Sunday, July 23, 2017

Genesis 29.15-28: Sisters in Purgatory

How many novels and stories begin something like this: There was a man who had two sons. The reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper  12 (17)A/Pentecost 8A offers a variation: There was a man who had two daughters. Rachel and Leah. Or, in birth order (which would become important in the story): Leah and Rachel. Two sisters. Add in one visiting cousin Jacob and one fairly manipulative father (remember whose brother he is...this seems to be a family trait), and those are the makings of a fine story. (Genesis 29:15-28)

The Biblical story is about contrast and difference - in personality, in looks, in fertility, in affection. Medieval poet Dante continued the tradition of contrasting the two sisters when he put them in Purgatory. The illustration here is a watercolor by English Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the background (at left) is the poet, and in front are the two sisters. Which would you identify as Leah and which as Rachel?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah. Watercolor. 1855. London: Tate Gallery.

The artist gives us the general scene and action described by the poet. One sister is engaged in gathering flowers and the other gazes at her own reflection. Which sister is engaged in which task? The poet writes:
...A lady young and beautiful, I dream'd,
Was passing o'er a lea; and, as she came,
Methought I saw her ever and anon
Bending to cull the flowers; and thus she sang:
"Know ye, whoever of my name would ask,
That I am Leah: for my brow to weave
A garland, these fair hands unwearied ply.
To please me at the crystal mirror, here
I deck me. But my sister Rachel, she
Before her glass abides the livelong day,
Her radiant eyes beholding, charm'd no less,
Than I with this delightful task. Her joy
In contemplation, as in labour mine."
(Purgatorio, Canto 27, lines 96-108)

Rachel, shown here in purple, is a symbol of the contemplative life as she gazes at her reflection. For the artist, purple is associated with inaction, lethargy, even death. Leah, in green - the color of life - collects roses and honeysuckle and has woven flowers into her hair. She symbolizes the active life.

Active and contemplative. These polarities are seen again in the story of sisters Mary and Martha. Mary's attention to things of the spirit as she sits at Jesus' feet is identified as activity that is better - or at least more appropriate in this moment - than Martha's hustle and bustle of hospitality.

Is there a judgement being made here? Does either artist or poet declare one way of living better? How would you value the two options? Which sister would be the "favorite" in today's world?

For a take on the Gospel reading for this Sunday, click here.

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