Women of Genesis

Religious women throughout the world have found comfort and inspiration in the stories of the great matriarchs of the Old Testament.  Their ancient lives offer us understanding and perspective.  We honor them as covenant-keepers – tested, tried and made worthy of the Lord’s highest blessings.  What we know of their life experience, however, is largely limited.  A single biblical chapter (Genesis 29) sketches the story of Rachel and Leah, the basis for Orson Scott Card’s latest book.  Despite minimal material, Card has created an emotive and colorful novel that enlarges our perception of Laban’s daughters.  It is Card’s third book in his series, Women of Genesis, and is simply titled, Rachel and Leah

Card has always loved writing scriptural adaptations.  He marvelously fills in gaps left by biblical texts in creative and convincing ways.  Have you ever wondered what biblical writers meant when they described Leah as “tender-eyed”?  What about the conundrum of Leah entering Jacob’s tent on his wedding night, rather than Rachel?  Where was Rachel?  Was it Leah who was conniving or was she the victim of her father’s manipulative plot?

The magic of Card’s fiction is that he offers believable answers to these questions.  He defines each scriptural character as real – maintaining their greatness without hiding their weaknesses.  He makes them men and women with whom we can identify.

The first two books in the Women of Genesis series are Sarah and Rebekah.  Rachel and Leah revolves around the four women who will eventually marry Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah.  Enter Bilhah first – an orphan who finds slave-like work in Laban’s camp, although she is a free girl.  She is constantly struggling to fit in.  Next, we meet Leah, Laban’s oldest daughter whose “tender-eyes” have made her half-blind.  As a young girl, she is bitter and easily enraged because of her blindness.  She too is seeking to know God’s will for her life, why He made her this way. 

Finally we meet Rachel – the beautiful daughter of vision and promise.  We like her immediately for her independence, although she is depicted as somewhat spoiled and immature.  In the background is Zilpah, a fatherless servant, known for her beauty and ways with men.  Despite her reputation, she has noble desires to marry and give her own children a better life.

And what about Jacob – how is he introduced?  We meet Jacob as he greets Rachel at the well.  He is strident, charismatic, clever and deflecting of praise.  Of course, he is strong and strikingly handsome – every woman in Padan-aram’s dream.  He is obviously on a mission and has just inherited the birthright.

The Power of Religion

In the Jewish faith, Card’s writing would be considered “midrash” – lore-like stories centered on biblical records.  His novels are true to the Genesis text in every way.  In fact, he includes even the tiniest details, making sure each verse is included in some way or another.  But Card is also true to modern scripture.  For instance, he describes the prophet Abraham as having exceptional knowledge of the stars, which we know Abraham received, from papyrus included in the Pearl of Great Price (Abraham 2).  Card also writes with great care about the Abrahamic Covenant, the importance of lineage, and the true blessings associated with the birthright.

With this in mind, we see that the power of the book is in its portrayal of religion.  This power, as found in the word of God, changes individuals.  It intertwines the lives of Jacob’s future wives.  Jacob brings “the holy books”, now in his keeping, to Laban’s camp.  Leah is the first to show interest in the books.  One morning she feels her way along the paths to Jacob’s tent, before most of the camp is awake.  She has not yet met Jacob.  She wants to ask him about the words of God, assuming that if God could speak to prophets on earth, maybe He would speak to her from the holy books.  Jacob and Leah share a moment of truth as Jacob tells Leah she is not the only one searching for meaning in her life. 

“So you know,” said Leah.  “What it means to be…”

“What it means to be alive when God seems to have no purpose for you,” said Jacob.

“You knew before I even spoke,” she said, tears on her cheeks, but not really weeping, was she?  Her voice was still under her control.  And in this dim light, perhaps he didn’t even see her tears.

“No,” he said.  “Or yes, I did, but not by the gift of God.  I heard your father speak of you, and Rachel and others.  You father and sister love you, but they also speak of you like someone apart from the life of the camp.  Like a painted clay cup among the carven bowls, fragile, not to be used.  And even before I met you, I wondered what it was like for you, and whether you understood God’s purpose for you.”

“I don’t.” she said.  “And I think sometimes that he has no purpose.  That I’m here only to be a burden on my father.  Until he can find a man willing to marry a wife who can barely see.  Not that I’m blind. I found my way here, didn’t I?” (121-122)

Jacob explains that although there may be no direct revelation for Leah in the holy books, God does speak to us when we read them.  We can hear the voice of God.  Leah’s first exchange with God occurs while reading from the holy books.  Bilhah is reading the story of Enoch, as paraphrased from the Pearl of Great Price (Moses 6:34).

     Jacob nodded to Bilhah.  She read aloud the great promise the Lord made to Enoch: “My Wisdom is upon you, and so I will make all your words come true.  The mountains will flee before you, the rivers will turn from their course.  You will dwell in me, and I in you. So walk with me.”

     As she listened, the promises at first sounded very remote to Leah.  What good would it actually do to go around moving mountains and shifting rivers?  And what about the sheep grazing on the mountain? Or the fish in the river?  Would they get moved, too?

