Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Baker University logo

Quayle: 2016-2017 Exhibit

MORE THAN MATRIARCHS

Women in the Book of Genesis

Introduction

Genesis is a book about beginnings. In Hebrew, the word בואשית ,or bereshīt, can mean more than just in the beginning. It could mean on high, at the head, when he began, or at the start. Regardless, the text is essentially about the people who would help create three of the world’s largest religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This exhibit is about the women of that text. According to tradition, there are four Matriarchs, or mothers of the tribes of Israel. These are Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel. While this label is important to signify the role of these women in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it creates a sense of hierarchy that allows for the exclusion of other Women in the Book of Genesis. Instead, all women in the book of Genesis are important, regardless of their role as mothers. Looking specifically at the women, we see an interesting point of view that might not be seen from a normative perspective.

This exhibit grew out of the work of students in a class with the same name, and most of the cases were planned by them. As a result, many of the cases are from a specific point of view from the students of Baker University.  Special thanks to the students of Baker University that helped assemble this exhibit: Abdullah Alrashed, Brittney Harmon, Anna Hobbs, Jessie Holmes, Emi Kniffen, Caleb Lee, and Caitlyn Lawson.

In addition to the overview provided in each box below, you can use the arrow buttons to view collection items that were part of the exhibit.  If you click on the image or caption title, the image will be enlarged in a new tab with the option to zoom in further.

The Torah Scroll and Lillith

This case features a Torah scroll turned to the book of Genesis.  It contains the first five books of the Bible in Hebrew and would have been written on kosher animal skin.  The scroll itself would have been kept in an ark at the front of a synagogue.  In various Jewish services, pieces of the Torah would be read until the entire Torah is finished every year.

A popular Jewish legend is of Adam’s first wife.  Depicted  is a man and two women. One of the women appears to be in an embrace with the man, while the other woman is set apart. The lone woman may be looking back at the couple (Adam and Eve). She is Lillith, the first wife of Adam who left the Garden of Eden because she refused to submit to him. Later on, Lillith sees Adam and Eve together in the Garden and feels jealous of Eve. The image of the woman looking back suggests a hint of regret felt by Lillith upon her expulsion from the Garden.

Last is one of the Bible translations that directly references Lillith in Isaiah chapter 34, verse 14. The chapter describes YHWH's Day of Judgment, and claims Lillith will return to Israel with her children and make a home there. This verse gives clues to the fact that Lillith was often depicted as the mother of demons, who would steal the babies of Adam, an explanation for infant death.

(Contributed by Anna Hobbs)

Eve

Eve in Hebrew means living one or source of life and Adam means human or clay. As a masculine noun, adam means man or mankind, usually in a collective context as in humankind. This allows the reader to pay special attention to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, through the context that Adam and Eve represented all of humankind and the source of life for the future of the world. The Hexaglot Bible shows the names of Adam and Eve in six different languages. Knowing that Adam and Eve are to shape the future world of humankind, theology has used their story to reinforce normative gender roles. These include women depicted solely as caregivers, mothers, and submissive and men as providers, dominant, and leaders. In the Bibles illustrations show Eve as submissive to Adam, reinforcing this interpretation of distinct gender roles.

(Contributed by Brittney Harmon)

Sarah

Sarah is quite possibly the most important woman in Judaism and is the first woman to receive the title Matriarch. Reading her story and focusing on her life changes the way you view her husband Abraham. In two occasions she is convinced by Abraham to lie to rulers to say that she is his sister (Genesis 12 and 20). In both cases, Abraham gains wealth from the trickery. In the text depicted Sarah is being instructed to say that she is his sister. Abraham feared that she was too beautiful, and as a result this image emphasizes her beauty by making him much older than her, although they are near the same age. The other text depicts the angels of the Lord, who will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, meeting with Abraham. In this story Sarah overhears that she will give birth to a son even though she is so old. Considering that she has been barren her entire life, she laughs when she hears this. As a result, her son is named Isaac, which is Hebrew for she laughs. After Abraham is instructed to sacrifice this son, we never hear from her again

(Contributed by Caleb Lee)

