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.

 

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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21 Responses

  1. de Pizan says:

    There’s a great book called Sarah the Priestess by Savina Teubal that really helped me with the women in Genesis. The premise is that a lot of their actions are understood if we know the culture the women were coming from, and remember that most of the women were from Mesopotamian society vs the men coming from or adopting Canaanite society. In Mesopotamian society, the youngest child inherited, in Canaanite, it was the eldest. This explains Rebekah’s actions in trying to promote Jacob over Esau; as well as explaining Rachel’s “theft” in taking the household gods from Laban, they would have been hers by Mesopotamian law. Additionally, Mesopotamian society was matrilineal, and the only recognized form of incest was between a brother and sister from the same mother–which is why Abraham and Sarah were half-siblings but able to marry (same father, different mothers); and why Lot’s daughters were willing to sleep with their father, by doing so they were insuring that their mother’s line continued. It also goes into the worship of Asherah and how Sarah especially may have been a priestess in Her worship, and how Mesopotamian law played into Sarah’s treatment of Hagar. (Basically no regular wife could have cast out a husband’s concubine or chastised her as Sarah did, even if she “gave” her husband said concubine. The only exception was if the woman were a priestess–as such she retained rule over any concubine she gave to her husband and the other concubines/wives were expected to treat the priestess wife in a certain manner, if they disrespected her, they would most certainly be punished harshly.)

    • Caroline says:

      de pizan,
      That books sounds terrific. I will look for it. Understanding the culture and law of the time definitely helps when thinking about some of these crazy stories, like Lot’s daughters sleeping with their father.

    • EmilyCC says:

      This book sounds awesome…I just added it to my Goodreads. Thanks!

  2. Moss says:

    I really enjoyed this. Thank you for your post!

  3. Emily U says:

    Very interesting thoughts here. I’d never thought of Rebekah as a model for Mormon feminists in this way, but seeing that her subversion was necessary to carry out God’s will does lend some legitimacy to other subversive acts, in my opinion. Especially since Mormonism values personal revelation so much, if authentic personal revelation is to be taken seriously then at times it may actually require subversion. It’s helpful to be able to point to Biblical precedent.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, that’s key. In subverting patriarchal authority, Rebekah was indeed carrying out God’s will, since God had revealed to her that Jacob would inherit the promise. Which leads to the question: why would God reveal to Rebekah and not Isaac who should inherit? I think it’s because God wants women to disrupt this men’s world where men are the focus and men make the decisions. God wants women to push the boundaries and make people step back and realize that God isn’t talking only to the men. God wants men to be working with and listening to women. In this way, the story serves as a check on patriarchal authority.

  4. Jace says:

    There is an interesting section in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” where the First Presidency states that some roles for men and women are distinctly different and that it is constructed that way by divine design. I wonder about many things in the Gospel, including why only men hold the priesthood. I would love to know the answer to that but I do believe that all the blessings of the priesthood are available to men and women.

    I believe that the Church today is lead by divine design. This article leads me to understand that women can attempt to “force” men into changing some of the structure of the Church, and even restored Gospel, to fulfill that desire for equality. In many ways the men of the Church could and should show more gratitude, understanding and respect of women as their equals. They could provide more opportunities, even equal opportunities, for women to be recognized and respected just as young men and men.

    My question is related to the “system”- if God has established an order for the priesthood and specifically the rituals associated with it (which He has), how is forcing the men of the Church going to bring about the changes you’ve alluded to?

    • I think of it less as “forcing” and more as “trying to help it progress”. The story shows that even Isaac was fallible, not wanting to break from the traditions he’d lived with all his life, even though he had to know which son had the birthright. The acceptance afterward of what had happened seemed almost a relief that the dicision was taken out of his hands.

      Whenever the Priestesshood is revealed, there will always be the question, “why not sooner?” Some will even wonder why we need it at all. The reason is that, even though we are lead by divine inspiration, the Church is not in a finished state. As the 13th Article of Faith says, ” . . . we hope all things . . . “.

      Both the history of the Church and the history of the Gospel (from this and other examples) show that not all ideas for change came from the Prophets. Sometimes, the leaders and Prophets need to be “nudged” by a source other than the spirit.

