Genesis and the Matriarchs. Yes, that’s an ‘M’

One usually thinks of the Bible as a story of the Patriarchs, as a male dominated document that places little to no importance on women. After all, women get off to a pretty rough start, being the first to bring sin and pain into the world. Most people form their opinion on how the book cast women by this first story and assume that philosophy is the same throughout the rest of the Bible.  Admittedly, the creation story hardly paints women as heroes, but Adam does not play the hero either, the only hero in the Creation Account is God. I plan to explore the creation account and how it has been twisted to support chauvinist objectives, and furthermore how a reading of the text with these biases stripped away shows women as equally created and blessed creatures of God. A fresh understanding of the creation accounts will allow its reader to take full note of the other women in the Pentateuch and their roles in the divine story. But we must start…in the beginning.

It is interesting to note that although many in society point to the creation accounts to show that woman was created (or became, by consequence of sin) inferior to man, the idea can only come from one of the creation accounts. The consecutive creation of Eve is based on the Jahwist creation account in Genesis 2. The first creation account in Genesis 1, written by the Priestly writer, simply says that God created humans “male and female he created them”, with no further description or importance placed on the difference between man and woman. ”In the image of God he created them” – both Adam and Eve are made in the image of God. In Gen 2:7 man is created from the dust of the earth. The Jahwist writer takes a more etiological approach to his creation account, wanting to explain why humans are they way they are, specifically, how women and men are different.

One of the first points of proponents women’s subordination is that man was created first, and is therefore first and superior in everything that follows. They continue in saying that the creation shows our past, current, and proper world order, with women inferior to men. The author of 1 Timothy used this argument “(11) Women should learn quietly and submissively. (12) I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. (13) Let them listen quietly. For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve.” (1 Timothy 2:11-13, NLT Translation). Whether this text is intended to be chauvinist or not is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to note that scholars still debate about whether this was a temporary or enduring prohibition by the author against women exercising authority. It is unanimously agreed that 1 Timothy was written in response and to refute to the Gnostic movement, whose doctrine upheld and glorified women above and at the expense of men.  It is historically and theologically accepted as fact that Paul endorsed as encouraged women as deacon(esses) in the church (1 Corinthians 11,5 galations 3:28, Romans 16, Phillipians 4:2). But it is unnecessary to explain the impact of the New Testament on history both ancient and modern, and it is also obvious how this view of the inherent inferiority of women has shaped today’s society.

Let us examine the reasoning found in these arguments. Although it may seem to be a common truth that the first takes precedence over the second, when this statement is used in reasoning it is a logical fallacy. It is also circular reasoning, not unlike the old adage “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”. Now I must ask: (without thinking of which came first) which is the subordinant in this case, the chicken or the egg? Many would reflexively say the egg, but we must remember that without the egg, there is no chicken. Perhaps the riddle has never been solved because there is no consequence to the answer, one is necessary for the other, and they both continue in a circular rhythm of life. The chicken could not come into existence without the egg, likewise the egg could not be created without the chicken. Men cannot come into existence without women, and women cannot be created without men. So to argue that to be first is to be above the second is not a relevant claim.

Who (or what) was created before Adam? Is he to be subject to the animals because they were created first? To my knowledge, this line of logic has never been used to show Adam’s inferiority. Furthermore, if the animals were Adam’s superior, why  was “no suitable helper found for him”? One may conclude that God did not intend for his (created) foundational relationship to be that of a superior and inferior, but that his divine plan was for an equal pairing.

Support for this equivalent coupling is found in Eve’s creation. Although “selah” has been translated as “rib” in English, and used as a fact of Eve’s inferiority,  many translators and rabbinical commentaries believe that a better word is “side”. Elsewhere in the Bible, Selah is used  to indicate the ‘side’ of the tabernacle, or to mean ‘sea-side’. Thus, Adam and Eve were created to be “side by side”.

