Book Review: Matriarchs of the Messiah by Jo Ann Skousen
In her book, Matriarchs of the Messiah, Jo Ann Skousen artfully weaves in midrash among insights from scholars, church leaders and the scriptures to develop the stories of the woman and women she is describing. The chapters tell the various stories of Eve, “Mother Noah,” Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Mary or Mary Magdelene in scripture with additional commentary, insights and thoughts. The midrash sections peppered through each chapter are a fun inclusion; they are easy to read and they empower the readers to freely imagine what might have been going through the hearts and minds of the women at that time. This is delightful! It makes the book less technical and invites whimsy into stories that are sometimes relayed in a static manner.
Skousen’s thoughts are well restrained within Mormon culturalisms. This limits the book to an LDS audience. One example of this manifestation is reflected in her discussion of “modesty” when discussing Eve’s post-Fall thoughts about being naked in front of her husband, Adam (Kindle Locations 448-451). To be clear, the subtitled The Traditional View of Eve is powerful section wherein Skousen shatters the ideology blaming Eve for the Fall; indeed she states that Eve made a wise decision in regard to partaking of the apple. This section is worth the price of the book alone.
The discussion of Mary Magdalene is an interesting section, wherein Skousen states that she believes that Mary Magdalene and Martha and Lazarus’ sister Mary are one and the same. This interpretation is artfully entwined with the story of the Prodigal Son, Lazarus’ death and a hearty discussion of sin, repentance, and the promise of atonement. It is relayed in a manner I have not considered or read about previously, and I enjoyed the manner in which this chapter is crafted- this final chapter was probably my favourite in the book.
And yet, something distracted me from becoming completely immersed. Then it came to me:
A few months ago, I visited a cousin of mine. It had been years since I had last seen him; we had each moved to continents different to where we were raised and knew each other as youths. I had visited him and his wife once before I was married, and enjoyed a weekend of being personally tour-guided around, enjoying different foods, exotic desserts and scenery unlike that with which I was familiar. It was wonderful!
Now, I have been a diabetic since I was 1 year old. I don’t have any memory of not being diabetic. My cousin knew this from childhood, and all seemed ordinary and typical for that weekend more than a decade ago, as well as for the visit a few months ago. This more recent visit was different; we each had children of similar age, and though we lived in different hemispheres (literally!)- the visit was familiar, familial, and wonderful!
On the last day there, his wife made a comment. “You’re a great PR person for diabetics!” She said with all enthusiasm and perhaps even a touch of surprise. Her husband, my cousin, agreed. “We said that to each other when you came to visit us before!”
“Yes!” she said and she eagerly nodded her head! “I really like how you ate ice cream!”
I didn’t say anything. What they said was meant as a compliment. Indeed, it was a compliment! A positive PR or role model for anything is good! But it still bothered me. In the years since I had last seen them, I accomplished many, many awesome things! I liked doing many things, travelled many places and partook and experienced many foods, flavours, and culture. I felt good about being myself as a developed as a human. Sure, I was always diabetic—but that didn’t rule me or my heart or my dreams. Diabetes is in my background, but it isn’t who I am.
Yet for them, the opposite was true. To them, I was, and am, a diabetic first. A good diabetic. The kind that still does stuff in the background of my diabetic life. It was intended as a compliment, but revealed that they perceive me as a diabetic, first and foremost. And, in their amazement- I sometimes did other “normal people” stuff. That perception, though intended with admiration– hurt.
That is the same feeling I had when I read this book. The “matriarchal” term in the title is used to describe a biological, maternal mantel, and thus is inclusive of marriage. This is the focus that Skousen takes – leaving all other women with matriarch spiritual authority in the dust. Biological motherhood is primarily and heavily emphasised meaning that Skousen views “matriarchy” as entirely based in childbearing, and not as the characteristic of female, spiritual and political leaders. Thus: maternity is first, spirituality is second. Personally, as an adoptive mother, and knowing some of the hearts and minds of other adoptive mothers, childless couples, child-free couples, child-free women, and unmarried, childless women, I would have greatly appreciated a better encompassing focus on matriarchy as reflected in spiritual womanhood, rather than only in biology.
To be clear, Skousen tries to encompass all women in stating that:
“there is no single blueprint for womanhood or for motherhood. Each woman is an individual, motivated by her own hopes, talents, weaknesses, and responsibilities.” (Kindle Locations 3656-3657).
But this thought is quickly followed by:
“A mother knows how completely in tune one person can be with another…” (Kindle Locations 3662-3666).
The symbolism cited in the accompanying Isaiah 49: 15– 16 is meant to show how we are one with Christ, just as a mother is one with a child to whom she has given birth; this is good, but the literal biological connections made by Skousen are heavy and seem to leave no space for “womanhood,” independent of “motherhood.” They also make for problematic relationships for women who make the powerful choice to release a child for adoption, and seem to ignore the temple promises that children who are adopted and sealed are yet sealed in the same spiritual lineage- regardless of biology.
In this thought, although barrenness is discussed, the book leans to the painfully typical suggestion that barrenness is biologically “cured” by those who God chooses are worthy. Indeed, Skousen includes the story of Ruth and Naomi, but rather that looking at Naomi as the adoptive mother of the child that Ruth gave birth to, she only focuses on Ruth as the biological foremother of Christ. (again a missed opportunity to discuss temple promises). Skousen also discusses the “law of surrogacy,” but does so only in general references to ancient surrogacy traditions, which in some cases, have different scholarly and religious interpretations (For example, this guest post by Nora offers some insight to another perception of Hagar.) Though each chapter includes Skousen’s reflections on modern applications for the stories being told, she is mute on the subjects of modern surrogacy and adoption. Though this perception might be okay for the masses, it makes this a less than ideal book for those who are affected by infertility or who are adoptive parents.
In accepting that this is a look at woman as child bearers first, then as spiritual leaders second, the book takes flight. In the end, this book would well suit Mormon readers who are beginning their search on women of the bible. It is a good introductory book for those seeking a deeper look at women in biblical history, but not suited for those affected by infertility, adoption, childlessness or those who are child-free. It is available on Amazon for $13.59 US.