Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More on Marriage in Genesis

Marriage didn’t end in the garden…the story continues.

What is the marriage of Abram and Sarai like? In Chapter 11, she does sustain him: she enables them both to prosper and him to stay alive. They are con artists of a sort, deceiving Pharaoh, who ejects them from Egypt. The “she’s my sister” routine brings up a question: what is the difference between a wife and a sister? Male royalty in some cultures (including the Egyptian!) married their sisters. A sister is familiar from birth—if she is a full sister, she is in a sense “one flesh,” made of the same biological stuff. (We will find out in Chapter 20, very late in the game, that Sarah is in fact Abraham’s half-sister.) A wife or husband, by contrast, is an alien being. She (he) has her (his) own interests and desires. Marriage is a partnership of a kind that cannot take place between a brother and a sister.

Is the marriage of Abram and Sarai similar to a pharaonic marriage; does Abram have a harem (as was true of Egypt’s pharaoh)? The answer is no, as it turns out. Sarai has an idea in Chapter 16: that Hagar the slavegirl become a surrogate mother, since Sarai is barren. (Significantly, Hagar is an Egyptian, part of the wealth that Abram has won in Egypt; the couple’s use of her suggests the way things are done in Egypt.)

In 16:5, Hagar is triumphant. After she has conceived with Abram, her mistress Sarai seems “slight in her eyes.” Sarai’s statement in 16:5 is rich, vexed, even self-contradictory: she acknowledges that the surrogate motherhood was her own idea, but she blames Abram. We have here a very human portrait of Sarai: we are deeply sympathetic to her; we too might be unfair in a similar situation, and blame Abram. What comes next, however, is more troubling. Abram gives control of the situation to Sarai—do to Hagar whatever you think fit, he says—and Sarai proceeds to harass Hagar, causing her to flee. How are we meant to view Sarai’s persecution of Hagar?

—David Mikics

Monday, August 30, 2010

Women, Subordination, and Knowledge in Genesis

As Professor Mikics points out, in Genesis 3, the woman does indeed take the lead in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, good and evil, and the man follows her. And though this act will eventually lead to the woman’s dependence upon and subordination to the man, I would like to round out this portrait of their marriage by looking at the woman’s disobedience from a slightly different angle.

It is the woman, under the suggestive influence of the cunning serpent, who eats and shares the fruit that then opens the eyes of both human creatures. If our deepest human desires are embodied in the two forbidden trees—those desires for knowledge and for immortality—then it is the woman who, in reaching first for the fruit of knowledge, helps begin to fulfill that first desire. It is she who gives knowledge to the man, and by extension to humankind. Further, though this disobedience will get them both kicked out of the garden of Eden, it is only in the world of thorn and thistle that the man and the woman—now called Adam and Eve—can bear children, fulfilling that command that God had given the male and female in Genesis 1 to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it.”

Eve may be a precursor to some of the other wives we will meet in Genesis—women who, despite their subordinate and dependent positions, manage through shrewd and crafty means, to preserve that fragile seed, which, though often troublesome and occasionally in need of wiping out, will eventually become God’s Chosen People, numberless as dust.

—Kim Meyer

Friday, August 27, 2010

Genesis Has Something To Say About Marriage

The simple, moving picture of marriage at the end of Chapter 2 deserves quotation and reflection. The man has at last found his match, the one who is “one flesh” with him. The child is of course one flesh with the mother who bears him (or her). But now, a man “leave[s] his father and his mother and cling[s] to his wife and they become one flesh.”

Are the man and the woman really one flesh?—well no, this is an immensely powerful metaphor, but still a metaphor. (The child and the mother being one flesh is not a metaphor.) Adam, in his erotic exultation, beautifully overestimates the union with Eve. We see in Chapter 3 that the woman takes the leading role in the eating of the fruit; the man follows her lead. The instinctive character of this action—in which the woman first eats, then gives the fruit to the man, and he eats as she did—certainly testifies to the union. But it may portray the hazards of over-intimacy: of too close a union.

In any case, God breaks the union apart and reconstitutes it in Chapter 3. “And for your man shall be your longing, and he shall rule over you” (3:16). Earlier, we heard nothing about the woman’s longing (or the dependency that goes with longing)—only about the man’s longing for a sustaining partner. In other words, the woman was independent. Now, she is not only dependent but subordinate.

I am going back over this ground to prepare the way for our next portrait of a marriage: the union of Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah. I’ll go on to discuss this in the next Profblog...

—David Mikics