Biblical women are more than just pretty faces

The descriptions of women in the bible are worse than pre- #metoo Hollywood, says Jennifer Lipman, so perhaps we should start looking at these stories with a more modern filter

November 12, 2018 13:34

Keira Knightley recently revealed she had banned her daughter from watching Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. The former, she explained, is princessa non grata, because she “waits around for a rich guy”, while Ariel the mermaid forfeits speech for a man.

It’s easy to mock the talking animals aren’t exactly realistic but, as an aunt of eight, I’ve spent enough time with small children to know they absorb information like sponges. The stories we tell them and the images they see matter.

It got me thinking about Jewish stories, and the women in them. Or lack thereof, because, like much fantasy fare, there’s a gender imbalance to the Hebrew bible. Those who feature tend to do so in supporting roles, as biblical WAGs or daughters with limited agency. “Take a wife,” is a common refrain, with little regard for the woman’s perspective on being taken.

According to one estimate, women comprise fewer than 8% of named characters. And the Good Book doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel Test, which evaluates content based on women conversing about something other than men.

There are some prominent female characters; role models such as Miriam, Ruth and Deborah, not to mention Eve. But browsing Genesis, I was struck by the misogyny of her story. Manipulated by the serpent, she shares the spoils from the tree of knowledge with Adam, only for him to throw her under the bus when God starts asking questions. For one misstep, she is cursed, told “in pain you shall bear children”. It’s as disproportionate a response as Lot’s unnamed wife being turned into a pillar of salt.

As in today’s tabloids, biblical women are held to the highest standards of virtue. Similarly, their worth is almost entirely tied to their fertility, with failure to conceive perhaps the most common character note never mind that it takes two to tango. Meanwhile, the men are free to take multiple wives and concubines (and invariably do).

There’s Abraham pretending Sarah is his sister (to save his skin, she must appear sexually available to the king), while the passages detailing her rivalry with Hagar feel like the original catfight told through the male gaze. Why in the rare moment two women appear must they be pitted against one another?

We get the “very beautiful… virgin” Rebekah (funnily enough, we rarely discover the sexual history of the men), of whom only the vaguest consent is sought. Later, Laban uses his daughters as bait to secure Jacob’s labour. While his trickery is portrayed as problematic, his treatment of his daughters is shrugged off. Again, the descriptions are disturbingly pejorative: Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.

Perhaps the most egregious moment comes when Dinah is raped (a casual aside, Shechem “took her, lay with her, and defiled her”) and her brothers undertake a massacre, apoplectic she has been treated as a “harlot”. The story becomes theirs; her response is never addressed.

There are women who fare better, like tent pole- wielding Yael. And of course, viewing these stories through a modern prism is reductive, while many of the blokes are equally poorly fleshed out. Clearly, much of this isn’t meant to be taken at face value.

But as a child you do take it at face value. Just as you believe in the tooth fairy, you don’t question whether the Garden of Eden was real; you accept Leah is unlovable, that Vashti deserves everything she gets (as opposed to refusing to demean herself) and that Esther’s worth is tied to her beauty.

You absorb that female characters’ identities are entirely about whose wife, mother or daughter they are. You don’t question the books where no women even speaks (worse even than pre-#metoo Hollywood) and above all you accept a narrative of women limited to supporting roles.

To expect biblical women to be portrayed differently would be like expecting Victorian heroines to solely be in want of good careers. Context matters these stories reflect what life was like for women back then. But when we read 18th century literature today, we do so with a critical eye. The same should be true of how we tell bible stories to children.

Perhaps we should tell them while highlighting that it’s wrong most of the women lack agency, that it’s strange so few have starring roles. Perhaps we need to really emphasise those who do make the cut.

These tales are at the core of Judaism; they are rousing stories of intrigue and adventure that introduce our youngest to the joy of religion. But thousands of years later, let’s take our cue from Hollywood and look at adapting them for a modern audience.

November 12, 2018 13:34

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