A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, July 30, 2017.
Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! 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?’ Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.(Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.)
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
So many of us know this story of Rachel and Leah; it is a story we’ve heard a hundred times: how Jacob’s uncle tricked him into marrying the wrong daughter; scammed him into taking a woman unloved, and working 7 extra years for the one he actually did love. We’ve heard it so many times, we tune it out. We know where the story is going. It ceases to be new.
Until, that is, someone comes along, and reads it in a whole new way.
I had a Jewish acquaintance who introduced me to a whole new way of reading this text. It is from the Jewish practice of “midrash”, where there is not one way of reading Scripture: the miracle of scripture is that there are endless ways to read it! Endless ways to hear God’s voice speaking through this text. And so the midrash, the one-among-many ways to read this text goes like this:
Leah and Rachel planned it all out. And the plan unfolded exactly as they’d hoped.
What if it was Rachel who dressed Leah that night in her tent, and gave her her own perfume. What if Rachel herself helped Leah practice saying her vows and little love words in the same voice Rachel herself would say them. What if Rachel deliberately stood out of the way on the day of the wedding, smiling a quiet smile to herself as Leah walked towards Jacob on her father’s arm, heavily veiled.
Now we may say: “uh, wow… there’s not much evidence for that in the text, is there?” And the answer is, no, not really any evidence at all. It is a flight of imagination; filling in the gaps in the story with all kinds of hypothetical fantasies that could never be proven – or disproven… only imagined.
There are many different ways – even a thousand, even ten thousand different ways to read any text of scripture; to imagine who the characters might have been, and what their attitudes and emotions might have been. And how we read scripture says a lot, not only about how we have been taught and schooled and informed – but also it says a lot about how we think, and how we imagine.
Here are two entirely silent characters (or four, if you include the maids Zilpah and Bilhah), whose lives are being determined in this text. Do we imagine they had any discussion about it? Were they informed? Did they have any conversation with their father, or with each other? Did they have any power at all?
What if actually they weren’t silent at all? What would they have said? What would they have thought? The bride of Jacob was going to be taken away from her family, her clan, her territory and her customs – all her safety and the security of everyone and everything she’s ever known to go into the wilderness, to a foreign place, alone, with a man who had alienated every other part of his family. Could he be trusted? How could she know she’d be safe? How could she know she’d be cherished and taken care of instead of abused, or raped, or abandoned? How could she know he wouldn’t do to her what he’d done to all his other family?
What if Rachel herself came up with the idea that she and Leah and their maids should stay together, to provide all of them with safety and familiarity for the future? What if Rachel worked as tirelessly as Jacob over those 7 years; working to get her sister on side, and then, together, to arrange the deception.
What if Laban had no idea, and led his elder daughter into Jacob’s tent unknowingly, as deceived by his daughters as Jacob was. What if he received with astonishment his younger daughter when she strode into his tent the next morning, with a fully-developed plan about how to deal with Jacob’s anticipated anger, and what to do next. And what if Laban went ahead and followed her wise advice, since otherwise he’d look a real fool.
In this reading, Rachel’s solution is a remarkably creative one. Perhaps, from where she’s standing, being married to Jacob isn’t really such a wonderful and exciting prospect. Perhaps, when she found out the bargain her father had struck with her future husband, to work 7 years for her hand, perhaps she was angry; perhaps she threw a temper tantrum; perhaps she begged and wheedled and demanded and cried for days or weeks or months on end to get out of marrying Jacob.
Finally, the truth dawns: marrying Jacob is something she can’t change. That realization is hard at first. At first, it feels that the fight is lost. But then something shifts: she stops focusing on what she can’t change, and starts looking around for the things she can change. She looks for what other things in this situation she does actually have an opportunity to influence. Rachel lifts up her head, and gets creative.
Now, instead of being an entirely passive, silent pawn, a victim of the men’s scheming, Rachel finds a way to change the power dynamics. She’ll still be leaving her home with this man of questionable character, but she won’t be going alone. Rachel has found for herself allies, protectors, a community of support, so they can stand in mutual solidarity to keep one another safe, no matter what comes.
When we read the story this way, Rachel emerges as someone who is resilient and resourceful. The women are loyal to one another, thoughtful, strategic and smart – and a good match for Jacob who was, if we’re honest, a seasoned shyster.
Now we have a story of people finding their power in an astonishingly disempowering situation – and that’s exactly the kind of story God likes. Have you noticed: God likes it when we find our resourcefulness in the face of difficult, demoralizing challenges. God likes it when we’re innovative and creative.
God likes it when, rather than feeling defeated and self-pitying, we raise our heads, and look around, and see what can be done in any given situation – when we find the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Scripture is full of stories of people facing challenges: there are military challenges and personal challenges; the challenges of being sick, and the challenges of being unable to conceive a child; the challenges of having too many children and having all your children fight amongst themselves.
There are the challenges of not having enough food, and having so much food that you lose your way completely. There are the challenges of living under oppressive military rule, and the challenges of managing a free state, and the challenges of being slaves, and the challenges of dealing with slaves. The challenges of being such a popular religious leader that you have to get into a boat so that you’re not crushed by the crowds, and the challenge of being a religious leader entirely abandoned and alone. The challenge of evangelizing so successfully that you threaten the peace, and the challenge of failing utterly as an evangelist and being chased out of town. Challenge after challenge after challenge.
No one ever promised that being a Christian would make for a life without challenges, without suffering and hardship. No one ever promised we wouldn’t face barriers that threatened to overwhelm us – or even those that do overwhelm us.
The promise is that through it all, God will be with us. Through it all, God will be looking for creative possibilities. Through it all, God will be coaxing and encouraging and calling us, knowing the depth of our resilience and perseverance and that we can live through all manner of incredibly challenging things and still survive.
Whatever challenge it is that you face – even while we all of us together face a challenge about our future home – may you, like Rachel and Leah, be inspired by the spirit of Creativity. May God give you the inventiveness to raise your head, and look around you, and look for possibilities, even in situations where you might seem trapped.
May God give you, as perhaps he gave Rachel, the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the creativity and courage to change the things that you can; and the wisdom to know the difference.