Sermon by April Oristano on August 10, 2014. Transcribed by Alice Allen from the Ustream broadcast of the New Celebration service and the audio files of that service.
Genesis 31: 3-21, 22-35
I want to break our scripture story into two hearings, so bear with me as we begin. In the weeks previous to [Pastor Dan’s] departure, he was taking us through Genesis, some of these foundational stories. And then last week we had Rabbi Maurice Harris here, and he continued in that thread, and he spoke about the reconciliation moment between Jacob and Esau. I will keep things in Genesis for the next two weeks, focusing today on the lesser told story of Rachel, the wife of Jacob.
What I want to say before I read is that this is a story about a woman finding her voice, and the power that comes from that experience. It is a story that is so long, it covers chapters 28 to 32. But today we’re just going to do 31. I had a hard time editing. It is full of rich imagery and great story-telling and what we’re going to hear today in chapter 31 is kind of like the movie version.
The book is always better, that’s one, and two, you have to cut out a bunch of scenes just to get to this one thing that we’re going to talk about today. So I encourage you, if this is interesting to you, go back and read 28 and go all the way to 32. It’s my hope today that in telling this story that we will offer some good news to the women of our church and to the women of this world and to the men of our church as well. This is a story of empowerment, for anyone who has felt powerless, and so that is not just a story for women. Anyone who has felt like they don’t have the ability to choose or know which way to go or lacks the agency to do it themselves might resonate with her experience. So I begin with chapter 31 verse 3 through 21.
And so to the rest of the story [Genesis 31:22-35]. Just in “Paul Harvey” fashion. (Yes, I’m that old!)
Where do I start? Three places in this chapter 31 where Rachel, who is our icon of powerlessness–limited power I would say– speaks and acts. Now I want to just conceptualize. I say limited power—Chapter 28, 29, all that stuff I cut—there’s some evidence that she actually has some sizeable power over many other things. The very first time that we meet Rachel, she is not only named, which is a very big deal, because there are lots of other women in this story not even named. She has a name and she has a job. Here comes Rachel, a shepherd. So already she’s given responsibility in her community, but also in decision making in her house and with her children and a few other places. But in comparison to the men in the story, her relationship with those men in her community with regard to money, and property, and all the things back in the day that counted, that mattered, she had no power. And neither did any other woman of that time.
But in this story I’m fascinated by three acts of power for her. One is that Jacob consults her: what should he do in his feeling of powerlessness? What should I do with someone who is cheating me? What will we do with our livestock, how do we negotiate this conflict in family? What should I do? So having even an opportunity to speak at all is a big deal. And then once she speaks, and they decide to leave Laban’s house, Rachel, quite boldly acting on her own, steals her father’s household idols. And then we hear about this misleading moment when he comes looking for them, a kind of deceiving moment.
This is a story that does not come up in our Revised Common Lectionary, which is our current method of selecting scripture to read throughout the year in worship. I looked: “When are we going to talk about Rachel? I’ll just wait.” We don’t. So, we’re doing it. When you first read it, you have a lot of questions. I don’t know if your questions are the same as mine, but one of mine is “What am I supposed to get out of this? Is she a hero? Is she a liar? Can you be both? What is this to teach us about women and their relationship to God? Why does she steal these idols? Why is Laban so angry?”
I have so many questions, and I didn’t quite have enough commentaries on my shelf to make it work, so I packed all my questions up and I went to our local synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, and I asked to use their congregation’s library. So do that! That’s fun. And we have a library, too! So I took all of this, and I found wonderful commentaries, and a lot of poetry, and much inspiration. I want to introduce to you a book that I found, that was so wonderful for me. This is called “The Five Books of Miriam.” You get the joke, right? The five books of Moses, these are our Torah, this is a women’s commentary on the Torah, “the five books of Miriam.” How did I make it through seminary not reading this? This was published in 1996, for goodness sakes. I don’t know how I missed it, but it’s important that you all know about it now, too. It is a great book. It’s just such an affirmation, to immerse myself in the stories that we read over and over again, but now we are just going to sit in the stories of the women. And what this writer does, Ellen Frankel, she weaves together those Scriptures with poetry, and songs, and other Jewish folk tales that have been told since about all of these stories, about all of that Midrash, that the rabbis are doing, and weaves it all together through the voices of the women in the Bible so that they’re having a conversation with you about these texts—rediscovering them, uncovering hidden meanings for you, asking their own questions and then wrestling with the answers. It was a much-needed and much-appreciated experience as a woman reading the Bible, because sisters are some sorely underrepresented folks in the Bible. We can think of a few, but so few that get to have long stories and soliloquies on their faith and meaning. We think Mary in the book of Luke. We think of a couple of others, but then it starts to diminish and we remember their names but we don’t know their stories. And then there are all the women who are not named but they’re just sort of there.
