Samson, hero of a famous Bible story with a long afterlife in the literary tradition, is so strong that he can tear apart a lion or defeat an entire army single-handedly. But Delilah, Samson’s lover, undoes him with some effective, sultry whining. Queen Esther is so beautiful that when she approaches the king uninvited, at mortal peril, he acquiesces to her every request. And Yael lures a fearsome General into her tent, lulls him to sleep, and then drives a ten pin through the temple of his unsuspecting head. These are a few examples that support the general rule that in the Bible, the bedroom is the battlefield where men always lose. Beware of fatal women, who can charm you out of all reason.
Many of the prejudices and stereotypes of a society can be traced back to story patterns that repeat in the oldest and most venerated texts of our culture. Origin stories, in particular, explain not only why things are the way they are but why they have to be that way. The Garden of Eden establishes the “Great Chain of Being,” a two-sex system, the nuclear family, and man’s labor and women’s childbearing as consequences of humanity’s desire for forbidden fruit. Represented here is a full organization of reality that has become so familiar that one might imagine it to be inevitable.
It is important to read and analyze foundation stories not so much to take them in (their messages are already inside our heads) as to get them out of our system. In “Bedrooms and Battlefields: Sex, Gender, and Ethnicity in Hebrew Bible” we discuss stories from Creation to the Book of Ruth and commentaries to discover how founding narratives establish the categories that have come to define our humanity. We look at how the Bible’s patterns of representation construct sexual and ethnic identities and make certain ideas about social organization seem natural. Among the patterns that we scrutinize are repeated instances of “barren mothers,” sibling rivalries, and identity masquerade. We discover connotations that attach to such things as laughter, blood, and water. In this course we consider the Bible as a collection of stories that set in motion one trajectory of the Western literary tradition, and we interrogate some of the most basic assumptions of that tradition.
Lori Lefkovitz, Ruderman
Professor of Jewish Studies, Professor of English
Department of English