Despite the Jahwist account being used as a chauvinist story, it cannot be inferred that this was the author’s intent. Many would preface or supplement the argument of man’s superior primordiality with the inference that because man was created first, he is directly in the “image of God” whereas Eve is less in the image of God, and more in the image of man. The Priestly account is where the “image of God” language comes from. The Jahwist writes that man was formed form the dust of the earth.  Additionally, the Jahwist account is straightforward in espousing man’s humility, what could be more humbling than to know that you were made from dirt? Furthermore, the Jahwist account regards Eve as a permanent, genuine counterpart and partner to Adam. (unlike other creation accounts, such as the Gilgamesh epic, where a woman is used once to produce a human being, and then the hero goes back to his male comrads).

Returning to the chauvinist argument that Eve’s creation from a part of Adam renders her inferior, this text could be easily reversed around by many feminists to argue for the superiority of women. Adam was formed from dust, dirt, nothingness. Eve was formed from the best of God’s creation thus far, she was created from a living, complex, spiritual being. It would be a stretch to form this into a serious argument for women’s superiority. As Helen Shungel-Straumann writes “ The question, ‘Which material is more precious, the dama or the rib’ –is futile. In both cases, Yahweh is the sole creator” (A Feminist Companion to Genesis p 66).  That said, it is necessary to show how the text can be construed when one approaches it with a gender bias.
Indeed this bias is dangerous not only in an approach to study and live out the text itself, but it is especially dangerous when possessed by translators of the Bible. Many have now begun to understand that the use of “man” would often be better translated as “humankind”. Adam the word and Adam the person are used both to 1) represent humanity and 2) talk about Adam the man. Mary Phil Korsak, herself a translator, wrote

“The shift of meaning from ‘man’ meaning humankind, to a ‘a man’ must (however) occur at the right moment. The reader’s perception of this shift is guided by clues within the test itself. If in translation it occurs too early, affected by an androcentric bias the message of the text is falsified.”

Genesis 1.26 is an example of such an instance. It reads “Let him (implying adam, the singular male) subject the fish of the sea. This would be better translated as Let them (humans) subject the fish of the sea.

Translators can also exhibit gender bias in their choices of whether to write a pronoun as singular or plural. Most translations realize the ambiguity of pronouns that are mysteriousness in reference to God. When God begins to create, He (or they) proclaim “Let us”. Indeed, the name used for God in Genesis 1, Elohim is plural.  This ambiguity also applies to the texts about humans. Human plurality is established in 1.27, and in 1.29 when Elohim says “Here I give you” he is addressing a plural couple, not an individual.

The first time that God uses a negative, is when he thinks of the man being alone. Previously, God has only used “good” to describe his creation. Furthermore, it is only after the creation of Eve that God goes further to say that his creation of the divine couple was “very good”. We have now established that the creation of the first couple of two equal counterparts is a “very good” thing. We are now at a point in the story where things become “not good” indefinitely, the story of “The Fall”.

From a literary perspective, Eve is the protagonist in the story of the fall. Eve is the character on whom the action hinges, she displays the mature human qualities. She is the seeker of knowledge, the one who tests God’s word, qualities that will later be ascribed to mostly male characters. Adam ironically, is in the “feminine” role of being passive, easily led and childlike. Whereas Eve takes the fruit from the tree, Adam is only accepting what is given to him. As Susan Niditch explains, “The woman gives him the fruit and he eats it as if he were a baby” (Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsom p 17). Adam’s poor self defense is also childlike. When confronted by God, Adam reverts to blaming “the woman that you gave to me”  (Genesis 3:12) instead of taking responsibility for his failure (Genesis 3:12). So the “fall” is just that, the fall of humankind, and the only worthy being in this story is God himself.

