There is a Fire Inside, Come on In
Genesis 29: 11 – 31
February 12, 2012
The theme of this sermon is the color red. And it is not about Valentine’s Day – although it could be. It is about romantic love but not just about romantic love. On its surface the Jacob cycle is a story about Jacob and his famous penis. His tricky mother liberates him for historical importance, as we learned last week. His tricky uncle, Laban, receives him after he has deceived his father to steal his brother’s inheritance. Then Laban’s hospitality ends. Laban has his own ideas and they mostly have to do with grandchildren. Jacob romantically loves Rachel, Laban’s younger but infertile daughter. His Uncle Laban tells him that first he must marry Leah, the older, then he can return to his Valentine. Jacob obeys Laban, after a seven-year servitude, which issues, first round, in two sons. He believes seven years will be enough for Leah and Laban, and then he can have Rachel, only to discover that Laban wants seven more years and sons. The tricker becomes the tricked.
How do we make sense of such things in of all places, the Bible? Today I want to do midrash and teach a way to look not only at this text but at texts themselves. I will briefly review three ways of reading scripture. First, you can surely interpret them literally: what they say is exactly, factually true. From that literal interpretation, you can go a long way. You can imagine that abortions are immoral or that birth control should not be provided to women. You can take the literal meaning of this text about the tremendous important of Jacob’s free-range penis and argue that women are here to make babies and the more they make, the better. A second approach to scripture allows you a more thoughtful and scientific approach to fertility. During most of the twentieth century Protestantism has fought against literalism, on all fronts, not just the female. Historical critics were certainly friendlier to the people who lived in the red tent but finally did little for us. Historical criticism became another way to make scripture dry and rigid and static. You were told you didn’t understand scripture unless you had a Ph.D. in many instances – and you were still sent to study the great exploits of Jacob’s penis, then his family’s wars over land, many of which dripped the blood that even today maps the Gaza strip. Literalism was one-way men used the luxury of time and privilege to interpret scripture. Historical criticism is another. Rarely did women find themselves the subjects of their sentences. More often we were the objects.
Inside those two dominant and related interpretations, which continue to war today, in Congress, in Gaza, in congregations, there was always a red tent. There was always an acquaintance with fertility’s blood, always a secret place where people, especially women, spoke true words and lit bright fires. The best term for this third kind of biblical theology is Midrash. Midrash is an ancient way of being postmodern. It is the permission to hypertext – and usually involves great mastery of both literalism and historical critics. Like many things women do, we do them after we have mastered the master’s tools of thinking. We know much more about how to think like men than men know about how to think like women. Midrash was certainly also done by men – usually rabbis, or learned people – and it has been done since the beginning of time. Rabbis Kushner and Heschel were its foremost proponents in the twentieth century. Both of these men were interested in what was going on inside the red tent and inside human beings, both men and women. They had respect for the interior, which respect rivaled their respect for borders and maps and how to use words to protect borders and maps. Midrash IS the interior driven embroidery of the story. It is a literature, which appears in the spaces between what the words in the texts say. It is imagination. It fantasizes what else was going on – and gives itself particular permission to give special attention to the trivial details not mentioned in the text. Midrash is a mystical, interior approach to biblical literature. It says, “There is a fire inside here, let’s go in and find out what it feels like to be so close to that fire.” Midrash is also a garden variety mystical approach: it pays attention to what is going on inside the people, yields mystical relationships with the people described and can be as wet as scripture can be dry. It has a tremendous relationship to post modernism at least in the sense that it both over values and under values the actual text at the same time. Midrash grants permission to have an emotional experience with the text, on its own terms and on very personal terms. Midrash lets your subconscious run wild and encourages you to touch the text with your heart and your mind. Midrash puts people on fire. If literalism and historical criticism attach to the mind, Midrash attaches to the heart. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Midrash, by the way, does NOT eliminate either literalism or historical criticism. It brings them into the tent of interpretation but also makes room for itself. The best example for Midrash involved in what is so interestingly called the “Jacob cycle,” is Anita Diamant’s best selling book about Dinah. Called THE RED TENT, this book retells the whole Jacob cycle from the point of view of the women. Dinah was Leah’s daughter, born after Leah had given Laban and Joseph six sons. She did not have a tribe of Israel named after her, in fact, she was raped and sent away. In Diamant’s novel, she returns, with a great vigor, tells her own story and how she survived. She went deep inside the women’s red tent and came out whole, even though violated. Notably Dinah’s faith was a different kind of faith than even that of her mother or her father. She battled monotheism, she battled the tribe’s one idea about God. She was poly in a world of mono and with many of the women in the tent she maintained fertility and nature rituals which the men had long imagined were in the ways of their accessing territory and power. Or so she says, as both the literalists and the critics would say. By the way Diamant calls this novel, Midrash, and also thanks her Rabbi, Rabbi Kushner, for teaching her the freedom of Midrash.
