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.


Eid, Pride and Abraham’s Sacrifice

The first thing that I tend to notice is that there seems to be more sweet things in the shops in Great Western Road than usual.

And then on the day itself it is obvious that there’s more people going about their business all dressed up for an occasion. Some of them are carrying food. A swish of coloured fabric or a brilliantly white robe. And then I see people going visiting family in the local tenements. It is obvious that there’s a celebration going on.

This week the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha was going on. The Islamic calendar doesn’t keep time with the Gregorian Calendar that most of us use most of the time to organise our time.

The Feast arrives about 11 days earlier each year. And living here, I can always tell when the feasting is about to break out. You can feel it in the street.

Now it will be a very long time before we get this happening again, but the feast that is being celebrated by our Muslim friends is directly related to the worship of much of the Christian church today. Because the feast that was celebrated this week is based on one of the stories that comes up in the Lectionary today. And it will be another 33 years or so until these two things happen in the same week.

So, I’m paying attention to Abraham this morning. And to his son. In our tradition we remember him taking Isaac in response to believing that he heard a call to sacrifice his son.

The tradition in the Qur’an doesn’t mention the name of the son and Muslims generally presume the son to be Ishmael – the son of Abraham and Hagar the maidservant, whose birth we heard of just a few weeks ago.

But it is in essence the same story.

Abraham hears a call from God to sacrifice his son and sets off to do just that. And then just in time, God intervenes and calls off the sacrifice.

The straight-forward interpretation of the story that is found in Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions is that Abraham’s willingness to perform the sacrifice was enough. The son’s blood didn’t need to be spilt after all. Abraham’s willing submission to the will of God was enough.

Various retellings of the story have different details – particularly in the acquiescence or not of the son in the sacrifice scheme.

But none of those three traditions has been entirely content to leave this text to speak for itself. This is a story that has been argued and puzzled over for centuries. Indeed, perhaps that is its major purpose.

I knew a priest some years ago who had a painting of Abraham and Isaac in his study looking down at him as he prepared every sermon. It was a fine picture. An beautiful picture.

Until you noticed the glint of a knife in the father’s hand.

For me, I’m not convinced that simple and straightforward tellings of this story are enough. It is complex and disturbing and very puzzling indeed.

At first glance, it seems to be a very long way from our experience.

We have no contact with those who sacrifice their children at the whim of a capricious God, do we?

And yet, immediately I start to think of stories I’ve heard as a priest from troubled children about troubled parents.

On several occasions when I’ve been at Pride marches I’ve had people come up to me terribly upset at the violent sentiments that parents have expressed towards them in the name of religion.

“I told my dad last night. He told me to get out the house. He told me I was an abomination before the Lord. He told me he wanted me dead”.

People are prepared to sacrifice all the love in the world on the altar of misguided beliefs about what God wants in this world.

People sometimes think I go to Pride to have fun. Actually I go so that people have someone to tell those stories to. And I go to bear witness to a God who turns out not to want such sacrifices at all.

And therein lies my interpretation of this story.

I’m suspicious of the text and I’m deeply suspicious of the interpretation that the God I know would ever be the instigator of this violent psychodrama.

I’m suspicious of the text because people have tried to sanitise Abraham’s saga ever since it was written and passed on. Although the readings that we get about Abraham on Sundays present someone who is far from straightforward, they miss out stories that are even more problematic.

If we are all children of Abraham, we are all children of someone who twice passed his wife off as his sister and offered her to powerful men to save his own skin, someone who slept with the maid and then disposed of her when it didn’t suit him and someone who begins the very biblical tradition of fathers who have trouble dealing fairly with their sons.

And I am suspicious of the traditional supposedly straightforward interpretation of this story because it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

No God worth believing in wants children to be sacrificed and killed.

So for me, I think this story is worth telling and retelling through the ages as a paradigm for the idea that religion can change and bad practices that can only lead to death, destruction and loss should themselves be sacrificed.

For me this story stands out as marking a moment when the idea of God wanting a child sacrifice was seen for what it was – nonsense and violent nonsense at that.

There has been much change even in my lifetime in how decent religious people behave. This text is a blessing to those who embrace that journey.

Bad religion can be sacrificed.

Bad religion should be sacrificed.

Violence begets violence – it does not beget holiness.

The God whom I believe in loves us and bears us no ill will, wants no violence, demands no pain.

Live on earth is evolving.

Human life is evolving.

The life of the spirit – religious life on earth is also evolving. I’ve seen it change. We’ve been part of it changing.

And I believe that God is with us as we question these texts and worry over them and puzzle our way through them.

This text teaches me that God has only good things in store for us.

And that idea is well worth an annual party, in any street on this earth.

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