Review of Schneider, Mothers of Promise

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Schneider, Tammi J., Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). Pp. 235, Paperback, US$21.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-2949-3.

Schneider's study explores the role and function of women in the Book of Genesis, viewing them as characters in their own right and not merely as characters who are a “part of someone else's story” (p. 10). Applying a new methodology of “verbing the character” (described below), she concludes the main role and function of women in Genesis “concerns women's capacity to bear children” (p. 217); more, that it is women who are determiners of who inherits the divine promise and Schneider explores how that determination arises. In this way, women's role as mothers in Genesis, more than their role as wives, is crucial in a way that is not so in other biblical books (p. 217).

Because the narrative intertwines women with other characters, Schneider devises a means to isolate and examine the actions of the women and to explore how the women are defined. This method, “verbing the character,” considers each female character “who is the singular subject of at least one verb” (p. 11). Applying this method, Schneider methodically explores each of these women's narratives through four perspectives. First, she explores the descriptions given to each woman, considering not only adjectives applied to them, but nouns that may define the women (for instance, in kinship categories). Second, she considers the women as subjects of verbs and third, as objects of verbs, relying upon the structures of Hebrew grammar to provide these distinctions, which may not always be strictly apparent in translation (p. 12). Fourth, Schneider considers the women in their relationships. For this she draws upon the interactions described in Genesis itself, rather than upon assumed norms applied to such ancient relationships (p. 37).

She applies her methodology to her own translation of the MT represented in BHS, but using the versification of the English text; this certainly makes her work accessible to Hebrew non-specialists. One stated goal in her translation is to provide “what the words mean or could mean” (p. 12), and this is particularly apparent when Schneider explores terms used to describe the women. For instance, sketching Leah's relationship to Jacob includes a discussion of the possible meanings of the verb שׂנא (p. 66), and extensive discussion is given to the nouns אשׂה as well as שׁפחה, and אמה as Hagar's relationships to Sarah and Abraham are explored.

Her findings lead her to posit heuristic categories into which the women are grouped and by which the book is structured into four sections; each section contains chapters devoted to one woman: “Matriarchs” (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel), “Mothers of Potential Heirs” (that is, slaves, concubines, daughters, and daughters-in-law—Hagar, Esau's Wives, Zilpah, Bilhah, Dinah, Mrs. Judah, Tamar, and Asenath), “Mothers Who Predate the Promise” (Eve, Adah and Zillah, Milcah, Mrs. Lot, and Lot's daughters), and “Women Who Do Not Bear” (The Woman in the Garden, Deborah, and Mrs. Potiphar). A summary chapter for each category moves beyond examination of individual women to consider common characteristics, actions, or relationships that assist to define the category. Of overarching importance to the book's thesis is the summary of the matriarchs which concludes that the defining characteristic of matriarchs is “they are picked by the Deity to bear children who inherit the Deity's promise to the men” (p. 99; cf. p.16). Each subsequent summary chapter then compares women in each category with others in that category as well as with the commonalities discovered in the matriarch's narratives.

While Schneider groups the women into these categories, she acknowledges that this approach is only for heuristic purposes to illustrate her thesis. She raises two questions that challenge the categories. First, matriarchs are grouped together although the text nowhere does so. Such a grouping she considers viable as these women play a role different than other women in the text. Further, while four matriarchs are listed as per traditional formulations (p. 12), she does not consider Rachel a matriarch and, as she works through the findings of “verbing the character” for Leah and Rachel (chs. 3, 4), she builds a strong case for this assertion. Rachel is portrayed negatively: she does not honour the Israelite Deity, her marriage is prohibited by levitical law, and her status of non-primary wife may preclude her children inheriting the promise. In the end, her reading may not disqualify Rachel as a matriarch, but may only validly undercut sweeping traditional considerations of her as the “pretty and loved wife” (p. 79) against whom Leah's character is an unglamorous interloper, barely worth consideration on her own (p. 63).

