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
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,
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.