We need to respond with the values that we see in Jesus Christ’s life.
Ever since Adam and Eve fell and God told her in the Garden of Eden, “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”, far too many men throughout history have used this as an opportunity to dominate, exploit and use the bodies of women.
Ever since Adam and Eve fell and God told her in the Garden of Eden, “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16), far too many men throughout history have used this as an opportunity to dominate, exploit and use the bodies of women. I write this as a man.
Today, according to UN Women, there are 700 million women in the world who were married as children (under 18), 250 million of them under 15, which has left them vulnerable to early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections; 120 million girls (more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced sexual acts at some point in their lives; 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) or cutting; and women and girls account for 70% of human trafficking victims. These figures make for sobering reading in our supposedly enlightened age.
The Bible, especially the New Testament, has a lot to say about treating women fairly and considerately and about the sanctity of the human body. But today I want to look at two women in the Bible who experienced their bodies being exploited and used by others. Thankfully, they did not suffer from child marriage, sexual violence or FGM, and as far as we can tell, they were well looked after.
Yet their bodies were used to further the ambitions of other people. Their names are Bilhah and Zilpah, the servants – probably slaves – of the two sisters Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob. We can read the little that we know about them in Genesis 30.
When two sisters marry the same man – not through their own choice, but through their father’s scheming – one can well imagine that there is quite a bit of tension in the family. This came to a head when Leah, the older sister whom Jacob did not really love, kept bearing sons, but Rachel, his true love, remained childless – a badge of shame in their culture. So Rachel decided to take matters into her own hands and told Jacob to sleep with her servant Bilhah so that she could at least raise a family through her. Subsequently Bilhah gave birth to two boys.
Not to be outdone, and seeing that she herself had stopped bearing children, Leah then gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob to sleep with; and Zilpah also gave birth to two boys. Even if, in their culture, it may have been an honour to bear the child of an eminent person – and we do not know this – here are two women who were given no choice about sleeping with their mistresses’ husband, whose bodies were used to bear children, and who were not able to count the sons whom they had borne as their own. That is exploitation. That is being used.
Jacob was complicit in this. He could have refused to be involved in the affair, but he went along with it. However, the shocking thing is that those who plotted the exploitation of these two women’s bodies were women themselves! The same is true nowadays. Often the people pressing most strongly for FGM to be administered are the girls’ mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Although the traffickers of women and girls are invariably men, those who end up in brothels are controlled by women – they are called madams in English.
Bilhah and Zilpah stand as representatives of all those women whose bodies have been exploited or used, whether by men or women, or both. We know almost nothing about them. Nothing of what they said is recorded. The Bible identifies them with the millions of silent victims of exploitation and abuse whose voices are never openly heard, but of whom – like the inscription on the graves of all those unknown World War 1 soldiers buried in Northern France and Belgium – it is written in heaven, “Known Unto God”.
Now here is something wonderful! The story does not end there. One of Bilhah’s boys was named Naphtali. Fast forward 3,000 years – which is not so very long in God’s schema – to when Jesus began his earthly ministry. Matthew in his gospel (4:15-16) tells us that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy of Isaiah which had been written 600 years earlier: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, light has dawned.
God took note of the exploitation of the bodies of these two women and has never forgotten it. 3,000 years later he honoured one of them by sending his own Son to begin his earthly ministry and to do some of his greatest deeds in the area settled by the descendants of her son. Exploitation and abuse can never be justified, and are always an affront to the justice of the living God.
The Lord takes note of them, and works righteousness and justice, in his timing, for all the oppressed (Psalm 103:6).