Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on the Women of Genesis

By Marion Ann Taylor; Heather E. Weir | Go to book overview

Conclusion

Nineteenth-century women authors using several literary genres retold and interpreted the story of Leah and Rachel for readers of various ages and religious and social locations. They dealt with the numerous interpretive challenges posed by the Genesis story with considerable confidence, drawing on the expertise of male commentators and historians, on their own experiences as readers and writers of various types of literature, and perhaps most importantly, on their experiences as women. They empathized with the many deep personal, marital, maternal, and spiritual struggles of Leah and Rachel (rivalry and jealousy between sisters, barrenness, a loveless marriage, unanswered prayer, sexual improprieties in families, wayward husbands and children, and risks of childbirth). At the same time, the differences in ethics, customs, standards of behavior, and even religious practices, made them aware that they needed to use a number of different reading strategies to bridge the gap between the world of the text and the world of the reader. Cornwallis was not alone when she wrote: "In perusing the present chapter we must keep in view the times of which it treats, and the customs of the country."33

The key issue that women authors agonized over was polygamy. Most women writers denounced the evils of polygamy. However, some authors, like Stowe, used developmental language to excuse the multiple marriages of Jacob, while others noted the differences in customs, and ignorance of God's plan for marriage. Sometimes the practice of polygamy was described as "heathen." Some authors used the difficulties of Jacob's polygamous marriages as a reason to discuss the virtues of monogamous Christian marriage.

A second issue relating to differences between the world of the text and the world of the women writers involved the issue of moral and religious values. Authors were especially troubled by the use of deception and its consequences. While women authors identified with the theme of deception that continued on from the story of Leah and Rachel's aunt Rebekah, they judged the act of deception harshly. They stressed its consequences and wrestled with the way God seemed to work through human sin to bring about his will. Similarly, they regarded Rachel's demand for children from her husband as improper and thoughtless, and wondered whether Rachel's early death may have been precipitated by this demand. Despite Rachel's questionable behaviour, many authors thought she must have had some redeeming qualities

33 Cornwallis, Observations, 73.

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