Office & delivery address: 165 Avenue Road, Unit 402, Toronto ON, M5R 3S4
Weekly Sunday Services on Zoom and in person at 10:30am at 729 St. Clair Ave. W
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ Then she said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.’ So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son’; therefore she named him Dan. Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, ‘With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed’; so she named him Naphtali.
When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, ‘Good fortune!’ so she named him Gad. Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, ‘Happy am I! For the women will call me happy’; so she named him Asher.
In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.’ But she said to her, ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ Rachel said, ‘Then he may lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’ When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, ‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night. And God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son.
This sermon, especially the first part, lands at the intersection of anthropology, archaeology, theology, psycho-pharmacology, and about 18 other disciplines, all of which are hotly debating all the topics that I’m going to refer to. This is not like I’m giving you the final answer with all I’s dotted and the T’s crossed, especially in relation to that background. It is a tumultuous and furtive and creative place of debate.
Why the Bob Marleys [Solo – Waiting In Vain]? Well, I actually picked it because waiting in vain seemed to be the experience that all the women in this passage are going through. They seem to be waiting for years to be able to have children. And the passage seems to place the blame for waiting in vain on God.
Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’
Interesting. A little bit later we’re going to get into the reason why all these women seem to be attending to one man, and the power dynamics therein. But if you take that clue, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ and you go down to this odd part where Rachel and Leah, who are sisters, by the way; the background to this is Jacob is one of the Patriarchs, he’s the one who got the name Israel – he’s the father of the nation of Israel – and there’s this politics of procreation happening between these two sisters, Leah and Rachel, who are his wives, and their servant girls. At one point the two sisters, Rachel and Leah, are arguing and Rachel has asked Leah for some of her son’s mandrakes. Now what’s going on here?
Anybody who watched the Harry Potter movies would have a little clue.
Mandrakes are plants that grow in Northern Africa and the Near East. They are thought to have special powers of fertility. They also are thought to have a kind of magical power because of the shape of the roots. What do they look like? People. They look like Cabbage Patch dolls, don’t they?
In the ancient Near East, mandrakes were cherished as a fertility medicine but they were also known to have, not thought to have, but known to have another property. Magic in the sense that they are hallucinogens. They are psychedelic plants.
So, let’s go back a little bit here and follow the roots of these parts of the parts of the passage, and if you follow the roots you get all the way back to the first forms of religion that we seem to know about, which are ancient fertility cults.
There’s evidence of ancient fertility cults all the way back to ancient Sumar, which, I think is the oldest writing we have in the world. Anthropologists and scholars of religion have long associated these ancient fertility cults with farming. Something appears to have happened at the stage of human development when we started to farm. We got a new kind of vulnerability because we were fixed in one place and completely dependent upon the food being produced in that place for our survival and our accrual of wealth.
What happens if it doesn’t rain?
If you’re a nomadic people, if you’re one of the pre-agricultural tribal people, you move on and look for food elsewhere. If you’re a farming- based culture, you’re in real crisis, and so, some of the earliest forms of religion emerged when those human communities tried to find right relations with the Divine so that God would bless them with rain.
That’s an interesting phrase, if you pull it out of anthropology – where else have we heard the phrase ‘right relations’ lately having to do with land?
There’s evidence in many parts of the world, including the Near East, where the web of religions that produced both Judaism and Christianity emerged, there’s evidence of ritualized and ecstatic practices where human beings went into ecstatic states trying to have a direct encounter with the Divine so they could know what God wants, or the gods want. And then they could do what God or the gods want in order to convince the Divine to bless the world with rain. Out of that context emerged ancient religions in which the earth was associated with the female, and the sky from which seed poured was associated with the male, and the pouring of rain upon the earth into the womb of the female divinity was associated with sexual relations between men and women.
The next stage of evolution appears to look like this: after these beginning ecstatic experiences, the people in those religions start to act out dramas for the encounter between the male and the female divine. So, in the ancient religion of Canaan [Palestine, where the Israelites moved into] and throughout Syria and on into Mesopotamia, there was a religion of Baal, and they had temples and they had ritualized sex between men and temple prostitutes as a religious rite that was supposed to evoke fertility in the world and cause it to rain and the soil to become rich, and the crops to grow. Also, the use of ecstatic and fertility-based medicines were thought to help human beings produce children and grow.
Every year the people living in Palestine [Canaan, before the Israelites moved in} would go through a ritualized enactment of the murder of Baal by an evil god Mot, and then the descent into the underworld – is this starting to sound familiar? The descent into hell, the death and descent down into the underworld by his consort and sister, who would kill the evil god, resurrect Baal, and then come back up into the world, and this would be like a drama played out in the temples as a way of convincing God to bring rain.
Now, as the generations of people involved in these fertility religions became more settled and society became more structured, and the priests who controlled the temples and carried out the religious rituals became more powerful, we moved into this. [A slide of the temple of Baal in Palmyra is shown, as well as a slide of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.]
These ancient fertility cults, in different ways, in different places, became institutionalized into forms of institutional religion with powerful [almost always] male priests who controlled the rituals and texts, and passed on the religion from generation to generation to generation. So, there is a kind of transition from the wildness of the first fertility cults into social control being carried out by what is now institutional religion. And eventually you get control over the substances, like mandrakes, that produce ecstatic states and a whole other element is introduced into this process.
This is an element that is alive in our passage today when we see that Jacob is given two sisters, Leah and Rachel, as his wives so that he can have children who will then become the founding fathers of the tribes of Israel. When they’re barren, he gets their servants, Bilhah and Zilpah; I wonder if Bilhah and Zilpah had any choice in the matter. I wonder how it is that these folks came to be in a culture that produced this text in which the feelings and the rights and the power of women is completely subsumed to the patriarchs, like Jacob.