    • Caroline says:

      I don’t think of it as “forcing” either. I like Frank’s idea about trying to help it progress. That’s important. But for me it’s also “following one’s conscience/the spirit.” If God is telling women they need to reach out and bless and heal, then that’s what they should do. If God is telling women they need to disrupt power systems that sideline women, then that’s what they should do. Blessings, which are the focus of this post and the subject in which Rebekah is inserting her presence, have not always been considered men’s territory in Mormonism. Up until the early twentieth century, Mormon women were blessing, annointing, healing, laying hands on, etc. There is nothing about femaleness that precludes God-sanctioned blessing — except current Church policy. And if women today are feeling guided by God in performing these blessings, then I believe they walk with God and are doing great service to their fellow humans. Read Mraynes’ fantastic post about her experience with this. I can’t imagine people saying that such actions were not godly and good.

      • Jace says:

        I only used the word “force” because that is exactly how it is used in the article.

        I don’t have any desire to say that there won’t be any Priestesshood, but the idea of members receiving revelation specific to the whole Church is not an idea taught in formal church settings or scripture. I believe God reveals His will through His prophets. It creates order and lends to organization in the religion so that everyone from Zimbabwe to Siberia can follow that same leadership. It doesn’t work well when members pick and choose the policies that they support. It works when members support the policies in place until they are actually changed. I think women bless, heal, “lay on hands”, and do many things but in a distinctly different (not lesser) capacity than a Melchizedek Priesthood blessing. It is my understanding that through the history of mankind on this earth women have not held the priesthood but that hasn’t kept women from having and holding sacred responsibilities or receiving blessings. Simply as a rhetorical question, Why would God design it that way?

        This article implies women are directed by God to use “force”, “suberversion” and “deception” and also to carry out ritual blessings without public knowledge. I don’t think large scale changes are not likely to happen based on this kind of direction, even if the intentions are good.

      • Jace,

        Church history is replete with examples of changes in the Church structure that did not come from the mouths of the Prophets. I don’t know of any of the “auxilliaries” we currently have would have been created without someone in the membership trying it first and it being picked up by the Church leaders as something that would be good for the entire Church. The Relief Society is a prime example of this.

        In the story of Rebekah, it is important to note that Isaac could have rescinded the blessing on the “wrong” son and done it right. That he chose not to shows that some part of him knew what he should have done in the first place, but did not for whatever reason he had. Likely he simply felt he had to follow tradition, even if God wanted something different. Would the story have been less objectionable if Isaac had been “forced” to give the wrong son the blessing by another Prophet who was male, rather than by a woman who was given a vision of her own?

      • Caroline says:

        Great points, Frank.

      • Jace says:

        Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says it better than me-

        ” As the least of those who have been sustained by you to witness the guidance of this Church firsthand, I say with all the fervor of my soul that never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth. I bear personal witness of how thoroughly good they are, of how hard they work, and how humbly they live. It is no trivial matter for this Church to declare to the world prophecy, seership, and revelation, but we do declare it.”

        Frank, I think the reason we differ is I believe ideas come from the bottom up, but revelation, and I repeat- specific revelation to the whole Church, comes from the top down. Personal revelation is another matter. I’m fine with the story of Rebekah and God giving revelation to individuals but not when x-amount of men or women feel they know better than 15 apostles. From the Bible Dictionary- “It is contrary to the laws of God for any person to receive revelation for those higher in authority”.

        In the creation of those auxilliaries they were eventually sanctioned by the mouth of the prophet and to the benefit of the whole Church. If women are to give blessings just as priesthood holders in the LDS Church then it should come from those who declare prophecy, seership and revelation. I don’t think this particular topic is a matter of getting the leadership’s attention and I don’t support the idea to just go ahead and do it until the leadership agrees.

  5. Naismith says:

    Um, the link to mraynes’ lovely story did not work for me–perhaps my browser, but perhaps it is not quite directing there?

    I do remember reading this at the time, and it was just lovely. But I did not get the impression that they were trying to “insert themselves into male space” as much as address the needs of a sister. Everybody is different in what works for them, and if that was what worked, great. I just don’t think that because they used the format of a blessing that it was any more powerful than if a loving sister brought chicken soup to someone hurting. And I thought the blessing was different enough from mimicking a priesthood blessing that it would not be considered a problem by church leaders.

    This essay presented very interesting stuff, and appreciated the additional insights in the first comment. But the last paragraphs left me with a few quibbles.

    “In short, they are subverting the Church’s claims that such actions are godly only when done by male priesthood holders.”

    I am not sure that is an accurate assessment of current church policy, given that in the temple women do perform ordinances.

    “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.”

    That strikes me as a rather anti-female statement. So the only kinds of blessings that matter are the kinds that men give?