     But those last four words – “So walk with me” – rang in her heart as if Bilhah had shouted them.  She realized that this must be what if felt like to have Wisdom tell her that certain words in the scripture were meant for her.

     Walk with me.  But God wasn’t there.  She couldn’t walk with him anywhere. She had to walk with Bilhah or some other person leading her.  What did God mean by making these words stand out to her?  How could she obey him, if he was commanding her to do something impossible? (178-179)

As one who struggled to walk to Jacob’s tent alone, God’s words to Enoch struck Leah in the heart.

  She reflects on the feeling again and again until she determines to make God’s message to Enoch her journey in life – she will walk with God.  While Jacob takes an oath to work seven years for Rachel, Leah takes a private oath to study the holy books.  Card writes of Leah, “Her refuge was always the holy books” (278). 

Bilhah and Zilpah also gain wisdom and knowledge through the word of God.  By the end of the novel, the only one who has not supped from scriptural pages is Rachel.  This troubles Rachel and makes her worry she may not be the woman Jacob wants to marry.  At this point we find the book has been more about Leah and her spiritual transformation, than about Rachel.  The power of religion is working great changes in the lives of Card’s characters, causing them to question God’s awareness of them, His will for their lives. 

About Women and Marriage

Card’s books have become windows into the hearts of women. As a male writer, he seems to have a pretty good grasp of women’s ways.  This book is about women, marriage and becoming.  We watch Jacob’s future wives move from adolescence to maturity.  We see them prepare for marriage, some with a husband in mind, some without.  We come to understand the role of women in ancient times – the heartache, fear and techniques women probably had to employ to succeed in the Old Testament world.  We see how intricately a woman’s acceptance was tied to her ability to bear children.

One of the more beautiful passages about women and their ability to bear children is found in a discussion Jacob and Rachel have while tending Laban’s flocks.  Card lends wonderful imagery and wisdom to the voice of Jacob.

     It’s as if Jacob controlled the flow of time.  When he said it was time for lambing, the lambs began to drop.  When he announced that it was planting time for beans, the beans went into the ground. Leaves sprouted on limbs when he told them to.  Even the locusts came when he said they would, and Rachel did not understand how he could know when they would be bad and when their coming would do little harm.

     “They have a cycle,” said Jacob.  “Everything has a cycle, if you know what it is.  Why should a man have to tell a woman that?”

     “They say we’re tied to the moon,” said Rachel, “but that’s nonsense.  The time never comes on a woman at the exact same phase of the moon.”

     “A cycle of your own, and not perfect, either,” said Jacob.  “Because the things of human beings are never as perfect as the exact cycles of heaven.”

     “Why not?” said Rachel.  “Didn’t God make us too?”

     “He also made us free,” said Jacob.  “So we don’t follow our cycles so faithfully.”

     “If it were up to me, I’d have no cycle at all.”

     She had meant it frivolously, as a joke, but it made Jacob’s face turn grave.  “The cycle of women is the power of life.  Creation by men is always slight.  We make things that break.  But women have the gift of God to make babies.  That is as great as any priesthood, and no one has to ordain you to it.  God fills the wombs of the women he chooses as his creators, and they bring forth fruit in their season, and their children grow up to have voices that can praise God.”

     “I think men have something to do with it, ” said Rachel.

     “If I’m wrong, there are a lot of rams and bulls and cocks and stallions who strut about nothing.”

     “Yes, the man struts, but the woman is the earth in which the seed grows.  So don’t speak ill of that cycle, painful and unclean as it may be.  It’s the great cycle of life, and God put the calendar of that life in every woman’s body, as surely as he put it in the heavens.” (290-291)

It is difficult to complain about the hardships of a woman’s cycle after reading Jacob’s words.  Card is able to see into the hearts of women, drawing upon truths that speak to female souls.  Card will continue his series, Women of Genesis, with a sequel entitled, Wives of Israel.  I assume in this novel, we will come to know Rachel better.  We will see Jacob become more connected to the Lord as His prophet.  We will witness the four women he loves travail in childbirth, joy in motherhood and for Rachel, endure the test of being unable to bear children. 

Connecting with the Ancients

Good historical fiction turns us loose in a world we could not otherwise experience.  Its words stir our senses and imagination to yield understanding.  From there, it turns us inward, teaching us of ourselves, inspiring questions that need answering – questions that were asked by those who went before us.  We join Card’s characters in finding these answers.  By doing so, we discover our own personal truths. 

     As for Leah herself, during those hours she lived in the world of Adam and Eve and Seth, Enoch and Zion, Noah and his family, Shem and Melchizedek, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah.  She no longer listened to the words of the Lord in a desperate search for some message to herself.  Now she understood that the Lord said to his children in every age whatever they needed to know, whatever they could bear to hear. (344)

Orson Scott Card connects us with the ancients.  He makes us wonder, what message from God could we bear to hear?  The creativity and insight of Rachel and Leah brings us into a realistic world where timeless stories are made.  In a desert place, men and women like you and me, made difficult choices – they learned to walk with God.  Card may not be completely accurate in his portrayal of every detail (such are the liberties with historical fiction), but I believe the great matriarchs would be pleased.