Rebekah by Orson Scott Card
Reviewed by Jennie Hansen
Orson Scott Card’s highly imaginative series Women of Genesis is into it’s second book with Rebekah, and as with the first book, Sarah, this Genesis woman is not treated too kindly. While Sarah was unseated as the epitome of a woman of faith, Rebekah becomes a shrew and a nag. Card creates more sympathy for Esau and Ishmael than for Jacob and Isaac.
Though an interesting series, written with great dramatic flair, readers should not mistake these accounts of Sarah and Rebekah, or of their husbands, Abraham and Isaac, for doctrinal or true historical accounts of these Biblical figures’ lives. If a reader is looking for something of the covenants between God and Abraham’s people, it won’t be found here. Neither is there anything to show how following God was in any way superior to the worship of the false gods the other nomadic tribes of the period ascribed to. There is something reminiscent in these books of the Broadway musical “Hair” which reduces Jesus to “just a man” and the treatment of these revered Old Testament giants, who in Card’s portrayal, become just another group of too-human, squabbling, covered-with-warts people.
If the reader is looking for a means to enhance his/her study of the Old Testament Women of Genesis might not be a positive choice. This series lacks spiritual depth though it does bring to life the conditions and day-to-day life of the nomadic Middle Eastern people of three thousand years ago. These books cannot be placed in the same category as the carefully researched and doctrinally based historical novels of Gerald Lund and David G. Woolley.
Card’s Women of Genesis is in a category of fiction seeing a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Books in this category include popular romances and historicals such The Red Tent by Anita Diamant which place a Biblical character in a reasonably accurate historical setting, then proceeds to “fill in the gaps” left in the Biblical account by inventing thoughts and actions which plausibly could have led to the brief scriptural accounts given in the Bible. Many readers find something distasteful in an author presuming to place his own thoughts and feelings inside the mind and mouth of persons with the stature of Abraham and Sarah or Rebekah and Isaac. These people, who are much more than characters in a book, deserve the dignity of being viewed through the eyes of parallel characters.
Card clearly states in his preface that his books in this series are loosely based on the Biblical accounts of three great women, and that the stories he has written are largely speculation. A reader would do well to keep this point in mind.
Card’s Rebekah is a strong-willed woman, daughter of Abraham’s nephew, Bethuel. She has had the running of the women’s portion of her father’s camp for most of her life since her father had no wife to assume this role. She has been raised believing her mother dead. Her simple, child-like cousin, Deborah, fifteen years older than herself, and her indulgent, deaf father have raised her to this point. She is close to her brother, Laban, and the two concoct a plan to learn to read so they can communicate with their deaf father.
Rebekah is beautiful and sought as a bride by many powerful men, and it is through her efforts to avoid marriage to one such man, that she discovers her mother is not only alive, but a worshiper of idols who was sent away by her father because of her idolatry. Since scriptural accounts of Rebekah’s background are few in number and reveal very little about her, Card invented a background for her loosely based on the circumstances which might have shaped her life. Card candidly acknowledges that most of the first half of the book is his own invention. I would say this disclaimer should extend to the second half of the book as well.
The scene where Abraham’s servant meets Rebekah at the well is well written and plausible, but readers who take the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac as a triumphant test of faith by both Abraham and Isaac will have trouble, as I did, with Isaac as an angst-ridden, insecure mama’s boy who interpreted this test as a sign that his father loved his older brother Ishamael more than he loved him. It also supposedly fosters resentment in Isaac that his father loves God more than he loves his son.
Rebekah is at odds with her husband and father-in-law from the time her twin sons Jacob and Esau are born. People both in and outside of the Church have been troubled by the story of these two boys since their birth, and it is impossible to assign the blame for the animosity that continues to this day between the descendants of these two brothers to one cause. The biblical account indicates that the two were at war before their birth and even the most casual scholars recognize the formula for resentment and jealousy that existed between the two because Isaac, their father, favored Esau while Rebekah, their mother, preferred Jacob. Brother Card assigns much of the responsibility for this animosity to Abraham by having the old prophet take over the training and rearing of Esau while neglecting and excluding Jacob.
Isaac is portrayed as a weakling, so anxious to have his father’s approval, that he goes along with Abraham’s spoiling of Esau. He also ignores his son, Jacob, because the boy has the misfortune of resembling Isaac, himself, while Esau is more like his own adored older brother Ishmael.
Rebekah, like her mother-in-law Sarah, has been held up to generations of women as a woman of great faith and loyalty. It is somewhat disturbing to discover Card’s Rebekah is stubbornly arrogant, a modern day feminist, and a woman who acts from impulse rather than direction from God.
Card is an intriguing story teller who holds his reader’s attention, providing great entertainment. Though he has written a superb book on writing technique and teaches writing at North Carolina Chapel Hill, he frequently ignores his own advice. In this series he breaks out of point of view and often shifts from first person to third person. His interior dialogue (character thoughts) are not always tied to the immediate scene which causes some distraction. His modern dialogue may be easier to understand, but it serves to make Rebekah sound like a feminist of this time period rather than a woman of her own time. If anyone can break the rules and still make it work; that person is Card. Like Piccaso, he paints his picture with enough flair and excitement that he creates his own unique style and develops his own following.
This series is a cut above Card’s previous forays into writing for the LDS market, but it is obvious he intended it to also appeal to his more worldly following, too. Card fans will enjoy the book, the rest of us probably won’t read book three.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.