My next assignment as Gospel Doctrine teacher in my Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) ward is to teach Genesis 28-33. There are women in these six chapters of Genesis; six named women: Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Dinah. That is the same number as are named in the entire Book of Mormon: Sariah, Abish and Isabel (the harlot!) are the only named female Book of Mormon characters, and three Biblical women, Eve, Sarah and Mary, are also mentioned in its pages.
So this lesson should be a great opportunity to bring women’s stories and women’s perspectives into Sunday School. However, there are numerous issues with how these women are portrayal by the authors of this text.
- The women in these chapters are supporting characters revolving around the male hero of the story, Jacob. Three of them do not even have speaking parts.
- Two of these women are enslaved. Biblical texts have been interpreted by many Christians throughout history as divine approbation of the abominable practice of slavery.
- Four of these women are polygamous wives or concubines. Polygamy is a particularly painful topic for female members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) because of the polygamy experiment that took place in our own faith community in the nineteenth century and because LDS theologians continue to use Genesis as proof text to condone polygamy as part of God’s eternal plan.
- Two of the women act as accomplices with their husband Jacob in the sexual exploitation of two of the other women.
- Even higher status women are treated as commodities; they are bought and sold by men and lack autonomy to make their own choices.
- The two women who are most quoted in the text rarely talk about anything but men; their only goals in life (as portrayed by the authors of the text) appear to be winning a man’s romantic and sexual attention and giving birth to sons, not daughters.
- The authors portray the women through a sexist and unflattering lens. They appear to be bickering, petty and jealous. One of them may be a thief.
- If you turn the page to Genesis 34, you will read more about Dinah’s story, a character who is still a baby in the chapters that happen to be included within the lesson plan I was assigned to teach. And wow, Genesis 34. Yikes. (I pray that no one in my classroom goes there. I am not prepared for that.)
So what to do with these chapters? An easy solution is to skip all of this problematic text. I admit that I was tempted to write a lesson plan exclusively covering two bits that bookend this section: Jacob’s Ladder (cool story!) and Jacob’s Wrestle with the Lord (another cool story!) and ignore the messy middle chapters, where the women are.
In fact, we have a precedent for handling polygamy that way in LDS Sunday School. For several years, we were studying the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church. Each Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual had an introduction with a biography of the church president highlighted in the manual. However, many of these men were polygamists. And many LDS people, including myself, are uncomfortable with and even repulsed by polygamy. So how did we handle that? Most of the Sunday School lesson biographies about polygamists skipped the part about their marriages and didn’t mention their wives at all.
This way of handling the polygamy problem erases women. The person who actually engaged in polygamy, the male spouse, is still honored and remembered. But his wives (each of whom only married one man) are erased from history because that history is uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities. Women deserve better than that.
As I was preparing this lesson plan, I recalled an excellent Twitter thread begun by Exponent co-blogger Nancy Ross in which Nancy and other smart people discuss using the Old Testament to share women’s stories. I went back to Nancy’s Twitter thread and found a helpful book recommendation: Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. I bought a copy and also found another book which was a big help to me for my lesson plan: The Matriarchs of Genesis: Seven Women, Five Views, by David J. Zucker and Moshe Reiss.
Here is the Lesson Plan for Genesis 28-33 that I came up with. Check it out.
And here is Nancy’s Twitter thread. Read the whole thing for some great tips!
I no longer attend SS in our ward because the teachers follow the CFM to the letter. Nuance? Nope. Inclusion of marginalized people? Nope. Women’s stories? Only when she is the bad example, in contrast to a faithful man. Likely to ever change. Absolutely not. Relevance to my life? None. Worth my time. Not at all.
I have dropped Relief Society and Sunday school lessons. So tired of the whitewashed, ill informed lessons filled with half truths. April, I loved your bullet points at the top of your essay. If I was teaching, that is where I would take it. I think the facts should be spoken out loud. Now I’m going to read your lesson plan. Thank you for sharing!
To me, it seems like these chapters are the perfect illustration of what Jacob talks about in the Book of Mormon (Jacob 2:31-35) – namely, that polygamy is bad because it hurts women and children.
Oo! That scripture is perfect!
I LOVE the OT (Hebrew Bible…although I know there are differences between OT and Hebrew Bible) precisely because it does have wild stories, women in various roles, and definitely the best poetry.
Here is how I handled this when I taught two weeks ago –
The bulk of the lesson was about Noah. However, I knew that the focus for CFM for the next 5ish weeks would include many stories of women. I shared that people at this time did not live in a vacuum and to understand these stories, we need to understand the culture of the time. Also, that avoiding tough conversations doesn’t benefit any of us.
I then gave a very brief broad brush overview of how humans once existed in partnership societies that were overtaken by dominator societies (Riane Eisler’s work). This overview ended with describing the Code of Hammurabi and how women were treated as property. I then shared Hagar’s story through a perspective of agency. I used agency instead of consent because agency is a concept that is understood in the church. What happened to Hagar was rape. (Yes, I said this out loud in church. I say before the discussion that I was going to address sexual assault in case anyone wasn’t in a place to hear that.) Note that this attitude of women as property who owed sexual services to their husband is still something believed by many people. Marital rape wasn’t illegal in every state in the U.S. until 1993. Under this paradigm, Hagar’s body belonged to Sarah who belonged to Abraham. Yuck.
As a slave who was owned by another woman, Hagar didn’t have agency to make a choice about what happened to her body. Neither did Leah when her father decided to disguise her to trick Jacob into marrying her. Neither did Bilhah, Zilpah, or Dinah. I am also not sure if Sarah and Rachel had the power to make a choice regarding whom to marry. I asked the class members to be sensitive and careful as they studied these stories over the next few weeks, to be aware of women who didn’t always have autonomy over their bodies.
As for polygamy, I wanted to make that point that although D&C 132 uses Abraham practicing polygamy as a justification for polygamy in the 1800s, from the perspective of agency, using Abraham justification doesn’t work because the women didn’t have an opportunity to use agency to make a choice. Our Heavenly Parents value our agency to the extent that they were willing to send their Son to make agency possible for us. I don’t believe they are pleased or condone marriages made without both people having an equal say. I didn’t get to that though. Luckily there is plenty of time in the OT to address polygamy. It is a subject that deserves being addressed although addressed with care because it effects women now. My ward has many people who have been widowed, divorced, remarried, etc. so it is a sensitive topic.
Tina, I think this would make an excellent guest post. I hope you will consider submitting it here.
This sounds like a wonderful way to approach the Old Testament. Your Ward is lucky to have you!
I second Emily–this would be a great guest post. And we’d love to have more people to help write lesson plans as well 🙂
I agree! A guest post about teaching the Old Testament or a lesson plan for one for one of your future lessons would be wonderful!
Here is the link for guest posts: http://www.the-exponent.com/submit-a-guest-post/
And here is more information about our lesson plan series: https://www.the-exponent.com/need-help-with-your-2022-old-testament-or-young-women-lds-lesson-plans-we-have-your-back-comefollowme/
Thank you for the kind words! I will write this as post or lesson plan.
I’m not on Twitter. Thank you for posting this and the new-to-me resources!
I read your lesson. Excellent!
Thank you! I worked hard on it.
Brilliant points, April, as always. Thank you for the head’s up on resources, I am hungry for real gospel learning about God sans patriarchy. (i.e. “When God is male, then the male is God”)