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I Don't

A Contrarian History of Marriage

by Susan Squire

Hardcover, 258 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $25.99 |


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A Contrarian History of Marriage
Susan Squire

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Book Summary

In this provocative and ambitious book, Squire unravels the turbulent history and many implications of the institution of marriage. The author delves into the many ways men and women have come together and what the state of their unions has meant for history, society, and politics.

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Excerpt: I Don't

I Don't



Copyright © 2008 Susan Squire
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58234-119-4

Chapter One

Paradise Lost, Just Because He Listened to His Wife

Here's the heart of the matter, the belly of the beast, the big slam-dunk: the first, and until modern times the only, template for marriage in the West. With the consistent backing of church, state, and society, it sets the one-size-fits-all standard of behavior to which husbands and wives must conform (or else), dictates their respective roles, and defines their mutual obligations. It governs the development of Jewish and Christian doctrine as well as secular law. Its impact on marriage and family life has been, to put it mildly, significant. It's the idea that will not die. And it's a marvel of concision, to boot.

One line. Six words. Eight syllables. The book of Genesis, chapter 3, verse 16: Your husband ... shall rule over you. So God commands Eve when he returns to the garden after his seventh-day rest to find her and Adam skulking around, covered in fig leaves and shame. As long as religion holds sway over the West, so will the belief that the Bible is a literal transcription of God's words, and so will the belief that God's commands are final, subject to neither challenge, revision, nor dismissal by humans. So too, then, the belief that when God commands Eve to be ruled by her husband, he commands all wives to be ruled by their husbands-and, by implication, commands all husbands to rule their wives, which will not go unnoticed. And there things stand for umpteen centuries.

The idea of husbands ruling their wives would not be news to most people living in the biblical era. Work on the book of Genesis-a collaboration between several writers-slash-editors plucking themes and variations from a vast oral network of source narratives-is thought to span most of the final millennium BCE (C. 1200-1000 to C. 200 BEE). For contemporary Israelites as well as their pagan neighbors, Genesis 3:16 restates the obvious. Hierarchy is common protocol. Subjects must obey their kings, servants their masters, children their fathers, wives obey their husbands. Nothing else makes sense, for now. People don't possess the leisure, the life span, the social permission, and God knows what else to mess around with horizontal power-sharing arrangements, or even to imagine them. This world order is vertical; it's all about chains of command, and the rough justice that awaits those who break the chain. Break it they do, of course, men and women both-and if they're discreet, they might just get away with it. Otherwise, they'll be pilloried by their communities.

The distance between what is supposed to be and what is can be immense, as these men and women already know from experience. Some husbands don't, won't, or can't rule their wives; some wives don't, won't, or can't obey their husbands, no matter what. And that's the beauty of Genesis 3:16. Cast as a direct order from God himself and delivered with the infinite force of his certitude, the writers transform secular consensus into divine imperative. God-fearing men and women take divine imperatives very seriously indeed-more seriously, perhaps, than secular ones. Considering that God-fearing men and women will be the rule and not the exception until, let's say, the late nineteenth century, this is an excellent move. In addition to social pressure, spouses have another reason-a sacred duty-to play their prescribed roles, something that the religious establishment will pointedly remind them at every opportunity. And if further inducement is needed, there's God himself. His attitude toward humans who fail to take him or his orders seriously will soon become apparent.

This God is unlike all other gods worshipped in the ancient world, and not just because they are plural. He doesn't belong to or even lead a pantheon of immortals, nor does he incarnate some element of nature (heaven, earth, sun, sea) or of human experience (love, war, wine, fertility). He is the pantheon; he incarnates nothing, yet is everything; he is indivisible. He is also, most uniquely, invisible. Awestruck biblical characters testify to their personal encounters with God, who seems to be everywhere at once-atop a mountain, emanating from a shrub, gliding through a garden in the cool of the day. They tremble and swoon when he approaches, they swear that his presence is palpable, terrifyingly so. Yet they cannot see him. In the Israelite conception, God does not, in any material sense, exist. Any suggestion to the contrary, any attempt to anthropomorphize God, to carve or paint or engrave his image as other cultures depict their gods, is anathema. (The mere idea that he would assume human form to wander barefoot through the Galilee as a Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth, preaching to crowds and sharing meals with disciples-much less bleeding upright while nailed to a cross-will be reason enough for the Jews to reject Christianity out of hand.)

If God is sui generis, so must be his creative process. Accordingly, the primal saga that plays out in the first three chapters of the Bible distinguishes itself from the start. Typically, these ancient myths ascribe the birth of heaven and earth, and so forth to the divine performance of a familiar human activity. Both the Babylonian and Assyrian myths, for instance, begin with an act of copulation between god and goddess (solid evidence, surely long after the fact, that men's reproductive role is no mystery). The Egyptian rendering makes it hard not to infer that men there must really be on a roll: The great sun god Atun stands on a precipice, masturbating, and at the climactic moment he aims his semen into the watery depths far below. Who needs to make the beast with two backs when all you need is your hand? But the God of Genesis works in no way that humans can discern or comprehend; the writers don't even try to do either. Creation, like the creator, is inscrutable and abstract, a manifestation of divine intellect. Let's just say that God thinks, and therefore we are.

Although we're not anywhere, yet. Genesis takes its sweet time, twenty-six verses in all, getting to human creation. "In the beginning," as the Bible famously begins, all is nothing, vast and unformed and empty, and darkness shrouds the water (as in other ancient traditions, water is present before heaven or earth or anything else, signaling its primary importance to life), usually rendered in English as "the deep." But there is also, in verse 2, "a wind from God sweeping over the water," for God is already rolling up his metaphorical sleeves. In verse 3 he pounces. "Let there be light," he says, and light there is. He calls it Day, separating it from the darkness he now labels Night; he summons dry land, and dry land appears, which he calls "Earth;" he tells it to produce plants and herbs and fruit-bearing trees, each "containing its seed after its kind," and Earth complies. He summons the sun, "the greater light to dominate the day," and the moon, "the lesser light to dominate the night," and the two lights perform as instructed. Having spent the first four "days," as the Bible reckons, arranging the inanimate universe to his liking (step by step he revels in his work, "sees" that it is "good"), God begins to populate it. He conjures living creatures out of nowhere, it seems, other than his mind, and sets them aloft in the sky or swimming in the sea or crawling across the earth, exuberantly and flawlessly orchestrating their movements. Whatever God says-or thinks, or wills-into existence, there it is, just like that; and whatever he commands is done. With this track record established in chapter 1, the biblical audience has every reason to assume that when God tells Eve, "Your husband ... shall rule over you," in chapter 3, it is, or should be, a fait accompli.

With each life form, God makes a point of differentiating male from female, equipping them all with whatever they need to comply with his directive to "be fertile, and increase" (also rendered, in the more poetic but also more antiquated parsing, "be fruitful, and multiply"). God himself, you may recall, has no body and is therefore neither male nor female. Yet whenever the writers substitute a pronoun for "God" or the alternatives (Yahweh, Elohim, et al.), as writers must sometimes do in reference to major characters, for variety's sake, they invariably use "he"; whenever they substitute a nonspecific noun, they invariably use male-identified ones such as "Lord" or "Father." How can they do otherwise? They're unfurling a novel theology, centered on a novel God, for a society that could not be more conventional at this time and in this place. Under these circumstances, novelty can only go so far. The rule of the biblical God is the rule of the Father writ very large indeed; God is the immortal patriarch all mortal patriarchs serve. Besides, God is omnipotent-and that's as male as it gets. He can't be "she" or, God help us, "Goddess," and as for the linguistic contortions that English translators of the past few decades have willingly performed for the sake of gender neutrality, sacrificing authenticity on the altar of political correctness ... let's not go there. He has to be, and should remain, "he."

On to Day 6, or in literary terms, verse 26, and the long-awaited human moment, which is confusing as hell. For there are in fact two moments, occurring on two different Day 6s, Genesis 1 containing the first; and what happens here corresponds not at all to what happens next. Both accounts, thought to be composed by two different authors working generations apart, make it into the finalized text of Genesis and from there into the biblical canon, to be copied over and over in Greek and Latin and later printed en masse in countless languages. To this day, in the gazillion Hebrew and Christian editions of the Bible available all over the world, both remain in place, with the discrepancy often footnoted and occasionally analyzed at length. But only the story of Adam and Eve, which begins in Genesis 2, becomes a thematic touchstone for the philosophers, theologians, social commentators, artists, and literary lions whose work receives continued public exposure over the centuries, with the effect of cementing it into cultural memory.

The Genesis 1 account, however, leaves a mark as enduring as a snowflake's. It's there in the text, yet effectively out of sight, invisible to the mind's eye. This is the case even after the fifteenth-century convergence of widespread literacy and mass printing ensures the Bible's ubiquity across Christian Europe, and it's still the case as I write. (Try asking ten reasonably well educated people how human creation unfolds in Genesis, and consider it astonishing if more than one of them parries with "which version?") And here's the gist of it: "male and female He created them."

