I’m teaching a Psalms class right now with Rabbi Adam Stein from Congregation Beth Israel. Adam began our class the other night with this blessing for Torah study. Torah is the word that Jews use for the “story, song, genealogy, geography, legal material, and lessons from the ancestors”i that we find in the first five books of the Bible. This morning, I’d like to look at the story of Rachel and Leah from the Torah, but before we do that I’d like to pray Adam’s blessing. I’ll read it in English and if you’d like to hear it in Hebrew, you can tune into our class next week.ii
Let us pray:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has provided us with a path to holiness through the observance of commandments (mitzvah) and has instructed us to engage with the words of Torah. Amen.
So as I’ve been preparing for this class, I’ve been reading the Psalms from this prayer book from 1932. It was my grandmother’s and it has that old book smell, that musty scent that gets caught in the back of your nostrils and there are these flowers that my grandmother used to use as bookmarks and they’ve been pressed into the pages for so long they’re almost dust. It’s a bit of a delicate mess, but there’s also something enchanting to it.
Sitting with my grandmother’s prayer book is how I feel sometimes reading old stories from the Bible. They have this metaphorical musty scent to them. I know there’s magic there but it’s tough sometimes to find it when these stories feel like a relic or when their content is really graphic. It’s tempting, for example, to hear a story like Rachel and Leah’s, which if you’re familiar, is essentially a story about a father marrying off his two daughters to his nephew, and it’s tempting to hear this story and to want to maybe mosey on over to the gospel hoping for something more pleasant. Though today’s gospel doesn’t help us much with this. It begins with mustard seeds and ends with weeping and gnashing of teeth and a furnace. Today’s readings are grim and our instinct to find a more comforting passage, our instinct for love, is a very good thing. Looking for God’s love in the Bible helps us notice resilience amidst horror, agency amidst oppression—and it teaches us to look for these things not only in really old books but in our own lives as well.
In our reading from Genesis, Laban takes his daughter Leah and brings her to his nephew Jacob’s room where Jacob is expecting to consummate this marriage contract with Rachel. Jacob is deceived into sleeping with Leah and he has to wait another seven years to marry Rachel. What’s problematic with this story is that the women’s voices in this text are silent. Leah is ‘taken’, Rachel is ‘given.’ Neither women consent, both are forced: one physically and the other through property law. Wil Gafney is a womanist theologian, which means she interprets the Bible through black women’s perspectives. In her rewrite of this story, she imagines what it would have been like if the sisters had in fact consented to this, what it would’ve been like if one or both of the sisters had been in on it. She talks about how they devise this whole plan and get their father on board. There’s still a whole ton of deception involves, but Rachel and Leah have so much agency in her version.iii Gafney’s rewrite reminds me of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” where you find out that Angelica steps aside so her sister can marry Alexander because she wants her sister to be happy. Sadly, unlike the Disney+ musical (which is fabulous, by the way), and unlike Gafney’s amazing rewrite, sisters Rachel and Leah do not appear to have any say in their marriages.
So after Jacob realizes that he has been deceived, he gets angry with his uncle. And his uncle says, “[Well], this is not done in our country, giving the younger before the firstborn.” Like, what did you expect? Here’s the thing, though: a marriage contract with both sisters would have been forbidden in God’s eyes and so Laban very conveniently turns to the ‘law of the land’ because it secures descendants and labour through not one, but two of his daughters. Jacob’s uncle is using tactics to advance his own interests and taking advantage of his daughters in order to do so. Even though Laban may very well have been facing real threats to his family’s livelihood, this treatment of women, this way of “doing business” is forbidden in the Torah and God tells people over and over again not to do it.
So where is the hope in this grim story? Laban and Jacob, Rachel and Leah, they all worship this God of the Torah, this God who restores agency to the oppressed, the same God whom Christians have said plants hope like mustard seeds that grow up into great big enchanting trees where birds come and make nests in their branches. I’ve said from this pulpit before that whenever you’re looking for help with a difficult text, look for what in our English translations is written in parentheses. Parentheses are brackets that hold little bits of information. As I read the Bible more and more, I have this hunch that this is where little clues are hidden, clues that tell us, “Sure, there’s this story going on over here, but pay attention to this character or this piece of information. This is where you’ll find out what you need to know about God or the human condition or how people find a way to survive against all odds.
The book of Genesis was originally written in Hebrew, and it’s often the case that what would be said in say, a Hebrew verb tense or with a particular Hebrew word can’t be translated exactly into English. So my hunch is that translators put these things into sentences within brackets as a kind of signal to the reader that this is not in fact a throwaway comment, but a really important piece of the story. In the story of Rachel and Leah, the parentheses is where Zilpah is named. “(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.)”—this is where we read what seems like a throwaway line, but it’s not. In the foreground is this story about an uncle using his daughters to advance his own interests and meanwhile, over here in the bracketed section, God is setting up a resistance movement.
So Zilpah is a maid and she would have also been a slave. As was the practice at the time, a maid would often bear the children of her mistress’s husband. Again, not an easy thing for us to sit with, but there it is. Here’s what’s really important: Zilpah is named and it’s rare in the Bible for women to be named unless they have some sort of genealogical connection to the patriarchs or kings, these mighty rulers who rise up from among the people of God. So my hunch is that Zilpah is the mother to a line of children that leads to a patriarch or a king (like David or Solomon) and nobody really holds up Zilpah as a matriarch or talks about her explicitly because she’s a slave, but the writers nevertheless wanted to record her role because it’s important for kings to be able to trace their ancestry. And what’s really interesting about this from a Christian perspective is that Jesus is considered to be a descendent from this royal genealogy and when you read Jesus’ genealogy women are named,iv and not the women you’d expect: it’s women whom we could read as slaves or what in modern day we might call sex workers—these so-called “illegitimate matriarchs”.
Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid. Zilpah had children with Jacob who is a patriarch in a long line of royalty and Jesus, whom Christians call the saviour of the world is linked to this whole delicate mess. When it comes to the salvation story in Jewish and Christian traditions, God chooses the ones in parentheses to bring about good news reminding us that it’s through people who have historically been treated as discardable that God enacts transformation and change.
The people of God are called to rely on the One who restores agency to the oppressed; they are called to pray for imagination to find ways of being in the world that help people work together for the good of the ones who appear to be in the background. Look for the people in your life written in parentheses. Look for the flowers pressed so hard into the pages they’re almost dust.
i.Wil Gafney, Womanist Midrash: a Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Knoxville Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 2007), p. 16.
ii.You can sign up for the Psalms class by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
iii.Wil Gafney, Womanist Midrash: a Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Knoxville Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 2007), p. 56.
iv. See the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1.