Thoughts about sheep and whiteness

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Renée’s July 2 teaching on Genesis 31.

I was tempted to skip the verses where Jacob talks about the sheep. I figured it would help make the teaching shorter, and we already talked about the sheep last week during the children’s teaching.

But as a white pastor, with a predominantly white congregation, I think we need to pause here.

And Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah out to the field, to his flocks, and he said to them, “I see your father’s face, that it is not disposed toward me as it used to be, but the God of my father has been with me. And you know that with all my strength I have served your father. But your father has tricked me and has switched my wages ten times over, yet God has not let him do me harm. If thus he said, “The spotted ones will be your wages,” all the flocks bore spotted ones. And if he said, “The brindled ones will be your wages,” all the flocks bore brindled ones. And God has reclaimed your father’s livestock and given it to me.

And so, at the the time when the flocks were in heat, I raised my eyes and saw in a dream and, look, the rams mounting the flocks were brindled, spotted, and speckled. And God’s messenger said to me in the dream, “Jacob!” and I said, “Here I am.’”And he said, “Raise your eyes, pray, and see: all the rams mounting the flocks are spotted, brindled, and speckled, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God who appeared to you at Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made me a vow. Now, rise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birthplace.” Genesis 31:4-13 (Alter)

Laban, the father referenced here, who has cheated his own family innumerable times—Laban’s name means white, the same Hebrew word used for white sheep. The majority. The obvious. The “pure”. That is not what God chooses or what Jacob breeds. Yet our children’s Bibles and Sunday school materials consistently depict white sheep. How does that distort our theology? How does that do a disservice to our children and their understanding of what kind of God we serve, or what God’s people look like?

Our assumptions of whiteness carry over into our vision of the Bible, even when the text explicitly contradicts that. Images matter. God chooses the outlier, the outsider, the one that our human standards of power and beauty overlook. Even in the choosing of the sheep, those of us who feel like outsiders should feel God calling our name. And those of us in positions of privilege, upon whom the Sunday School pristine white sheep have been modeled…it is a reminder that there is so much about our privilege that we still don’t see.

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