Reviews of

The Construction of Gender and Identity in Genesis

In Bloomsbury, Gender Studies, Genesis, HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, Karalina Matskevich, Lindsay Fraughton, T & T Clark on August 6, 2020 at 7:09 am

9780567695512

2020.08.14 | Karalina Matskevich. The Construction of Gender and Identity in Genesis: The Subject and the Other. T&T Clark, 2019. ISBN: 9780567695512.

Review by Lindsay Fraughton, University of British Columbia.

From the Documentary Hypothesis to the construction of The Woman’s Bible, scholarly approaches to the Book of Genesis have shifted alongside academic and social movements. Structuralism, fathered in biblical studies by Claude Lévi-Strauss and furthered by scholars like Mieke Bal and Ellen van Wolde, lost traction in the 21st century (Matskevich 2019, 208). However, in her 2019 publication Construction of Gender and Identity in Genesis: The Subject and the Other, Karalina Matskevich revitalises interdisciplinary structuralist approaches to the book of Genesis, setting the groundwork for future studies of the same nature.

Matskevich’s work is a revised version of her 2013 PhD dissertation, completed at the University of Sheffield under the guidance of J. Cheryl Exum. The author analyses three narrative episodes of the book of Genesis through “the lens of the constitutive relationship between the subject and the other,” as developed in 19th and 20th century philosophy (1-2). Specifically, Matskevich employs Julia Kristeva’s model of the “subject in process,” where the subject itself does not reach a “definitive resolution” and is constantly in flux (2). Through this lens, the work strikes a delicate methodological balance between structuralism and post-structuralism, employing the tools of psychoanalytic-literary criticism, semiotics, and narratology along the way.

Since the construction of the subject/other shifts in each chapter, the work is bound by an inquiry into the social and political assumptions underlying the texts, and how the dominant patriarchal ideology is both upheld and challenged by the alterity of the other (3, 209). To this end, chapters are divided by textual episodes, with chapter 1 focusing on the Eden narrative in Genesis 2.4 to 3.24, chapter 2 on the Abrahamic narrative in Gen 11.27-25.18, and chapter three on the Jacob narrative in Gen 25.19-37.1. Matskevich notes that Gen 37.2 onwards (the Joseph narrative) does not work to construct identity, but rather deals “with the preservation of it” (93) and is therefore not included in her analysis.

Chapter 1, titled “The Subject and Knowledge in Genesis 2-3”, argues that Gen 2-3 is not about human-divine conflict and disobedience, but rather an internal conflict in the character of Yahweh. Matskevich highlights what she calls the leading and shadow plots of Yahweh (44-45) in her analysis of the construction of the woman as other. She posits that man and woman are created as subject and other in a way that mirrors the binary relationship between hā’ādām and the ’adamah (66-67), and that the woman is a leading player in the shadow plot of Yahweh.

The second chapter, “The Subject and the Land in the Abraham Cycle” focuses on the construction of the ethnocentric identity of Israel via the separation of the other, in this case Egypt. Matskevich argues that the “image and identity of Israel, as constructed in the biblical text” (2, note 6) is developed through Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, with Egypt being separated through the expulsion of Lot, Hagar, and Ishmael (125, 133, 137, 147). In a unique take on the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, Matskevich argues that the narrator has no interest in Lot’s integrity (123) and that Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed to purge connections with Egypt from the narrative consciousness, rather than to punish the inhabitants for their transgressions (125).

The final chapter, “The Mothers and the Mother’s Land in the Jacob Narrative” takes a more structural approach to gender and identity than the first two. Matskevich highlights the binary structures present throughout the narrative (154), which leads her to analyse the Subject vs. different others: the Twin (203), and the Double (205). This chapter continues a discussion of matriarchs, this time focusing on Rebekah, Rachael, and Leah, and their roles in the creation of self and other. This chapter highlights how Rachel and Leah, like Sarah, often bear the weight of the patriarchal ideal. Matskevich argues that this patriarchal institution “exploits the women, making them engage in a fight that neither can win and in which their only reward is conformity to the patriarchal stereotype” (184).

The breadth of this volume is both a strength and a limitation. Many new connections are built within each chapter – like the double discourse of Yahweh outlined throughout chapter 1 (especially 77-81), Lot carrying the semantic “weight” of Egypt in chapter 2 (118), and the idea that Reuben may be the father of Joseph and Benjamin in chapter 3 (188-189). On the one hand, these arguments are engaging and deepen the scholarly discourse around the Genesis narratives. On the other, the three individual sections at times feel like parts of a methodologically unified edited volume. Perhaps, considering why the construction of identity and gender changes (or not) between the different sections of Genesis could expand the analysis and more explicitly connect the ideas explored in each chapter. That said, the centrality of women to patriarchal biblical narratives is nonetheless an important topic that should continue to be explored through different methods. Matskevich’s use of the gender and identity of the self/other is innovative; it highlights the importance of female characters and their subjection to the patriarchal agendas of the text.

While Matskevich’s text-internal approach may not fully persuade those who approach biblical texts diachronically, The Construction of Gender and Identity in Genesis posits why different pieces of the book were added or omitted by redactors, and what assumptions drive the narratives on the whole. The volume is a thorough, well-researched project, and achieves its goal of highlighting the inherent contradictions in the creation of the “unified subject” that “seeks to suppress the very difference it relies on for signification” (209). Matskevich has created a work that will facilitate further use of continental philosophy and structuralism to deepen our understanding of biblical texts.

Reviewed by Lindsay Fraughton
University of British Columbia
lindsay.fraughton [at] ubc.ca

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