Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Women and the Book of Genesis (Revised)

The Book of Genesis is very different from the many other books of the Bible. It shows an often merciless God who asks unspeakable things of his followers (God’s request of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is one example), and the characters that make up the many stories in Genesis do not always seem to have the best morals. The men often show disregard for the lives of the women around them, and they frequently show jealously followed by acts of violence and rage. Yet, despite having these disagreeable qualities, the male purpose in Genesis is very clear; they are called upon by God to fulfill his requests and to act as prophets. Noah builds the ark, Isaac and Abraham build nations by fathering many children and in the end, it is the men who speak to God directly. Likewise, the women in Genesis have similar unsavory qualities as the male figures; they are also sneaky, manipulative, and they often seem subservient and submissive. However, unlike the men, the purpose of women in the Bible is less obvious. I believe R. Crumb draws the women of the Bible as being strong, powerful, figures to argue that the role of women in Genesis as being mothers and wives is a very important one. Some would say the Bible argues that a woman’s place is in the home, and many feminists today believe this to be offensive towards females. However, Crumb argues, and as a female I also argue, that by occupying these roles, women of the Bible are made to be just as important (if not more important) than their male counterparts. By arguing this point, it is possible to change the way women are viewed in the Bible, and thus the way women’s roles are viewed in modern society.
            Women in Crumb’s illustrated version of the Book of Genesis are all portrayed very similarly. In the illustrations, Crumb draws woman’s faces in an almost manly way. In fact, it can often be hard to discern between a male face and a female face. This could be Crumb’s way of illustrating the equality he sees between men and women in Genesis. Both men and women occupy important roles in God’s plan, and by making both sexes look similar, Crumb is addressing these equally important roles. However, throughout the Book of Genesis, Crumb sexualizes women in his drawings. When the women are not wearing clothes, their bodies are drawn as being full figured with large breasts. When the women are clothed, he often includes their cleavage or nipples showing through their dresses. One interpretation of this style of artwork could be the idea that he is simply drawing crude images to sexualize women in the stories; Crumb has said that he prefers more full-bodied women so perhaps he is drawing from his preferences. If this is the case, it seems counterproductive to the possible idea that he believes men and women share equal roles. However it is also possible that Crumb draws the women as he does to emphasize their fertility. Large breasts and wide hips are both signs of fertility and maternity, and both qualities are exhibited in the types of women Crumb draws. If the importance of women of the Bible is the fact that they fulfill God’s plan through bearing children, it makes sense to draw them with figures that look as though they were built to do so. By emphasizing these specific motherly and womanly qualities, Crumb is highlighting the fact that in Genesis, being a mother is a very significant role.
            An example of this can be seen in Chapter 19 during the story of Lot and his daughters. After God destroys their city, Lot and his two daughters escape with the belief that they are the only three people left on the Earth. The older daughter says “our father is old, and there is no man on Earth to come to bed with us like the way of all the world! Come, let’s give our father wine to drink, and let’s lie with him so that we may keep alive seed from our father!” (Crumb Chapter 19). This in itself is a twisted story; the idea that two daughters sleep with their father in order to bear his children is very scandalous. Yet despite the controversial nature of this story, I argue, and I believe Crumb argues, that it actually illustrates the importance of women in the Bible. These women suddenly find themselves saddled with the responsibility of keeping the human race alive, and because of this huge responsibility, they choose to sleep with their father. However, in doing so they believe they are saving an entire race. This shows that through reproduction and motherhood, women serve God and all humanity. Crumb illustrates this in the last picture of the chapter. In this image, the two daughters are teaching their sons how to hunt; the sons then grow up to become leaders of the Moabites and the Ammonites. Not only did the two sisters give birth to two sons in order to save the human race, they gave birth to leaders of two nations. The picture drawn by Crumb of the hunting lesson implies that the two sisters are responsible for not only birthing the future kings, but also for teaching them how to be successful by engaging in the responsibilities of motherhood. Crumb draws Lot sitting in the background and almost blending in to the cliff behind him, with an empty plate of food in front of him. This depiction of Lot suggests a rather lazy demeanor, and that the role of raising the children and providing for the family falls mainly on the two women. This is interesting because many people consider caring for children and providing food for the family (as the women do by hunting) as some of the typical roles taken on in motherhood. Crumbs portrayal of the sisters as having strong bodies perhaps indicates that he believes strong women are responsible for the strength of men in the Bible, and that being a mother is one of the ultimate acts of strength.
            Additionally, the import of this role can be seen in chapter 24 of the Book of Genesis, when Abraham asks his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. He is very specific about how to go about doing this when he says, “…you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanite in whose midst I dwell, but to my land and to my birthplace you shall go, and you shall take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:3). It is clear that where his wife comes from is very important. If a woman’s origin is important, it must mean that they themselves serve some sort of importance other than to just be a wife. In fact they can be seen as sort of prophets because, “…women in Genesis determine who receives the promise from the Israelite Deity. The designated heir is always male, yet the right mother is critical in that choice. The role of women as wives is significant, but their role as mothers is even more important” (Schneider). It is true that most of the prophets in the Bible are men, but these men would not exist if they had not been born by their mothers. God chooses each biblical female specifically to carry the male child who is to be the next prophet. It is evident that this selection is not simply random because God gives specific instructions to the male characters as to whom they shall take as wives.