Hagar/Hajar

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. The story is almost the same in both holy books. The characters have the same names and the same relationships to each other. In both books, Sarah and Abraham are married, Hagar is Sarah’s servant, and Ishmael is Abraham’s first child. This case features a Qur’an in Arabic and a Qur’an in English. Both are turned to Surah 2:136, that explains that Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael are prophets in Islam. Muslims believe that the oldest son Ishmael deserved the blessing and that Hagar and Ishmael settled near the holiest shrine, the Kaba, where a place was built for them by Abraham. The Bible depicts the scene where Sarah casts out Hagar and Ishmael from their home, in order to keep the blessing for Isaac. 

(Contributed by Abdullah Alrashed)

Rebekah

Rebekah, perhaps best known for being the “trickster” of Genesis, was a woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it. This determination began during Rebekah’s second mention in the Bible, Genesis 24. Rebekah overheard Abraham’s servant describing the type of wife he was told to find for Isaac, and set out to be that woman. The text shows Rebekah veiling herself after the servant takes her to meet Isaac. The images  show Rebekah helping her favorite son Jacob trick his father Isaac in order to obtain the blessing meant for the older son Esau. This action is what scholars often point to when they give her the label “trickster.”

(Contributed by Emi Kniffen)

Leah and Rachel

Leah and Rachel were the two wives of Jacob, the son Isaac. There was a sibling rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Rachel was who Jacob originally wanted to marry however he ended up being married to Leah first. Rachel was described as beautiful in the Bible which was what attracted Jacob to her. This was how the sibling rivalry began. The text shows the two sisters together. Tradition usually upholds Rachel as the most loved and more important sister, which is why the text depicts both sisters, but only mentions Jacob meeting Rachel. Leah wanted Jacob’s affection and Rachel struggled to bare any children. Leah ended up having six of Jacob’s children, eight if you count the children that she had through surrogacy from Zilpah. Rachel only had two, four if you the kids that she had through surrogacy from Bilhah. In one of the more interesting scenes depicted, Rachel steals her father’s idols and takes them with her. In response, he hunts the family down to retrieve them, but cannot find them because Rachel is sitting on the idols. Rachel was buried on the side of the road in what is now Bethlehem. Leah was buried in a tomb next to the other major matriarchs.

(Contributed by Caitlyn Lawson)

Bilhah and Zilpah

Bilhah and Zilpah were the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah who also acted as mothers to the tribes of Israel.  However, they somehow get excluded from the list of matriarchs and from many discussions of Genesis altogether.  When reading the text in Hebrew, it is hard to discern when the two are described as servants, handmaidens, or as secondary wives.

The King James Bible depicts the family tree of Jacob and shows how complicated the tribe of Israel is.  Notice that Bilhah and Zilpah are connected to the tree but have a different status according to the shapes surrounding their names. The image depicts two different scenes with Bilhah and Zilpah present and connected to Leah and Rachel.  The top scene shows the famous mandrake episode of Genesis 30, where Rachel trades a night with Jacob for mandrake root, which supposedly increases fertility. Bilhah and Zilpah are in the left of the scene.  In the image below, the entire family is traveling with Jacob.

Dinah

Dinah is the only daughter of Jacob that whose name we know.  In Genesis 34, the family settles outside of the city of Shechem.  The prince of the city sees Dinah, “longs” for her, and forces himself on her.  Without a word for rape in Hebrew, many scholars and theologians have debated whether or not it was truly rape.  However, it is pretty obvious when reading the text. This case has a Bible turned to Genesis 34. 

In response to the “defiling” of their sister, some of her brothers devise a plot to take revenge.  To marry Dinah, the prince agrees that all men of Shechem should be circumcised.  While they were recovering from the surgery, Simeon and Levi killed all the men of the city and captured all their women and children as slaves. The text on the right depicts the murder and pillaging done by the two brothers.  As a result of their actions, the tribes of Levi and Simeon are not allowed to inherit land in Israel.

