A Psychoanalytic Perspective of Women in the Bible

By Klyman, Cassandra M. | Cross Currents, March 2014 | Go to article overview

A Psychoanalytic Perspective of Women in the Bible


Klyman, Cassandra M., Cross Currents


As a little girl the Gospel story of Mary/Martha troubled me and I thought it unfair that the industrious and socially aware Martha, more like myself, was not considered the favorite. Later as an adolescent I left the Church disillusioned that my Catholic parish was so unwilling to do any outreach for the Puerto Ricans immigrants and existing poor Irish who were crowding upper Manhattan's West side--in fact, unwilling even to listen to my complaints and suggestions. Because I was not attending their religious school, my priest literally shut the door in my face. So I felt more drawn to a religion that would allow women a role other than worshipper.

In Judaism I was drawn to the sweep of history and, at least, the domestic role of power I believed women had in the Old Testament. As a convert and later a woman, I appreciated my rabbi telling my fiance: "You will give your wife pleasure every Sabbath."

I was of course naive at twenty-two and did not realize this was a euphemism for the explicit demand to "Be fruitful and multiply" that dominated Jewish women's lives in the Old Testament. At least my ex-religion allowed for and blessed vows of chastity and abstinence! So years later when I was invited to present a chapter book (Rosenblatt 2005) review on Rachel and Leah and was, once again, disturbed by my up-close look, I thought about that other sister pair--Mary and Martha--in the Gospels of Mark (14:3-9), Luke (10:38-42), and John (11; 12:1-9).

Who are these women of the Bible? What do they have in common? How are they different? What do they model and are those models helpful, comforting, or/and inspirational for the young girls of today? Can viewing them through a psychoanalytic lens give us additional insight--recognizing that there are several different lenses in that category to use? Freud, famously asked, "What do women want?" and, stuck in a Victorian mind-set and conceptual psychosexual confines of the oedipal complex and penis envy, was confounded to find a satisfactory answer. Contemporary analysts assume women want much the same as do men--to love, to work, to be generative. They also both need to have had nurturing relationships and good-enough parenting to "mentalize" their developing brains and form meaningful emotional attachments. Their healthy narcissistic needs must be met to keep them "seeking," curious, and resilient with an optimism for mastery, pleasure, and the avoidance of pain.

In both the Old and the New Testament, women, with the exception of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, are presented as psychologically motherless. From the outset, in the Garden of Eden, Eve is deprived of both carnal and moral knowledge, best achieved through good-enough mothering. What can she do alone to fulfill her biological and emotional aims of meeting her sexual desires and experience gratifying motherhood?

She can fulfill her destiny only if she takes matters into her own hands. God, the father, wants to keep his daughter obedient, innocent, and chaste. Companions she can have but not lovers. Eve's curiosity and courageous eating of the apple of the Tree of Knowledge makes her the prototype of the courageous and curious woman, in her own right, and behind every successful man--his mother or wife. Eve initiates Adam into exercising his free will. Free will, defined in modern, neuroscientific terms, is the exercise of or inhibition of veto power over one's impulses. Adam's impulse is to obey his Maker but he eats of the apple then cowardly blames her when confronted by God. And thus they are expelled from the Garden.

Perhaps because of their mutual lack of mothering, the new parents' first offspring do not fare well. Outside the Garden there is a patriarchal world order and Adam just doesn't match up. In fact he is quite a nonentity after that expulsion. And Eve disappears. Despite this, a phallocen-tric world order subsequently prevailed for all the women with the two sets of exceptions: Queen Esther and Deborah the Prophetess are daring heroines and Jezebel and the Queen of Sheba. …

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