Genesis from a Woman’s Perspective

Written by: 
Published:
July 17, 2022

The book, The Dictionary of Lost Words[1] is a novel written by Australian author Pip Williams. While based on the real event of compiling the Oxford University Press’s New English Dictionary[2]² (now the Oxford English Dictionary), it is a novel focused on the fictional character Esme Nicoll. She is the motherless daughter of Harry, a lexicographer working on the dictionary. From six years of age, when she picked up a slip of paper that had fallen on the floor at her father’s workplace, Esme secretly and gradually collected a trunkful of words that had either been discarded by the lexicographers or were used by female stall holders in the Oxford Covered Market. The collected words related to women and Esme recorded the meanings for each. In the story, these words were published in a book titled Women’s Words and Their Meanings. Esme’s objective was to ensure that these words, discarded by men but important to women, were not lost. She believed the words and their meanings were significant because they revealed the narrative of women that was often not present in the writings of men.

Esme’s story came to mind as I recently read Genesis. While women are mentioned in Genesis, they are included within stories that are primarily about men. At times, the women are present and occasionally named, but largely they are invisible. I wonder, if a woman had been the author of Genesis, what effect would that have on its narrative?

Jane Williams poses the question, “What is to be made, theologically of the unabashedly male-dominated, hierarchical world of Genesis?”[3] She then answers her own question.

“Genesis is a patriarchal narrative, through and through. Its world is one where women exist entirely as adjuncts to men, and where safety and success for women lie in marriage and reproduction. Monogamy and sexual fidelity are not expected of men. It is also a world where slavery and servitude is taken for granted. So the person with the least control over her own destiny is the female servant.

“If there is a hint at the beginning of Genesis that this state of affairs is not part of the original ideal, it is accepted as inevitable for the rest of the narrative. The creation stories seem to imply that there is equality and partnership between the man and the woman before "the fall", and that the division of people into different "tribes" comes from violence and betrayal, rather than being inbuilt.”[4]

In Genesis, women are more commonly secondary characters, usually with a focus on the expectations and responsibilities in their roles as wives and mothers. Williams points out, “The scenario of women desperately battling for the rights of their own children against those of their husband’s other wives is repeated several times in Genesis. Each time, the resultant feud has ongoing consequences.”[5] Several stories in Genesis record incidents where women were treated badly or cruelly. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah are mentioned more than other women. However, even they are recipients of poor treatment from male family members or they exhibit inappropriate behavior towards other women.

One of the more violent and distasteful stories is found in Genesis 34. Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob went to visit some of the women in a nearby region. Distressingly, while there she was abducted and raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor, who was the ruler of the area. Shechem then claimed to love Dinah and said he wished to marry her. Jacob and her brothers agreed to Shechem’s request on the condition that he, and every other man in the town, get circumcised. Believing there would be a benefit for them, the men did as requested. However, three days later when they were still suffering pain from the procedure, two of Dinah’s brothers attacked and killed all of the men in the town, including Shechem and Hamor.

Genesis 34 provides a stark example of a silenced woman in a patriarchal narrative. No indication of how Dinah dealt with what happened to her is given, even though she was a major victim in the scenario. A record of any words she might have spoken in the situation are not provided. However, this has not prevented the story of what happened to Dinah being used as a warning to women through the ages. Williams highlights this point.

“As if the actual text wasn’t bad enough, for centuries, commentators used this story as a terrible warning, in a classic example of blaming the victim. Dinah is seen as an allegory of what befalls those who stray beyond the proper confines of their faith and family, particularly if they happen to be women.”[6]

Several of the stories we find in Genesis give a dismal picture for women, although they are not necessarily a triumph for men either. The sad thing is they often paint a picture that is in contrast to the creation of humankind. Gary and Fiona Millar suggest that the first two chapters of Genesis are in contrast to the patriarchal narrative seen through the remainder of the book, referring to the ‘Radical Equality’[7] found in Genesis 1:26-28.

It is easy to argue that the first two chapters of Genesis contain a narrative of equality. Here the text is written in a way that requires little, if any, re-writing from the perspective of women.

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26 (KJV).

The same verse in the New International Version (NIV) uses ‘humankind’ rather than ‘man’ meaning that, unlike the King James Version (KJV), it is inclusive of women.

The next verse continues, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Genesis 1:27 (KJV).

My suggested paraphrasing would be:

So, God created humankind in his and her own image; in the image of God he and she created them; male and female he and she created them.

My apologies to any Hebrew scholars who might point out that I have gone too far here. However,  when re-writing from a woman’s perspective, I would want to acknowledge women being created in God’s image and give focus to the feminine characteristics/attributes of God with the addition of the pronouns she and her along with his and her when referring to God. Women can find it difficult to picture themselves being made in the image of a God constantly depicted as a male (just as it can be challenging for those who are not fair skinned to personally relate to Jesus who is constantly depicted with fair skin).