In an attempt to escape blame Eve also places blame on another, she blames the serpent who seduced and deceived her. After Adam and Eve sinned, their “blame game” establishes a hierarchy that endures today. The serpent is placed beneath Eve and her children, and Man is indirectly placed over women. God declares that woman’s “desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). This is another passage that is seen as chauvinist and used by many to indicate women’s “proper” role of submission. However, most proponents of this line of thought take only the second half of the sentence “he shall rule over you”. The first part is equally, if not more important for understanding women’s status in this new order. This is a casuistic statement, if or because women’s desire will be for her husband, then he shall rule over her. This statement leaves room for choice. It follows that if Eve choses to desire God and/ or righteousness more than her husband, that he will cease to have that power over her. Any observation of human love will show that love, or desire of someone usually creates a inclination to let the loved one “walk all over you”. It is clear that Eve’s descendants are still struggling with this desire, but we can see from the stories that follow, that when women desire God and righteousness more than their lovers, they are able to escape the rule of man, and often end up being in a position of power over men. Let us examine some of the women in the Pentateuch who are able to rise above their sinful nature.

There’s a saying that “behind every great man is a great woman” and that saying seems to hold true for ancient times as well. Abraham is linked with Sarah, Isaac with Rebekah, Rebekah determines the course of Jacob’s life, making him the inheritor, and the next Patriarch by arranging his marriage to Rachel and Leah. We also see women who are textually independent of their husbands. Many of these independent women are surprisingly found in the military narratives  Rahab, from whom the Davidic line would descend, hid the Israeli spies whose report led to the conquering of Jericho, Deborah, and Jael. Even in the large sections on Moses, whose wife Zipporah is mostly outside of the action, his sister Miriam was a prophetess and fellow leader of the Israelites.

Although women besides Miriam become sparse in the Moses stories, women played a critical role in his birth and survival. The plot of the Moses narrative hinges women, specifically Miriam. But it takes the efforts of many women, and only women to save Moses life. First, we see the Egyptian midwives Shiphrah and Puah, act to save the Hebrew children. When Pharoah commands them to kill all of the male babies delivered by Hebrew women, the midwives disobey his command, and allow the males to live. When confronted by Pharoah, angered by the existence of Hebrew males, the midwives lie to Pharoah saying “ ..the Hebrew women….give birth before the midwife comes to them.”

Jehochebed, Mose’s mother, hides Moses for three months from Pharoah’s wrath. She then decides that the best chance to save Mose’s life is to make a basket and float Moses away down the Nile. Jehochebed’s hopes were not in vain, as none other but Pharaoh’s daughter comes upon the basket with Moses inside, and Moses comes under the protection of Pharaoh’s daughter, becoming a son to her. Miriam, who had followed the basket, down the river, sees everything that happens and offers to “find” a Hebrew woman to nurse Moses. The princess consents, and Moses is allowed to grow under his mother’s care and to know his family. Without this, Moses would never have had the sense of belonging to the Hebrew nation that was so pivotal for his life and the Jewish people.

Deborah is a prophet and judge in the book of Judges. But most importantly, the text says that Deborah “was leading Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4). God speaks to Deborah and she then delivers God’s message to the Israelites: that if they will attack their enemies the Canaanites, they will conquer them. The commander of the Israelites army, Barak, declares that he will not go unless Deborah goes to battle with them. Deborah agrees to go, but says that because of Barak’s cowardice, “ the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” the fate of the leader of the opposition “ the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” Deborah, like an ancient Joan of Arc, leads her people into battle. And, just as she said, the general of the Canaanites, Sisera, slips out of the hand of the Israelites.

Sisera, has fled on foot to the tent of Jael, a Kenite woman. Jael treats Sisera as a proper guest, giving him milk and covering him with a blanket. Sisera, feeling safe and sound, falls asleep under Jael’s watchful eye. But Jael realizes her opportunity, she knows that the Israelites have been victorious, and she is determined to save herself and her family by being on the side of the victors. She takes the only thing she can find to use as a weapon, a tent peg, and hammers it into Sisera’s head. When Barak arrives at Jael’s tent, she shows him Sisera’s dead body, and therefore the victory she has completed for the Israelites.

It is easy to see that women have positively altered the course of not only the people and stories of their time, but the course of the entire Hebrew Bible, and therefore the course of history.

Where / if to put this in:

-Many of these women are also blessed with theophany, an encounter with God himself. This is a true testament to the Biblical value of women. If the writers of the Pentateuch, or indeed God, had wanted to establish women as inferior, unvaluable beings, there would be no reason to record and exalt the women who are blessed with God’s voice, presence, and intervention in their lives.


