If Genesis is indeed the opening statement of the inspired Word of God, then it seems God doesn’t have a very high view of women. If the portrayal of women in Genesis is really not much different to that of contemporary Ancient Near Eastern texts with which it shares its textual origins, then, it is claimed, we ought to rule it out as having anything constructive to say about the identity and roles of women in society today. If this ‘book of beginnings’ is the foundational basis of God’s dealings with God’s creatures and God’s chosen people, then it is plain to many readers and commentators that God Himself- yes, very much Himself- is a patently biased Creator, who has favourites in regard to gender, not to mention race. Some favourites become such apparently at random, while others are favoured purely because they are fortunate to have the characteristics of one type of biological identity rather than another. Both categories smack of injustice, and in sum, God is exposed as being as misogynistic and patriarchal as the flawed and therefore ‘sinful’ men that He all at once choses and blesses with His favours, whether the characters who dominate the text, or those whose privilege enabled them to be the authors and redactors of it.
Such are the pejorative assertions that Genesis is a culturally flawed and irrevocably compromised basis for gender-inclusive spirituality and should be rejected as a sound basis for the formation of humans as females, bearing only the toxic fruit of patriarchal oppression. God, if He is to be named and respected at all, is thus best understood to be more the God of man than as the God of woman, or as God of humanity, if you insist. And that makes Him a lesser god. Or, quite likely, a god made by men, in their image and likeness.
This brief article seeks to rebut this kind of popular historical judgement in an academic tone. I will present reflections on some key observations about most of the principal female characters in Genesis in order to show that Genesis does indeed offer resources to perceive the ‘good’ creation of women by the Creator. It is doubtless true that there was significant energy in the cultural biases of ancient societies that could properly be described as both patriarchal and misogynistic, and this is reflected in complex ways in the biblical texts, and specifically within Genesis. Humankind is depicted as falling short of God’s righteous expectations from near the outset, while the symptoms of the complex of broken relationships includes a fundamental breakdown between the genders. But crucially, does that mean that the relationship between God and women is really any different to that between God and men? Are women second class citizens of earth and heaven? Historically, this has been the implied claim, and for their part, theologians have often dodged this point, and since they have more often than not been men, that rather adds to the general sense of suspicion.
In the first place, the criticism takes root in a faulty hermeneutic, which naively &/or deliberately fails to admit that just because the biblical texts originate in part in the history of flawed humanity, considered as a whole, that a priori disqualifies a theologically conscious reading that allows the Spirit of God to breathe divine life into what could be reduced to base clay, but in fact, in the grace of God, speaks life. It is a faith step to read the Scripture as the Word of God, and this is indeed the path I invite you to take with me.
The following examples are featured in the chronological order in which they appear in the Genesis text. Let’s watch to see if there might be layers of messaging in that sequencing as well.
In creation, God separates and divides. In one of several climaxes in Gen 1-2, God makes the woman the focus of the first bringing back together. Beyond God’s judgements of ‘good’ and ‘very good,’ when God brings the woman to the man who is awakened from his reproductive operation, Adam speaks ecstatically on his own and God’s behalf. The woman is not the missing piece of Adam (existing in God’s creation only to complete him, as man); rather, she the one in whom God’s whole creation, in which God is incarnate, is brought to its completion in relationality. This is the third climax of creation, the first being the creation of ‘adamah in God’s image and likeness on the sixth day [where ‘adamah is not to be misconstrued as merely male Adam, but as ‘male and female’ together] while the second climax is the ‘now but not yet’ seventh holy day on which God rested, pointing into the eternity hereafter of Creation. So in terms of the sequencing of the Genesis narrative, the third climax is the ultimate one, and we should infer what God is thus announcing regarding the significance of the woman, Eve, in that regard.
Following the complex differentiation of Eve from Adam in the opening two chapters, the subsequent chapters 4-11 generally make the male character in each generation stand for all family members, mentioning few others than the inheriting son in whom the blood line continues. This need not be read as bias, as sexism, as weak or strong endorsement of patriarchy over matriarchy. Just as with interpretation of the fossil record, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The biblical alternative to the Sumerian King Lists in the early genealogies makes a theological point of egalitarianism that need not also be read as endorsing the primacy of male over female. Noah’s wife is not named, but then again, up to the time that the Ark is grounded on Ararat, Noah does not speak. We must be careful not to fall into eisegesis in our analysis of what the text does and also does not devote words to communicating with us.
