Editor’s Note: See the first two parts in Susan L.M. Goldberg’s series exploring ABC’s Scandal through the lens of Biblical feminism: “What’s Evil Got to Do with It?,” “Women and the Scandal of Doing It All Alone.” Also check out an introduction to her work and collection of 194 articles and blog posts here.
The husband/wife relationship is central to feminism. Historical, first-wave feminism studied matrimony in terms of legal rights. Contemporary, second-wave feminism approaches marriage in terms of sexual and economic power. Biblical feminism seeks to understand the spiritual relationship between a husband and wife, and how that spiritual relationship manifests into physical action. To do so, we must begin at the beginning, with Genesis 3:16:
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
“Rule over you” is a phrase that sends chills down any feminist’s spine. But, what does it truly mean? A study of the original Hebrew text provides radical insight into one of the most abused verses of Torah:
This brings us to perhaps the most difficult verse in the Hebrew Bible for people concerned with human equality. Gen 3:16 seems to give men the right to dominate women. Feminists have grappled with this text in a variety of ways. One possibility is to recognize that the traditional translations have distorted its meaning and that it is best read against its social background of agrarian life. Instead of the familiar “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing,” the verse should begin “I will greatly increase your work and your pregnancies.” The word for “work,” izavon, is the same word used in God’s statement to the man; the usual translation (“pangs” or “pain”) is far less accurate. In addition, the woman will experience more pregnancies; the Hebrew word is pregnancy, not childbearing, as the NRSV and other versions have it. Women, in other words, must have large families and also work hard, which is what the next clause also proclaims. The verse is a mandate for intense productive and reproductive roles for women; it sanctions what life meant for Israelite women.
In light of this, the notion of general male dominance in the second half of the verse is a distortion. More likely, the idea of male “rule” is related to the multiple pregnancies mentioned in the first half of the verse. Women might resist repeated pregnancies because of the dangers of death in childbirth, but because of their sexual passion (“desire,” 3:16) they accede to their husbands’ sexuality. Male rule in this verse is narrowly drawn, relating only to sexuality; male interpretive traditions have extended that idea by claiming that it means general male dominance.
Understanding the true meaning of a woman’s desire for her husband sheds new light on this week’s Torah parsha, the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, the love triangle that spawned the 12 tribes of Israel. It was a love triangle not totally unlike Scandal’s President Fitzgerald Grant, the wife he was forced to marry, Mellie Grant, and the woman he’d rather marry, Olivia Pope.
Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were weak; but Rachel was of beautiful form and fair to look upon. And Jacob loved Rachel; and he said: ‘I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.’ And Laban said: ‘It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man; abide with me.’ And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her. And Jacob said unto Laban: ‘Give me my wife, for my days are filled, that I may go in unto her.’ And Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast. And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her. And Laban gave Zilpah his handmaid unto his daughter Leah for a handmaid. And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah; and he said to Laban: ‘What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?’And Laban said: ‘It is not so done in our place, to give the younger before the first-born. Fulfil the week of this one, and we will give thee the other also for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years.’ And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week; and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife. And Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah his handmaid to be her handmaid. And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years.
And the LORD saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said: ‘Because the LORD hath looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.’ And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said: ‘Because the LORD hath heard that I am hated, He hath therefore given me this son also.’ And she called his name Simeon. And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said: ‘Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have borne him three sons.’ Therefore was his name called Levi. And she conceived again, and bore a son; and she said: ‘This time will I praise the LORD.’ Therefore she called his name Judah; and she left off bearing.
Just as God promised to Eve, Leah’s love for her husband would cause her to desire him. That desire would outweigh the pain of childbirth. In fact, his rejection would only motivate her to continue to produce children for him in the hopes that he would find her worthy of love in return. Just like Leah, First Lady Mellie Grant knew she was a part of an arranged marriage and would eventually bear a child in order to secure her husband’s reputation and save her marriage. And, just like Leah, Mellie Grant would never be granted the love she so desperately sought. Unlike Leah, Mellie ultimately went looking for the love she needed where she could find it, in the bedroom of the vice president.
Adonai’s opening words in speaking to Hosea were to instruct him,
“Go, marry a whore, and have children with this whore; for the land is engaged in flagrant whoring,
whoring away from Adonai.”
Jacob was a polygynist, and while the practice of a man having more than one wife was permitted in Torah, the amount of regulation governing the practice ensured its inevitable end. Monogamy is clearly the preferred practice of God, hence the prophets would consistently use metaphors of whoring to describe the bride Israel’s unfavorable behavior toward her bridegroom, HaShem. Israel’s turning away from God to worship idols and seek the favor of pagan nations was an act equivalent to that of a cheating spouse. God’s pain was the pain felt by a betrayed husband because that is how much the Divine, All Powerful Creator loves His creation and how deep His desire is to dwell with them. The Hosea metaphor speaks to the importance of faithfulness by illustrating the powerful emotional hold a wife has on her husband, and how that hold impacts the direction and condition of the marriage relationship.
The biblical name of God translates literally to “I Am/Was/Will Be.” “Elohim,” the name given to God by the people of Israel, is masculine plural, but it does not mean that God is purely male. Rather, the plurality of His name illustrates His nature, both as the unified One God as well as a God who embodies both masculine and feminine characteristics. The Ruach haKodesh written about in Psalms and Isaiah is referred to in the female Ruach, as is the term for God’s glorious presence that “fills the universe,” the Shechinah.
The same concepts of dwelling, courage, trustworthiness, emotion and heart inspiration associated with the female aspects of God’s character are also associated with women in general. The physical manifestation of a woman’s spiritual power is in her love for her husband and her desire to reproduce despite the pain of the venture. What’s more, she acts as the spiritual compass that points to physical survival for her husband and family. This is no easy purpose, nor is it a role that should be taken lightly. In fact, the ancient rabbis who authored the Talmud were wary of this female power, because it was ultimately out of their control.
There can be no doubt, however, that the Talmud also has many negative things to say about women. Various rabbis at various times describe women as lazy, jealous, vain and gluttonous, prone to gossip and particularly prone to the occult and witchcraft. Men are repeatedly advised against associating with women, although that is as much because of man’s lust as it is because of any shortcoming in women. Women are discouraged from pursuing higher education or religious pursuits, but this seems to be primarily because women who engage in such pursuits might neglect their primary duties as wives and mothers. The rabbis are not concerned that women are not spiritual enough, but rather are concerned that women might become too spiritually devoted.
The roles of wife and mother, central to a biblical feminist, have been grossly misinterpreted by misogynists and feminists alike. As the writings and behavior of Talmudic scholars indicate, these roles have been abused in part by men who sought to control their wives’ inherent spiritual gifts. Not unlike these ancient men, fearful contemporary feminists rail against marriage and motherhood in a modern attempt to reject a woman’s spiritual power in favor of the physical power-trappings of career, financial success, and fame.
Yet these feminists remain in awe of women like Mellie Grant and Olivia Pope who manage to control the president’s every whim through love and reproduction, as well as sex and unfaithfulness. True feminist empowerment demands a biblical understanding of the spiritual power that underlies female sexuality. Without that context, husbands, wives, and lovers are doomed to dissatisfaction.