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Women of Genesis
By Orson Scott Card
Review by Rabbi Michael Pont

Although men seem to dominate the Bible, it is the women who often drive the story in the book of Genesis. When you think of Rebekah, the biblical matriarch, which of her deeds comes to mind? In all likelihood, it is the deception of her husband Isaac that she engineered. According to the text, Rebekah dressed her younger son Jacob in his older brother's clothing, so that Jacob would receive the primary blessing entitled to the firstborn. (See Genesis 27).

Rebekah exists in a mere 139 verses of the Bible, spread over chapters twenty four through twenty eight. Some passages do not mention her at all. This is the Bible's style, and perhaps one of its greatest achievements: to tell incredible stories in so few words. However, this format leaves us with so many questions, the answers to which are not recorded explicitly in the text.

Jewish scholars have busied themselves with filling these gaps since the Bible was written. This exercise is called midrash, which means, "explanation." There are volumes upon volumes of midrash on the Hebrew Bible. Some of these collections date back to ancient times, others to the Middle Ages. Yet the process of midrash is not static; rather, it is alive and well even today. Jews are obligated to study the Five Books of Moses and other biblical sections each year, in order to reveal its eternal wisdom. Study leads to discovery and new applications of the Bible to our lives.

Orson Scott Card's novel is contemporary midrash, as he addresses two major issues of the biblical narrative. First, what kind of person is Rebekah, that she is willing to defy human convention, trick her husband, and cause great pain to Esau her older son? Put another way, what makes her so zealous for "The God of Abraham?" Second, why does she love Jacob more than Esau, and why does Isaac prefer Esau to Jacob?

Card answers these and so many other questions with a great sensitivity to familial relationships, humor, and a flare for drama. He is, though, most concerned with family dynamics, as he states in the preface: "The task in this novel was to show how good people can sometimes do bad things to those they love most people doing the best they can often get it wrong, and all you can do afterward is try to ameliorate the damage and avoid the same mistakes in the future." (p. ix-x)

For Card, it is impossible to appreciate Rebekah's actions in Genesis 27 fully without knowing her as a child. She grew up hearing the stories of Great-Uncle Abraham, who knew the only true yet invisible God. As she matures, she yearns to know Abraham's God, so she intensely prays for guidance. When the right path becomes clear to her, she understands this as divine communication.

It is this woman, one who longs to know and to do God's will, that will marry the son of Abraham, the one through whom the birthright will be passed on to the next generation. The birthright represents a relationship with God, and the chance to shape the future of a great nation.

Why does Rebekah love Jacob? The Bible merely relates this detail (Genesis 25:28) with no explanation. Card's midrash is to embellish the differences between the sons, even in the ways they nursed. While Jacob nursed well, staying attached, Esau, "kept looking around, and would frequently stop sucking and let the breast fall away from his mouth So it was Jacob who heard all of her songs and Esau who heard her complaints." (p.308). The way each boy nursed forces Rebekah to wonder: did her scolding drive Esau away? Or is his looking around the "first expression of his need to roam, his unwillingness to bend his will to someone else's?" (p.309). Card exploits this scene to pose the complicated question of nature versus nurture to all parents.

Why does Isaac favor Esau? The answer is inseparable from the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). For Card, the result is that Isaac's innate goodness and love of God are mired in self-doubt. The fact that Abraham was willing to kill him amounts to paternal rejection. Abraham's favoritism toward Isaac's older brother, the charismatic and bold Ishmael, only adds to Isaac's pain. The message to Isaac is that a real man is strong and daring. Thus, both father and son gravitate toward Esau, reveling in his physical prowess. For Isaac, Esau is the boy that he should have been, and in praising Esau he longs for acceptance from his own father, Abraham.

Rebekah, though, perceives the danger of this. She worries that this pattern of favoritism will be passed on through the generations. Through her, Card asks us the same question. That is, will we repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, or will we learn from them? How will we know what is the best decision?

Biblical narratives are meant to inspire questions for ancients and moderns alike. In Rebekah, Orson Scott Card shows that these stories offer serious challenges for our lives. I look forward to reading the next book in this series.

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