Now I want to turn to a more contemporary source that cuts right to the heart of this issue. [A slide of Ken and Barbie from the Barbie movie is shown.]
Who’s seen this movie? I’m going to make a confession here. The two great movies at this point are Oppenheimer and Barbie, and there have been people doing the Barbenheimer – have you heard of the Barbenheimer? You go to both movies in the same day. Well, I didn’t want to do Barbenheimer and so when Virginia was away, I snuck into Oppenheimer. I really was not interested in Barbie. I watched Oppenheimer – it was a pretty good movie; by the way, I watched it at iMax. I was happy to have noise reduction headphones to put over my ears. Then this week I went off to see Virginia who is house and dog sitting in Hamilton, and I found out I was going to have to complete the Barbenheimer!
We went in and for the first 20 minutes, I thought this was like watching my sister play with her dolls when we were kids. And then, it became brilliant. Greta Gerwig has accomplished something that feminists, gender-theorists, activists in various sectors of society have been trying to do for decades, which is she’s taken the issue of patriarchy and like with an arrow has shot it right into the cultural centre of North America! I suppose all of the Western world, at least. And she did it brilliantly.
This is not a spoiler moment. After the first 20 minutes of what I was experiencing as mind-numbing Barbie talk, Barbie goes off into the ‘real world’. She’s been living in this Barbie world and drives off into the real world and Ken is hidden in the back seat of the Barbie mobile. When they go there, Ken, who has been living in a world that has completely been construed for the rights and the actualization of the female dolls – think about the story from Genesis in reverse – he discovers patriarchy and its various forms. And while Barbie is still in the real world having her adventures, he sneaks back into Barbieland with textbooks and various other resources, and he implants patriarchy in Barbieland and it takes over.
Well friends, in some ways, that’s exactly what happened in the religions of much of the world, especially in the Near East and on into Europe about 2300-2500 years ago.
If you go back through the agricultural layers, you can find this time when there were lots of fertility cults and mystery cults, and there were male gods and female gods, but you keep finding these figurines of a goddess with big hips and big breasts – a mother goddess – and they’re obviously very influential in the religions of that time.
What’s really interesting now, we’re learning, is if you go to the archaeological sites of ancient Israel, as opposed to just reading the texts that were written by male priests, you find out that goddess religion and fertility religion and perhaps the religion of Baal, was way more influential in ancient Israel than we knew. This is happening all over the world as we find out that these texts in Hinduism, Christianity and other religions were written by male dominated priestly castes characterizing religion in one particular way but in the ancient world there was a whole other side. There was a fertility religion with goddesses that was vibrant and strong but in some ways they lost, and patriarchy took over control of religion more than 2,000 years ago and that patriarchal control advanced across much of the globe.
So, where are we today?
We are at the moment when that institutionalized, patriarchal, ecclesiological control of both reproduction and gender relations, and ecstatic experience through the turning to psychedelics and other kinds of ritual, is falling apart. It is going away with breath-taking speed, especially for the parts of society that have typically joined the United Church of Canada and other mainline religions.
Who’s familiar with the book by Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: the New Science of Psychedelics? I can tell you a lot of our kids, and a lot of our grand-kids are familiar with this and they’re familiar with the Netflix series. I can tell you that researchers at Johns Hopkins University and at Ivy League universities and at Stanford and at University of Toronto, and other universities throughout the world, are familiar with this work.
Psychedelics are coming back with a vengeance and isn’t it interesting that the turn to psychedelics for healing, for enlightenment to treat trauma, to help people who are in palliative care, but for many, many, many middle-class young people for spiritual experience is happening at exactly the same moment that patriarchy is falling apart.
Could it be that the ecstatic experience of sexuality and sexual reproduction – which has been controlled for so long – and the ecstatic experience of encountering the Divine have been in a box for more than two millennia, and you can’t let one out of the box without letting out the other one.
I want to leave us with these questions and here’s the last question: Is there a Divine to be encountered through ecstatic experience?
Some of the ancient cultures saw this as a monotheistic god, others saw it as polytheistic gods. In India there were religions that emerged that said it’s not God, it’s like a field of intelligence – let’s just call it the Divine field. But is there a Divine field that will meet us, not just in discursive theology but an ecstatic experience, if we go off in pursuit of that Divine field?
I think that’s the most important question for the institutional church because more and more and more Canadians and Americans and Western Europeans and our children are saying, I left the church because I got tired of waiting in vain. I kept coming and not experiencing anything dramatic and powerful, and they’ve gone off elsewhere to try and find their way into the field of Divine.
I think the United Church has done a much better job in terms of deconstructing patriarchy in gender relations and the construction of sexual identity, but I just leave us with the question of what are we called to?
What are you called to, as individuals? Do you want to have a more direct, powerful, ecstatic experience of the Divine than you’re going to get in one of my sermons? And how do you find that? And if you find it, how does it influence you as a Christian? And if it influences you as a Christian, how do you bring it back to your faith community and influence your faith community?
I look forward to talking to you about this over coffee.
Friends, you just were exposed to a sermon that was just meant to blow things open without answering almost anything, and so, it has to be answered in your own ways. How do you get nearer to God?
I’m not suggesting everybody turn to magic mushrooms, but you have your ways, you have your places in nature that are ‘thin’ places for you. You have been taught meditative practices. And if you don’t have your ‘thin’ places or you don’t know, you know how to find out and if you can’t, ask me, and I’ll make some suggestions.
Whatever the way you try to get nearer to God, whatever the way you try to break out of millennia of patriarchy and unjust control, go with this blessing:
May God bless you and keep you.
May God make her face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God lift up their countenance before you and give you peace.
Go in peace. Amen.