    LDS women bless people around them all the time. Giving birth and nursing a child are acts of great spiritual blessing. Laying hands on a woman to help her give birth is a great source of nurturing. Laying hands on a daughter to measure her prom dress. Laying hands on a son to teach him to cook. Laying hands on the body of an elder sister who has passed away, to dress her a final time. Using hands to sew a quilt for a needy person. Being able to hug the ward members, when our husband can’t because leaders are discouraged from such physical contact.

    I claim my place as a blesser of humanity. I believe that women will only be truly equal to men when the contributions of women are seen as equal to those of men who are using their priesthood to bless others.

    If we are only seen as equal because we serve in the exact same way as men–well, that doesn’t take much faith or imagination and dismisses a huge percentage of the service that many women do.

    • Caroline says:

      Thanks for the heads up. The link should be fixed now.

      As far as Mraynes’ experience, I too don’t think their primary objective was to insert themselves into men’s space. Like you said, it was to help and heal a woman in need. But I think that was one of the effects of their action. As for whether or not it was more powerful than someone bringing a bowl of chicken soup, I think you’d have to ask Mraynes about that. My impression from reading her post was that it absolutely mattered that these women were laying hands on her and blessing her with healing and love. I had the impression that the form of this more formal blessing mattered deeply to her.

      True about the fact that women do perform rituals in the temple. That was in the footnotes of my paper, but when I copied it over here, the footnotes did not follow.

      As for your last point, I am using a narrow definition of “bless” here. I am talking about the way Mormons very often use the term — as an act of formally laying hands on and blessing. Certainly women bless the lives of others in all the ways you mentioned, and those are good and godly, and I want both men and women to continue doing those. But when policy prevents women from offering the type of spiritual comfort that comes from a more formal hands on invocation, that’s a shame.

      As Mraynes expressed it in her post, “Utilizing the power of God requires faith, confidence and a willingness to serve the children of God. There is no regulating this and exclusively assigning it to one sex. I am reminded of those two little boys in the park, bickering about who has the power and how they can use it. This is a ridiculous exercise that has no meaning unless we give it meaning. How sad that we as a church have done exactly this. What a tragedy that we are losing out on the unique blessings women can provide if only they were encouraged to fully access the power of God.”

      • Naismith says:

        “As for whether or not it was more powerful than someone bringing a bowl of chicken
        soup, I think you’d have to ask Mraynes about that.”

        I don’t think there is any question that in Mraynes’ case, that was the best thing for her. I am only saying that when someone (else) is healed with chicken soup, it is no less powerful. I don’t understand the insistence that traditionally female acts are less powerful than traditionally male acts.

        “As for your last point, I am using a narrow definition of “bless” here. I am talking about the way Mormons very often use the term — as an act of formally laying hands on and blessing.”

        And why are you obsessed with that one act, which may not even be the best approach for everyone? Why dismiss the various ways that women currently bless and heal as not mattering?

        A few years ago at my paid work, I was holding a meeting with my program assistant (wife of stake patriarch) and editorial assistant (wife of stake counselor). A professor came by and said, good you are all here. She explained that the faculty could not come up with an appropriate way to express their love and good wishes to the department chair, who was diagnosed with cancer and facing surgery and chemotherapy. Of course they would send flowers, but they had come to us because “those Mormon women are always so good at knowing the perfect thing to make people feel better.”

        So we brainstormed and came up with the idea of a pillow, that she could hold to her abdomen when she coughed after surgery. I would sew it, and it would have solid material on one side so that everyone in the department could sign it in washable ink. So we did.

        I heard from her friends that she was never without that pillow. When she went to chemo, it was perfect to tuck under her neck.

        Later, when she was well, she did contact me to express her appreciation. She said that there were times she felt like giving up; she had no children, and her husband had died some years earlier. But she would turn over that pillow, and be reminded of her friends and colleagues, and it helped pull her through. “And those are my favorite colors, how did you know?”

        I am not sure that a one-time laying on of hands would have meant as much to that person as that pillow.

        “But when policy prevents women from offering the type of spiritual comfort that comes from a more formal hands on invocation,”

        I am not sure what you want here. In Mraynes’ case, she specifically says that the women did not use “priesthood parlance” in their prayer. So I don’t see how that is discouraged by policy. Nothing happened to the sisters who performed that hands-laying.

        Of course touch is important. The work of Temple Grandin regarding the value of pressure therapy is particularly impressive. It is not a problem for sisters to touch one another as long as they are not anointing with blessed oil and trying to substitute for ordinances performed by priesthood holders.

        But I don’t think anyone dies because someone with a penis is not available to perform an ordinance. I have every confidence that the prayers of a mother or sister are just as powerful. It is disrespectful of women’s power and influence in blessing others to say that it would only matter if they express their love in a certain way.