You will permit me Midrash now on Rachel and Leah and Zilpah and Bilhah, four women married to the same man, who attended each other, made peace of a kind and developed rich interior lives. Their color was red because the blood either flowed between their legs on a monthly basis, saying they weren’t pregnant, or it didn’t flow, saying they were pregnant. They knew each other’s blood. They knew how important it was to their men to give them sons. But they also knew other matters as important, including themselves and their daughters.
One of the most important Midrashes about Rachel and Leah argues that they were always sisters more than they were wives. The story is told frequently of significant execution and collaboration by Rachel and Leah with regard to Jacob. Rachel was in love with Jacob but knew she couldn’t have him. Rachel had relations with Jacob long before Laban gave his approvals. When Rachel figured out her father was not going to let her marry Jacob yet, she and Leah tricked Jacob. Leah taught Rachel the signals – known in the Midrash as a set of crossed fingers – so that when Leah entered the tent, Jacob would be tricked into thinking it was his beloved Rachel. The daughters and the wives stuck together as sisters. Why? It was in their self-interest to both get what they wanted, Leah, a son, and Rachel, a man. From this story develops the art of crossing one’s fingers when you want to say something that isn’t’ true.
Is this story about Rachel and Leah’s collusion true? Cross your fingers. I don’t know. But I do imagine there was more going on inside the red tent than the text would permit or acknowledge.
What does midrash mean to us today, in general and in specific? In general, it means what the evangelicals know very well. We have an emotional relationship to the text as well as a cerebral one. We imagine that there is a fire inside scripture and go in and attend it. Specifically, midrash is a way to let the outsider in. Midrash is a way to have an interior life as well as an exterior one. Not an interior instead of an exterior but an interior and an exterior.
As we go through another absurd fight about birth control and who will and won’t pay for it, we can at least praise the 99% of Catholic Women who use birth control anyway, without the approval of the church and its absurd interpretations of morality. Might we even say that these women stand in the great line of Leah and Rachel and their servants in the tent? Could we suggest to John Baynor that indeed the birth control question is a matter of religious freedom and that it is time for the Roman Catholic Church to get off the backs and out of the tents of women?
Secondly, I note that many of you want to talk about how to have an interior life. How to feel something besides what Rem Koolhass calls so perfectly, “ the culture of congestion.”
An interior life involves going to the fire of scripture, the midrash of scripture, the tricks of scripture. It involves thinking for sure. But it also involves experience, the experience of each other in protected places where we say what we think it is true, not what we are told to say about what is true.
What people who know the red of scripture, the fire of scripture, the blood of scripture, the midrash of scripture understand is here. I call it the Victor Frankel place. He famously said, after experiencing the Nazis and their scratched borders and boundaries across the heart of men, “you can’t control what they do to you but you can control your attitude towards it.” An interior life, lived with others whom you trust, protects you from sexism, homophobia literalism, historical criticism, rape and the cost of your birth control pills. You may be poor but you don’t live poor. You may be oppressed but you don’t live oppressed. You live large in the narrow place. You anticipate trickery and trick early and often yourself. You don’t see tricks as deception or self-deception so much as the quiet and truthful conversations people have in red tents.