And in Genesis in particular, these women, when we hear their stories, they’re always involved in a power struggle, and they’re often portrayed as a trickster, as a deceiver. Some are straight-out mad with their power. Just some encouragement to say, when we read the stories of Jacob and how he wrestles with God on the side of the river, I do that too. I can put myself in that place as a person of faith. It doesn’t have to be about the gender. But it is something really powerful to go ahead and wrestle as Rachel, as well.
So, back to the text itself. The first moment of power comes in verses 14 to 16, the fact that Jacob is consulting his wife. This, in and of itself, is a God moment. It’s not just that they are spoken to instead of spoken of, but that he asks for their insights and that these sisters together talk as one—which is a whole second other sermon, because they haven’t gotten along for their whole lives! But now in this moment they have something to say and they say it together. “He treats us worse than outsiders, like a piece of property, like a slave.” And in another commentary it says, “It’s bad enough that he’s treated us like property, but he didn’t even respect the rules of the betrothal.” It turns out that while we probably knew that women weren’t going to customarily inherit property in these stories, especially when there are brothers in the family, as is the case in Rachel’s, married women did have some sense of security, some measure of economic rights, though it was minimal. When she became betrothed to someone, the suitor paid the bride price to the father, mostly as an insurance policy for the men, but—while she wasn’t necessarily going to get to spend that money when she gets married– he is also supposed to respect that fund and save it. It’s not something for him to just squander, and that’s what they’re referring to. What I like about this moment of power is that including such a moment in the text at all means that centuries later, when this biblical account is recorded, they are wrestling with the status and the role of women in their communities. And that is a good thing. As well they should. And what’s sort of boggling the mind is that we’re still having this conversation in 2014. Leah and Rachel are given a chance to voice their vote and they are ready to go. They feel abused. This is an abusive situation that they’re escaping from with their father. Now I don’t know what they’re going into with Jacob, there’s other issues there too. But they claim something of their own, and that is power for them.
So what does she do next, right into verse 19, she steals her father’s household gods. This is one of those biblical footnote moments. The pew Bible might call them “household gods” but another translation calls them “goods”, another one says “idols,” another one says “household objects”. What are they? What is their value and meaning ? It’s kind of unclear, and it’s done so on purpose. There is a Hebrew word called teraphim. It is deliberately ambiguous so we can’t really tell what the value and the meaning are but…It’s just like when Maurice was talking about the word with the dots over it. For years to come people debate as to its value and meaning. But her stealing them, whatever your footnotes call them, her taking them, she stripped her father of his identity in some aspects. You could interpret it that way. That’s his family name, and his inheritance, and she’s taken it away from him. Or, if they are gods, she is revealing, or the storyteller is revealing, how weak those gods are, that you could just sit upon them and Laban would never find what he is looking for. How powerless is that god? Look at it another way; maybe it is her family’s inheritance, and she’s never going to get that blessing from her father and she takes it for herself. It could be that way. I like to think that whatever she’s doing, she’s giving her father perhaps for the first time ever the experience of what it means to be without—without privilege, without power, without a leg to stand on. All of this of course is underneath the text. All of this is going on in my mind, because in the text she still has no power. That’s why she has to use her period to hide and not get in trouble. Men were not going to get involved in that, that’s why the purity laws existed, and so they’re just going to back away from the tent.
One more thing about verses 18 and 19, there’s this beautiful play of words that says—we read it in English—“Rachel steals the gods and Jacob deceives Laban.” But the Hebrew word, that phrase there about deceiving Laban, it literally says “Jacob steals the mind and heart of Laban”. (Thank you, Temple Beth Israel, for your commentaries!) To steal the heart meant to gain complete control over a person’s self-direction. So in this moment the same phrase used in both verses, making a connection that is very deep for me. When you are powerless to act, you have no direction. No choice seems like a choice for you. You don’t have choices. You can’t act, you feel trapped, it affects the way you see the world around you and the way you behave in that world. They are leaving him with no direction and finding direction of their own. So, very cool.
This story is teaching us about the character of women through the writer of Genesis here. She’s not powerless, she can transform power. She is intelligent, she is active.
So on to point number 3, which is in verse 33 to 35. I would like to read from this commentary (my new favorite book):
Our mothers teach us that just before Laban comes into Rachel’s tent, looking for his stolen idols, Rachel hides them in a camel cushion and sits on them, and to make sure that he won’t find them, she pretends to have her period. Can we really fault Rachel for what she does? Unlike the men in her family, who can negotiate power directly (they can fight it out, they can barter it out, they can bargain it out, they can make a covenant, which is what do they do at the end of the story, the men, they make a covenant), Rachel as a woman can only resort to indirect means . In this case she relies upon the camouflage of a taboo, and in so doing she escapes the harness of social control and places herself in the saddle Miriam [INDISTINCT] then says ‘Rachel’s theft is but a symbol of her future. Just as Jacob’s future is determined and patterned by deception, so is Rachel’s determined by this act of theft.”
Remember, Jacob says, “Anyone, if you find your gods here, that person will die.” It seals her fate; she had access to that power, she broke into that place of power, but it did not work in her favor this time. Jacob didn’t know, and I know that if he had known, the story would go differently because through so many chapters he talks about how he loves her the most. There is no way he would curse her to die. But the curse is inflicted soon enough. Rachel dies giving birth to her next son Benjamin. And then the family dynamic plays out after that too. Benjamin gets caught up in the theft and the sons after that and the sons after that,. This is the moment where I say “Thank you God that I don’t have to be perfect for you to work in my life.” Because none of us would be here if that were the case. These people are not perfect; they are dysfunctional , one might say. They put the fun in dysfunctional!
You don’t have to be perfect for God to work through your life, but you do need to pay attention. Because you don’t know when the opportunity to change your life is going to come. It could come through a simple invitation, a person of power asking you to speak, giving voice to what you have never said before. It could come as a chance to escape, a chance to vote, an opportunity to work, something for you to claim as your own. This story is important to us . I want to teach our daughters and our sons that God wants to help them wrestle with these texts, and that God is present to help us and them navigate the power struggles in our lives. I want to show this story as an encouragement to women, but not just to women, but to people of color, to the transgendered folks in our community, to the poor and the weary, to anyone who’s been bullied into submission, those who have heard their whole lives they’re no good. But that’s just not true, that God is active in their lives, that these stories show that, that our stories that we add to it later, show that. God is there listening for the change and always is pushing toward justice and truth and transformation.
This story and the telling of it is important so that we can heal the generations of women who have wondered “Where is my place in this story, with God? Do I have any role in bringing about the kingdom? Why am I always thinking that the Bible tells me to sit down and be quiet?” I want to tell it for the generations of women that will come later. Too often we just skip over these stories because there are painful weird things in them. (Wait until next week, people!) For better or worse they are our stories. We owe it to the women who are still subjugated and to the women who have never read these stories and to the first ordained women and the first biblical scholars who helped to uncover and recover the power of these ancient women. It is our responsibility to teach our children how to read these texts, not to just not read them, but how to read them. And that God is still speaking and will continue to speak . And frankly we ought to write it down, because that’s where the trouble comes in, right? Because we can tell each other stories, and it will be wonderful, but what happens centuries from now ? What will they know of how we wrestled with these things, where we’ve come out on the other side, where we felt God’s blessing?
So let me close with this poem, that speaks to just that, by poet and playwright Merle Feld.
We All Stood Together
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him.
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there.
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
as time passes
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
But feelings are just sounds
the vowel barking of a mute
My brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
May it be so.