The Will of the Fathers

Jenny Diski

  • Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of the Biblical Myth by Carol Delaney
    Princeton, 333 pp, £19.95, December 1998, ISBN 0 691 05985 3

To accuse the book of Genesis of being patriarchal is like complaining that cats throw up fur-balls, or dogs sniff each other’s bottoms. It’s not pleasant, but that’s cats and dogs for you. On the other hand, you can choose not to have a cat or dog, whereas, says Carol Delaney, Genesis we’re lumbered with, deep in our psyche and social structure. Therefore we need ‘a new moral vision, a new myth to live by’. (This is to accept that we are helpless victims rather than interpreters of myth, and that our consciousness is entirely conditioned by it, which is a bleak view of humanity’s capacity for analytical thought, and an even bleaker view of the consequences of feminist criticism of patriarchal stories.) However, she continues, ‘I cannot provide such a myth – no one person can do that,’ and so her book is not taken up with offering new gender-free myths to live by, but with a surprised and outraged analysis of the patriarchal assumptions in the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Her surprise is somewhat surprising. When Delaney declares that she has discovered ‘sexist presumptions’ in Luther’s understanding of the Scriptures, adding, ‘Nor does he ask what right Abraham had to involve other people in such a unilateral decision’, and announces that she believes that the story of the binding of Isaac ‘represents the construction, establishment and naturalisation of sex role differences [her italics]’ you can only shake your head and murmur: ‘Well, yes, and the Pope’s a Catholic.’

If God is the Daddy of them all, Abraham is the patriarch of patriarchs, the acknowledged founding father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. After God tried and gave up on the children of Adam and Eve, drowning all but Noah and his family, he narrowed his sights to Abraham, a more manageable single individual of whom he would make a nation. It could be argued that Sarah was a necessary part of the package. She was already married to Abraham, and is claimed by all three religions as their matriarch. But there’s little point in pussy-footing about: the Scriptures – prepare yourselves – do not promote feminism. You can change Yahweh into a mid-gendered s/he, you can point to the odd strong woman – the men-murdering Judith and Jael – you can admire the wiliness of Rebekah in devising the plan for stealing the blessing and birthright for her favourite younger son, but sit down and read the actual text and you soon enough discover that Yahweh can only be male, while the women merely further the ambitions of sons and husbands. Even Eve’s original and splendid disobedience comes to be regarded by the rabbis as useful in providing ammunition against the threat posed by all future women and by the Christian Fathers as the felix culpa that made necessary the passive and virtuous Virgin, whose uterus nurtured the sacrificial remedy to Eve’s faux pas. The relationship between the Scriptures and male domination has been noted before, and it is clear that neither God nor his chosen ones were signatories to the International Convention on Human Rights. That’s a shame. It has made, as Delaney rightly suggests, a difference to how we have gone about living on the planet. But it is not a sufficient explanation for gender discrepancy.

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