Simultaneous creation: male and female, together, at once. As if God intends them to be equal in stature, a notion so alien to so many people for so long that the collective mind fails to absorb it. Having created male and female in unison, God addresses them in unison, though his initial statement would be fully acceptable to this society-in fact, Jewish tradition regards it as the first of the Torah's 613 commandments: "Be fertile, and increase," he says. He might have chosen the older and more poetic parsing, "be fruitful, and multiply," but either way, this directive is assumed to include marriage. (Biblical scholars have spent thousands of years debating whether it extends to women, but the majority thinks not; men alone are so obliged, once they turn eighteen.) After that perfectly reasonable utterance comes a mindblower: God appears to grant the man and the women, together, joint dominion over the earth. Again he speaks to them in unison. "Fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth."

Master? Rule? Of all the traditionally male-specific words in the English language, of all the sturdy semantic barricades erected to separate the men from the girls, these two tower above the rest. Yet the text implies something extraordinary: Here is God, the patriarch of patriarchs, nimbly breaching those barricades, placing the ruler's scepter between the man and the woman for them to share in their divinely designated roles as co-masters of the universe. None of this is made explicit; all of it is, in context, unthinkable. And thinking about it, perhaps not coincidentally, has never been something that ordinary people do.

Genesis 1 tells the story that no one remembers, but then there's no story here to tell. There's no action, no conflict, no characters to love or hate, zero emotional content, nothing to inspire middling works of art, let alone great ones-in short, nothing to compel remembrance. Once God tells the humans to fill the earth, and soon that's it; he doesn't make rules that can be broken or set limits that can be exceeded. The human event boils down to "male and female He created them": a single statement, a summary of what happens after it happens. Which is probably just as well, because that statement appears to undermine the sexual status quo. Combine a politically untenable message with lack of narrative punch (lack of narrative, period), and no wonder this account induces historical blindness. Without a hook, you can't even hang a Sunday sermon on it-a major issue in the pre-modern era.

From the fall of Rome to the Reformation, daily life operates on a religious rather than a secular schedule (for "religious," read "Christian"); exposure to the Bible is virtually unavoidable. But since illiteracy is widespread among the laity for most of that period, exposure to the Bible is largely aural-and controlled by the Church, through local priests. If people don't hear it, they won't know it's there. You can bet that the average priest won't waste much if any breath on the simultaneous-creation nonsense of Genesis 1. Why bother even mentioning an idea that is not only subversive but has no moral traction, nothing useful to say about-just for starters-the sin of disobedience or the tricky nature of women, when he can skip right over it and go straight to the story that has everything?

What Genesis 1 does in twenty-six leisurely verses, Genesis 2 crunches into six. Having thus summarily dispatched with God's first five days of labor in what amounts to less than two paragraphs, the writers roll out, frame by riveting frame, what is arguably the most influential narrative in Western literature. It starts in verse 5, when God notes the need for a "man to till the soil." He shapes "the dust of the earth" into the form he deems appropriate and blows the "breath of life" into its nostrils. The result, in Hebrew, is "adham," a gender-neutral word meaning "humankind" or "human," which in conventional English translations loses its neutrality to become "man," or in Christian editions, "Adam." (As a rule, the Hebrew Bible uses "man" exclusively.) Since the man has been made expressly to till the soil, God places him in the garden "east of Eden" to do just that. The man will need sustenance, so God causes the ground "to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food," placing in the middle "the tree of knowledge of good and bad" (or as it is sometimes translated, "evil"). This time he limits human access: "Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat," God instructs, "but of the tree of knowledge of good and bad you must not eat ... for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die." What God means isn't that the man will drop dead on the spot, only that he will become mortal.

Having dropped that bomb, God surveys the human environment. The man has food, shelter, a job, and the first of many rules to live by; still, the Omniscient One knows that his work is not yet done. "It is not good for man to be alone," he muses. What will relieve man's solitude? That depends upon the Bible at hand: whether it's aimed at Jews or Christians, where on the spectrum between rigidly orthodox and implacably secular those Jews or Christians fall, what the particular sensibility of the translators and editors involved happens to be, and when the translation is done. The possibilities can range from the "helpmate" of several centuries ago to the profoundly anachronistic, highly current "partner suited to him," and splitting the difference, "a helper as his partner." In my Hebrew Bible, God says this: "I will make a fitting helper for him." It's Groundhog Day, apparently, for now God proceeds to make-again-"all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky." Only this time he forms them as he formed man, "out of the earth," and it takes less than a sentence. Does God really hope to find a "fitting helper" for a human among these wild beasts and flying birds? There's nothing in the text to suggest otherwise.