lectio difficilior

European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegesis

[ Inhaltsverzeichnis ] [ Contents ] [ Table des matières ]

Hanna Tervanotko

Dear colleagues,

I want to start by thanking the organizers of this session, Susanne Scholz and Hanna Stenström, for inviting me to join. When I, as a scholar who most of the time operates with texts, am invited to broaden my horizon to hermeneutics and methods and to explicitly think about the impact of my work in and for the society at large, it is both inspiring and challenging. I enjoyed reading through the two volumes of Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect and reflecting both on the history and future of the feminist movement as well as my own take on feminism, in their light.


When Susanne and Hanna contacted the panelists, they asked us to elaborate particularly on three different questions and in what follows I will be focusing on those. First, I will elaborate on some of the epistemological, hermeneutical, and methodological accomplishments of the feminist biblical interpretations. Then I will share with you some of my own ideas on the most innovative, creative, and challenging new directions of the field. Thirdly, I will ask how the field of feminist biblical studies intermingles with contemporary forces (such as globalization) when it shapes contemporary politics. Finally, I will assess the relationship of feminist exegetical contributions to the newly emerging digital media environment.


In the first place, it is a scholarly commonplace to start any discussion by defining what we are talking about exactly. So, let me do so. What is feminist interpretation? While reading the two volumes of Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect, my impression was that the volumes allow the contributing authors to suggest their own definitions. However, in the introductory section to Vol. 1, Susanne Scholz writes that the goal of feminist interpretation, and also of the present volume, is to “contribute toward the overall development of feminist biblical studies as an autonomous field and challenge biblical studies to make the work of feminist biblical hermeneutics more central than it currently is….” These words set a clear agenda for the volumes and specify that their goal is to foster and strengthen feminist interpretations. Elsewhere in the same volume, Scholz refers to feminist interpretations as a part of the larger movements for human justice in the world and an initiative to “theorize gender justice in the context of the field of the Hebrew Bible.” This bold statement opens for us even broader avenues. At the normative heart of feminism lies the belief that nobody should be disadvantaged because of their sex. What she implies is we should ask, to what kind of justice do we aspire. What is sufficient justice? Let me stop here for a moment to inquire in more detail about what gender justice is. This inquest is necessary in order to evaluate where we as Biblical scholars and feminist thinkers find our place on the way towards such justice.


The key element in establishing any gender justice is in the recognition of the instrumental role of institutions in providing equal opportunities. Such an approach, which stresses how it is the role of politics to foster equality among people, is often quoted as the capabilities approach. It has been proposed that the goal of governments should be to expand the real freedom to choose the kind of life people, both men and women, value. Capabilities are the means required to achieve this freedom, including rights such as the right to vote, the right to get an education, or the right to own property.[1]  Yet, experience tells us that capabilities are only the most fundamental base for gender justice. Some scholars have insightfully pointed out that creating institutionally equal structures is not real justice when women’s options for converting their resources into capabilities and power are more restricted than those of men because of the unequal state of gender relations, both socially and materially. Gender stereotypes and norms in contemporary societies help maintain this state of affairs. Therefore, even if capabilities themselves are even and just, the outcome of this fact regarding men and women still differs. The uneven treatments men and women encounter because of differences in levels of education, health, leisure, mobility, respect, and bodily integrity etc. results in our system inhibiting females from enjoying their equal capabilities in the same way as males. These observations call for an evaluation gender justice in even more nuanced ways.


Economist and feminist Stephanie Seguino argues that gender justice requires equality of relevant capability sets, equality in constraints on choice, and finally, equality of pay-offs to capability sets. She writes that “men and women should have the same opportunities to valuable doings and beings”. Whatever work is undertaken, pay-offs or rewards should not be influenced by gender. Yet she argues at the same time that justice should not require that men and women should pursue the same avenues in achieving those goals. As gender groups, men and women have the right to be different. Seguino calls this theory, which outlines the relations between the sexes beyond the created capabilities, and “opportunity-equality approach.”[2]


Taking these insights into account, Susanne Scholz statement in the introduction, that feminist interpretation is not only about gender but relates Biblical hermeneutics to wider justice movements, who call for equal opportunities for everyone, makes a lot of sense to me. A feminist who takes the calls for justice seriously, is found on the side of other marginalized groups, such as those discriminated because of race, sexual orientation or physical disability (some of these are indeed described in Vol. 2). As a third wave feminist myself, whose generation is often characterized by lack of specific goals or political inspiration, I appreciate this formulation and think it can open ways for a dialogue and collaboration with various groups working on social questions today. In my view, this approach characterizes the third wave of feminism: It is a movement of micro politics focusing, for instance, on queer theory, gender roles, pornography, rape culture, reproductive rights etc. Its downside may be that it lacks one cohesive goal that would bring all feminists together, but it certainly has the potential to bring people with different political orientations together. I will give some examples for what I mean later in my paper.


I now turn more specifically to the accomplishments of the feminist biblical interpretations presented in Vol. 1 (my question no. 1). The collection offers two different perspectives on the achievements of feminist biblical interpretation. On the one hand, the authors, especially Scholz and Helen Leneman, introduce the readers to the success story of post 1960s-1970s feminism. In these few decades feminists have gone a long way. In terms of numbers, it is clear that many more women have entered in the field. The situation of my generation is very different from the experiences of the “founding mothers" of the discipline (e.g., Phyllis Trible, Esther Fuchs, Carol Meyers, and Katherine Doob Sakenfield) of and the prominent women of the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., Mieke Bal, Athalya Brenner, Claudia Camp, Toni Craven, Danna Fewell and Carole Fontaine). One of my personal highlights of the annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting is the traditional women’s breakfast on Monday morning. Being in a big hall, full of female biblical scholars, literally hundreds of us, who represent all levels of academia, is incredibly empowering. You look around and none questions your belonging to this field. Even more so, it is evident that more and more women serve in executive roles of professional organizations. More and more organisatory bodies of conferences, boards of journals, committees etc. deem it important to have a balanced gender ratio.