            An alternate view of women in the Bible is that they are submissive and serve no other purpose than to oblige their husbands. According to The Bible Now by Richard Elliot Friedman, “some people say that the Bible was enlightened for its time, a crucial step in an evolution (some would say a revolution) of women’s status. Others say that males composed the Bible, that it was the product of patriarchal society, that it was the justification of such patriarchal society, and that it has been one of the best-known contributors to maintaining an inferior status of women” (Friedman). I believe that Crumb would disagree with the idea that the portrayal of women in the Bible is a main contributor to the inferior status of women. I say this because by illustrating women as robust characters with womanly figures, he portrays them as being very strong because of the fact that their main purpose is to be mothers. Despite popular feminist belief today, Crumb argues that the ability to be a mother is one of the strongest qualities a woman can have, and that fertility was given to her by God (and in some cases God grants a woman fertility even in old age or after years of not being able to conceive) as a way to carry out His plan. In regards to this position, I find myself tending towards agreeing with Crumb. I believe motherhood, as portrayed in the Book of Genesis, is what makes the female characters strong and influential. Take the fertility “contest” between Rachel and Leah as an example. In this case, both women are competing against one another to provide more children for their husband, Jacob. When both women find themselves unable to conceive, they offer their handmaids to Jacob so that they may bear his children in their name. Both women believe that by having children they will be serving God and pleasing Jacob, and that by doing so they will be the stronger wife. This makes sense because the ability to bear children is given to them by God, and to them, the woman with the most children would seem to be more favored in God’s eyes, and thus stronger. This idea of a woman as a sort of child bearing “machine” is one that is adamantly rejected by modern feminist culture. However, I think Crumb addresses this clash between Biblical beliefs and modern views in his illustrations of Rachel and Leah. For example, in Chapter 30, there is a caption that says “and afterward she bore a daughter and she called her name Dinah” (Crumb Chapter 30). Under this caption is an image of Leah and all of her children fighting, screaming, and crying. This picture is followed by an image of Rachel looking calm and peaceful while staring down at her first son Joseph. In Crumbs illustration, God has given Leah seven children but she is pictured fighting with them (yet nowhere in the text does it say Leah and her children did not get along), while Rachel only has one child and seems to be at peace. It is also important to remember the importance of Joseph (and the fact that he was his father’s favorite son) because Joseph is born of Rachel, the sister who bore fewer children. This implies Crumb believes women are meant to bear children, but that God does not necessarily intend for women to be child baring “machines”. The number of children is not what is important, but rather the purpose the children will serve in the future; giving birth to one future king or leader is preferable, according to God and Crumb’s illustrations, than giving birth to seven children who will serve more minor roles in God’s plan.
Another controversial topic in the Bible about women’s roles is the fact that, in Genesis, the man was created first and the woman was created to keep him company. However, could the reason for creating women after men mean something other than the fact that they should be regarded as “helpers”? Friedman says, ‘“More relevant to the question of woman’s significance in the Bible is the fact that woman is created, according to the Hebrew, as an ‘e ¯zer ke ˘ nege ˘ dô. 23 Interpreters have long taken this phrase to mean a suitable helper, or a help appropriate for him… In that case, the meaning of ‘e ¯zer ke ˘ nege ˘ dô in Genesis is “a strength corresponding to him.” That is rather different from a helper”’ (Friedman). In a way, each male character married his specific wife (or wives) because God arranges it to be so. Each biblical pairing is made by God, not necessarily by the man; whom he chooses to be his wife is predetermined by God, as is the wife’s ability or inability to conceive. In the end, I believe this makes the woman even more significant because she acts as a bigger part of God’s plan, as her ability to conceive affects whether or not there will even be future generations of prophets. She should not be considered a helper because she is necessary in the success of the male characters. Without the woman and her ability to conceive, there would be no future for the human race in the Bible.
Another argument against the submissive nature of women in the Bible can be seen in the fact that they often take their future into their own hands. Through rather devious manors, both Rebekah and Tamar make decisions that shape the lives they lead, and ultimately the children they bear. In Tamar’s story, she is originally married to Er, son of Judah, but he dies before the two are able to have children. Because of this, Judah orders his other son, Onan, to have a child with Tamar so that Er’s name will live on. Onan fails to do so and Tamar is sent back to her family to live as a widow. As a young childless widow she still belongs to Er and his family so she cannot remarry despite her husband’s death. Tamar is not “worth” very much to her family, and she realizes her future depends upon whether or not Judah holds up his end of the deal by marrying Tamar to his son Shelah. Unhappy with this fate, she decides to play the part of the village prostitute where she tricks Judah into impregnating her. This is the case of a young woman risking everything so that she may provide a better future for herself. Left with very few prospects, she overcomes the obstacles placed in front of her and transcends what is expected of her. Her use of trickery reflects on her knowledge of her father-in-law, and it also reflects on her intelligence in general. She is an exceptionally smart woman capable of many things, and she demands to receive what she is promised. In this context, it becomes rather difficult to see Tamar as being a submissive wife; she blatantly refuses to accept a fate bestowed upon her by her husband’s family.  
Similarly, Rebekah proves to be a female “force to be reckoned with”. Her story is especially interesting because at first she does appear to be rather submissive. The initial introduction readers get to Rebekah is when she is offering water, food, and shelter to the men searching for a wife for Isaac. Things begin to change when it becomes clear that the men wish to take Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. Rebekah is provided with fine jewelry and Crumb’s illustrations of Rebekah show her consciously playing with her large nose ring. While this may seem insignificant at first, it signifies that Rebekah realizes Isaac is wealthy and that being with him would be a good decision for her future. Later when her brother and mother ask if she wishes to go she says yes. This is one of the first examples of Rebekah taking charge and making decisions that greatly affect her and her future children. After her two sons have grown, she makes it clear that she prefers Jacob over Esau. This in itself is an act of defiance because her husband prefers Esau; if she were truly submissive, perhaps she would have hidden her preference for Jacob to meet her husband’s wishes. Just before Isaac is about to die, he reveals plans to bless Esau; when Rebekah hears this she uses Jacob to trick Isaac into giving him the blessing instead of Esau. By doing this Rebekah has changed the entire course of the future generations. By using her trickery and intelligence, her will overpowers her husband’s and Jacob becomes the son that carries out God’s plans.

