Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Sarah

Smashing the Biblical Patriarchy

Gen 12:1 Now the Holy One said to Avram, “Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. Now, be a blessing! 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and they shall be blessed in you, all the families of the earth.” 4 So Avram went, as the Holy One had told him; and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old in his exodus from Haran. (Translation, Wil Gafney)

Let us pray:

May my teaching pour like the rain, my word go forth like the dew; like rains on grass, like showers on new growth. Amen.

I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to share my teaching with you this weekend, and my preaching today, thinking about how to decenter whiteness, patriarchy and heteronormativity from biblical interpretation. And as a joke or perhaps as a challenge, you have invited me on a day in which the lectionary begins the story Abraham who will become the patriarch without peer, with patriarchy itself portrayed as God’s gift and blessing. And as much as I like the hashtags #smashtheatriarchy and #burnitalldown, peeling back layers of patriarchy and heteronormativity from the biblical text requires a somewhat softer touch if one seeks to preserve and peruse the text for a living word.

I could just preach from another text. For rejecting the constraints of the lectionary with its own patriarchal and androcentric agenda is most certainly a legitimate strategy to decenter that which has taken up entirely too much space in the biblical imagination and those of its interpreters. Even so I believe that any text, including the very epitome of a patriarchal text, can be preached as a relevant living word free from those encumbrances that keep us from living fully into God’s image and creation of us.

And still, patriarchy, androcentrism, misogyny, heterosexism, xenophobia and whiteness are hard to disentangle from the biblical text and its interpretation. They are sticky and clingy. Yet I believe that if we wrestle with this text we will find a living word from these sacred but troubling stories, one that is as true for Hagar, Sarah, Keturah and Lot’s daughters as it is for Abraham and Lot.

Wrestling a life-giving word out patriarchal and heteronormative constraints in the text and whiteness spackled on in interpretation of it is a labor of love and a life giving and saving enterprise. All too often the text confronts me with a god I recognize but do not serve, love or even want to know. There are texts of terror in both testaments. There are rapes and rape-based metaphors, slavery and slave-based imagery, canonized and sanctified, even placed on the lips of God, incorporeal and incarnate in the person of Jesus. And, as we who studied together yesterday have seen, the text is then often whitewashed in interpretation, particularly cultural, iconic and artistic interpretation, with no better image of whiteness sanctified than the idol that is white jesus.

The God who dwelt among us as mortal-immortal human yet divine Afro-Asiatic Palestinian Jew is present in a biblical text that is itself both human and divine, intricately interwoven. God is in the text and God is behind the text and beyond the text, in the characters the authors and editors hold up for us, and in the ones they neglect and turn away from, in the Canaanites and Moabites, in the trafficked and enslaved, in the women and the children, in the gentiles and foreigners, in the conquered and the subjugated.

[I am a black woman who knows she is made in the image of God and sees the divine in myself and my people, and in all of the other despised peoples of the earth. I see the holy and living God in the faces of neighbors and strangers, transgender and non-binary, genderqueer and cisgender, same gender loving and bisexual, heterosexual, coupled, parenting or child free, every shade of black, brown, beige, tan, pink, peach and cream.]

In these stories about Abraham and Lot, the psalmist and her God, Jesus, Nicodemus, and the Mother of All from whom we must be born again, I see the God of my ancestors, the God of my faith, the God of my experience and the God of Jesus, the Son of Woman. I find her in these texts when I sit with the characters on the margins, those who have been cut out of the lectionary, and those whose names have been erased from the scriptures.

The lectionary has cut our first lesson off before Sarai can be named, perhaps because in the very next verse, Avram takes Sarai and Lot along with his possessions, as though they too were also possessions along with the “goods” he acquired in Haran. Or maybe the verse is excluded because it spells out—more clearly in Hebrew than in English—that those possessions are all the persons he has “acquired”—not people and possessions, but people as possessions. Abraham’s patriarchy is rooted and grounded in slavery, sanctified in the text and by the god of this text. Abraham’s house will become great in number, in part, because of the fecundity of his slaves, some of whom he will undoubtedly impregnate himself. Because that is how slavery works and we ought not pretend that biblical slavery was some holy beneficent enterprise.

So then, is this story useful for anything other than asserting a divine claim for patriarchy? Is there a living word here? Is there a blessing to be had that is not nationalistic or steeped in patriarchy? Responsible biblical interpretation has always called for more than simply attempting to imitate an ancient text in our contemporary context. For example, most ancient and contemporary readers understood that incestuous sibling marriage was something best left behind in this text. While on the other hand, the founding fathers and their slaveholding cronies wanted to hold onto the patriarchal promise of wealth to Abraham that explicitly included slaves. Most folk have since let that go, but not all. What then is left in the promise if we let go of the patriarchy, androcentrism, misogyny, and heterosexism in the story, and the whiteness that is so often spackled onto it? A paradigm for leaving behind the things we need to let go.

