Leah’s Sad Eyes

I have a question for those of you who went to Sunday School when you were young.

What’s the least appropriate thing you remember being taught there?

As we’ve been going through the stories from Genesis over the last few weeks, I keep thinking to myself – gosh, I remember learning this story in Sunday School.

I’m not sure that we teach bible stories in Sunday School in quite the same way these days that we used to do. (And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – Sunday Schools of my day were statistically spectacularly bad at retaining people in the faith – I’m the exception, not the rule, so maybe it is worth trying a different tack).

But here I am again on a Sunday morning reading one of the stories from Genesis and remembering doing the story in Sunday School completely uncritically, as though everything that was going on in it was perfectly normal. As though these were models to live by.

But as I read these stories 50 years later, I think that might be a bit of a problem.

The way we read stories matters.

But we’ll come to that in a bit. For the moment, let’s have another go at trying to read the story of Jacob and Laban and Leah and Rachel and see what we find for ourselves. (Genesis 29:15-28)

This is one of the most unlikely stories that you could possibly use to teach children anything about religion.

It isn’t just tricky questions about polygamy that we need to look at though they are interesting.

This is also a story that makes us think about honesty, decency and about relations between individuals, particularly relationships between men and women.

When I was involved in the struggle for marriage equality, I kept hearing from those who were opposed to that, pleading for us to remain with what they called Biblical Marriage – by which they meant one man and one woman married to one another exclusively for life and whose children were born exclusively of that union.

My former colleague Cedric Blakey had a mischievous little question that he used to ask of those putting forward this argument – which was to ask how many people in the bible they could name who fitted that pattern.

It is a question that bears repeating and thinking about.

There aren’t many at all.

(You are welcome to play along and tell me how many you can think of after the service).

This story is one of those I used to use to try to tease out what people were talking about when they referred to Biblical Marriage.

This story is a load of trouble.

It isn’t just that Jacob ends up married to more than one of the women either.

That’s a problem worth wrestling with but the bigger problem is that this is a story that is about women being traded and passed around by men.

And the bible is pretty ambivalent about it. Patriarchy is the dominant norm of the society we read about in Genesis. Even more – these stories are the bedrock upon which the patriarchal assumptions of our own societies are based.

But hear this, and hear it from the pulpit as we read this text today.

  • The domination of women by men is a sin. And that should be remembered when we read the story of Leah, Rachel and Zilpah, the much forgotten maid.
  • Trafficking women is a sin.
  • And the dishonesty of Laban towards Jacob is a sin too.

There’s something I’ve been wanting to say from the pulpit for a while and this story seems the right context to talk about it.

Statistically it is the case that in a congregation this size there will be people present who have survived or perhaps still endure domestic violence. Both victims of such violence and those who perpetrate it are present in churches.

At the last but one Lambeth Conference of bishops of the Anglican Communion there was a session on domestic violence because someone thought it important simply to name an evil. What was less expected was that when the mostly female spouses of the bishops (who were mostly men) started to talk about the topic they started to talk about it from their own experience and started to name and speak about their own experience of being treated badly by their spouses. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge that this is a problem within faith communities. But silence doesn’t make it go away.

There’s one small detail about this story that always makes me think. It is the line about Leah’s eyes. We are told in the translation we read that Leah’s eyes were lovely.

I rather like the notion that thousands of years later, someone’s lovely eyes are still being talked about. However, I also know that this is a tricky line of Hebrew to translate. Perhaps the better translation is that Leah had gentle eyes, which has led some to speculate that what was noticeable about Leah, the less graceful and less beautiful of the sisters, is that she was always crying.

If your eyes are gentle or soft or weary of crying and you are scared of someone you live with then it might help to speak about it. Any of the clergy or the church wardens would be willing to listen and if appropriate to help you to find help – and there are those in this diocese who have worked hard to raise the profile of the problem of domestic violence and who may know how to offer to help.

Here’s the good news. The bible doesn’t teach me how men and women should relate to one another. It is our God given consciences and holy common sense that have to do that.

But the bible does teach me that the tears need to be wiped from every eye. Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.

And the bible teaches me that God is on the side of the underdog, the overlooked, the undervalued, the less preferred sister, the cheated son in law, the broken, the weary, the sad, the lonely, the abused, the hungry and the oppressed. And that is good news.

And God calls us all to wipe the tears and build a world of justice and joy.

It isn’t entirely clear who the narrator of the story is in Genesis. But someone noticed Leah’s eyes.

Trust me on this. Someone has noticed you too.

God looks on you and whether you are beautiful and graceful or whether your eyes are soft with tears, God looks on you and says.

“You are altogether lovely. And I love you more than anyone you know.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


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