It’s my turn to teach a really problematic Old Testament text about women in LDS Sunday School.
My next assignment as Gospel Doctrine teacher in my Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) ward is to teach Genesis 28-33. There are women in these six chapters of Genesis; six named women: Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Dinah. That is the same number as are named in the entire Book of Mormon: Sariah, Abish and Isabel (the harlot!) are the only named female Book of Mormon characters, and three Biblical women, Eve, Sarah and Mary, are also mentioned in its pages.
So this lesson should be a great opportunity to bring women’s stories and women’s perspectives into Sunday School. However, there are numerous issues with how these women are portrayal by the authors of this text.
- The women in these chapters are supporting characters revolving around the male hero of the story, Jacob. Three of them do not even have speaking parts.
- Two of these women are enslaved. Biblical texts have been interpreted by many Christians throughout history as divine approbation of the abominable practice of slavery.
- Four of these women are polygamous wives or concubines. Polygamy is a particularly painful topic for female members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) because of the polygamy experiment that took place in our own faith community in the nineteenth century and because LDS theologians continue to use Genesis as proof text to condone polygamy as part of God’s eternal plan.
- Two of the women act as accomplices with their husband Jacob in the sexual exploitation of two of the other women.
- Even higher status women are treated as commodities; they are bought and sold by men and lack autonomy to make their own choices.
- The two women who are most quoted in the text rarely talk about anything but men; their only goals in life (as portrayed by the authors of the text) appear to be winning a man’s romantic and sexual attention and giving birth to sons, not daughters.
- The authors portray the women through a sexist and unflattering lens. They appear to be bickering, petty and jealous. One of them may be a thief.
- If you turn the page to Genesis 34, you will read more about Dinah’s story, a character who is still a baby in the chapters that happen to be included within the lesson plan I was assigned to teach. And wow, Genesis 34. Yikes. (I pray that no one in my classroom goes there. I am not prepared for that.)
So what to do with these chapters? An easy solution is to skip all of this problematic text. I admit that I was tempted to write a lesson plan exclusively covering two bits that bookend this section: Jacob’s Ladder (cool story!) and Jacob’s Wrestle with the Lord (another cool story!) and ignore the messy middle chapters, where the women are.
In fact, we have a precedent for handling polygamy that way in LDS Sunday School. For several years, we were studying the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church. Each Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual had an introduction with a biography of the church president highlighted in the manual. However, many of these men were polygamists. And many LDS people, including myself, are uncomfortable with and even repulsed by polygamy. So how did we handle that? Most of the Sunday School lesson biographies about polygamists skipped the part about their marriages and didn’t mention their wives at all.
This way of handling the polygamy problem erases women. The person who actually engaged in polygamy, the male spouse, is still honored and remembered. But his wives (each of whom only married one man) are erased from history because that history is uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities. Women deserve better than that.
As I was preparing this lesson plan, I recalled an excellent Twitter thread begun by Exponent co-blogger Nancy Ross in which Nancy and other smart people discuss using the Old Testament to share women’s stories. I went back to Nancy’s Twitter thread and found a helpful book recommendation: Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. I bought a copy and also found another book which was a big help to me for my lesson plan: The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views, by David J. Zucker and Moshe Reiss.
Here is the Lesson Plan for Genesis 28-33 that I came up with. Check it out.
And here is Nancy’s Twitter thread. Read the whole thing for some great tips!