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What’s missing

Genesis 11:27-32, 12:10-20, 15:3-10

February 21, 2016

Lent 2

In the Old Testament, one of the favourite narrative patterns is that of the trickster. Israelites imagine themselves and others as underdogs, as people outside of the establishment and they achieve success in roundabout, irregular ways. One of the ways those on the margins confront power and achieve their goals is through deception and trickery. The improvement in their status may be only temporary, for to be a trickster, is to be of unstable status. In Genesis, tricksters are found among Israelites travelling in foreign lands, among younger sons who wouldn’t inherit and among women.

Three times in Genesis when the patriarch and his wife are traveling as resident aliens – in a foreign land, the ruler of that country is told that the wife is a sister of the patriarch. It is assumed in all three versions that a brother has more power to exchange his sister than a husband his wife. The patriarchs are portrayed as assuming that the foreigners would not hesitate to kill a husband in order to get a woman, but that they would engage in normal martial exchanges with a brother.

In Genesis 12, Sarah and Abraham are co-tricksters. Abraham asks Sarah to participate with him in the deception that she is his sister, praising her beauty and using coaxing language. Abraham begins by saying to Sarah, “You are so very beautiful, please pretend not to be my wife, please tell them you are my sister…” Sarah goes along with Abraham and she is actually taken as wife by the one who has been duped, the Pharaoh.

The Pharaoh showers wealth on the supposed brother-in-law, Abraham.
The text tells us that Abraham receives, sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys and camels. This is quite a pile of stuff that Abraham has acquired.

But, Yahweh has other plans, Yahweh interrupts the trickery with the plague and Pharaoh, who has caught on to what is happening says, “You got me in trouble with Yahweh, and now we have a plague.” So, he dismisses the con artists and Abraham and Sarah leave with their newfound possessions.

This is no woman-affirming tale. The story is told so that Sarah looks like an exchange item to be traded for wealth. She is shown as accepting this role, as are almost all of the women in Genesis. Sarah and Abraham play out their roles in this story as people on the margin of the society.

What purpose does this story have?

What are we to learn from it?

It is most certainly a story about power and it’s also about the people who live on the margins of society. So, three themes: the trickster, power and what it means to be on the margin of the society. Perhaps Sarah becomes the trickster in more ways than we can imagine. Perhaps the story teaches us to ask, “what’s missing?”

Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) said we should always be asking, “what’s missing?” A little later we will come back to Sarah, but for now, let’s focus on the theme of trickster.

When I was in seminary, I did a placement at a church that worked with people on the margins. I remember, Leah, a young woman who came to the church seeking advice, or wisdom, or maybe she just wanted us to affirm her actions. She said, “I have to find skates and hockey equipment for my son. He has an opportunity to play hockey this winter and I want to make that happen. We live on welfare and I know they won’t pay for sports equipment. So, I am going to tell them that I need new clothes to go out and look for work and that will buy second hand skates. I think my brother might be able to help a little bit too. Is it okay to do that? If I don’t do that, if I can’t find a way for him to be involved, then he will just get into trouble on the street.”

I said, “If you need me to say it’s okay to lie, I can do that. If there is no other way to get what you need then sure, you can tell welfare that you need clothes for work.” I knew there was no point in calling welfare and having a conversation on her behalf. I knew and so did she, that they would say no. In the end, we found some money here and there, but she still had to lie to welfare for money for equipment. In this story she is the trickster. The one who survived by tricking the powerful.

The other story that comes to mind is similar.

When I was 34 or so years old, I had three young children and I worked part time. In those days in rural Saskatchewan, daycare meant finding someone who babysat in his or her home. I found a woman who was a single parent with three teenagers all living at home and in school. She had been taking children into her home for a long time and she agreed to have my three. “However,” she said, “I need to be paid in cash because I receive assistance.” People have all sorts of terms for welfare.

I said, “ Sure, no problem.” I was married and my husband ran a successful business. So whether, or not I received a receipt for the cost of childcare wasn’t an issue.

One morning my phone rang and it was the welfare office and they wanted to know if Yvonne took care of my children and did I pay her. I said, sometimes she kept my children and sometimes I gave her a gift of money. I had an agreement with Yvonne that this would be my response if they called. The conversation with welfare of course asked questions as to how often and how much money exchanged hands?

I am surprised at how easy it was to lie to the people at the welfare office. It never crossed my mind that I could be in trouble for doing that. I simply believed that Yvonne had a right to a better life and if she could accomplish that through tricking welfare, then good for her. Others in my household were of another mindset and we won’t get into that conversation.

