Untold stories cry to be heard

Untold stories cry to be heard

This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2020.


Proper 12A July 26, 2020
Genesis 29:15-28
St. Luke’s in the Meadow

Like many of you, our household has watched Hamilton on Disney+ many times over the past 3 weeks. As a result, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics pop into our heads constantly.

When people walk into a room in our house, “Well, if it isn’t Aaron Burr, sir.” Visiting with my sister recently, “I know my sister better than I know my own mind / You will never find anyone as trusting or as kind.”

We’ve sung a version of “Why do you write like you’re running out of time” to our nine-year-old as she zips by on her bicycle.

Well, the past few days as I’ve prepared for this sermon, the refrain from the final song of Hamilton is running through my mind.

“Will they tell your story? Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Will they tell your story? Who lives, who dies who tells your story?”

When we read this morning’s text from Genesis it’s quite clear whose story this is supposed to be. We are nearing the end of a 4-week stretch of following Jacob and hearing his journey, what he’s doing and what is done to him. Two weeks ago, we heard how Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, fooled his father Isaac after taking his twin brother’s birthright.

Last week’s short reading described Jacob fleeing Beer-sheba for the land of his ancestors. During his last night in Canaan, he dreamt of God blessing his offspring. This week, he finally arrives in “the land of the people of the east,” meets his cousin Rachel, kisses her without her consent, then taken to meet her father Laban. And that’s where we end up today. We end up with a text that is so problematic and difficult to hear, for a dozen reasons. At least.

  1. This patriarchal society assumes that marriage is first and foremost an alliance between men involving the exchange of women like chattel
  2. There is no bridal consent in this story, which is quite different than the engagement of Jacob’s parents. (Gen 24. 52-60)
  3. Polygamy is an acceptable practice … even though Levitical law states marriage to two sisters is prohibited. (18.18)
  4. Rivalry between the sisters – from their physical differences to competition for Jacob’s
  5. The casual reference to the handmaids – which brings up issues of social class, domestic and enslaved labor, sexual trafficking and

It’s a difficult story for sure.

A story that is so clearly Jacob’s – Jacob who immediately falls in love with Rachel, and who loves her so much that when he’s deceived into marrying Leah, he thinks nothing of further years of servitude if it means finally getting to marry her. This is Jacob’s story. There is no interest in Rachel or Leah, their desires, feelings, experiences. Who tells their story?

What about Zilpah the handmaid who Laban “gives” to Leah when she marries Jacob? And Bilhah who Laban “gives” to Rachel when she marries Jacob? The editors of our lectionary abruptly cut off today’s text so that we don’t even hear this verse. The patriarchal story is bad enough, erasing Bilhah makes it even worse.

Zilpah and Bilhah are enslaved women or girls, whose duties primarily include reproduction. Our Bible’s use of the word “maid” doesn’t capture their servitude. In her book Womanist Midrash, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney interprets the word as “womb-slave” – “girls given by other woman to men for sex for the purpose of impregnating them.” As modern readers, it calls to mind the role of the handmaid in Margaret Atwood’s not-so-dystopian book The Handmaid’s Tale.

Our lesson today is not the handmaids’ story. No one is telling their story. We know how they came to be Laban’s property. We aren’t told their lineage or nationality. We aren’t provided any of their thoughts or spoken words.

Dr. Gafney writes, “The collection and compilation of these sacred stories is a response to the trauma experienced by survivors of the Judean monarchy in the face of the defeat of the nation, dismantling of the monarchy, burning of Jerusalem, and razing the temple. These tragedies and their attendant horror provide the impulse for scripting theology” (Womanist Midrash, page 18).

The narrative we hear from the book of Genesis during Ordinary Time feels like a narrative of Jacob’s personal journey. Who lives, who dies, who tells this story?

Who is telling his story? Are the stories, as Dr Gafney states, responses to the communal trauma experienced by the survivors of the Judean monarchy? The author of these stories hides so much of the complexity of this time period, which includes hiding the women. The women who are clearly very active in their own survival and the survival of their children.

Zilpah and Bilhah are enslaved by Laban. Given as chattel to Leah and Rachel. Given as womb slaves to Jacob. In a few chapters we briefly read that Bilhah is abused again when raped by Leah’s son Reuben.

They are given no agency. They are given no spoken words. And yet they are the mothers of 1/3 of Jacob’s offspring who become the 12 Tribes of Israel.

The editors of Genesis and the Revised Common Lectionary want this to be Jacob’s story, but there is another narrative here. A narrative of silenced survivors. Tragically, they are edited out of this narrative. So, who tells their story? Who hears their story?

There is a direct connection from these women to enslaved people of our own country and their descendants today. There is a connection to the survival skills that develop under oppression…and then are then punished as criminal behavior. There is a direct connection to judging what is ethical or morally right when one’s agency is restricted, when one’s community is threatened, when one’s body has been abused.

Who tells the story of the abused, enslaved, the oppressed? When they are edited out of textbooks. Out of news stories. Out of policy platforms. Out of “mainstream” pop culture. Who tells their stories?

We cannot ignore their stories, dismissing their abuse as unfortunate products of a different time in human history. I know Bilhah and Zilpah are speaking to us.

They are sharing their stories, if only we will listen and listen without judgement of what behaviors are morally right when their agency is restricted, when their bodies are abused.

If only we had listened to the stories of enslaved women who were raped by the enslavers claiming ownership of their bodies. If only we had listened to the stories of those same women whose children were stolen and sold as property to other families. Or the indigenous mothers whose children were taken and enrolled in faraway boarding schools for “their own good.” If only we listened to the story of every woman whose childhood sexual abuse led to being sold on the streets a short time later. Their stories have always been told, we’ve just chosen not to listen. Because as people of privilege, we haven’t had to listen. So we erase them.

What about now? Will we listen to the stories from Portland this week as federal tactical officers roam neighborhoods? Will we listen to the stories of Black and Brown people who are arrested and murdered for simply existing? Or the stories of the members of our congregations who are isolated alone at home? Or those who are isolating with their abusers?

Who lives, who dies. Who tells these stories? Who hears these stories? All the way back to ancient Hebrew scripture, these stories of the abused and oppressed share the common narrative of erasing anyone who is not a member of the privileged class.

Zilpah and Bilhah’s stories were erased by the editors of the original Genesis text and by modern lectionary editors. Their names are not listed among the four Matriarchs of Israel. We cannot allow the same to happen to other oppressed and abused voices. Their stories have so much to tell us about survival and maintaining hope when all seems lost.

The stories of the abused and oppressed have been there for ages. They’ve just been silenced. We must break this silence. We must listen to their stories in the same way that Jesus Christ listened to the stories of the Samaritan woman at the well and the Gerasene man living with an unclean spirit in the tombs, he listened to Nicodemus and Zacchaeus without judgement.

We must listen to them cry and wail, lament, we must listen to their demands for justice. We must listen without placing blame or casting doubt. We must honor the stories while also recognizing that for the abused, the act of telling their story is both healing and triggering.

Whose story is being silenced? Whose story needs to be heard?