July 30, 2023
I’m not sure how we were made to feel shame about our messy origin stories. This messy narrative, like many in the Hebrew scriptures, offers an unapologetic look at imperfect lives and serves as a reminder of our own messy origin stories. The Rev Dr. Wil Gafney offers this on today’s Genesis text.
“Rachel and Leah were ordinary sisters. They had largely separate lives. Leah preferred indoor life and Rachel the outdoor life. Neither was much interested in marriage. Following the rules of the household established by their great-grandmother… they were asked if they would marry each time a suitor came forward, as their Aunt Rebekah had been asked. And each time they said no. They said no to their brothers and cousins. They said no to intrafamily unions. They said no to neighbors and strangers. They said no to unions outside their family.
“Then one day their cousin Jacob came to town looking for a woman from their family, his family. Their father said one of them would have to marry him. Aunt Rebekah would not take no for an answer. Jacob asked for Rachel and offered seven years of his labor in exchange for her. Rachel spent seven years getting to know him, but she never came to love him. He turned to Leah to help win her over. The more he pursued Rachel, the less interested she became. The more time he spent with Leah, the more Leah came to love him.
“When the time for the wedding feast and consummation came, Leah and Rachel agreed to switch places and told their father what they had decided. They waited until deepest night and put out all the lamps in the wedding tent. Leah hoped that Jacob would realize that he was the one whom he truly loved. Jacob was angry and disappointed. He demanded Rachel. Laban tried to dissuade him. Rachel hoped he would give up, but he stayed another seven years. Jacob’s pursuit of Rachel broke Leah’s heart. The love she held for him and her sister soured.
“When Rachel finally consented to marry Jacob, she was at the end of her childbearing years. He did not care. He wanted her, and he finally had her. That Rachel did not want him and that he never wanted Leah wounded Leah deeply. Leah carried that hurt to her grave. She held onto it and acted out of her deep hurt. She was never reconciled to her sister.”
I love what Dr. Gafney does with that re-telling. She gives agency and background and relational tension that the text never does. This is called a “midrash,” a form of biblical interpretation used in Jewish circles. We had a whole series on exploring Christian midrash in a worship series entitled More Light and Truth in winter 2022. These stories try to fill the gaps in the text. Provide insight for the motivations of the biblical characters. The rabbis and Christian theologians have long exercised this style of teaching and theological imagination.
Dr. Gafney also notes two things about the sisters of Rachel and Leah. Dr Gafney notes that Rachel arrives on the scene shepherding. Shepherding in the bible is a powerful and dominant metaphor for leading the people of Israel as a civil and religious leader and for God’s own care of God’s people. This term is synonymous with my profession. Being called a “pastor” is a direct reference to being a shepherd. Rachel is a leader.
As for the other sister, there is something about the way she looked or the way she saw that defies description. “Leah’s eyes were lovely.” Or “Leah had particular eyes.” Some readings state that she has “weak eyes.” The word that describes the eyes, rakkoth, is inscrutable. 
In reading the story of Leah in Genesis, I am always struck by the sadness and complications of her life. She was the older daughter, and Rachel the younger. In the Torah’s short, suggestive first description of the sisters, it says that “Leah had rakkoth eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful” (Gen 28:17). It’s not entirely clear what “rakkoth eyes” means. In contrast, I interpret it to mean that Rachel was beautiful, so having weak eyes must mean that Leah was not.
However, having “rakkoth eyes” does not say anything about how others saw Leah. Rather, it might tell us something about how Leah perceived the world. Maybe her eyesight was weak, or saw only loving things. Maybe this word rakkoth was to show that Leah’s perception was warped. Perhaps Leah held an overly optimistic view of the world, one that smoothed over its sharp edges and allowed her to believe that somehow, some way, everything would work out for the best.
I know people like this. I think my beloved Grandma Bet was like this. She married my Grandpa George who was a damaged man. She loved him. She had weak eyes like Leah and overlooked his faults for as long as she could. Until she couldn’t and got divorced. Maybe you know someone like this. We could say that people only saw Leah for whatever was up with her eyes. And they only say Rachel for her beauty. Thus they missed both of the sisters. They missed Leah’s optimistic view of life, and Rachel’s leadership and strength. Both sisters and their full humanity were missed and ignored as so many women’s stories have been reduced.
