Rebekah of the Hebrew Bible: A Mormon Feminist Model by Caroline Kline


Kline, CarolineThis semester I took a class on women in the book of Genesis. I was particularly interested in learning more about the language used to describe Eve, since she is such an important model of inspired action and proactivity for Mormon women. However, I also discovered another woman in the book of Genesis whom I saw as a potentially powerful model for Mormon feminists, a woman caught in a patriarchal context, but one who decisively and creatively figures out how to insert herself, her ideas, her inspiration into the events at hand: Rebekah.

Let me recap the most crucial incident: When Isaac is old, blind, and believes he is approaching death, he determines to give a special blessing to his firstborn son Esau. When Rebekah hears of his plans, she springs into action, ordering her younger son Jacob to impersonate Esau in order to obtain this blessing. Rebekah feels so strongly that Jacob should get this blessing – and no wonder, given her revelation from God forty years before that Jacob should inherit the promise – that when he objects, fearing a curse from his father if he is found out, she says to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son. Only obey my word, and go…..” (Genesis 27:13). Jacob successfully receives this blessing, though their trick is quickly uncovered when Esau returns and learns of what has happened. Despite Esau’s anger and his own emotional reaction, Isaac does not choose to retract the blessing, but instead carries forward with the changed plans.

This episode in the Rebekah cycle has prompted many a scholar to characterize Rebekah as a trickster, a scheming wife, or a deceiver. Other feminist interpretations of the incident focus on her determination to carry out God’s revealed will as to which son should inherit the promise. My Mormon feminist reading of this episode incorporates hermeneutics of both suspicion and remembrance, as I hold up Rebekah as a model of feminine subversion to familial patriarchal traditions.

The familial patriarchal context in which Rebekah operates is one that resonates with Mormon women’s experience. Because every Mormon male is ordained to priesthood, women’s husbands are (if they marry within the faith) priests who are told to “preside” over their wives, even as they, somewhat paradoxically, are told to act as “equal partners” with them. Men are considered the head of the household and are encouraged to assume special leadership responsibilities. Over the last few decades, these responsibilities have shifted away from final decision making and more towards active leadership in the spiritual training of children. Nevertheless, their priesthood holding status confers upon these men specific ritual responsibilities to lay hands on and bless other family members. Women are encouraged to pray, but offering hands-on ritual blessings is off limits for them in contemporary Mormonism.

Like Mormon women, Rebekah operates within a system that imposes clear boundaries on her ritual actions. In this particular place, time, and narrative, it is not within the scope of possible action for Rebekah to bless Jacob herself, so she does what she can to ensure the proper outcome in the patriarchal context in which she lives. She subverts and she manipulates. As feminist ethicist Sarah Hoagland points out, manipulation and trickery are what women resort to in hetero-patriarchal contexts when they are powerless. Hebrew Bible scholar Frymer-Kensky justifies Rebekah’s actions given this realty, saying, “Rivka will use whatever means are in the tool kit of those without authority to make decisions…. Only the powerful value honesty at all costs. The powerless know that trickery may save lives.”

This sobering reality of Rebekah’s inability to enact blessings herself or to explode the boundaries of patriarchy does not, however, render her powerless. She might not shatter boundaries, but she does challenge them as she inserts herself into “men’s business,” and Mormon feminists can find inspiration in her confidence and ingenuity as she does so. Rebekah therefore stands as an important model–a woman who acts with courage and confidence as she refuses to be sidelined and silenced by patriarchal familial expectations. As Furman comments in her analysis of this episode, “[Her] interference breaks up the exclusive father-son dialogue and forces recognition of [her] presence.”

Like Rebekah, some of us Mormon feminists are also determined to push gender boundaries and insert ourselves into areas considered off limits to women. Despite fear of ecclesiastical discipline by Mormon leaders, some Mormon feminists are creating their own rituals to lay hands on and/or bless their children and each other. While many of these blessings take place in women-only gatherings, these women are starting to write publicly about these rituals on Mormon feminist blogs. They are claiming their power, their right to insert themselves into ritual territory considered male-only within Mormonism. In doing so, they are risking their own standing in their Mormon communities, since such action is considered strongly taboo and even heretical. Mraynes has poignantly discussed such a moment in her own life when her female friends, probably for the first time in their lives, crossed this boundary to reach out, lay hands on, and bless her as she was suffering a depressive episode.

Like Rebekah, these women are pushing boundaries and inserting themselves into male space. These women might carry out their ritual blessings behind closed doors, but publicly blogging about such practices is a first step in forcing men to recognize women’s presence, ideas, insights, spiritual power, and connection with God in a blessing context. In short, they are subverting the Church’s claims that such actions are godly only when done by male priesthood holders. While enacting these blessings in private female groups is an important step forward, Mormon feminists must keep Rebekah’s example in mind as they work towards a time when they can push these boundaries in the presence of men and force those men in the moment to recognize us and our spiritual power. While Rebekah in her particular context had to use subversion and deception to interrupt the all-male dialogue and ensure God’s will be carried out, we hope to someday openly stand alongside our men and together use the power of God to carry out God’s will.

