CONTENT WARNING: Sexual Abuse, Rape, sex slavery
For those not in the know, I am currently enrolled in a four year program called Education for Ministry. If you are #exevangelical and want to learn how to read the Bible without the lens of the Evangelical narrative, I can recommend this program. You will read the entire Bible, with the apocrypha, in two years and will also learn a good chunk of the history of Christianity and some other great stuff as well.
At the time of this writing, I am still way back in the beginning of the program and working through the book of Genesis.
Jacob’s haram bothered me when I was evangelical, but I never knew what to do with it except to write it off as a separate culture in which God dealt very differently with people.
Reading it again as a mainline Christian, I find the text even more deeply disturbing.
A quick refresher if you’ve not read it in a while:
After stealing his twin brother’s birthright and blessing, Jacob runs away from his father’s home to avoid getting murdered by his brother for his thievery and trickery. Upon meeting Rachel for the first time, he plants a big smooch on her and decides she is the one for him. He strikes a deal with Laban, Rachel’s father, to buy her as his wife in exchange for 7 years of labour.
Having completed his 7 years, Jacob demands his pay: Rachel. Laban takes a page out of Jacob’s book of tricks and sneaks his older daughter into Jacob’s marriage bed instead. When Jacob wakes up the next morning and sees another woman in Rachel’s place (just how drunk was he on his wedding night that he didn’t notice that the so-called love of his life was absent?), he is angry with Laban. But he agrees to work another 7 years if he can wed Rachel for reals.
Then the story really goes downhill when both sisters have to compete for their husband’s attention and for who is most fertile. The most disturbing point in their rivalry comes when they take their maids and give them to Jacob as wives so that he might have more sons.
My entire life, my trusted and faithful leaders have told me that marriage was between one man and one woman. I was taught that sex is a sacred thing that is reserved specifically for the one-man-one-woman marriage bed. No exceptions.
Here we have one man and four women. All four women were forced into marriage with this man; two were sold into it by their own father and two were sex slaves who were handed over to him by the women who owned them. The two sex slaves didn’t even get to keep their babies. Their children were considered to be the sons of their mistresses.
When we are taught that the Bible is God-inspired and free of error or false doctrine, we miss stuff like this. When we are taught that the patriarchs of the faith were holy men led by God, we miss that men like Jacob were not exactly holy or righteous in all of their ways. We allow dangerous theology to slip into our worldviews.
For a Biblical inerrantist, this passage is about a man of God and his progeny. There is no abuse of women. There is no sex slavery. There is no hint of sexuality being abused or used in sinful ways. In fact, quite the opposite. A Biblical inerrantist would have to assume all of this was God’s will because of this verse:
17 God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Then Leah said, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband.” So she named him Issachar.Genesis 30:17-18
It’s right there in the text. The Bible is clear. God approved of all of Leah’s choices, including being an active participant in the rape of her maid Zilpah. Since Rachel was doing all of the same things that Leah was, one would have to assume that God also approved of her behaviour.
At most, a Biblical inerrantist might look at this text and see a sin of polygamy. But then they will write it off as having been used by God. The greater horrors of the story are overlooked.
At least, I know I couldn’t see the horrors quite as clearly in my inerrantist days.
I think a more God-honouring interpretation, and one that respects the humanity of all involved, is one that allows Leah, Rachel, and Jacob the freedom to be authentic in who they were, even if that means calling them out as sinful people who hurt those they held power over.
Jacob’s sin was in viewing women as mere objects – including Rachel, who he claimed to love. He treated them all as things to purchase and tools to gain sons. He allowed his wives to compete over him, even going along with their games (Gen 30:14-16). He used them in harmful and abusive ways.
Rachel and Leah sinned in objectifying their maids as tools for procreation, actively participating in their abuse by giving them to Jacob to impregnate, and then stealing their babies from them. They also dehumanized each of their children. It didn’t matter how many sons they had or how many sons they stole from their maids, they only wanted more. Their children were mere objects to collect in pursuit of their husband’s affection.
They all devalued the precious act of sex in the process. It wasn’t about spousal bonding; it was just something to do to get sons.
This isn’t holiness. This isn’t righteousness.
I think a God who truly loves His creation would mourn to see so many people used, abused, and dehumanized. I think a God who is truly in love with His children would be horrified by these things.
I don’t, for one second, believe that He approved of their choices, much less used small human beings to reward their behaviour. God did not participate in their dehumanization.
But an inerrantist would not see these things. An inerrantist would not be allowed to even question these things. They might, like I did, feel troubled by the story. But there are always ways to justify the obvious abuse so that it can somehow still fit into God’s plan and God’s will.
It is no mystery to me why, when we hear story after story of Christian leaders and celebrities who used and abused others, the reactions tend to be to deny and to cover-up. Very rarely do evangelicals want to engage with these scandals.
I mean, if we can’t even engage with obvious accounts of sexual abuse within Scripture: how can we ever know what to do when it hits our present-day sphere?