Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Bilhah

Believe God: Listen to the Voices in Your Heart & Head

Download the audio mp3

Genesis 15:6, Abraham trusted in God… Hebrews 11:1, Faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen… 3 By faith we understand

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

I believe I can fly 
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly…

What do you believe this morning? I know we shall all recite some of our commonly held beliefs in the Creed after the sermon, but what else do you believe? What do you believe that other folk call cray? You know, cray is when you’ve gone all the way past crazy and just kept going. What do you believe?

I’m not asking what or who do you believe in, because that is not the limit of what faith is about in scripture. There are folk who wear their belief in Jesus like a t-shirt; they are team JCeezy and like good sports fans, talk trash about all the other teams. That is not faith. That is fandom. What do you believe? But before you tell me, show me.

Genesis says that Abraham trusted in God. You know the Hebrew word for this kind of trusting belief already; it is amen. Abraham said “yes” and “amen” to everything God said. But belief is more than just words. As she tells the story, the author of Hebrews writes – by the way, I’m not the only scholar who believes that Priscilla wrote Hebrews – she writes in verse 8: By faith Abraham obeyed… v 9, by faith he stayed… v 10 he looked… and in v 11, he received… Abraham didn’t just believe, think or feel, he got up and got busy (that too). Faith is evidence – that’s a legal term for proof in Greek – and Abraham proved his faith with his actions. What do you believe Abraham? Watch and I’ll show you. So what do you believe church? What are you showing? What are you showing the world about your faith in God?

Whether the author of Hebrews was a woman or not, she probably wasn’t a feminist. Oh sure, she mentioned Sarah, but the rest of her exemplars were men and if you read the whole chapter, especially the end when she brings this sermon home, she includes some men whose supposed faithfulness includes abusing and killing women. But that’s next week’s sermon, and I’ll be on the road again. This week our exemplars in the faith are Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob. What do you believe? Don’t tell me; show me.

I believe the faith of biblical women even if it was in a God their men said was male like them is a faith I can’t live without in a world that still marginalizes women and girls, allowing us to be snatched off our neighborhood streets, thrown into dungeons, used and abused with no one looking for us if we’re not the right sort of girl from the right sort of family. I believe God is our God too. I believe God cares about our stories too, even when the media doesn’t. I believe.

I believe in, trust in, hope in, the God of Hagar, Keturah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah because of their faith – their amens and their actions – in the God of Israel, in spite of every good reason to choose another path. Even the stories that tell their stories don’t always tell their side of their stories, their faith stories, they’re too busy telling how God used them in the faith stories of their men. This morning, I’m going to do a little womanist midrash and fill in those blanks. For those of you who don’t know, womanism is the deeper, richer feminism of black women, like purple to lavender. And midrash is classical and contemporary Jewish interpretation of the scriptures, asking questions and filling in the blanks when need be.

So I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob this morning. But I also believe in the God of Hagar, Sarah, Keturah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. Their stories teach me about faith, even though they weren’t good enough for the author of Hebrews, with the exception of Sarah, the acceptable token. You know some folk like to include one woman on an all-male committee and call it “balanced.”

Hagar believed in God in spite of what Sarah said – and it was her idea – Hagar believed in spite of Sarah’s claim that she and Abraham were entitled to use Hagar’s body without her consent to secure their piece of the promise. Hagar believed in God in spite of Sarah and Abraham’s faith in a god who sanctioned her rape. Sometimes faith requires believing in spite of the faith claims of religious folk. And we need to check Abram and Sarah on what they felt entitled to in the name of their faith. Claiming a shared faith doesn’t give you a free pass to do whatever you want in the name of God.

Keturah, Abraham’s other, other woman and baby mama had to believe God because Abraham’s notion of child support was a couple of presents, one time. Gen 25:6: to the sons of his other women Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, then he sent them away… But Keturah believed that God would make a way out of no way and no child support for six of Abraham’s sons. And God did; God took care of Keturah and her children. One of her grandsons was Sheba, and one of his descendants was a Sista-Queen who turned Solomon’s head and turned him out.

