Rebekah of the Old Testament: A Mormon Feminist Model
This semester I took a class on women in the book of Genesis. I was particularly interested in learning more about the language used to describe Eve, since, as proactive and inspired agent, she is such an important archetype for Mormon women. However, I also discovered another woman in the book of Genesis whom I saw as a potentially powerful model for Mormon feminists, a woman caught in a patriarchal context, but one who decisively and creatively figures out how to insert herself, her ideas, her inspiration into the events at hand: Rebekah.
Let me recap the most crucial incident: When Isaac is old, blind, and believes he is approaching death, he determines to give a special blessing to his firstborn son Esau. When Rebekah hears of his plans, she springs into action, ordering her younger son Jacob to impersonate Esau in order to obtain this blessing. Rebekah feels so strongly that Jacob should get this blessing – and no wonder, given her revelation from God forty years before that Jacob should inherit the promise – that when he objects, fearing a curse from his father if he is found out, she says to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son. Only obey my word, and go…..” (Genesis 27:13). Jacob successfully receives this blessing, though their trick is quickly uncovered when Esau returns and learns of what has happened. Despite Esau’s anger and his own emotional reaction, Isaac does not choose to retract the blessing, but instead carries forward with the changed plans.
This episode in the Rebekah cycle has prompted many a scholar to characterize Rebekah as a trickster, a scheming wife, or a deceiver. Other feminist interpretations of the incident focus on her determination to carry out God’s revealed will as to which son should inherit the promise. My Mormon feminist reading of this episode incorporates hermeneutics of both suspicion and remembrance, as I hold up Rebekah as a model of feminine subversion to familial patriarchal traditions.
The familial patriarchal context in which Rebekah operates is one that resonates with Mormon women’s experience. Because every Mormon male is ordained to priesthood, women’s husbands are (if they marry within the faith) priests who are told to “preside” over their wives, even as they, somewhat paradoxically, are told to act as “equal partners” with them. Men are considered the head of the household and are encouraged to assume special leadership responsibilities. Over the last few decades, these responsibilities have shifted away from final decision making and more towards active leadership in the spiritual training of children. Nevertheless, their priesthood holding status confers upon these men specific ritual responsibilities to lay hands on and bless other family members. Women are encouraged to pray, but offering blessings is off limits for them in contemporary Mormonism.
Like Mormon women, Rebekah operates within a system that imposes clear boundaries on her ritual actions. In this particular place, time, and narrative, it is not within the scope of possible action for Rebekah to bless Jacob herself, so she does what she can to ensure the proper outcome in the patriarchal context in which she lives. She subverts and she manipulates. As feminist ethicist Sarah Hoagland points out, manipulation and trickery are what women resort to in hetero-patriarchal contexts when they are powerless. Some might wonder why Rebekah doesn’t simply have a conversation with Isaac and explain her revelation from God that Jacob is the heir to the promise, but the text gives us no clue as to why that was not an option. As Frymer-Kensky posits, in this ancient world where a father could determine who would be his chief heir, perhaps “Rivka knows he has made his decision and she will not be able to persuade Isaac to change his mind.” Thus trickery and manipulation are the only tools left to her in this patriarchal context. Frymer-Kensky justifies Rebekah’s actions given this realty, saying, “Rivka will use whatever means are in the tool kit of those without authority to make decisions…. Only the powerful value honesty at all costs. The powerless know that trickery may save lives.”
This sobering reality of Rebekah’s inability to enact blessings herself or to explode the boundaries of patriarchy does not, however, render her powerless. She might not shatter boundaries, but she does challenge them as she inserts herself into “men’s business,” and Mormon feminists can find inspiration in her confidence and ingenuity as she does so. Rebekah therefore stands as an important model–a woman who acts with courage and confidence as she refuses to be sidelined and silenced by patriarchal familial expectations. As Furman comments in her analysis of this episode, “[Her] interference breaks up the exclusive father-son dialogue and forces recognition of [her] presence.”
Like Rebekah, some of us Mormon feminists are also determined to push gender boundaries and insert ourselves into areas considered off limits to women. Despite fear of ecclesiastical discipline by Mormon leaders, some Mormon feminists are creating their own rituals to lay hands on and/or bless their children and each other. While many of these blessings take place in women-only gatherings, these women are starting to write publicly about these rituals on Mormon feminist blogs. They are claiming their power, their right to insert themselves into ritual territory considered male-only within Mormonism. In doing so, they are risking their own standing in their Mormon communities, since such action is considered strongly taboo and even heretical. Mraynes has poignantly discussed such a moment in her own life when her female friends, probably for the first time in their lives, crossed this boundary to reach out, lay hands on, and bless her as she was suffering a depressive episode.
Like Rebekah, these women are pushing boundaries and inserting themselves into male space. These women might carry out their ritual blessings behind closed doors, but publically blogging about such practices is a first step in forcing men to recognize women’s presence, ideas, insights, spiritual power, and connection with God in a blessing context. In short, they are subverting the Church’s claims that such actions are godly only when done by male priesthood holders. While enacting these blessings in private female groups is an important step forward, Mormon feminists must keep Rebekah’s example in mind as they work towards a time when they can push these boundaries in the presence of men and force those men in the moment to recognize us and our spiritual power. Only then can we openly and proudly claim our place as blessers of humanity, as agents of God working to bless and heal those around us. While Rebekah in her particular context had to use subversion and deception to interrupt the all-male dialogue and ensure God’s will be carried out, we hope to someday openly stand alongside our men and together use the power of God to carry out God’s will.
Do you see Rebekah as a good model for Mormon feminists? What other women in the Bible would be good models to lift up from a Mormon feminist perspective?
*much of this post is taken from my final paper for the class.