Monday, December 8, 2014

Why Mothers Matter: Women in The Book of Genesis (Final Paper)

The Book of Genesis is very different from some of the other books in the Bible. The God portrayed is often merciless and 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. Yet, despite having many 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 many similar unsavory qualities; they are sneaky, manipulative, and they often seem subservient and submissive. However, unlike men, the purpose of women in the Bible is less obvious. I believe R. Crumb draws women of the Bible as 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 suggests 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 motherly roles, women of the Bible are made to be just as important (if not more important) than their male counterparts. In making this argument, Crumb is bringing forth an inherent feminist quality to the Book of Genesis many people overlook. Through his general illustrations of women in the Book of Genesis, and through more specifically his depictions of Lot’s daughters, Dinah, Sarah and Rachel, and Tamar, Crumb is able to show motherhood in a feminist light. This in turn urges people to view the role of stay at home mothers in modern society as empowering rather than detrimental to the progress of female equality.
Women in Crumb’s illustrated version of the Book of Genesis are all portrayed very similarly. In his illustrations, Crumb draws women’s faces in an almost manly way. In fact, it can be hard to discern between male and female characters. 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 vital roles. However, in places throughout the Book of Genesis Crumb appears to sexualize women in his drawings. When 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 he shows their nipples 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. This preference can be seen in many of his other pieces in which women are drawn in compromising positions. This not only sexualizes women, but reduces them to nothing but figures to look at. For example, in his drawing “Imaginary woman against the wall”, he portrays just that. A woman is standing, legs spread apart, bent forward exposing a large backside with her face smashed against the wall. Her large posterior is obviously the focus of the picture, but what is more disturbing is that her face is hardly visible at all. The woman in the picture “is her butt”; it defines her and this idea is demoralizing. This theme of objectifying women seems to be prevalent throughout much of Crumb’s work; if the Book of Genesis has very large and shapely women as well, it seems counterproductive to the possible idea that Crumb believes men and women share equal roles. However there are differences between the women in the Book of Genesis and Crumb’s other work. One of the main differences is while the women still possess large breasts and large butts, they are not featured in as many compromising positions. Their assets do not become the focus of the image, but rather part of the image. It is also possible Crumb draws women in Genesis as he does to emphasize 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 in 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. Because he draws women the way he does, he insinuates that motherhood is a role that should be taken seriously within the context of the Bible and also within the context of modern society.           
It is a fact that most women in the Bible are mothers. Today, many people believe this role to be insignificant and the women to be submissive, serving no other purpose than to oblige their husbands, thus providing children for them. 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). In fact, some feminists even go so far as to say “[no] one who is truly a feminist can find any authentic meaning for herself within the context of these traditions. To do so is sheer masochism and dependency. Feminists must purge themselves of all traces of adherence to these religions and turn to alternative woman's religions.” (Ruether). This quote explains that many feminists believe women should abandon the traditional views of females in religion (and perhaps even the religions themselves) because they reduce women’s self-worth to close to nothing. In short, this quote claims no meaning can be drawn from the women in the Bible. I believe 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. Shapely bodies are not drawn to demoralize women in this case, but rather, they are drawn because of the fact that their main purpose is to be mothers. Despite popular feminist belief today, Crumb argues the ability to be a mother is one of the strongest qualities a woman can possess, and that fertility is 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; such is the case in the Bible) as a way to carry out His plan. The mothers in the Bible give birth to children that are fated to be future kings. The women are necessary elements in God’s 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.  
A further argument against the submissive nature of women in the Bible can be seen in the fact that they often take their futures into their own hands. Through rather devious manors, Tamar makes decisions that shape the life she leads and ultimately the children she bears. In Tamar’s story, she is originally married to Er, son of Judah, but he dies before the two are able to conceive. Because of this, Judah orders his other son, Onan, to have a child with Tamar so Er’s name will live on. Onan fails to do so and Tamar is sent back to her family to live until Judah can provide another son for her to wed. As a young childless widow, she still belongs to Er’s family and cannot remarry despite her husband’s death. Tamar is not “worth” very much to her own family, and she realizes her future depends upon whether or not Judah holds up his end of the deal by marrying her 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 (Crumb Chapter 38). This is the case of a young woman risking everything so 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 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, as she blatantly refuses to accept a fate bestowed upon her by her husband’s family. 
 A further example can be seen in Chapter 19 through 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 Earth. The eldest 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 scandalous. Yet despite the controversial nature of the story, I argue, and I believe Crumb argues, it actually illustrates the importance of women, especially women as mothers, in the Bible. Lot’s daughters suddenly find themselves saddled with the responsibility of keeping the human race alive, and because of this enormous duty, they choose to sleep with their father. This shows that through reproduction and motherhood, women serve God and all humanity. Crumb illustrates this idea 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 do the sisters give birth to two sons in order to save the human race, the birth leaders of nations. The picture drawn by Crumb of the hunting lesson implies that the sisters are responsible for not only birthing 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 almost blending in to the cliff behind him with an empty plate of food (Crumb Chapter 19) 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.
            Of course, there can always be a counterargument to this view of Lot’s daughters. The argument here is embedded in the characters themselves. This is one of the only times the daughters come up in the Book of Genesis, and they are seen as not only seductresses, but incestuous seductresses. This paints them in such negative light that the counterargument simply becomes, “how could they possibly be good?”. It takes a tremendous amount of analysis and understanding of the characters and their actions, but with this underfoot, the good qualities of the daughters come to the surface allowing them to be rightly viewed as powerful women. The emphasis should not be placed upon what the daughters do, but rather why they do it. Why do certain women make the choices they make?