Beyond chapter 2, I would suggest that there is much re-writing needed to present Genesis from a woman’s perspective. beginning with Genesis chapter 3 the focus is on men and boys. Yes, there are several women mentioned, some of whom are strong, energetic, and determined. But the focus of the narrative is on their menfolk. Where women are mentioned, the narrative tells us little about them as women. And seldom includes things women would find important to the stories and experiences. As I read Genesis, there is so much missing that I wish the stories included. For example:

1. Apart from feeling naked, how did Eve feel emotionally as she reflected on what had happened after she and Adam had eaten from the forbidden tree in the garden?[8]

2. How did Eve respond to the loss of her son Abel following his murder by Cain?[9] Was she able to reconcile her feelings towards Cain and herself following this tragedy?

3. The story of Noah and the ark does not name or describe Noah’s wife or his sons’ wives.[10] What did Noah’s wife think about what God asked her husband to do? Was she supportive of him or simply a compliant wife? Were the sons’ wives happy to go with their husbands into the ark? Genesis 6:8 tells us, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” (KJV). Was finding grace in the eyes of the Lord not important for Noah’s wife? Did the women on the ark believe, or did they just go along for the ride?

4. Sarah went through many incredibly challenging situations. In fact, her husband treated her in ways that are sad, outrageous, and even downright disturbing (and she was not the only woman in Abraham’s life). How did Sarah feel about Abraham exposing her to sexual danger by distancing himself from her in Egypt[11], or Abraham being preoccupied with his own safety,(even if it was at great risk to Sarah), when meeting Abimelech, King of Gerar?[12]

5. The story of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis chapter 16 is one that begs to be written from a woman’s perspective. Why did Sarah see that giving Hagar to Abraham was the solution to Abraham’s need for an heir? Abraham had no argument with the plan. Then of course there is all the drama that follows when Hagar bares a son, and subsequently Sarah herself falls pregnant and bares a son. As a woman I want to know how these two women felt about the decisions made. Why did Sarah end up treating Hagar so badly?[13] There is too little insight given about the tension between Sarah and Hagar for us to really understand the impact of this situation on them.

6. Then there’s the story of the almost sacrifice of Isaac.[14] Sarah does not get a mention in that narrative! It is Abraham’s faith that is tested, and which becomes symbolic of the faith God wants in his people. However, Isaac is not Abraham’s only son. He is Sarah’s only son, yet she is absent from the narrative.

7. Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, received a message from God about what was happening to her during her pregnancy[15]  in a short drift away from the dominating patriarchy of Genesis. At this point, Rebekah has spiritual awareness and trust in God. What shifted that trust when the twins she bore grew up and she worked with Jacob to deceive Isaac?[16]

8. How did Leah feel about being ‘second best’ when Jacob wanted to marry her younger sister Rachel?[17] How did Rachel feel about having to wait seven more years before becoming Jacob’s wife?[18]

9. The story in Genesis 34 is one of the most disturbing from a woman’s perspective. What impact did this gruesome tale have on Dinah? Was she able to move on and live a satisfying life?

There are so many gaps and unanswered questions when Genesis is considered from a women’s perspective. While we can acknowledge that God created man and woman with equality in their relationship, this sadly did not last after the fall. From Genesis 3 onwards, the narrative depicts a patriarchal society with women oppressed, abused, and defiled by men—at times by family members who should have shown them love and respect.

How would it feel to know what really made these women tick? What spiritual guidance could we receive if we knew more about the decisions they made or how they survived the traumas they faced? What if we had a better understanding of their spiritual lives and their relationships with God?  

I feel compelled to point out that gaps like these still exist in narratives about women in the more recent past or even in present day. Despite the great gains made, women are still silenced, poorly represented, sidelined, or invisible. What are we doing about that as a Church and as individuals?

 

Notes & References:

[1] Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words, (Melbourne, Australia: Affirm Press, 2020).

[2] The first edition was published 1884-1924.

[3]Jane Williams, “The Book of Genesis, part 6: Patriarchs and others,” The Guardian (18 January, 2011). At the time of this publication, Williams was a tutor in theology at the St Paul's Theological Centre, St Mellitus College, and a visiting lecturer at Kings College, London. Jane William’s husband is Dr Rowan Williams who in December 2002 became the Archbishop of Canterbury, a position he held until December 2012.

[4] J Williams, “The Book of Genesis, part 6: Patriarchs and others”.

[5] J Williams, “The Book of Genesis, part 6: Patriarchs and others”.

[6] J Williams, “The Book of Genesis, part 6: Patriarchs and others”.

[8] Genesis 3.

[9] Genesis 4:8.

[10] Genesis 7:7.

[11] Genesis 12:10-20.

[12] Genesis 20.

[13] Genesis 21:9-21.

[14] Genesis 22.

[15] Genesis 25:22-23.

[16] Genesis 27.

[17] Genesis 29:15-26.

[18] Genesis 29:27-29.

 


Gwen Wilkinson, PhD, has recently retired from Avondale University where she taught nursing for 26 years, was Academic Registrar for 12 years, and finished as Quality Assurance Manager (Acting) in 2020-2019.

Photo by Alabaster Co on Unsplash

 

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