Rebekah believed in God when she struggled with a high-risk pregnancy. Later, she struggled in her parenting. She had two boys who were at each other’s throats. And she wasn’t perfect by any means; she chose one over the other. But God believed in her and used her anyway. I believe that God doesn’t write us off for making mistakes.

Rachel believed in God while she waited for her promised husband, while her wedding day was ruined, when her father betrayed her, while she watched her beloved marry her own sister. And when she finally got her man, he kept going back to her sister’s bed, even though he had an heir and a spare, even though he kept telling her she was the one he loved. And Rachel believed God for a child. And God gave her an heir and a spare. And when her first long-awaited child was taken from her and she didn’t know if he was dead or alive, and her husband sent her baby off to a foreign land, she believed that God who gave her those children was able to bring at least one of them home, and God returned both her sons to her.

Leah believed in God who made her in God’s image no matter what anybody else thought about how she looked or didn’t look. Leah’s father used her to betray her sister, saying he did it for her own good. And when everyone in the whole world was mad at her, laughing at her, God was with her. God blessed her with children to love and raise and parent better than she was parented. And when she cried in the night over a man who slept with her but told everybody he didn’t love her, God’s love was there for her whether she knew it or not.

I believe that Bilhah believed in God even though she found herself enslaved to Rachel’s father, passed down to Rachel like a family heirloom and then turned over to Jacob to impregnate because Rachel didn’t have enough faith to wait on God. Or perhaps Bilhah couldn’t see her way clear to have faith in the god of her enslavers and abusers. Leah’s son, Reuben whom she had known since he was a baby raped her when she was an old woman. Yet I’d like to believe that Bilhah had the kind of faith in God that our enslaved ancestors had – it doesn’t matter what you do to us or our children. We are free in God. You can touch our bodies but not our souls. You can kill us like dogs in the street but there is a God of justice, who sits high and looks low. Vengeance is mine says God-Whose-Name-Is-Holy.

Zilpah, Leah’s maid had to believe there was a God somewhere when Leah turned her over to be impregnated, out of spite.

The faith stories of Israel are full of the good, the bad, the ugly, the dirty, the nasty, the crazy and the cray-to-the-cray. Maybe you think your faith doesn’t count this morning, maybe the author Hebrews wouldn’t think your story is important enough to tell the church folk about – you know some people think we shouldn’t talk about sex and violence and rape and murder and hurt and pain and death and disease and grief and depression in church.

Oh but faith! Faith says bring it all to God because God can handle it. God will handle it with you. God will handle it for you. Only believe. Believe that God can bring you through and deliver you from harm. God can. And sometimes God will. But also know that faith doesn’t mean that you won’t have sorrow or grief or pain or even have a horrific act of violence inflicted on your person. Real faith says that even if the worst should happen, God will be right there with you and bring you through.

Let me leave you with what might sound like some strange advice: Listen to the voices in your head. Listen for the voice of God with your heart. Follow the voice of God with your behind, hands, feet and mouth. The faithful folk of scripture didn’t just wear their faith on donkey bumper stickers; they got up and followed God, walked with God, spoke with and for God and sometimes, died for God. Faith without works is dead. Belief without action is invalid. If you believe God, get up and do something.

Believe God. Believe God about you. Believe God about the world. Believe God against the opposition. Believe God against the world. Believe God and trust in God. Trust God’s yesses and amens. I don’t know about you, but I have a personal soundtrack: I believe I can fly… And, I believe that God used R. Kelly in spite of the horrific violence and degradation he rained down on God’s daughters. And I believe we need to tell the truth and hold folk accountable at all times. And I believe that none of us is all good or all bad.

Sometimes, when I’m out walking, particularly if there is a body of water nearby, I play Donald Lawrence, O Peter (Walk Out On the Water). And I hear Jesus saying to me as he says in that song, I am Mary’s Baby, don’t you be afraid; walk out on the water, don’t be afraid… That is my shouting song.

Finally, when I need to hear God sing to me, I play Lena Horne singing Believe in Yourself As I Believe in You from The Wiz:

If you believe

I know you will

Believe in yourself, right from the start

You’ll have brains

You’ll have a heart

You’ll have courage

To last your whole life through

If you believe in yourself

As I believe in you. 