(Contributed by Jessie Holmes)

Tamar

No one can quite explain why Tamar’s story is found in the middle of a story about Joseph.  Joseph’s story begins in Genesis 37 and then continues in Genesis 39, but Tamar’s story is between in Genesis 38 with nothing to do with Joseph.  After her husband and brother in-law are killed, she has no one to give her an heir.  As a result, she convinces their father, Judah, into sleeping with her.

To do this she has to dress in a disguise and take something he owns in order to ensure that her child will receive inheritance.  When she veils herself, he thinks she is a prostitute, even though prostitutes were not allowed to veil in this time period.  The picture depicts a veiled Tamar.  The text shows the entire story with her encounter with Judah on the bottom; her revealing that she has his ring and staff at the top right and the birth of her sons below.

 

Mrs. Potiphar

The Joseph story is one of the most popular in all of Genesis, even inspiring a Broadway play.  When Joseph is sold into slavery, his master is an official of the Pharaoh’s court in Egypt named Potiphar.  Although Potiphar is described as a eunuch, he has a wife that attempts to seduce Joseph when he is away. 

According to Islamic tradition, she literally cannot help herself because Joseph is so beautiful; however, if Potiphar was truly a eunuch, she might want to sleep with Joseph because she cannot have children with her husband.  One picture is the famous scene where she attempts to pull him in bed, and while he flees she takes his clothes.  The other pictures shows her presenting his clothes to Potiphar and accusing him of rape, which will cause him to be placed in jail.

Seldom Heard Women

Lady Wisdom

Genesis 1:2 states “The Spirit of God hovered over the waters.” The word ruah, or spirit in  Hebrew, is a feminine word that is interpreted by some theologians as the Spirit of God being a woman. In many cases artists have rendered this figure as female, the most famous being the woman next to God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Some believe that this figure is also the wisdom figure mentioned in Proverbs called Lady Wisdom. Lady Wisdom is described as either an anthropomorphic metaphor for the concept of wisdom or a goddess in her own right that some Israelites worshipped, regardless of their stance on monotheism.

 

Mrs. Lot

As one of the most famous stories from the book of Genesis, the interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah has been highly contested. Without any explanation of why the “city cried out,” scholars have debated why it was destroyed by God. Genesis 19 states that while the cities were being destroyed Lot, the nephew of Abraham, and his family were escaping. In the process, Mrs. Lot looked back at the destruction. For this, she was turned into a pillar of salt. Why did she look back? Was she even told not to? Many artists and poets have attempted to explain that she was leaving her world behind and did not  understand why. Some scholars say that this is simply an etiological narrative for why the Dead Sea is salty.

 

The Daughters of Lot

After the destruction of their city and the death of their mother, the daughters of Lot dwelt with him in a cave away from civilization. The most common interpretation is that Lot’s daughters feared the world had ended and they needed to repopulate it. Thus, they got their father drunk and slept with him. Their sons are then named Moab and Ben-ammi. Based on the text (Genesis 19:37-38), the story is an etymological explanation of the origins of the Moabite and Ammonite peoples, both of which are traditional enemies of the Israelite tribes.

 

Mrs. Noah

Without a speaking role in the text, Mrs. Noah is one of the most interesting figures outside of the Bible, with many texts written about her story and the flood story (Genesis 6-9). In the text, we are told that Mrs. Noah exists, but we are not told anything else about her. In the non-canonical, or pseudepigraphal, book of Jubilees, Mrs. Noah receives the name Emzara. In many medieval mystery plays, she has speaking roles, sometimes a larger one than the other characters, and is a comedic character. In one “Chester Mystery Play,” everyone is ready to leave but she stands firm until her sons are forced to carry her kicking and screaming onto the ark.

 

Asenath

Genesis 41 states that Asenath marries Joseph in Egypt, but other than the birth of her children, Asenath is no longer mentioned in the text.  Considering she is the daughter of an Egyptian priest, many of the early readers of the text were uncomfortable with Joseph being married to a polytheist. As a result, the apocryphal, or non-canonical, text“Joseph and Asenath” was written to explain that she converted to the religion of Joseph. This text declares that honey bees come to sting her lips to remove the sin, then her lips are purified with honey and wax from the bees.

 

Further Reading