This was an essay for a comparative literature class taught by a sociology professor. It is a discussion of the sociological mandate described in Genesis for each gender. While I don't necessarily agree with these mandates, I identify them as existing in the text and provide examples. Enjoy!
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a society “as an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” In the Old Testament, then, God’s constant contact with the “chosen people” makes the deity an integral part of Hebrew society. As the first book of the Pentateuch, Genesis is the work most responsible for establishing the role of God, and God’s relationship with both genders. Throughout Genesis, God is an assigner of tasks and a maker of covenants; the roles of men and women in society are defined through the covenants God makes with them. In the text, God’s covenants with women task them with care and control of immediate family, while the covenants with men are more like bargains for the growth and prosperity of nations.
In Genesis, God’s choices clearly define the scope of mankind’s destiny and the shape of their future. Through a handful of chosen agents, He frequently acts to change the course of human events. He works to further his “chosen society” as described in Genesis through asking His agents to make sacrifices and difficult choices: Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob is betrayed by his brothers and imprisoned in Egypt, Lot and his wife are told to flee their home and never look back. Through these covenants, and the different sacrifices he asks of women and men, God defines roles for specific men and women as well for the genders in general. God begins this process of creating gender-specific roles in society as soon as mankind becomes self-aware.
“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing ;/ in pain you shall bring forth children, / yet your desire shall be for your husband, / and he shall rule over you.’ And to the man he said … ‘by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread / until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, / and to dust you shall return’”(Gen. 3:16 – 3:19).
Immediately, the reader sees God declaring the beginnings of a social structure. The mandate of women is limited exclusively to bearing children, and the mandate of men is similarly bound to providing food for himself and his family. Throughout the rest of Genesis, God adheres to the departmentalized structure of his new society: family for women, nation and wealth for men.
While women are confined to the family unit, their role as the representation of the Divine through reproduction grants them control over the family to the exclusion of the man’s say in procreation. When God speaks to Abraham (then called Abram) about his offspring, the focus is not on his son or immediate heir so much as it is on the “great nation” that is made of his line. Abraham worries about his wife remaining childless; the continuity of his line is clearly important to him through the dialogue he has with God (“But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’”(Gen. 15:2-3), but he does nothing about it. If he has the power to take another wife, he would do so; however, procreation is the charge of women, and so he cannot do anything until Sarai makes a decision. “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it maybe be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai”(Gen. 16:1-3). Throughout the text, God establishes his relationships with mankind through difficult tasks. Sarai’s task was not to allow, but to ask Abram to sleep with her slave and sire an heir – a situation few wives would envy, and one that is repeated later in the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. While men may “rule over” women in society as God defines it in Genesis, the example of Sarai makes it plain that the feminine aspect of the family unit is the one with control over heirs and progeny.
The women in Genesis are, as God promised to Eve, concerned chiefly with childbearing. No example springs to mind more swiftly than the competition of Rachel and Leah in bearing sons to Jacob. “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’”(Gen. 30:1-2) Again, men are clearly well removed from the decisions of who will bear children – in fact, it is Rachel who uses the imperative pertaining to her heirs – but the main importance of this statement is that Rachel is so desperate to bear children and fulfill her role in the family that she makes a statement so extreme as to threaten her own death.
Just as women are preoccupied with procreation, men in Genesis seem destined to be relentless in their pursuit of wealth, not for themselves but for their heirs. God’s words to Noah, “’Be fruitful and multiply on the earth’”(Gen. 8:18), form the first command for men to oversee the process of nation-building. From then on, the accumulation of wealth and the survival of heirs become the preoccupations of men. Women play a role in this, too, as it is Abram’s declaration of Sarai as his sister and not his wife which earns him his wealth while he is in Egypt. “When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh … and for her sake (Pharaoh) dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels”(Gen. 12:14-16). Pharaoh taking Sarah as his wife also illustrates the sanctity of marriage, a universal constant among every people the Hebrew nation encounters; Pharaoh’s house is plagued until he relinquishes Sarah to Abraham. Afterward, Abram is the one who deals with the heads of other families or nations; he negotiates with Lot, and with Ephron for Sarah’s (Sarai’s) burial ground. Just as God acts through women for matters of family and kinship, He makes covenants with men concerning nations. His conversations with Noah, his testing of Abraham through the offer of Isaac as sacrifice, and all the commands he gives to Abraham’s descendants throughout Genesis are ample evidence defining the role of men in God’s society.
Just as the word “genesis” itself means origin or creation, the book of Genesis is not only an account of the creation of Earth and all its inhabitants, but also the establishment of human society. That society, at least in the text, includes God through his repeated interaction with and influence upon the descendants of Adam. Indeed, God shapes human society in Genesis through the commands and tests he gives to “His chosen people.” These tests and covenants define very specific roles for men and women. Through the examples of Abraham, Jacob, Lot, Noah, and the numerous other male figures in Genesis, the reader sees a male role in society as the protector, provider, and nation-builder. Through Sarah, Leah, Rachel, and the other prominent women of the text, the female position in society is one of care and control over the family unit and the necessity of procreation. Genesis is the story of how interaction between men, women, and their deity formed the earliest foundation of modern Western society – and the roles those three figures play within that society.