Yahweh vs. the Teraphim: Jacob's Pagan Wives in Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers and in Anita Diamant's the Red Tent

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Abstract

This essay deals with two retellings of Genesis: Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers and Anita Diamant's The Red Tent. Both authors note the presence of implicit pagan tendencies among the women of Jacob's clan (Gen 31:19; 35:2) and develop this subtext for their respective ideological purposes. Thomas Mann creates a dichotomy between the backwardness of the pagan female realm and the progressive nature of the monotheistically-oriented patriarchs. The path toward modern humanist values comes from the likes of Jacob and Joseph rather than Rachel and Leah in Mann's novel. Anita Diamant, on the other hand, adopts the opposite attitude, namely, that the paganism of Rachel, Leah, as well as other women in Jacob's family, is a humane and natural form of spirituality in contrast to the bloodthirsty Yahwism of Jacob and his sons. The latter point is illustrated by the sacking of Shechem. In order to question the patriarchal stance of the Old Testament Diamant reverses the key values informing the theology of the Bible. Thus, in The Red Tent Jacob's wives venerate the Ashera in particular. The latter constitutes a challenge to the stance of the Deuteronomic History where the cult of the Ashera is viewed as a key reason behind God's decision to let the Babylonians destroy the Southern Kingdom of Judah. And since Mann's novel upholds the patriarchal spirit of the biblical text, Diamant enters into debate with the continuity of female disempowerment which reaches all the way from Genesis to Joseph and his Brothers.

Introduction

In Genesis Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah, along with his concubines Zilpah and Bilhah, are associated with the climax of the Patriarchal Narrative (Gen 12-50). While Abraham plants the seeds of Judaism and Isaac tends to the seedlings, Jacob harvests the spiritual crop by literally making a people to go with the new religion. And this can only take place through Jacob's wives who bear the twelve tribes of Israel, thereby giving monotheism its first congregation. Therefore, the women around Jacob appear as nothing short of epically significant in the national foundation of Yahwism. And yet, how Yahwistic are they? Although the question might seem odd on first glance, one should consider where the matriarchs come from. Rachel and Leah, as well as Zilpah and Bilhah, are presented in the biblical text as having been born and raised in Haran, i.e., not in Palestine but in northern Mesopotamia (Gen: 29). Although Jacob goes there and joins the young women, there is no reason to assume that his consorts' culture suddenly changes--all the more so because Yahweh does not reveal himself to Jacob's wives (the way he does to Jacob) and "educate" them about Yahwism. Why then should we expect Rachel and Leah--or Bilhah and Zilpah for that matter--to abandon their Mesopotamian pantheon, whatever the four women's biological role may be in the forging of the Yahwistic project (cf. S. Teubal: 97 and I. Sheres: 135)?

There are two pericopes in Genesis suggesting that Jacob's entourage has not given up its pagan beliefs. First, Genesis 31:19 tells us that Rachel steals Laban's household gods (teraphim) as Jacob's family prepares to flee from Laban's house. Although we are not given an explicit account of Rachel's motivation for this act of filial disloyalty, the implicit meaning can be interpreted as follows: Rachel wants the escape to succeed and steals the teraphim in order to hinder Laban's ability to pursue Jacob's clan. If that is the case, then Rachel must believe in the potency of the idols who watch over Laban. Presumably she thinks the teraphim might help Laban find the fugitives if the gods were to stay in his possession. Therefore, in Rachel's mind the idols are not dead, and, as S. Teubal argues, "Rachel's [...] carrying off of the teraphim [...] possesses a religious aspect" (52; cf. 98-9).

The second pericope deals with another escape by Jacob and his family, this time--from the neighboring Canaanites sometime after the departure from Laban's house. …