and Laban because the end goal is the making of God’s people, first Jew, then Jew and gentile. The psalmists knew this quality all too well, as in Psalm 145, which says that “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps 145 8-9).
Second, there is a certain arrogance in our judging ancient texts like Genesis as being hopelessly patriarchal and brutal, when our own age has abundant examples of its own bad behaviour. The details from the story of Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein are as horrific in their own way as anything that happened in Laban’s tent, and they have their own sordid, downmarket counterparts in the kinds of human trafficking that routinely come to light across Ontario, where plenty of powerless girls like Bihah and Zilpah are used by others.
Thirdly, these stories are important because they show God’s determination to change the script. Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, is true of the bible as well. For example, in Genesis, there are love stories (Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel) that begin at wells, where the women in question have little agency and few roles except to produce children. In John’s gospel, an encounter at another well, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, leads to a long discussion in which the women finds herself treated with dignity, love and redemption by the son of God, and becomes an evangelist in her own right. Likewise, on Wednesday of this week we celebrated the Holy Day of another women of the gospels, Mary Magdalene, who was healed by Jesus, and who is entrusted in the garden by her risen Lord with spreading the news of the Resurrection.
Likewise, Bilhah and Ziporah have their New Testament equivalents in the slaves of the Greco-Roman world who heard the astonishing message of the Jesus movement, that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28). This revolutionary message of spiritual equality in Christ had practical dimensions that the early church struggled with from the beginning. We know from 1 Corinthians 11 that at least one of these house churches struggled to reconcile deep class divisions with this good news of equality. The authors of a Bible Project podcast on the Pauline letters make a really interesting point when they imagine what it would have been like for a believer, a prosperous Roman citizen and businesswoman, finding herself at a house church sharing a meal with fellow believers who happened to be slaves! That would have been a huge adjustment for her and for believers like her. We also know from Paul’s letters that some of these house churches were led by women, and that they played a role in worship. In light of these facts, I find it pleasant to imagine that women descended from Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zipporah, all played their part in these house churches, where they could find a new identity and a new kind of equality in Christ.
It may well be, as I have suggested here, that the only way we can redeem stories like Genesis is to see them in the larger context of scripture and of its trajectory towards salvation, but in doing so, it’s humbling to think that we don’t need to redeem these stories. God redeems them through God’s work of salvation, just as we pray that God will redeem our own society and its deep divisions of class and wealth, sex and prejudice, servitude and inhumanity. Our greatest lesson in reading these stories is to see that our own age needs God just as much, and that our salvation lies in accepting God’s invitation to our new identity, where all are one in Christ Jesus.