The third time I was pregnant, I was regularly stopped by strangers in the street. Seeing only a woman with two little girls and a big belly, they would say, “I pray you have a son at last …”. And last month, I was at a dinner with a woman who asked about my children. When I said I had three daughters, she started and said, “What, no sons?” “No sons,” I said cheerfully and firmly. She gazed at me for a few long moments, then said consolingly, “That’s ok … that’s ok.” It certainly is, I thought to myself, proud mother that I am!
Conversations like these are products of something called the patriarchy. In a nutshell, the patriarchy is the social system in which gender roles are enforced, and men hold most of the power, property, and privilege. Men assume authority over women; sons are more precious than daughters; and women’s self-esteem and value is bound up in male approval. Although many of us try to live differently, contemporary Australia is a patriarchal system in which most politicians, religious figures, business leaders, senior professionals, and shapers of public opinion are men; most people who raise children, work in low-paid social services, or curtail their careers to care for others are women; and women who do become powerful or speak out must expect to be publicly vilified.
The patriarchy is powerful and persistent, and tonight’s story, and its interpretations, are profoundly shaped by it. Highly reputable commentaries describe Rachel and Jacob’s relationship as a love match. They uncritically repeat the claims of the text that, since Leah wasn’t loved by her husband, God consoled her with children; and they suggest that Bilhah and Zilpah were honoured by becoming ‘secondary wives’ to Jacob. The standard take is that the story is all about God’s blessing: for the sons borne to these four women are the progenitors of the twelve clans of Israel. We are left to conclude that we are worshipping an early Mediterranean god of fertility, who showers sons upon favoured women.
Read from a position of power, this interpretation makes sense. But read through women’s eyes, Jacob’s access to four women’s bodies isn’t pretty. The initial relationships are negotiated entirely between the men, Jacob and Laban; and, although we are told that Jacob loved Rachel, Rachel is given no voice in the courtship. Nor is Leah—and Zilpah and Bilhah certainly had no choice. For they were slave women; and as the male head of household, Jacob had power over their bodies, to do with as he liked. Their relationship with him was not a matter of consent.
After the marriages, however, it is Jacob who becomes largely silent as Leah and Rachel engage in a prolonged and toxic competition to gain his approval. Zilpah and Bilhah are given to him to bear sons and win points for their respective mistresses; while Leah and Rachel are constantly at each other’s throats, competing for their husband’s affection and seeking prestige by having boys. Their relationship is distinguished by bickering and envy; they are consumed by bitterness; and, for all their sons, they are never satisfied: again and again, each tries for another. It only comes to an end when Rachel dies in childbirth. The attending midwife tells her not to be afraid, “For now you will have another son”: but delivering this life destroys her own: it quite literally kills her.
So what we see are two women who are willing to sacrifice their pride, their sisterly affection, the bodies of their slave women, even their own lives, if it means more sons attributed to their line, and more honour accorded to themselves. If we overlook the bitterness between the sisters, the rape of the slaves, the woman who died giving birth: then, perhaps, we can claim that this story is all about God’s blessing. But if we read through women’s eyes, we see that this story is about something else: it describes how oppressed people act in a patriarchal system, where fertility is directly linked to blessing, and only men matter.
And it hasn’t dated. Strangers stop me in the street and pray for a boy, as if three wonderful daughters aren’t enough. Barren women have their grief compounded when people talk about fertility in terms of blessing and curse. In churches, in workplaces, in relationships, everywhere, women compete for male approval, and sacrifice other women to that end; while men bestow privilege on women who do not rock the boat. Those who speak up are attacked and ridiculed; and the system opens the door to many forms of oppression, including surrogacy, sex work, gender wage gaps, and domestic violence. The story of Jacob, Leah, Zilpah, Rachel, and Bilhah describes a system which is alive and well today. But is this system reflective of God’s will?
Let’s go back to our beginnings. In the first creation story, both men and women are made in the image of God, with joint responsibility for the world; in the second, woman is formed from man’s rib, which tells us that women and men are made of the same stuff. They do not have a different essence: They are essentially the same. In Genesis chapter three, the patriarchy is described: it is part of the curse. In other words, the patriarchy is not the natural order of things; it is not what God intended. Instead, it is a consequence of human sin.
Then Jesus came: the man who valued women not for their fertility, but for other gifts; the man who firmly rejected biology as family. When a woman in a crowd called out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed,” he rebuked her, and said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” Even his own mother was blessed only as she was faithful; according to Jesus, she had no special status based on motherhood.
For in Jesus Christ, the new Adam, the sin of the patriarchy is undone. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer … male and female: for all of you are one in Christ.” In baptism, we become part of Christ’s body, all equally under the authority of God—with no intermediary. No man stands between a woman and the God made known in Jesus Christ, and, in Christ, power and other gifts are granted by a gender-free Spirit to each according to the Spirit’s will. It has nothing to do with being male or female.
Of course, making these points puts me at odds with most of the church, most Christians, and most people who preach family values. We are all entangled in the patriarchy. None of us can live free of it, and it is easier to uphold it than to recognise it or challenge it or try to live differently, especially for those of us who benefit from the system. This, then, is why we go back to the Jacob stories, for they reveal to us the patriarchy’s violence, and how conflating this sinful human system with God’s will leads to conflict, bitterness, manipulation, despair, and, ultimately, death. Recognising this may prompt us to remember that the patriarchy goes against God’s initial vision for humanity; denies the teachings of Jesus; mutilates Paul’s call for a new social order; shreds our relationships with others; and warps our sense of worth. Perhaps this system is not worth upholding, after all.
But what, then, of the blessing? The story tell us that, between them, Jacob, Leah, Zilpah, Rachel, and Bilhah produced the twelve tribes of Israel: a gift to the world. Well, my friends, that blessing is the miracle of grace. The patriarchy is not God’s will. Even so, God took a group of damaged and damaging people who were enmeshed in a sinful system, and God used that group to make something good.
Maybe there’s hope for us all. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Genesis 29:14b-30:24, 35:16-20, given to Sanctuary, 30 July 2017 (AP12)