In the text, the Living Loving God says: Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…” Abraham has made his journey. His story and the story of his descendants and their nation-building have been told. Today let us focus on Abram’s personal exodus from the household of his father and what that may have signified for his family, those present in and those absent from the text, and what that might just mean for us.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

Abraham’s father’s house was rife with incest, but far too many preachers hesitate to use the word—even when acknowledging that Sarah and Abraham have the same father. Abraham and Sarah may well have been products of incest themselves, so common was it in their father’s house. Their mothers are unidentified so we cannot know. What we can know is that Abraham’s brother Nahor had children with his niece Milcah, the daughter of their brother Haran. [Abraham, and his brothers Nahor and Haran shared both parents.] Bethuel, Laban and Rebekah would come from that line descended from Milcah and her uncle.

Though Abraham eventually leaves his father’s house, some of his father’s values stay with him; he insists his son Isaac must marry a woman who is also their relative. In a later story Lot will father children with his daughters. The text will blame the daughters but a womanist reading of the text interprets it through the experiences of victims of sexual abuse who are blamed for their victimization and often charged with seducing the men, sometimes their own fathers, who rape them. Lot left the house of his grandfather, but he didn’t go far enough.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

The house of Abraham’s father represents all of the social and sexual dysfunction that would keep Abraham and his parents and partners and their kith and kin, descendants and dependents from living and loving freely and fully. It will take Abraham a while to put the sexual ethics his father’s house behind him, if he ever does. Abraham’s family’s sexual ethics were rooted in patriarchy. Patriarchy resides in his father’s house, though it was not conceived there. Motivated by fear but made feasible by patriarchal reasoning, twice or once in two different tellings, Abraham sells Sarah to a foreign king for his sexual use—including in this chapter—and it takes an act of God to get her back. At some point after leaving his father’s house, Abrahams marries again, Keturah, a woman of his own choosing, a woman who is not from his father’s house. I would like to think that union marks a new beginning for him, a step towards the promise and blessing.

Sarah too is a product of patriarchy and women can and do subjugate other women and sometimes men under patriarchy’s dominion. Sarah employs the lessons she learned in her father’s house against Hagar and, to some degree, against Abraham. Sarah will seize the body of a girl she considers her property and subject her to physical and sexual violence and a forced pregnancy while turning the tables on the husband who sold her for sheep, camels, donkeys and human chattel. Later, her abuse of Hagar will be so violent, so oppressive, that it is described with the same word that Exodus uses to describe Egyptian oppression and affliction of the Israelites, a word that includes rape as one of its primary meanings.

Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have needed to leave home to become fully who they were called to be. Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have had to leave ancestral and familial teachings about sexuality and gender behind. If we take this lesson to heart we too will leave ignorant, willfully ignorant, and harmful sexual ethics and practices behind. We don’t preach polygamy or incestuous sibling marriages as normative simply because they are in the text. There is no reason to preach ancient Israel’s ignorance about human sexuality, orientation, gender construction or performance as normative either. We can begin to talk about blessing all of the peoples of the earth when we understand them to be equally blessed without regard to gender or its performance and no person is forced into a union against their will.

This text also teaches us it may take some time to be able to leave the house of patriarchy and all that comes with it behind. The passage states: Abram was seventy-five years old in his exodus… The text describes Abraham’s departure from his father’s house as his exodus, using the same word that will describe the Israelite’s liberation for Egypt. Based on Isaac’s birth narrative where she is ninety and Abraham is one hundred we can also say Sarah was sixty-five in her exodus from her father’s house.]

In our lesson, God does not call Abraham to leave the house of his father until he is seventy-five and Sarah is sixty-five. In our world, some folk spend their entire lifetimes trying to figure out how to leave the hopes and hurts, dreams and schemes of our past behind so we can live into who we are called to be. A person can spend a lifetime putting abuse and trauma behind her, unlearning destructive patterns, responses and behaviors, and relearning how to live and love as a whole and healthy person. Life lessons take a lifetime to accrue and Abraham needed seventy-five years before he could draw on that account. However since Abraham lived to be one hundred and seventy-five according to the story, he had another hundred years, an entire lifetime to live into his fullest self, apply the lessons he learned, make mistakes along the way and try again. Perhaps one lesson we are to learn from the length of Abraham’s days is you’re never too old to leave behind that which will not bless you.

Get-you-gone from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

Who is your father that needs to be left behind? Maybe it’s the whole patriarchal system and not your dad. Maybe it’s some of the things your dad says that were passed down from his dad. Whose house are you leaving and what are you leaving behind? While you’re making your list, I’ve got a few suggestions for you:

Leave patriarchal interpretations of the scriptures behind in the house of patriarchy. Maybe leave the androcentic lectionary behind as well along with the idea that adding a few more stories about women is good enough. Leave heterosexist biblical interpretation behind in that father’s house. Leave the sanctification of whiteness and refusal to examine its privileges behind in that house. Leave any theology or biblical interpretation that does not lead to the full humanity, liberation and just treatment of any human person behind. Leave biblical literacy behind. Leave willful ignorance of the complexity of scripture behind. Leave predatory preachers behind. Leave kindergarten theology behind if you’re not a child. Leave using the name of God to harm God’s children behind. Leave those things that don’t lead to life, health, wholeness and justice behind and don’t look back.

And you will be blessed, and your name will be blessed and all of the families of the earth will be blessed.

Bring us out of the houses that imprison us, that we may leave behind those things that will hinder us, that all peoples may be blessed in your name. Amen.


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

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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: