lectio difficilior

European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegesis

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Klaus-Peter Adam

“Why have we (had) little to say?” This is a sub-heading of Julie Kelso’s essay on feminist interpretation of Ezra/Nehemiah/Chronicles, in light of the lack of feminist scholarship on these particular biblical writings. My selected reading in the two substantial volumes that Susanne Scholz published and in which Kelso’s essay appeared led to a very different impression: Over the last 40 years Feminist colleagues have said and written substantial things on the Hebrew Bible. So much, that now is the time to reflect on the development and on the intermediate status of the field. This is the aim of Susanne Scholz’ three volume edition,[1] besides providing a guide to readers in this broad area of feminist Biblical exegesis: Volume 1 summarizes exegetical studies on selected books of the Hebrew Bible; volume 2 reflects on the social locations of discourses, volume 3 presents methodologies of scholarship. I will here reflect on selected aspects of the content of the first two volumes and then pose some questions.

 

The first volume includes fourteen articles. After the editor’s introduction, Helen Leneman introduces US protagonists of two generations of feminist biblical scholars since the 1970s, in the wake of Friedan’s 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique”, including interviews with Phyllis Bird, Esther Fuchs, Carol Meyers and Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, and the second wave from the 1980s to 90s, including Athalya Brenner, Mieke Bal, Claudia Camp, Toni Craven, Danna N. Fewell and Carole Fontaine. With regard to the historical movement of feminist biblical studies, I was impressed by the movement’s overall impromptu-character that the volume unveils. Often, the requirements from young female scholars to teach in the area of women’s studies first prompted their in-depth interest in feminist biblical exegesis. For instance, in the case of Carol Meyers, it was fascinating to read how these necessities stimulated an idea of how to connect the biblical exegesis with feminist themes. The remaining 12 articles of the first volume follow the order of the canonical books of the Old Testament from Genesis to Daniel.

I mention four selected aspects and add one general comment.

First, I found the presentation of research on the individual biblical books most convincing when the essays presented the variety of interpretations in summaries in which they referred to readings along typical interpretive lines and adduced examples of exegetical problems that were paradigmatic for a particular book. In these cases the review of scholarship offers a well-organized road map to the non-expert whom the authors lead through well-trodden as well as newly found paths in the jungle of feminist exegetical research. For instance, the study on four selected aspects of feminist exegesis on Genesis offers a powerful example of the way in which this volume may guide the reader: First, Susanne Scholz exhibits trends in the analysis of Gen 2-3, starting with Mary Daly’s provocative 1973 study on the androcentric reception history of the narratives along with its echoes in biblical studies. But she goes far beyond what one would expect when she includes glimpses into what she refers to as “proto-feminist scholarship” on this prominent biblical text, that had fought off misogynist readings, such as, for instance, of the late medieval exegete Christine de Pizan. A second part reviews studies on women in Genesis and a third presents the quest for the goddess, while a fourth looks at literary approaches that focus on the women (p. 33).

 

Second, another randomly chosen example of the collection is the ninth essay in this collection, Carleen Mandolfo’s study on Psalms and Lamentations. Neatly arranged in three parts along Ricoeur’s hermeneutical categories, Mandolfo presents studies on the world behind the text, that is, historical studies of the Psalms, the world in which the text is read today, and, finally, the world in the text, that is, studies that remain within the world of the Psalms or Lamentations. The clear organization of this article demonstrates both the variety in certain areas and the lack of feminist studies in others.

 

Thirdly, the present writer found it helpful when reviewers pointed to perspectives of future research. For instance, to the question of how to break down the disruption of binary gender-oppositions in order to disrupt the binaries upon which patriarchal discourse relies for legitimization of its hegemony (here in the area of the Psalms, in Mandolfo’s article, p. 201). As the reviewers of this collection of essays use a variety of methodologies, their suggestions for future research illustrate the potential of feminist studies in the Bible. Mandolfo, for instance, points out three aspects of individual laments labeling these Psalms as ‘potentially subversive literature’. First, because of their non-linear discourse mode, second, because of their experience-based world view rather than a logo-centric one, thirdly because of the polyphonic nature of the Psalms that resists the normative as well as the hegemonic discourses of theological dogma (p. 202-203). As non-specialist in feminist studies, these reflections of the authors’ own hermeneutical perspectives on a particular text offered relevant guidance.