To complicate an already complicated story, the rabbis of the Talmud (the rabbinic teachings and stories) are flummoxed by the idea that Jacob would not have known that his bride was Leah rather than Rachel. This story is messy. It’s fraught. It’s human. It feels lived in. It feels like my own family story and so many others I have heard. It’s dirty. The truth is, very few of us have pristine family histories. I have never met one person without a few skeletons in the closet or some form of generational trauma.
There was once a woman at a former church who was the kindest, nicest, and blandest person. She was at every worship. She attended every Bible study and church event. I began to suspect she was a CIA Agent as each time we spoke, she came away knowing more about me than I ever learned about her. And I asked a lot of questions. For an icebreaker before a bible study, I asked, “If you were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would you be?” She answered vanilla.
One day, I finally got her story. And holy moly! It read like the sisters’ today. There was trickery. Infidelity. Parents playing favorites. Tensions and sibling rivalry. She had removed herself from all of that and had a quiet life in a quiet town. She didn’t want to raise her family in such an environment. She wanted the stability and peace for her children that she never received herself.
I sure miss her, and I pray she is well. Maybe that is your story, too. Maybe you’re recovering from how you were parented, or not. Maybe you come from a messy family or community filled with tension and deception. Maybe you’re still in communication with your family of origin or maybe you’ve found and created your chosen family. Maybe you have a mix of both.
I’m not sure how we were made to feel shame about our messy origin stories. We think we should have squeaky clean family backgrounds, but none of us come from those places. Not even the Royal Family across the pond is free of messiness. One of the most powerful family on the planet is rife with siblings feuding, messy divorces, and lawsuits. You can read about this in most every tabloid and celebrity magazine to this day.
My favorite thing about the Hebrew scriptures is how dirty and messy they are. The authors could have cleaned it up. They could have made it into propaganda. But the writers of our Old Testament left all that stuff in there as if to say, “This is our history. Learn from the best of us and the worst of us. Continue the best, and don’t repeat the worst.”
Remember, God is the hero of the Hebrew scriptures. The good news here is that the Kingdom of God is not pristine either. In the New Testament, Jesus gives us an amazing parable today. The kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field. We sell all we have, and we buy the field. We who believe cleanliness is next to Godliness should take heed. We want clean lines and perfect Hallmark stories, and Jesus gives us dirt and digging.
In the muck and mud and general messiness of life, the divine is there. In the tragedy of your family origin story, there is a treasure. When you find this treasure, you sell all you have and buy the field. Your inheritance means nothing. Your hometown means nothing. Nothing means anything save for what you found, and that’s the kingdom of God. That’s a piece of heaven here on earth.
Like the church member who left all she knew and found a life worth living, I pray that you, too, find the same thing whether that’s physically and/or emotionally. I wish you healing and all the fruits of the spirit. I wish you to heal beyond whatever shame you might feel. If you have no idea and cannot relate to this sermon, then you are indeed among the few. May you continue the fine lineage that was gifted to you and take joy, for you are rare.
The story of Rachel and Leah, as explored by Dr. Wil Gafney’s midrash, reveals the complexity of human relationships and family dynamics. This messy narrative, like many in the Hebrew scriptures, offers an unapologetic look at imperfect lives and serves as a reminder of our own messy origin stories. Jesus’ parable emphasizes finding the Kingdom of God amidst the muck and mud of life to embrace the divine within. We are encouraged to learn from both the best and worst of humanity, seeking healing, redemption, and the fruits of the spirit in our own stories. Once again, God works through both/and. We are both messy and divine.
Through the messiness of life, God’s grace and love journey with us, transforming us into a reflection of heaven on earth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Womanist Midrash: A reintroduction to the women of the Torah and the throne. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2017. Pages 56-57.
 Womanist Midrash page 54.
 Ibid page 63.