As I explain elsewhere in this blog1, and at length, though Sarai is not separately or individually called in Genesis 12- only her husband is- we see her bloodline is noted in the Gen 11 genealogy (Gen 11:29-31). Later on, however, God comes to call Sarah specifically as an individual, as an agent, as the Mother of Promise, in Genesis 18. (This follows God’s renaming of both Abram as Abraham and Sarai as Sarah in Genesis 17.) As a sign of humanity and creaturely breathing, both Abram and Sarai are heard laughing by the LORD, which shared sign of personhood is within the generous bounds of the imaging of the divinity. Sarai’s laughter is heard in the divine court even from the secret place of her tent (Gen 18:12-15).
We might characterise Hagar as a lower-class woman, a servant (as is Rebekah’s nurse in a later chapter) who we might not expect to gain God’s attention in the account constrained by patriarchal priorities. She is a foreigner, the female Egyptian servant of another woman; merely an employee- who is not even introduced as a spiritual refugee or ‘convert’. Hagar is an ‘extra’ in a period of history where God is forming His nation, as distinct from all the other unchosen nations. The patriarchal focus is very much elsewhere, it might be proposed. Yet God sees her, Hagar, as a person who is respected and valued, spoken to and spoken with, valued by God even when she is not valued by her community, such that though she is abandoned as a flawed woman by her mistress and master, God oversees this breakdown and rescues both Hagar and her beloved child. The various types of divine and angelic encounter that are visited on the patriarchs are lavished on Hagar, and in her hours of greatest need. Not only are her womanly tears seen and reported, her heart’s prayer is also heard, and so she comes to name the Divinity, ‘The God Who sees me’, though she is given no part in the bloodline of the children of Promise. Nevertheless, God gives her child Ishmael a destiny, and we see the origin of a religious tradition in this- for better or for worse- in the long run; God does not exercise the simplistic favouritism that the critics allege. Not only does Hagar qualify the interchange with Sarah as a ‘pass’ for the Bechdel-Wallace test2, she also features as a significant female character who is NOT in the bloodline of the Israelites-in-formation, whose son Ishmael is now known as the progenitor of extant Arab nations and also of Islam as a rival religion to Judaism and Christianity. God’s promise of a destiny for Ishmael is not only made to Abraham, who intercedes for his first son, but also to Hagar directly (Gen 21:18). God is immediately making good on His promise (Gen 12) that all nations will be blessed through Abram, and does so ‘personally’ for Hagar whom He has determined to take sole responsibility for (Gen 21:12).
Sarah the Matriarch
We might be suspicious of the omission of Sarah from the Akedah (Gen 22) which is then followed by her immediate death, but this is also a lowest denominator reading. Again, we must focus our attention first on what the text does tell us. It is Sarah, not Abraham, that is given the lions’ share of attention in burial in the extended account of the whole of Gen 23. The burial ground that Sarah is the first to occupy is later populated by the key patriarchs, first Abraham, Isaac (Gen 35:29), and later with Jacob being brought specially by Joseph all the way from Egypt to the same resting place (49:29). As if to say, the many patriarchs may seem to be prioritised in this life, perhaps so; but God promises a recalibration in what follows, not so much in the grave, but rather beyond it! Thus, you will note, listening carefully what I am saying: Sarah has not become important in this chapter because she is dead, silent, and is reduced to a blank shroud on which the agendas of others (aka men) can be written over her identity without objection. That is the hermeneutic of suspicion. No! Just as in the closing verse of the book of Genesis, what the Genesis Author whispers here is that Sarah’s life story is not over. She will live again, and Sarah will speak for herself.
Further to my comments about the gradual and specific inclusion of Sarah in God’s purposes for the married couple sent from Babylonia (Abram AND Sarai), in Genesis 24 the woman Rebekah is specifically chosen and called by God, just as was Abram; she is negotiated over by adults, mostly men, though her mother is also twice mentioned and honoured with gifts. Yet Rebekah is given the final say about her choice about whether to leave and when to leave her family. On arrival at Isaac’s tent, she asks the first question and then determines her own greeting for her husband-to-be. We are then told that Isaac ‘loved’ her, elevating her as a person in his estimation, not merely characterising her as a source of biological heirs. Commentators do generally note other features of Rebekah’s story that qualify her as an agent, so I will not repeat them here.
Leah is not allowed to be overlooked as a woman who can be a wife, mother and part of the lineage and ancestry of heaven- a hope and a future, as Jeremiah puts it- just because the young Jacob doesn’t think she is as desirable as her sister, whom he really wants to marry. Leah’s children which result from her inclusion in God’s purposes, as well as those of her preferred sister Rachel, make up the emergent twelve tribes, indeed, form their majority. The resolution of the question of polygamy- the supposed right of a man to multiple wives / concubines- is not seen in Genesis, and remains a debatable matter right up to the NT letters.