If this text is about power and those on the margins and if the trickster uses the power they have to survive. Then what I participated in is okay, right? I empowered the trickster.

As I write this sermon, these many years later, I am not so sure anymore that what I did was right. But, maybe I would still do the same thing, or maybe I would find another way for her to be empowered. I do know it is still a complex matter. I also know that living on welfare today in Saskatchewan would be more difficult than what it was in 1977.

I do believe, however, that at the same time I uphold the trickster, I should be empowering women to work together to find equality and that those on the margins could move to the centre. Empowerment is no easy task. In the fifteen years that I counselled women in crisis, most of those women were women attempting to leave abusive relationships. In 1988, a woman left on the average of eight times before she managed to stay away, in 1995 she left on an average of 12-15 times and today she leaves on an average of 24 times. Some of the stumbling blocks are: unemployment is high, minimum wage is low, housing is high and the cost of education is rising. Hence, empowerment is becoming increasingly more difficult.

What’s missing in this dynamic is pretty obvious. Minimum wage needs to rise, affordable housing is a must, adequate daycare and education need to be available to everyone.

Let’s go back to Abraham and Sarah.

When I started to research this passage I said to myself, this story makes no sense, but I went along with the commentary that talked about the trickster as being the main theme. But there still seemed to be something amiss. I continued to wonder about Sarai’s role in the story. So, I called a very theologically astute friend and together we turned to the work of
Barbara Walker. Walker, in her book, The Woman’s Encylopedia of Myths and Secrets,(complete text in PDF format) researches ancient myth and story, and makes connections between ancient stories and later stories such as the ones in Hebrew scripture. (Midrash: the retelling of the story.)

Here is what I learned from Walker’s book: She says that the word Sarai spelled (in the text) S-a-r-a-i means Queen. It is Persian and since Sarai has this name with this spelling then we can safely guess that she was a queen, a goddess with power. Walker goes on to show that Sarai was quite likely the queen of a matriarchal government and that she was the maternal goddess of the Abraham tribe that formed alliance with Egypt in the third millennium BC.

This, she says, was the real meaning of the embarrassing story about Abraham’s selling his wife in Genesis chapter 12. In the original story, Sarai would have been able to approach the Pharaoh on her own accord, she would have made her own bargains. It is important to remember, that earlier on, when women had more power than men, the hierarchal structure wasn’t like it was in this story. It is believed, that in 4000 BC there was little difference between those with power and those without power. When old tombs were discovered, something that was remarkably noticeable was that there was little difference between what the rich had buried with them and what the poor had with them. In this transition time, Genesis is attempting to retell a story that will give the present day patriarchy more power. Hence, the ancient story is being retold in Hebrew scripture to assist the people in understanding the shift of power. Things are going to be different. The days of the goddess are pretty much over.

Now let’s go back to the theme of the trickster and we will integrate the two themes - being the trickster and power.

At this time, Sarah has lost most of her power and the society is in the midst of chaos. Chaos is always attached to change, You can’t have change without chaos. Pharaoh recognises the chaos and he sends Abraham and Sarah on their way with all of the gifts with them. Sarah understands that she has to go along with the trick Abraham is offering in order to survive in this time of political chaos. What would have happened if she had refused?

The women I talked about earlier, Yvonne and Leah were in similar situations. They should not be put in a position where they feel the only way through this is to trick the welfare system. But if they don’t, how will they survive? They feel as though life is unbearable and will be even more so if the trickery doesn’t work. I remember the angst Yvonne lived with. She didn’t want to do what she did, she didn’t enjoy what she did and she did what she did in order to survive.

What she deserved was to be powerful. She doesn’t need to be any more powerful than anyone else, but she needs to live where the marginal can meet at the centre. She needs to find the power to change her life. That is her right. She has the right to shared power. She has the right to live a full life in relationship with others. People who are poor and oppressed, people on the margin, they use up all of their energy just surviving. They don’t have any energy left to move to the centre. It is a complex thing this understanding and working through the bureaucracy.

I sense that Sarah, Yvonne and Leah tell the same story. They face many of the same difficulties. All three women are in one way powerful and at the same time vulnerable. All three are tricksters and they have a strong sense of how that works. We know that the success that comes with trickery is short-lived and it makes for always being on the edge and others frown at how you live. It’s a difficult position to be in.

What do we learn from this story? And what’s missing?

I leave those questions for you to answer this week.
Sharon Ferguson-Hood