As a female I support the rights of women and I stand by feminist practices and beliefs, however, I believe certain feminist ideals have proven to be problematic. The idea that being a mom is often seen as being less significant choice than devoting one’s life to a career worries me. It also seems to be something Crumb addresses through the Book of Genesis. His depictions of women imply that they are strong because of their natural abilities and “God given” attributes, be this intelligence, work ethic, or the ability to take care of a family. Some feminist theories today push women out of the home so they can express their individuality, yet this is where the main problem exists. In the article “Teaching About Motherhood: Revisioning Family”, “feminist philosopher Patrice DiQuinzio (1999) discusse[s] the problem of rationalizing feminism, individualism, and mothering. Individualism considers each individual as a separate unit, which is basic to the argument for equal treatment and equal rights, but motherhood requires acknowledging interconnectedness between individuals who have distinct and competing needs, such as the need of the mother to self-actualize and the need of the infant for her undivided attention. This philosophical analysis led her to conclude that mothering has been, and will continue to be, an intractable problem for feminist theory” (Hoffnung). While feminism is often centered on treating women as individuals and enforcing female autonomy, the female ability to bear children goes against this very statement. The act of having a child means a woman cannot simply work in her own self-interest anymore. She must take care of another person and put that person’s needs before her own; it is in her biology to be able to do so. Is it wrong for a woman to have a child simply because it forces her to give up her independence? Does giving up her independence in order to have children make her less important to society? Crumb does not seem to think so, and this idea can be a complication in some people’s idea of feminism. To some, the child rearing lifestyle represents weakness, but at the same time, it exemplifies feminine strength and the ability to take on the needs of others and to provide for a family.
            If the female ability to bear children affects how she sees individualism and how individualism pertains to her, how else does it affect women and feminism? History provides an example when “some feminists promoted protective legislation for working women and children because their health was put at risk by extremely long work hours and exposure to unhealthy working conditions. Other feminists argued against protective legislation because it would limit women’s freedom to work and would provide a rationale for gender-based differentials in pay and opportunities for promotion. Protecting women ultimately would mean excluding women from positions that would be more lucrative and more likely to lead to advancement” (Hoffnung). This quote brings up an interesting topic revolving around choice. Some believe women should be protected because of their ability to have children while others believe protecting a woman simply because she can have kids is unfair. The second view focuses on the importance of woman in the workforce but it diminishes the importance of women as mothers. I believe this is where choice comes in to play. In the Bible, many women choose to have children, but having children is also an act that is heavily encouraged in their societies. Some argue women of the Bible are “forced” into motherhood because of their cultural beliefs and practices, which is seen as a bad thing. Yet, how is this different from the societal push towards getting women out of the home and into the workforce? In either case, some women will either be forced into something they do not want, or suffer the consequences of going against societal norms. If it is seen as “bad” in the Bible, it should also be seen as “bad” in today’s society. All women deserve to have a choice, and it seems from the quote above many views on how women should be treated take away that choice. According to the article “On Norms and Agency: Conversations about Gender Equality with Women and Men in 20 Countries”, “Kabeer (2001, 19) defines empowerment as the ‘expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them’” (Munoz). Going by this definition, simply making the decision to be a mother or to not be a mother is empowering for women; it is all about having the ability to choose.
            Interestingly, choice and the treatment of women come into play in the Book of Genesis as well. Through his illustrations, Crumb’s view on the topic becomes apparent. Crumb argues women should be treated differently, but with respect, based on his portrayal of Dinah. In Genesis, Dinah appears to be raped by Shechem, Son of Hamor the Hivite Prince. After the rape, Dinah’s brothers take revenge on the entire town by killing Shechem and all the men of the city and take their sister back. In the end of the story Jacob is upset with his sons for their actions but Simon and Levi say “like a whore should our sister be treated?!” (Crumb Chapter 34). Through his illustrations, readers see Dinah treated by Shechem with the utmost disrespect and in turn, he is killed. The violence Crumb depicts when Sachem is murdered indicates Crumb feels strongly about the actions of Simon and Levi and essentially validates them. What would have happened if Dinah had been a man? Most likely, her brothers would not care about Shechem’s actions. But Dinah is a female. She has childbearing capabilities and Shechem exploited her (and essentially those capabilities though no child is mentioned). Also, the fact that Dinah does not bear a child after this indicates perhaps the unfair treatment she receives bars her from having children and continuing Shechem’s lineage. This implies that women should be treated differently than men, but they should not be treated disrespectfully.
Another example illustrating that Crumb may believe women should be treated differently but respectfully can be seen in the fertility “contest” between Rachel and Leah. 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 they may bear his children in his name. Both women believe that by having children they will be serving God and pleasing Jacob, and 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, and 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”. Women do not exist for the sole purpose of having as many children as possible; respect and credit needs to be given to those women who have and raise children to the best of their ability because being a good mother and a strong woman is more important than simply having children.  
According to Crumb’s illustrations, it is apparent that he believes women were created by God so 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 as a female, 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 choose to become mothers, and this feminine quality brings women many opportunities to be powerful and strong. 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 by being 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.
Crumb, R. "Imaginary Girl against the Wall." Cartoon. Jacqueline Valencia. N.p.,
     n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2014. <
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.
Hoffnung, Michele. "Teaching about Motherhood: Revisioning Family." Psychology of Women Quarterly 35.2 (2011): 327-30.
Muñoz Boudet, Ana  María, Petesch, Patti, and Turk, Carolyn. On Norms and Agency : Conversations about Gender Equality with Women and Men in 20 Countries. Herndon, VA, USA: World Bank Publications, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 7 December 2014.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. "Feminism and Patriarchal Religion: Principles of Ideological Critique of the Bible." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22.1 (1982): 54-66.