Rachel (Gen 31: 33-35) is portrayed as a woman who exercises her agency against the control of her father. The Genesis account even notes her appeal to menstruation as part of her creative and crafty manipulation of her father and her agency in her future in community. The wives of Jacob are not to be categorised with the animals that were the original bargaining chips between son-in-law and father-in-law, (Jacob and Laban), though the biological realities of their nature as women and (potential) mothers are not denied. We are enfleshed persons, and scripture always admits to the childbearing potential of women, even though they are often/ usually barren in the early scriptural narratives. In this regard, we might say that God insists that when we see the matriarchs in scripture, we look up, to the One who bestows the gift of children, to repeat with Eve, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (Gen 4:1) When a man takes a wife, he does not take home an automatic baby making machine. This is a theological lesson, not a biological one.
Dinah (the last child and only daughter of Leah) is the first subject of Genesis 34. The account says very little about Dinah in terms of her agency, though that is how the account begins:
Gen 34 Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. 2 When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her. 3 His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. 4 And Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as my wife.”
All we are told about Dinah, on her own account, is that she went out of the household and set out on relational business of her own choosing, in expectation of safety. She wasn’t seeking the company of boys or men, but that was what befell her. Most if not all women will today recognise this reality. A woman going out into the world so often means going out into a world in which male agency is oppressive toward female agency, in ever so subtle ways, or worse. There is confrontation and imposition, in terms which resonate with Eve’s three fold encounter at the tree in Gen 2, and which recall the lust of the sons of God in Gen 6:2. But God does not intervene for Dinah as He did in Gen 6:3. Shechem has his wicked way with Dinah, and the rest of the chapter is a complex interplay of relationship and community politics which does business with Dinah’s sexuality and future, all in terms completely disconnected from her agency, entirely dictated by various men without any reference to her or indeed to any other women. We hear no more about her agency. After the bloodbath which follows the squabbling and scheming of all the brothers and fathers, we read just once more of Dinah:
26 They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword and took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left.
Dinah is, we might think, treated rather as an object, though perhaps this is little different to the way in which Abram rescues Lot and his household from the warring kings in Gen 14:14. This really is the low point in the whole Genesis account, where female identity, agency, and especially where female sexuality are all in flux, in debate, and in acute peril. This is not simply as a reflection of the peril to the bloodline of the patriarchs, as the theologians so often characterise it. That is to repeat the error, conceding ground to critical feminists without justification. For sure, there is not resolution in this episode. But what might we hear God saying to us all here? Rather like the account of Judges, we are given a God’s eye view of the dimensions and ramifications of sin, that so often starts in the male gaze, in male desire, in the violence that is done in the name of community and justified on the grounds of male power and right to ownership. In the clash of cultures, even the religious symbolism of circumcision features in the chaos. Yet as we survey the whole tragic vista of Genesis 34, we might see a #MeToo episode, where God exercises Divine right to call out what has happened to Dinah in terms that highlights the roles and responsibilities of all the abusers, who may well all be male. God sees Dinah, and all the women of the community, and what is done to them. In this text God seeks to ensure that we see them too.
This insight is developed in Gen 38, where Tamar is subjected to a different kind of abuse in her community, where it is implied that Judah considers that she is in some way connected with the death of his sons (cf Ruth 1), despite the fact that we are told quite bluntly that it was in fact God who judged them. Judah, however, is blind in the fog of his own imagination, sending her away back to her original family as a hopeless widow, refusing to give his third son as her husband, according to prevailing cultural traditions. Her life has been spent on men’s priorities, but there is no gratitude. Her future is denied by Judah’s refusal to continue in covenant commitment. Tamar takes the initiative and exercises agency with Judah, who falls into her trap: she negotiates, and decisively concludes the sexual agreement on her terms, in contrast to the assault on Dinah. The conclusion to Dinah’s abuse was determined by men, but Tamar is vindicated by the invisible work of God in Judah’s conscience and also later in God’s blessing of her twin sons, thus included in the Israelite descent.
Tamar and ‘Mrs Potiphar’
In the Judah and Joseph cycle of the account of the sons of Jacob/Israel, we should reflect that Tamar and ‘Mrs Potiphar’ are given respect as human agents before and under God, whether within or beyond the boundaries of ‘God’s chosen people’, and that the agency they exercise is admitted by the accounts to reach across the division of right and wrong even in regard of their sexual behaviour. God and the community of God’s people are seen to come to treat Tamar as a respectable and respected woman, despite our knowledge of the full range of behaviours she exercises, as does Judah. And Mrs Potiphar is offered dignity by the same standards by the Hebrew slave Joseph, so we see her choices are those of an ethically informed and agentially competent person, not merely a creature driven by biological instinct. [Judah belatedly came to the same realisation.] In the Genesis cycle, these two characters are portrayed in terms that pass the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colours. ‘Mrs P’, as I refer to her, is not named in the text: she is ‘his master’s wife’ (39:7), and I hold that is a deliberate feature of the narrative and indicative of her character, rather than an oversight. Both women are noticed, heard, understood, and though not necessarily [completely] believed, are connected with the whole of their respective communities. In the context, they cannot speak directly to each other, but a lifeway dialogue is implied between them.
