Where is God in this?
Jennifer Garrison Brownell
July 30, 2017
Last time we were with Jacob, he was sleeping and dreaming of a ladder that wen to the sky. Since then, he has continued the journey from the home of his parents to the home of his Uncle Laban. Stopping at a well to rest on his journey, he meets the lovely Rachel and is instantly smitten. In today’s conversation, Laban and Jacob converse about the terms of Jacob’s employment in his uncles family – a conversation in which the women of the family are traded as casually as livestock.
Someone told me this week that this is the least favorite story in the Bible, and honestly, I can kind of see why.
Now it could be that my friend hates this story because it is a story about God’s preference for….sheep herders over cattle ranchers. For real. Rachels name does mean “ewe” and Leah’s means “cow” and their families followed in the trades that their names suggest. Just like now the different needs of different kinds of grazing animals can cause animosity or even violence between neighboring famers.
But I suspect that this not what’s offensive about this passage. I suspect that what was offensive to my friend, and is to me, and perhaps is to you is the treatment of women. Of course, this is not the first or last time that women will be used as commodities in exchanges between men. It happened then and happens today – human trafficking is a very real problem.
Here’s the thing, though. This story is the story of human institutions, power arrangements, objectification. Where is God in this?
Jacob doesn’t mention God, Laban doesn’t. Rachel and Leah, the women, who have little voice and littler say, don’t mention God.
Where is God in this? God is here, right in the place where we least expect. Right in the moment where we feel like we are failed, right at the moment when we feel most alone, that is where God is.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;” Paul promises in the letter to the Romans, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Even when we do not have the words, the Spirit is with us.
Even when Leah knows she is unloved, Spirit is there
Even when Rachel watches her sister wed to the man she loves,
Spirit is there
Even when we struggle, are sick, feel the weight of our addictions, are commodified and objectified, Spirit is there.
It is the human not the divine that separates us from God, from others and from our own true selves. And for millennia, has been human institutions not God that have separated women from the divine within us.
It is the church that portrayed women as either Eves or Virgin Marys – either evil temptresses or purity personified. The scripture is much more complex than that. It is society and culture and custom that shoves women into little boxes, limiting our voices and our prospects – it is never the Divine who does that. Scripture also shows us women acting as leaders, prophets, businesswomen, warriors, disciples.
It is the desire for power that turns women into commodities – then as now. The divine story doesn’t do that.
Listen to how the story we just heard continues. This is the end of the chapter.
Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben: for she said, “Because the LORD has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” 33
She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon. 34
Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi. 35
She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD”; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.”
Where is God in this?
With Leah, who names her sons – she is the one who takes that sacred and powerful responsibility, not her husband.
With Leah, who after a time of silence, saw and named God’s work in the story.
With Leah, who moved from desiring the attention and love of her husband, to knowing that she would survive without it, because God was with her.
Look, again and again women are cast aside, disregarded, oppressed and yet they name and claim their power and place in God’s story.
The texts we read are decided by a small group – the lectionary committee – made up of representatives from a couple of dozen mainline churches. They may or may not be represent God’s beautiful diversity in gender, race, sexuality, age. And when it comes time to giving a woman her voice, they may fall short, may decide, as they did this time, that Leah’s story ends with her silent suffering, not with her power as a namer and pray-er.
So where is God in this story? Right here, where the Spirit persists in giving voice where there was none.
Dorothy Sayers is perhaps best known as a mystery writer – Lord Peter Wimsey is her creation – but she was also a formidable theologian. I’ll leave you with this quote from her essay, Are Women Human?
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.”