1)Engaging the Bible in a gendered world : an introduction to feminist biblical interpretation in honor of Katharine Doob Sakenfeld / Linda Day, Carolyn Pressler, editors. 1st ed; Louisville, Ky. : Westminster John Knox Press, c2006.

2) Women in the Pentateuch : a feminst and source-critical analysis / Sarah Shectman; Sheffield : Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.

3) A Feminist companion to Genesis / edited by Athalya Brenner; Sheffield, England : Sheffield Academic Press, c1993.

4) Women’s Bible commentary / Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, editors; Louisville, KY : Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

5) How to read the Bible / Marc Zvi Brettler; Philadelphia, PA : Jewish Publication Society, 2005.

6) The Jewish Study Bible : Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation / Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors ; Michael Fishbane, consulting editor; Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, c2004.

How you can help:

1) Does the paper flow well? Could I arrange it better? Now it’s mostly chronological, but if it might flow better by theme, etc, if you think a certain paragraph should be moved let me know!

2) How much importance   / time should I spend on the other women I mention ( I spend some time on Deborah, Jael, and Miriam) OR would it be best to focus strictly on the creation account (or Genesis)?

3) Obviously I need a conclusion! I started one, but didn’t want to finish it without knowing what is going to stay and what I’m going to cut out.  If you have any ideas about how to pull it all together for a conclusion let me know!


About oliviag55

Senior at UK, Political Science Major, French Minor.
This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Discussion, Peer Review. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Genesis and the Matriarchs. Yes, that’s an ‘M’

  1. S.Donoho says:

    Using the old adage “the chicken or the egg” was a great way to give a clearer explanation of your stance on the topic of who is more important, man or woman.

    The side by side approach – I really like that you researched this and found the uses of the word ‘selah.’

    If you plan on keeping the individual stories of the women of the bible, I would elaborate. Your beginning and middle paragraphs about the creation accounts are VERY strong but your paper starts to lose its tone towards the end.

    Also, I like your idea of including women that are blessed with theophany. Most people only know of God communicating with men, giving examples of God communicating with women could be a very persuasive few paragraphs. Maybe compare these 2 different types of accounts?

  2. Pam says:

    Wow, how interesting! I don’t have my books before me, but I’m questioning the translation “desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” I, too, am writing about Adam and Eve, although not from a feminist theology perspective. I’m either remembering this passage incorrectly, or you and I are using different translations. I’m using our class text as well as the King James Version, and the standard Catholic translation (the exact name of which escapes me right now). This just jumped out at me because it is something I’ve been thinking about for my paper as well.

    I really enjoyed and appreciate your analysis of Adam, you interpretation was kinder than mine as the word “rube” came to my mind, “childlike” is much nicer. The concept that he who came first is more valuable projects that everything and everyone that comes later is inferior. It’s just a weak argument even the context of Old Testament. There is a certain teleology in the Old Testament, a sense of purpose and direction with respect to the stories. For example, why would “God’s chosen people” wander the desert for 40 years if there wasn’t a reason for them to survive? So if history has a telos in the Old Testament, how can it be that all beings subsequent to the first will be inferior? Forgive me for adding yet another arugment for why Adam’s superiority to Eve is just not a sound argument.

    You ask for suggestions on how you could pull this paper together to draw a conclusion. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog the universal nature of the Old Testament, I’m thinking you could easily relate your work into the contemporary experience of women and how what was written in the Bible is seen universally without any biblical context. Just a thought.

    Oh, and one other thought that is directly related to my paper. You said that God was the only hero in Genesis. I’m arguing that without Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden, civilization would never have gotten off the ground. And according to your analysis, Eve is to be blamed (commended) for that banishment. As the mother of all humanity, and civilization, couldn’t she be the heroine then? Remember, it wasn’t until they left the Garden that she bore Cain and Abel.

    My comments are just that, comments from thinking out loud. I really like your work, it’s captivating.

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