New Project: Women of Genesis

Posted on 25 February 2013

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The Book of Genesis is the first book of all Christian Bibles and of the Torah.

old bible

It is the story of how some of the ancient Semitic peoples became Jewish. Throughout the book, the god of the Hebrews reveals himself to Noah and Abraham and some of their relatives through various draconian catastrophes. It also chronicles the efforts of Abraham and his descendants to convert the rest of the Middle East to monotheism, and scamming various monarchs.

When it was that new, Judaism had very few rules. All it really insisted on was that there was only one god (or at least that theirs was better than and/or the boss of all the other gods); and that boys had to be circumcised as a blood offering to that god.

There were no kosher rules, no marriage laws, no prohibition of ‘sodomy’, no funeral rites. Most of the customs that punctuated people’s lives were those of various Eurasian polytheisms and Semitic traditions, where most people recognised an endless pantheon: household gods and totems, goddesses of childbirth and menstruation, and deities of both genders who were connected with trees, rock formations, bodies of water, and places.

The women of Genesis are important because stories involving them are the basis of how our culture views and positions women now. Their stories have also been used to justify millennia of devaluing, disempowering and even dehumanising women.

I was inspired to explore Genesis as source material for fiction by American writer and scholar Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. It tells the story of an important yet silent female character in Genesis: Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob (later renamed Israel) and the great‑granddaughter of patriarch and matriarch Abraham and Sarah.

Genesis 34 says that Dinah was kidnapped and raped by the prince of Shechem who then wanted to marry her. Her brothers decided they wouldn’t stand for their sister to be dishonoured and lured the king of Shechem into a trap. They told him that they couldn’t allow Dinah to marry his son unless all the men in his city were circumcised. He agreed and while all the men and boys and male infants were recovering from their surgery, Dinah’s brothers rampaged around the city axe-murdering them all.

The Bible never mentions Dinah again.

Her story caught my attention when I was a teenager. I wanted to know how she felt about being the excuse for her brothers to commit genocide. I wanted to know how she would have felt about being engaged to someone who had attacked her. I wondered if she had seen her brothers chopping up any of Shechem’s men or children. I wanted to ask her if she was really raped or if her brothers were just being territorial dicks.

So of course I was ecstatic to find that Diamant’s novel fitted an idea that I had long toyed with: that Dinah wasn’t raped at all and that her brothers had betrayed her as they later betrayed their brother Joseph.

Early last year, I started working on a story based on Chapter 19 of Genesis. The Bible’s protagonist here is Lot, Abraham’s nephew. My protagonist is Lot’s youngest daughter, the one who is completely silent in the original text. Her elder sister gets to say one thing, and it is horrifying. I’ve just finished the first draft and, at ten thousand words, it is the longest story I’ve written.

Genesis 19 tells the story of Lot, who lives in the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah on the plains near the Dead Sea. There are too many men in the cities having sex with each other so god decides to destroy the place. Because of Lot’s family connections and because he only has sex with women, god sends a couple of angel men to warn him. Before they have to leave, some horny guys come banging on the door wanting to have sex with the angels. Lot tries to convince them to save their souls by raping his two virgin daughters instead. The guys aren’t interested in women and keeping threatening to bash the door down. Luckily god throws a thunderbolt or something, which sends the horny guys blind and they leave unsatisfied.

Pretty soon, God rains down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot gets out of town just in time, along with his two daughters, but his wife can’t resist looking back to see her home burn and is punished by being transmogrified into a pillar of salt. Lot and the girls end up living in a cave in the middle of nowhere because Lot’s all paranoid that everyone hates him and god’s going to come back and rain down some more burning sulphur.

One day, the elder daughter says to her sister, ‘We’re never going to find husbands living like this. We should get our father drunk and have sex with him so we can carry on his family line.’

That’s the only time any of the three women in the stories speaks. (None of them are ever named.) It must have sounded like a really good idea to the younger daughter because they do have sex with their father and they both conceive sons who go on to father nations that the Israelites hated. The text absolves Lot of any wrong-doing by emphasising that he was so drunk that he knew nothing about what happened. (Which raises some interesting physiological questions.)

I’ve just finished the first draft of his silent daughter’s version of the story. It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my writing life. At ten thousand words it is also the longest story I’ve ever written. I hope to continue delving into Biblical women’s stories and create a collection. The women on my list are: Lilith and Eve, Noah’s daughters-in-law, Sarah and Hagar, and Tamar.

There are a couple of things that I’m acutely aware of with this project. First, I’m writing from within the culture I’m criticising, and would like to avoid the trap of devaluing that culture in the process. I believe my culture can stand up to being criticised and that through criticism and self‑reflection, it can continue becoming one that values all people equally.

The second challenge is that I’m coming at these stories from a position that is profoundly more powerful than that of my protagonists. To ensure the project is meaningful, I desperately want to avoid two things: patronising my deeply oppressed protagonists, thereby further disempowering them; or going in the opposite direction and making them into twenty-first-century-style feminists dropped into ancient settings.

Ten thousand years ago, no culture produced feminists like me and mine. I am exploring how my ancient ancestors might have approached their world, not how I would approach it.

I hope that by imagining what their lives might have been like and putting myself into their places, I will gather up some sort of understanding about how and why women all those centuries ago made their decisions. I hope that I will be able to write these stories to touch people in ways that lead to greater understanding of our world and what we want to make of it.

I will be looking for people to read and critique the stories as I produce them, preferably people who are familiar with Genesis. Please let me know if you would like to help!

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