What do you believe? Don’t let anybody tell you, you, your faith or your story don’t count.

My former classmate at the Howard University School of Divinity, Yolanda Adams sings I Believe I Can Fly:

Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers, O Peter (Walk Out On the Water):

Believing God means believing in yourself. Let the Holy Spirit incarnate in Lena Horne prophe-sing to you:


Torat Bilhah: The Torah of a Disposable Woman

African American Art - Eve

[This D’var Torah led to a rich and ongoing discussion at the Dorshe Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia on the possibility of adding the names of the enslaved Mothers, Zilpah and Bilhah, to the liturgy. Some of that conversation can be found here. Ultimately it was decided that prayer leaders would have the option to invoke their names as Immahoth, Mothers of Israel.]

Today, I’d like to share with you Torat Bilhah, Bilhah’s Torah, the torah of a disposable woman. Today’s drash is based on an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Womanist Midrash. Womanism is black feminism by another name, coined by Alice Walker.

Genesis 30:3 Rachel said, “Look! My womb-slave Bilhah – come in her, and she will give birth on my knees that I may also build-babies, through her.”

Bilhah is one of two slave-women whose bodies were used to produce a full third of the twelve tribes of Israel. Bilhah and Zilpah are often overlooked – in prayers naming the matriarchs in Judaism and Christianity – and, in my experience as a congregant and student they are combined as a footnote to Israel’s story. Bilhah figures more prominently in the scriptures than does her sister in slavery, Zilpah. There are eleven references to Bilhah; in comparison there are only seven for Zilpah.

Both amahoth and shiphchoth are enslaved women or girls regularly associated with sexual and reproductive duties. Translating either as “maid” intentionally obscures the sexual nature of their servitude. Both terms seem to refer primarily to foreign women; Lev 25:44 stipulates that they should be bought from foreigners. However, a survey of the passages in which these terms occur does not indicate that these women are entirely or even preferentially non-Israelite.

In some cases I translate amah and/or shiphchah as “womb-slave.” In these cases, the girls are given by other women to men for sex for the express purpose of impregnating them. I believe that it is more appropriate to describe the womb-slaves as girls rather than as women because they were likely young enough to have been presumed fertile and possibly virginal in order that the paternity of their children not be disputed, however, it may be that in some cases, perhaps Bilhah’s, that they were already proven fertile. Bilhah is first enslaved to Lavan the father of Leah and Rachel before being passed on to his daughter Rachel. While she is enslaved to Lavan, Bilhah is initially referred to as a shiphchah. Later, she is called an amah. The two terms are used nearly interchangeably in the Hebrew Scriptures although there was likely once a distinction between them.

The text is not interested in how a girl (or woman) young enough to be presumed fertile came into Lavan’s household. Was Bilhah once the woman-servant of Lavan’s mysteriously missing wife? Was Bilhah born in captivity or captured as spoils of war? How long was she in Lavan’s service before he gave her to Rachel? And what sorts of services did she provide Lavan? Given the absence of Lavan’s wife from the narrative it is entirely possible that Lavan used Bilhah sexually.

Bilhah’s sexual subordination to Rachel (with or without the possibility that Lavan used her sexually previously) evokes for me the sexual abuse of enslaved Africans in the United States, Caribbean and other places. Religious readings that valorize Rachel place the descendants of those held as chattel in the American slavocracy in the position of identifying with slave-holding values and against the interests and experiences of our foremothers. Rachel, like her foremother Sarah does not to hesitate to use the body, womb and sexuality of another woman for her own purposes. Unlike the white women who benefited from slavery in the Atlantic, Rachel does not pretend not to know about sexual contact between her man and her slave. And, when Rachel gives Bilhah to Ya‘aqov, she gives her as a primary wife, an isshah. Yet Bilhah remains Rachel’s slave; she is regularly referred to as a shiphchah. Bilhah proves fertile and gives birth to Dan and Naphtali.