Caroline is completing coursework for a Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion.  Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent.



Categories: Feminism, Mormonism, Scripture

Tags: , , ,

10 replies

  1. Caroline, thanks for this essay. While I find the idea of a feminist Mormon an oxymoron, times are changing, and thank goddess for the thin end of the wedge a blog gives to voices that would previously have remained silenced and unheard. To women’s voices!

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  2. Inspiring indeed! Here is to Mormon women’s rights and rites!

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  3. What an irony, since laying on of hands for healing is traditional women’s territory!

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  4. Caroline, even though we have very different outlooks on religion, I want to go on record as saying I admire you, and women like you, who are engaging deeply and hard with your faith. I share Majak’s sense of the oxymoronic, and find it difficult to imagine the words “Mormon” and “feminist” in the same sentence. Nevertheless, in your case, they obviously do coexist. I honor your struggle, and I appreciated your essay.

    Beyond that, I”m really curious about is this idea of Eve as “an important model of inspired action and proactivity for Mormon women.” This is certainly a very different perspective than the traditional Christian interpretation of Eve, and I’d like to know more, so I could stop saying “Huh?”

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  5. Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate knowing that women of different faiths are supporting me and my feminist sisters as we navigate these waters.

    Onoosh, because Mormons believe in a fortunate Fall, they consider Eve inspired, courageous and insightful for eating the fruit. The Fall is fortunate in Mormon cosmology because it was the first step forward for humans on their cosmic journey to gain bodies, live human lives of learning and love, and ultimately progress to godhood — all things God wants for humans. Mormons don’t see the Fall as a fall away from the presence of God. Rather it’s a step towards becoming gods and goddesses ourselves. So Mormons love and honor Eve for starting us out on this journey.

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    • Caroline, thank you for the explanation! This Mormon idea of a “fortunate Fall” is certainly worlds apart from the traditional Christian idea of the Fall: even the notion of a “felix culpa” in Christianity only makes the “culpa” a “felix” one because it becomes the basis for Christ’s incarnation and the “redemption” of our species. To see it as “a step forward for humans on their cosmic journey” is a radical change of viewpoint.

      It can understand why this story–and the Mormon idea of humans eventually becoming “gods and goddesses”–could provide a fairly firm stepping-stone for Mormon feminists like yourself to move forward. But if gods and goddesses, why the exclusive “God” language in other areas? How do Mormons–and Mormon women in particular–reconcile the notion of at least a partially feminine deity, a “Father-Mother” divinity, while continuing what can only be viewed from outside as second-class citizenship in the church for real women?

      On the original topic of your blog, I do find the model of Hagar problematic: she still uses the traditionally “feminine” wiles of the powerless to achieve her, or what she sees as her God’s, goals.

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  6. Rivka/Rebecca! Not Hagar…that’s another story! Senior moments abound! :-)

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  7. Great questions. Why the exclusive God language? When I use God, I mean God-They, Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father working in conjunction together. Most Mormons use the term “Heavenly Father” to refer to God, but I reject that because it excludes Heavenly Mother. God to me is a more inclusive term, though I can see why others might find it almost as alienating as Heavenly Father language.

    The place of Heavenly Mother in Mormon thought is paradoxical. On the one hand, Mormons accept her as a divine embodied female, equal in power in glory to God the Father. On the other hand, our leaders have told us not to worship her or pray to her. So Mormons in normal discourse rarely even mention her. Mormon feminists like me are trying to raise her into the light and inject her in discourse as much as possible (even if in this post, I used the God shorthand — which is a good reminder that I should be careful to specifically include her in my rhetoric.)

    The place of women in Mormonism is likewise paradoxical. On the one hand we are taught that we have the potential to reach god(dess)hood. (though the fact that She isn’t referenced or worshipped is certainly problematic for many of us.) On the other hand we are clearly part of a patriarchal system which excludes women from most important decision-making ecclesiastical bodies. Mormon feminists like me hope to expose these contradictions and encourage women’s inclusion in power structures.

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  8. Hi Caroline,
    I recently re-read this blog and decided to use it in my class, “Women and Christianity.” I love your reading of Rebekah. I remember reading this story many times growing up, not understanding her role or why this ‘trick’ was okay. It seemed “unfair.” But I love how you describe this as a subversion of the patriarchal standard: it was only ‘unfair,’ if we accept the patriarchal premise. A professor of mine in graduate school argued quite strongly that in the line of David (and Jesus) it is the mothers who really mattered– and this reading definitely adds to that idea.
    I also love the connection to the power of blessing and ritual! Thank you for the post!

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