      • Caroline says:

        “I don’t understand the insistence that traditionally female acts are less powerful than traditionally male acts.”

        I am not insisting that acts of love/charity are less powerful than hands on blessings. (where did I say that?) I am simply saying that different people need different things, and some women would find it uniquely healing/powerful/moving to receive a hands on blessing by women, and also to be the women doing such blessing.

        “Why dismiss the various ways that women currently bless and heal as not mattering?”

        I am not dismissing them. (where did I do that?) They are simply not the focus of my post. I affirm all such acts and would love to see both men and women perform those acts constantly. I would also like there to be openness towards women performing hands-on blessings similar to the ones Mormon men do. I’m fine with leaving out the priesthood language as mryanes’ friends did. It sounds like you are fine with that as well.

        Love the story of the pillow. What a thoughtful and meaningful gesture.

        “I am not sure what you want here. In Mraynes’ case, she specifically says that the women did not use “priesthood parlance” in their prayer. So I don’t see how that is discouraged by policy. Nothing happened to the sisters who performed that hands-laying.”

        Nothing happened to them, but no men in leadership also knew who they were and what exactly they did.

        So it sounds like you’re ok with women putting hands on other women’s heads or bodies, and saying “I bless you with xyz…. God sees your good heart…. etc.” Awesome. We’re in agreement. I don’t know if other Mormons would have the same opinion, but I hope they would.

        ” It is disrespectful of women’s power and influence in blessing others to say that it would only matter if they express their love in a certain way.”

        I agree. And I never said that only one type of expression of love matters. But again, different people need different things, and sometimes some women need other women laying hands on and performing blessings.

  6. Elise says:

    Hi Caroline, glad you linked here from Facebook. I haven’t read Exponent for a long time and really enjoyed/appreciated your post and the responses that followed.

    Something that I have found it is difficult for many men to have empathy for is the desire that many women have for sisterhood. So many women in this world have been abused directly or indirectly by men; and for many, it may be uncomfortable for them to receive blessings or comfort from male priesthood holders – imagine, for example, a woman who has been recently sexually abused, and feels anxiety around men, particularly those men acting in roles of power/leadership – what an incredible experience it would be for her to feel the comforts of the Holy Ghost through ritualistic blessing/laying on of hands from women, rather than me. I cannot believe a God who understands all our suffering would insist, in this example, in subjecting a woman like this to a ritual that makes her so uncomfortable, in order to receive His comfort and grace.

    In Rebekah’s story, I wonder if it is possible that God tried to reveal his will regarding Issac to both parents, but that mothers can be particularly receptive to divine inspiration regarding their children. The world would call it “mother’s intuition,” but spiritually, if women are truly called to be mothers and nurturers (especially of children), it seems reasonable that mothers would tend to be more open and receptive to God’s revelations specifically regarding their children. I’m stereotyping, of course, because there are many men that are just as sensitive (or more) to their children’s needs. But it is not always the case. Particularly in a culture where men were outside laboring physically, and small children would tend to be overseen by their mothers, it seems that mothers develop a bond with their children that would facilitate inspiration regarding those children.

    Your insights have given me a lot to think about. I don’t relate readily to New Testament stories, and I appreciate the parallels you have drawn to our modern day.

    • Caroline says:

      Elise, hi! You make a great point. Some women, for various reasons, do not find it comforting for men to lay hands on them and bless them. If trusted female friends could do that, as Mraynes’ friends did for her, imagine how powerful that could be for all involved. And I totally agree that I cannot envision a God who could not understand that sometimes a woman needs the hands-on blessing of other women.

      It does seem appropriate in many ways that Rebekah as a mother would receive this revelation for her children. I also love the fact that this revelation does, i think, go beyond nuclear family issues, since this was also about the fate of nations. God tells her ““Two nations are in your womb,and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” That Rebekah, a woman, got this revelation tells me that God is open to giving women expansive revelation.

  7. Rachel says:

    I loved this, Caroline. Great post. Great paper.

    This envisioning of Rebekah is powerful. I especially like the new insights into her creativity in acting out the revelation she received. I also think that it was very fitting that you began by mentioning Eve, who has been interpreted in LDS theology as wise and conscious of her act. For me, Rebekah wasn’t so much deceitful or manipulative as she was wise and conscious, like our first mother.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    I don’t know if there’s anything I love more than a feminist re-reading of an Old Testament story–unless it’s a Mormon feminist re-reading of an Old Testament story. I love this!

    Rebekah was one of my least favorite women in the OT growing up (probably an oldest child thing). I want to teach this version of the story to my kids.

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