**Throughout this sermon, there are repeated references to “turning the story,” a phrase which came from the Children’s Message. We looked at pictures that, from one perspective, seem to be people hanging precariously from cliffs or walking on their hands up impossible inclines. When turned, the pictures reveal that the people are lying on the ground, or walking on a normal street with their hands positioned on an overhang. All a matter of perspective, if you just turn the picture.
Richard Nixon dies, and a voice tells him to walk down the corridor to meet his fate. So, nervously, he proceeds down the hallway. He comes to a door and opens it to find former Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom Nixon had defeated for Senate in 1950 by painting her as a closet communist—”pink right down to her underwear” were the words he used. Nixon nervously asks, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” replies the voice. So he continues down the hall, stopping at the next door. Peering inside he finds his nemesis, former NY Congresswoman Bella Abzug, the first member of Congress to call for his impeachment. Nervously, Nixon asks, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” the voice replies. Relieved, Nixon presses forward down the corridor. Stopping at the third door, he can barely bring himself to open it. When finally he does, to his relief, there sits the pop singer Madonna, stretched out on a sofa. Nixon chuckles. “Is she my punishment?” “No,” the voice replies. “You’re hers.”
One of the characteristics of good storytelling is a clear point of perspective. It’s important to our enjoyment and understanding of a story to feel sympathy for the intended hero, and antipathy for the intended villain. Complicated and imperfect heroes are popular right now in various kinds of media, but it’s still clear who is the star of the show. Everyone else is either a dilemma or a support for the main character. I don’t usually make a practice of explaining jokes, but the humor of the Nixon joke I just told you works because it plays with the typical expectations of perspective. At the last moment, Nixon turns out not to be the main character at all – the worse luck for Madonna.
Perspective makes stories make sense. So even when we play with the perspective to get an element of surprise, or when the story leads us to sympathize with a hero who doesn’t quite live up to our usual expectations, perspective holds together the dramatic tension and plot movement in a cohesive way. In the first person, this perspective is obvious; the story is told explicitly from one person’s point of view. In the third person, it’s less obvious but no less true; the story is still dependent on a preferred point of view.
We know this implicitly even if we’ve never thought about it explicitly, and so it doesn’t surprise us when, for example, Game of Thrones is told from a third-person perspective that strongly suggests that we empathize with the Stark family but hate the Lannisters, that we cheer for Daenarys Targaryan, but again, have I mentioned that we hate the Lannisters? It’s not even important for you to have read or seen Game of Thrones, you just need to know that we hate the Lannisters.
But what if someone turned the picture, and suddenly told the same story from the perspective of Cersei Lannister? For those of you who are not up on your Game of Thrones, Cersei is the Most Horrible of all the horrible women. But if this was told from her point of view…I suspect it would look a lot different if the main character was a woman who was born into a family where she was clearly the most capable sibling, but was always prevented from inheriting her father’s wealth and power because she wasn’t a man. I think a different story could be told about this woman who was married off against her will, watched her husband cheat on her repeatedly and then die suddenly, who soon thereafter lost two children to murder and one to suicide. Cersei is complicated, there’s no doubt, and she’s not a “nice” character even if she’s the hero. She has a creepy incest situation and a penchant for blowing things up. But it’s not that hard to envision the same story being told from a perspective in which Cersei is the central character, as a saga of her rising from her circumstances to win the Game of Thrones.
The same story of thrones and crowns would change again if the picture was turned to the perspective of one of the minor lords or ladies whose only power is dependent upon the major family with whom they are allied. And it would alter dramatically if told from the point of view of one of the servants, named or unnamed, who set the background for the exploits of the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens.
This whole concept seems fairly obvious when we’re talking about literature or film, so you may be wondering why I’m explaining all of this to you. But when it comes to the Bible, people often don’t apply the idea of perspective. We can tend to see the Bible as perspectiveless, or omni-perspective, or perhaps as God’s perspective.
In the passage we read today, it’s pretty easy to pick up who the main character is, right? (ask) Right, it’s Jacob. We’re supposed to feel the story from Jacob’s perspective. What’s important here is Jacob’s emotions; his emotions are in fact the only ones that are mentioned. Jacob’s love, Jacob’s service, Jacob’s marriage, Jacob’s deception, Jacob’s anger, and Jacob’s eventual triumph. Focusing on Jacob makes the story what it is, where the dramatic tension is in him being tricked by Laban, very much as Jacob himself tricked his father into believing he was Esau. And we can learn some things from focusing on Jacob, perhaps that deceit can come back to haunt you in surprising ways. By focusing on Jacob, we continue to learn about the patriarchal line of God’s covenant, which is probably the main purpose of this story beyond any moral lesson.
But what if we turn the story this way, and read it from Laban’s perspective? Suddenly it looks more like a primer on shrewd business deals.
And what if we turn it this way, and see it through the eyes of Leah, who has been married off to a man who doesn’t want her and will always resent her? Or Rachel, who is wanted but still has no say in her marriage, and becomes the second wife to a sister who is always more a rival than a friend? Maybe this is a story about the injustice that is visited upon women when they have no rights of their own.
Now what if we turn the story just a little more, and look at it from the point of view of Zilpah. Who? Zilpah, Leah’s maid, and Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, both show up in this story too. Both are given to Jacob along with Laban’s daughters, and both end up having children that are fathered by Jacob, children who are then said to belong to Leah and Rachel. Told from their perspective, the perspective of enslaved people, perhaps this is an entirely different story.
If you want an interesting alternate perspective on this family, you might try reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which tells the story from the point of view of Leah’s daughter, Dinah, and adds some flair to the personalities in this complicated family. Sometimes imaginative retellings help us get at something beneath the top layer of the biblical story. Focusing on one character tells us something, but turning the story and focusing on another tells us more – it gives us depth of understanding, and empathy for people whose lives are different from our own.
Telling the story with Jacob as the main character tells us what it’s like to be Jacob – on the run at the moment, a little out of his element, but still with a lot of power to change his circumstances. At the end, it all comes out pretty well for him.
Telling the story from the perspective of Leah or Rachel tells us what it’s like to be a woman of rank in that society. The bad news is you have almost no autonomy. The good news is that there’s still a lot of concern for your security and basic well-being.
Turning the story to Zilpah and Bilhah tells us what it is to be barely mentioned, to be property. And indeed, in the written account, their voices are never heard; they are accessories to the main story.
There are many ways to read Scripture. The one that is usually used is to take the stories at their simplest face value, privileging the perspective of the person who the biblical author decided was the main character. But that’s not our only option. We can also read Scripture and ask ourselves, who is not heard here? Who is not named? Who does not come out on top?
I think this particular story is really helpful because the strata of characters is very obvious – Laban who has the most power and benefits the most from the situation, Jacob who manages through effort to pull himself up to a powerful position, Leah and Rachel who make do and maneuver themselves into situations of as much power as they can manage, and Zilpah and Bilhah, who have no power at all. All of these categories exist throughout the Bible, and they exist today, in every story and situation. We tend to understand stories – true and fictional – from the perspective that is given, or the perspective closest to our own. But what if we turned these stories another way? What if we saw events as they looked to someone else? Whose voices might we hear? How might our view of the world change? How might the way we love and serve and work for justice be changed, if we just turned the story?