Joseph, like Abram and Sarai, is given an Egyptian woman to give him a family life. In this case, the Egyptian, the daughter of the priest of On is personally named, Asenath (Genesis 41:45), and the children they bring up together are later adopted into Israel at patriarch Jacob’s instruction. This Egyptian woman, initially the gift of Pharaoh to Joseph, is therefore adopted into the bloodline of Israel, emphasising God’s inclusive attitude displayed in His relationship with Hagar. We can surmise from Joseph’s behaviour in Potiphar’s household how well he will treat his own wife.
[My thesis is that Joseph is, in a very significant way, a fulfilment of what God intended Adam to be at the beginning. You might inquire as to what Asenath’s place in this interpretation might be. Notwithstanding what I have said above, I do not see her as a direct foil to Eve. Rather, Joseph, as one representative character in Genesis, stands as one individual who represents what any one of us can be as co-creators in God’s image in God’s world. This is an abstracted view, not constrained by the biological and relational realities of Joseph as a family man at the conclusion of the account of the family of Jacob/Israel, the third great patriarch.]
Surveying these characters, we can see that the Genesis text gives ample insight into the ramifications of human sinfulness in the whole of human society, the symptoms of which are as clear in the people-of-God-in-formation as they are anywhere else. Many of the most obvious symptoms of the sinfulness of individuals and communities are evident in the relationships between men and women, especially in the unequal exercise of power between them. Some of that inequality is evident in the form of the texts that have come to us as ‘The Book of Genesis’, (eg men get more column inches than women) but that does not mean that we should identify such features as being the last or even first word of God with regard to God’s intent. Some of God’s Word is God telling us about ourselves; truth-telling, rather than truth-forming. And if we will allow the truth to be spoken in love, if we will but hear the Truth being spoken in love to us even today, from the far distant past, in what may seem a foreign language, then we might diffuse many of the modern misunderstandings and correct some blatantly anachronistic readings. Genesis is not, we might say, setting out to address our modern concerns of gender identity and relationships in culturally current terms. I do nevertheless claim that the numerous examples above provide ample resources for addressing our modern concerns, if we will but read them carefully, attending to the part they play in the headline agenda of salvation history of which the whole Bible speaks. Genesis does not present the last word on any subject, by very definition. We may discern the planting of many different seeds in God’s redemption plan, and some show more development than others by the close of the Genesis account. I suggest that God’s word and indeed Godself have been too often misjudged and stereotyped in regard to the image and dignity of women in Genesis, as girls, as women, whose sexuality and sexual behaviour is acknowledged in the same terms as men, as wives, though not as accessories to men, as (would-be) mothers, and finally accorded dignity in death. And I highlight the examples of Sarah, Rebekah and Hagar who must be recognised as the equals of Abraham or any of the male characters in terms of their complete engagement as spiritual agents with the Divinity, YHWH the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I have briefly shown for these three women the text shows that God co-creates a reciprocal relationship with them as individuals whose feminine nature is acknowledged- implicitly and explicitly in their dealings with God and community. Their feminine nature is accepted and celebrated as a diversifying aspect of their complete humanity. So a more careful re-reading will enable us all to escape the effects of myriad historical misrepresentations and blatant lies and even enable us to recreate ways of living together as a whole and healthy community which can celebrate who and what we are, jointly co-created and co-creating in the image and likeness of God. Such co-creation will benefit from responsible theological reflection and leadership. In closing, I suggest that Genesis exhibits in plain view the basis of a ‘first wave’ feminism that did not await a recent post-Christian invention, though this truth may have been suppressed.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say…?”Genesis 3:1
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- ref 1 https://commonorgardentheologian.co.uk/2020/07/27/the-lord-and-abraham-a-study-in-encounter/
- ref 2 ‘The Bechdel test, also known as the Bechdel–Wallace test, is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.’ Wikipedia Please note I am not endorsing the Bechdel-Wallace test as an authoritative basis for judging the portrayal of women in Genesis, but simply noting it as a point of topical discussion. See https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2016/aug/20/why-the-bechdel-test-doesnt-always-work for a thoughtful commentary in current Arts and Entertainment.
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For comparison, see Carroll Stuhlmueller C.P. at http://www.laici.va/content/dam/laici/documenti/donna/bibbia/english/the-women-of-genesis.pdf