Through the examples of Lot’s daughters, Rebekah, and Rachel and Leah, the role of women in the Bible becomes clearer. According to Crumb’s illustrations, it is apparent that he believes women were created by God so that they may provide future generations of kings. Many modern feminists find issues with this claim. However, I do not believe Crumb intends this work to be sexist in any way, and I do not find the work to be sexist. Like Crumb, I believe the Bible places a great deal of importance on the fact that women can become mothers while men cannot. This feminine quality brings women many opportunities to be powerful and strong through the many stories in the Bible. The women in the Bible are not clear cut characters, but in society today many people see women’s roles as being either black or white. Stay at home mothers have been frowned upon because of the belief that a woman should be in the workforce providing for her family without relying on her husband. However, Crumb’s illustrations show that women can provide for the family and be independent because they are stay at home mothers. I believe Crumb intends to emphasize the importance of the role God has given women in the Bible, and he illustrates female characters the way he does to emphasize strength, and the idea that motherhood should be seen as a position of power rather than a weakness.

                                                          Works Cited 
Crumb, R., and Robert Alter. The Book of Genesis. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2009.
Friedman, Richard Elliott, and Dolansky, Shawna. Bible Now. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 11 October 2014.
Copyright © 2011. Oxford University Press, USA. All rights reserved.
Schneider, Tammi J. Mothers of promise: women in the book of Genesis. Baker Academic, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. I’ll try to keep it short, since we’ve been over this a number of times.

    “By arguing this point, it is possible to change the way women are viewed in the Bible, and thus the way women’s roles are viewed in modern society.” -- this is an improvements, but you still cling to a lingering vagueness. In what direction or toward what end should we change our views?

    “Crumbs portrayal of the sisters as having strong bodies perhaps indicates that he believes strong women are responsible for the strength of men in the Bible, and that being a mother is one of the ultimate acts of strength.” -- that seems new, and is a good way of tying up a long and complex paragraph, whether it’s new or not.

    I notice a number of other good revisions along the way.

    The ending is cleaned up and clarified. I would have preferred that in some way the introduction had become more directly about motherhood and the politics of motherhood and the meaning of motherhood (you’re moving in all of these directions) but you have made substantial improvements to already good work.