The second consideration Schneider raises that demonstrates the heuristic nature of her categories is that she does not consider all of Jacob's children to be inheritors of the promise. Thus, if Schneider's reading of Rachel is upheld, her children would not be considered heirs of the promise; given the sad history of the northern kingdom, Schneider thinks this likely (p. 94). But, does a sad history prove who has inherited the promise? Or, how might this conclusion comport with subsequent historiography which presents the northern kingdom as part of “all Israel” and thus an inheritor to the promise? Further, Bildad and Zilpah (as concubines) are categorized as mothers of potential heirs who do not inherit. Placing Bildad and Zilpah in this category enables more direct comparison to one another and to the similar character of Hagar. These comparisons raise the question of what exactly might differentiate Bildad and Zilpah from the matriarchs, one another, and from Hagar, and how the inheritance legitimacy of their children could be affected by these differences. Her method of “verbing” characters enables her to consider elements such as status and ethnicity as contributory to the mother's ability to bear legitimate heirs. Schneider ultimately concludes that the ability of children of different mothers to inherit the promise is illuminated by her study but cannot definitively be determined by her study. She leaves this question open for further exploration (p. 218).

A final element of her categorization should be addressed, and that is the differentiation between the woman in the garden and Eve. Each is placed in different categories, with Eve's narrative beginning when she is named in Gen 3:20. By so doing, Schneider highlights the child-bearing role of Eve and demonstrates that in her relationships and actions, her role and function is similar to many of the other women in Genesis (including the matriarchs). Schneider's treatment of the woman in the garden relies heavily upon feminist studies and she argues that the original creation was a male/female entity later separated out (p. 197-98); she then questions how this woman in the garden relates to Eve (if at all). However one might critique feminist readings of the creation of male and female and the identity of the woman in the garden, such critique does not materially affect Schneider's findings regarding the role and function of Eve and the woman in the garden. This is due to the fact that Schneider does not insist on this distinction, but is able to pose dual conclusions, that is, she can discuss how the narrative would present the woman if she is indeed Eve or if she is not (pp. 200, 203, 205, 217). What is pertinent to Schneider's study is that while she appears to support the separation of Eve and the woman in the garden, her stated purpose for doing so is methodological. The separation is for the heuristic purpose of exploring their very different roles. By so doing, Schneider enables a reading of Eve that sees more than the usual overriding negative evaluations based on the actions of the woman in the garden. Eve is more than these actions and Schneider's methodology urges such consideration.

Each chapter, engaging the exploration of one woman's narrative, proceeds through the four perspectives: descriptions, subject of verbs, object of verbs, relationships. The first and last perspectives read the woman's narrative more selectively by focusing on those places where descriptors are included or relationships are apparent. The second and third perspectives are engaged by a close reading of the narrative, once for each perspective, which often becomes repetitious. This repetition not only occurs within one woman's narrative, but occurs across narratives as the women's lives intersect as subject and object toward one another. This is the greatest drawback of the presentation and is one that the author herself has noted as potentially problematic (p. 12), but has attempted to mitigate. While the duplication becomes tedious at times, I would in the end agree with the author that despite the redundancy, it is “useful for emphasizing how a different angle or lens reflects the biblical text more thoroughly” (p. 12).

Occasionally, ancient Near Eastern laws and customs are considered to give possible contexts for the actions of the characters. The unique instance of Rebekah veiling herself is considered by interaction with Middle Assyrian Laws (pp. 53-55). Sarah's actions toward Ishmael and Hagar are illuminated by inheritance laws from Lipit-Ishtar and Hammurabi's Code (pp. 34-35). In each instance, the references are in service of exploring the reasons for the women's actions, which actions affect their relationships within the narratives and how the women are described.

Interaction with the vast literature on Genesis is limited due to the work's focus on women in Genesis and the fact that many commentators do not consider the women to any great degree (p. 13). Nevertheless, Schneider includes notes referencing some commentaries and specialized studies. A bibliography enables further research. Indices of biblical references and subjects complete the bibliographic material.

Schneider's concluding chapter provides a satisfying final word on a new and helpful study. Beyond reviewing her primary findings, she is able to acknowledge the limitation of her study, noting that her method of “verbing the character” is applied solely to women and should also be applied to the male characters. This will provide a more complete picture of the female characters and will also reveal that the male characters are “more multidimensional than traditional presentations” (p. 219). Certainly, her fine study has demonstrated this multidimensional quality for the women in the narratives of Genesis. Her methodology presents fresh readings of their stories, challenges some traditional understandings of their characters and role, and reveals the key function and role they play in Genesis.

I would recommend this book for undergraduates in upper-level classes, and graduate classes in Genesis, particularly those that undertake narrative and close readings of the biblical text.

Lissa M. Wray Beal, Providence Theological Seminary