Have you heard about the prominent political, religious activist who in a meeting with a foreign dignitary presented his wife as his sister, thereby initiating the hosting diplomat’s sexual predatory advances to his very own spouse? This clip may not have circulated as widely on social media as it wasn’t taken from yesterday’s headlines. This news item comes from thousands of years ago and involves none other than Abraham of Genesis, with the same egregious action made by his son Isaac and his wife Rebecca.
The stories of abuse against women and power’s corruptive elements are at the core of the Bible’s most ancient tropes, originating in Genesis. We may be quick to point to Laban’s deception of Jacob, but how about what Laban did to his very own daughters, Leah and Rachel, in switching their places carelessly with no regard for their wellbeing?
“There is nothing new under the sun,” Ecclesiastes was prone to say. The Torah even explores how women in power can abuse men with statuses beneath theirs (see the stories of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife).
What I find especially compelling, though, is that stories of consent are just as old, although not as prominent.
“Will you go with this man?” Rebecca’s brothers and parents ask her when Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, implores them to allow Rebecca to come meet Isaac.
“I will,” she replied.
The Torah even uses the language of love for the first time in describing Isaac’s feelings towards Rebecca. “And Isaac loved Rebecca and he was comforted after the death of his mother.”
While these Biblical stories are generally laced with a patriarchy that undermines women, there are still heroines and themes that deserve our attention. The challenge for a close reader of text is how do we humbly hold up the learning while not glorifying the characters or gloss over their misdeeds?
This challenge is especially poignant given the news as of late. The stories of harassment and abuse against mostly women from men in positions of power have been like an avalanche, unleashing an outrage that has been dormant for too long. These righteous truths that are being exposed deserve our unwavering religious support.
Still, I am mindful of the language we use as these predators are exposed.
The Babylonian Talmud in tractate Psachim imagines a feast between the most esteemed leaders of the Jewish people. Who will lead the grace after meals? Abraham is first offered the honor but declines noting the violent Ishmael who stems from his lineage. Isaac is then offered but he too refuses, acknowledging his son Esau’s nature. Jacob, Moses and others all pass pointing to their own shortcomings in a series of “#MeToo” like statements but acknowledging their supposed guilt. Finally, King David is asked.
“I am worthy,” David alone replies.
To a close reader of text, this should seem preposterous.
In the Book of Samuel, King David sends Uriah, a soldier, to the front lines of battle to die so David may sleep with Uriah’s wife. The prophet Natan rebukes David for these acts — saying that David has acted “evilly in the sight of the Lord.” David, of all the venerated leaders of the Jewish people, claims he is worthy when he knows he has blood on his hands?
This is the same King David who supposedly wrote Psalms and whose sukkah, shelter, we pray is restored every holiday of Sukkot. The dissonance is not only challenging — it may feel near impossible to uphold. Surely, the sages of the Talmud, knew these details in exploring their rabbinic imagination in this scene as they envisioned a meal among the righteous. The lesson then is a timeless one for us.
No one is without blemish. Whether they are leaders in politics, religion or entertainment, we should never glorify people. More importantly, when they fall and fail, which they most inevitably will, let us hold them fully accountable for their misdeeds while not rejoicing in suffering. Lovers of God despise wickedness, the Psalmist teaches; the implicit statement is that we need not zealously despise wicked-doers. Let us strive to uphold and live the wise words of that ancient prophet Micah, “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”