1 comment:

  1. Since we've talked about this project many times, I'm going to do my best to keep it short.

    Despite some minor proofreading problems, your introduction is certainly the best introduction you've done - it steps through some complex material with ease and confidence, ending in clear statement of your position.

    You step through the similarities and differences between how Crumb portrays women here & elsewhere also very nimbly. Good.

    One thing re: Lot & his daughters occurs to me late. We never talked about it in class, and it never comes up in your essay, but it's worth remembering that when Lot is in Sodom and tries to shelter the angels/messengers who God has sent, one thing he does is offer his daughters to the crowd - they want to rape the (male) messengers, but he offers up his own daughters instead. Do you think that Crumb's emphasis on their strength and independence relates to this? In other words, they know their father offered them up as disposable property, and determine to be independent henceforth?

    I think your engagement with feminism has been clarified with this version. You are now taking a more or less clear position along a spectrum of possible feminisms, I think, ironically using Crumb to articulate your position. Good! "Going by this definition, simply making the decision to be a mother or to not be a mother is empowering for women; it is all about having the ability to choose." There are a couple things going on here. First, your reading of Crumb is deep & interesting enough that you've earned the right to *use* his work to articulate your views; second, you've struggled some through the semester to say what *you* think in a straighforward way, but now you're doing it. Excellent.

    I think I'll end my comments there - after reading the last few paragraphs, my last paragraph summarizes everything I have to say. If I was going to nitpick anything, I'd say that going deeper into his actual work with Genesis one more time might have been productive (are there interesting characters you've missed?), but this project is the payoff for all your hard work.