 

Fourthly, the reviews of the variety of positions in feminist biblical studies offers a fresh perspective when it does not shy away from critical review of feminist research. Consider the debate about the hermeneutics of an “At-first-glance’ism” in Chronicles through Nehemiah. Julie Kelso’s stimulating article suggests that some feminist exegetes in the area her review covers, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, use what she refers to as “at-a-first-glance” hermeneutics. They intentionally revert the impression of an obvious lack of females in the text into its opposite, claiming an abundance of women present.
Karrer Grube writes: “At first glance it seems that female figures and questions of gender difference play next to no role as regards the theme of this book. Hence there is almost no feminist literature on this subject. Only a closer analysis and a questioning that gets below the surface of the text’s intended statement reveal a different picture. The attempt to make ‘the women’ simply disappear from the concept of the book has not been successful. When we uncover the traces of their significance, we, at the same time, obtain a new insight into the book and its problems.” (p. 275; quoted from a study of Karrer Grube, C., Ezra and Nehemiah: The Return of the Others, in: Schottroff, L. et al. (eds.), Feminist Biblical Interpretation. A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature, Grand Rapids, Michigan 2012, p. 192).

As a historian, Kelso criticizes this approach that assumes the absence of women is merely a false judgment of the texts based on a superficial encounter with them. By doing so, exegetes, says Kelso, refer to their attempts as bringing the women “out from the shadows” (Tamara Eskenazi, p. 277). In opposition to Karrer and Eshkenazi, Kelso points out that Ezra/Nehemiah does not mention more than two names of females, besides the reference to a number of anonymous female servants and singers who would not count as official returnees or golah; a reference to some un-named women who helped build the Jerusalem wall and, a prophetess Noadiah mentioned in 6:14 as an opponent of Nehemiah.[2]
Kelso, in a hermeneutical twist, develops a strategy that is the direct opposite of Karrer-Grube’s. Kelso sees the root cause of the misinterpretation in the exegetes’ attempt to read the biblical texts from a faith-perspective which leads to an attempt to “overstate the presence of women in texts that should rather be characterized critically as actively silencing women and the feminine.” (287) Seen through Kelso’s lens of a historian, reading biblical texts in the context of a “saving history/salvation history,” is misleading (287). Instead, the fact that “barely even a handful of women is mentioned is precisely what should interest feminist scholarship.” (287) This fact as such, pace Kelso, is a result of the complex modes of effective silencing at work in the text. More specifically, Kelso reveals two mechanisms of silencing in the biblical text: disavowal and repression. With the psychoanalytic reading mode of Luce Irgaray and Michelle Boulous Walker she assumes “that women are most effectively silenced through their association with maternity, because the maternal body itself as an origin of the masculine subject, is disavowed and oppressed.” (288)

I found Kelso’s point about the silencing of women convincing: I am not sure whether her assumption of silencing women through birth is the only plausible explanation, but for Chronicles and its genealogical approach it is certainly appealing – at least at first glance. But, most of all, I found it refreshing to re-think the reasons and the potential strategies of silencing women rather than trying to repopulate the biblical record with women that are not mentioned explicitly but supposedly existed.

I found myself torn between the two perspectives Kelso presents. On the one hand, I appreciate biblical hermeneutics that read the texts in light of a contemporary discourse among the faithful within a modern discourse on feminism and religion. When reading the biblical text in light of its relevance and its meaning as authoritative sacred scripture, that is, within the world in which the text is read today, exegetes intend to reflect on the biblical text as a meaningful witness of faith. This setting of a discourse that presupposes the relevance of scripture for today is most useful for practical purposes in ministry settings. Yet, at the same time, I highly value Kelso’s call for historical honesty and for her rejection of a hermeneutic of suspicion in favor of hidden female presence.


The second volume takes up the lack of consideration of meta-level questions and of theoretical issues in biblical-feminist scholarship. The negligence among biblical scholars to discuss matters of theory is in sharp contrast to women’s studies and gender studies. The volume opens up the discourse on social location. As useful as I found the first volume, the second may be of even more relevance for anchoring the contribution of feminist biblical exegesis in the more narrow sense within the global discourse of feminist exegesis at large. The book offers a multifaceted global perspective and demonstrates the varieties of feminist scholarship throughout the world. While North American and European voices are still the majority (9 out of 14 articles), it was intriguing to see how current feminist theory presents itself in other parts of the world. For the present writer, in a US-American context, the voices from the global South and East opened windows into different exegetical practices. A good example about the discourses on an entire continent is Mercedes Garcia Bachmann’s contribution on contextual readings by Latin Americans. A number of fundamental insights are helpful for the North American scholar: Rather than considering something as “Latin America” from a perspective 30.000 feet above ground or from outer space, it should be broken down into its various regions and into a complex multitude of discourses held in various cultural and ethnic regions on this continent: “Argentinians do not eat Burritos!” as Garcia-Bachman notes. And, there is much more to learn, from the network of “feminist theologians”, called teologanda launched in Chile, to the Mexican scholar Elsa Tamez’ leadership in the 1980s, to an awareness of gender injustice and an influx of gender theories in the 1990s scholarship. Garcia Bachmann adduces a number of sources, projects and debates and pedagogical efforts on the continent, such as the Roman Catholic Argentinian Teologanda project from 2003 with their manifesto “Mujeres haciendo teologias” “Women doing theologies,” or the journal RIBLA (Rivista de Interpretacion Biblica Latino-Americana).

Another example for a road map through the feminist discourse led on an entire continent is Musa W. Dube’s report from a post-colonial perspective and a gender-theoretical perspective on the ways of reading the bible in light of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Dube points out how, in her context, feminist biblical interpretation is operating in a field in which the cultural-critical and the post-colonial perspectives unveil the synthesis of Christianity with colonialism and with its mechanisms, such as, for instance, the ritual of baptism that for Christians in Africa signifies leaving behind African customs and any specifically African identity – for both women and men, no matter of which skin-color.


I found the authors’ suggestions that outline in which directions feminist biblical studies should move impressive. To my mind, feminist scholarship in biblical studies will be strongest and most convincing when, firstly, it opens itself to methodological diversity and detailed studies, secondly, when it defines its enemies as clearly as possible, be they androcentric thought, economic conservatism or other ideologies. Thirdly, feminist scholarship in bible will be most convincing when it keeps listening to sisters worldwide, for instance, when North America and Europe remain open to voices from the global south and east. Fourthly, with respect to biblical scholarship at large, I assume feminist biblical hermeneutics will be most convincing when it teams up as a joint venture between Old and New Testament scholars.

 

In conclusion, from a practical point of view, for the instructor and the student of biblical studies, Susanne Scholz’ volumes fill an important gap. The tendency to compartmentalize feminist scholarship as a special field or as a special methodology of exegesis in the Hebrew Bible may lead to treating it as an aside-discourse, held apart from “serious” historical-critical exegesis. Now these three fine volumes enable the scholar in mainstream exegesis to more quickly refer to the larger discourses of feminist scholarship within the field and to offer these condensed reviews on four decades of biblical scholarship to the student in exegetical classes.

 

[1] All following page numbers apply to these volumes.

[2] Kelso harshly criticizes Marie Theres Wacker’s, Eskenazi’s and Karrer-Grube’s attempts of populating the worlds of Nehemiah and Ezra with women while actually, they are absent in the texts themselves. Kelso unveils the speculations about more unknown or unmentioned women as the attempt to make the biblical world filled with women: “When an entire essay is dedicated to focusing predominantly on the female figures and characters, those named and unnamed, the impression will always be that the biblical text is indeed replete with women.” (284)


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Klaus-Peter Adam is Associate Professor of Old Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago since 2009. He has worked in the field of Psalms, the Books of Samuel, Kings, on historiography in antiquity, and on western cultural influences on the writings of Ancient Israel and Judah. He currently works on a monograph on biblical law, on the concept of private enmity and hate that underlies biblical law, the Psalms and Proverbs, as well as on the biblical command to overcome hate and enmity through neighborly love. 


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© Klaus-Peter Adam, 2016, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317