In each slave-surrogate story the text portrays a singular accounting of the sexual contact between Avraham and Hagar, Ya‘aqov and Bilhah and Ya‘aqov and Zilpah. The reader must imagine how many times the slave-women were forced/required to have sex with these men in order to provide their mistresses with the children they craved. Rachel like other women who use their slaves as child-bearing surrogates claims the children; this is not comparable to the vast experience of enslaved women of African descent forced to bear children at the whim of their enslavers, whose children were sold off or abused to punish them for a sin that was not theirs. (Perhaps a modern parallel to Rachel’s use of Bilhah’s body might be the women of privilege who travel to the two-thirds world to pay a surrogate to bear their children at a tenth of the cost of an American surrogate. While the poor women do consent to the practice, the financial disparities and cultural consequences of carrying someone else’s child in traditional societies complicate that consent.)

Bilhah’s body is used again in Gen 35:22. Re’uven ben Leah, Ya‘aqov’s firstborn son, rapes Bilhah. That Bilhah does not consent is indicated by the Hebrew, vayishcav et-bilhah, “he lay Bilhah.” There is no “with” indicating consent. Bilhah is the grammatical and sexual object of Re’uven’s actions. Re’uven is young enough to be her son. He may have been like a son or nephew to her. But he uses her nevertheless, whether for his own power and control needs or as a pawn in a battle with his father. The pain, anguish, rage and shame that Bilhah must have felt are and are not difficult to imagine. No punishment is meted out to Re’uven in the text at the time of the assault. (It is held against him and eventually given as the reason he is demoted from the privilege of being the firstborn.) No comfort is offered to Bilhah in the text. Was she supported by other slave women, by Zilpah who shared her lot in life? I cannot imagine Rachel or even Leah coming to her aid. Her body has belonged to Lavan, Rachel, Ya‘aqov and now Re’uven. Bilhah may be the woman with the most sexual partners in the scriptures, none of whom she chose. In the rape narrative Bilhah is described as a secondary wife, a pilegesh. She has been degraded in body and status.

Yet something of Bilhah endures and transcends the abuse heaped on her body. In 1 Chron 4:29 there is a town named Bilhah settled by the descendants of Simeon. Textually speaking, the town is likely the same town called Ba‘alah in Joshua 15:29. Since Ba‘alah and Bilhah are more than one letter apart, scribal error does not seem to be responsible for the discrepancy. There are likely two different traditions about the ancient city list. The space between the two traditions provides a midrashic space. I’d like to think that Bilhah is the Ba‘alah, (“lady” or “mistress”), for whom the town is named, regaining the dignity that had been stripped from her. Finally, in Genesis 46:23-25, Bilhah takes her place in the genealogy of Israel as a matriarch, credited with seven children and grandchildren; this is largely repeated in 1 Chron 7:13.

In a womanist reading, Bilhah represents the woman who has had more than one abusive relationship, the woman who has been raped by more than one perpetrator, the woman who has been betrayed by women and men, who has never known anyone to value her for more than what they think about her body in part or the whole. And Bilhah represents the woman survives her abuse.

There is a prayer in the Mass of my church, (Eucharistic Prayer C in the Holy Eucharist, Rite II, in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church), in which the celebrant invokes “God of our Fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” I always add Hagar, Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. Because Bilhah is one of the mothers of Israel and after all that she has been through – after all that was done to her, to erase her name from the chronicle of her descendants and their people is to do further violence to her. Likewise when I pray the Amidah, I add Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah for the same reason.

Lastly, calling the names of familial and spiritual ancestors is a womanist practice with roots in a number of African societies. In ritual practice, the affirmation “Ashé!” from the Yoruba tradition concludes the name-calling of the ancestors. Mother Bilhah, womb-slave of Israel, we call your name. Ashé!


Who are some of the marginalized characters in sacred writings that you would like to see in the center of discourse? Given that this text functions as scripture – with all that entails – what torah does Bilhah offer you? What (if anything) does midrash from the margins offer the broader interpretive tradition? I welcome your questions and comments.

D’Var Torah delivered in the Dorshei Derekh Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre for Shabbat Vayetzei 7 Kislev 5772/3 December 2011