Moreover, it is virtually impossible today to graduate from a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament program without having heard about feminist interpretation. In many countries, the students would have at least heard their teachers mentioning feminism (even if in a negative sense!). Finally, women are often no longer entirely alone with their questions. When we talk about feminist interpretation we tend to focus on women, but it is important to acknowledge that there is a growing number of men who are on board with us on this and who are the first to recognize their own privileges. Their presence in our conversations makes it clear that feminism is a justice movement, which does not concern women alone, but everyone.

Vol. 1 offers a rich account of feminist exegetical accomplishments of each book of the Hebrew Bible. The authors demonstrate how at least a partial recovery of ignored stories has taken place. These interpretations aim at establishing a more nuanced image of women in the Biblical traditions. They detect the methods that have been used to marginalize women and by removing them, show how women can now be empowered. The authors ask what role, for instance, race and class have played in all this. Also, many contributors argue that the texts themselves do not have a bias against women, but the point of view of later interpreters of these texts has been influential for negative interpretations of female issues. Meanwhile, Vol. 2, titled “Location”, asks how cultural, geopolitical and societal positions influence our reading of the texts of the Hebrew Bible, and how, taking our varying locations into account we can work towards a more gender-just local reading. I am particularly impressed by the rich variety of contributions that demonstrate that even if the origins of feminist interpretation are often detected in a Western context, today it is truly a worldwide justice movement, which closely engages with contemporary questions relevant for each context. 


Therefore, all in all, epistemologically, methodologically and hermeneutically we have achieved a great deal in a short time. It is very exciting to see that men and women from different cultural contexts pose the same questions. Earlier generations did not automatically have any encounters with feminist ideas. Today gender equality and justice mean different things in different parts of the world and to different groups of people. Despite the lack of cohesion that the feminist movement witnesses, our currently globalized world with its information technology allow us an awareness of the struggles in other parts the world, and participation in them. Thus, we are growingly more aware of the different feminist goals of the different societies in question. Having said this, I will next turn to reflect on some new directions.


The authors of Vol. 1 mention that some texts have been studied more broadly than others. Traditionally, books dedicated to women, e.g., Ruth, Esther, and Judith have received more attention than those that do not directly involve women. Recently, feminist scholars have pointed out how important it is to also look at the other texts, if we think of feminism as a movement of justice, and inquire what the power structures and hierarchies in texts like Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles etc. that hardly mention women are. I’m excited about contributions such as the feminist Wisdom Commentary Series, that takes this challenge seriously. I recently reviewed an excellent commentary on Haggai and Malachi written by Stacy Davis. I was impressed by how Davis could write an entire feminist commentary on texts which do not mention women at all, by focusing on other types of questions about justice (e.g. power structures) that the texts reflect that have crucial impact for feminist issues too.


The articles in Vol. 1 promote the idea of multiple interpretations. The authors clearly demonstrate how readers of biblical texts can by and large decide about what aspect they choose to discuss. The texts themselves offer hermeneutical multiplicity. My colleague from the University of Helsinki, Martti Nissinen often emphasizes the ancient texts as material objects and points out that the ancient texts do not speak or have a voice. Their authors may have had ideas and the present readers have others, but the texts are not agents and they don’t speak and have opinions. This observation could well be the motto of the feminist movement because it highlights the responsibility of the interpreter. The ancient author must have had some ideas, and certainly gendered ones, but the modern readers can only have glimpses of what they were. Meanwhile the ideas of the modern interpreter are different. We can cautiously and responsibly choose which interpretations advance our goals for more just societies.


I myself have mostly written about the roles of women in extra-Biblical, ancient Jewish literary traditions, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. These literary corpora and their research histories have had a profound impact on my feminist thinking. First and foremost, these texts challenge the canonical history. They demonstrate that not only the texts that later became a part of the canon, were significant in antiquity but also other ones. This notion is significant when one realizes that the broader ancient Jewish compositions contain literary traditions of women that offer additional readings to the ones of the Hebrew Bible. They may have been as important and as often-read as those that later acquired canonical status. Women’s history was not fixed in antiquity and it is possible that, like today, authors did not agree on everything. For instance, different versions of the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15 reveal that people had varying opinions on the contents of the song that Miriam uttered after crossing the Sea of Reeds. Was it just the repetition of the Song of Moses, or did her message contain more theological substance as in the version of the song preserved in the Reworked Pentateuchc (4Q365) of Qumran? As the Qumran version otherwise agrees with the MT it seems logical to take it as another version of the Pentateuch tradition. All in all, one thing seems certain: the ancient audience of the literary traditions of Exodus 15 interpreted in different ways.


Let me give you another example from the Exodus tradition. Over the years, I worked with Exodus texts focusing on Miriam and thinking about her as a model for feminist readers. Only recently I have stopped to consider the other women of the text, and especially Pharaoh’s daughter, as a woman with whom one could identify. She is a woman of the ruling class and of wealth, and she adopts the Hebrew child. While Exodus 2 does not go into further detail, one of the earliest interpreters of the story, Philo of Alexandria, explains that Pharaoh’s daughter was barren and desperate to have a child of her own. How many people around us can relate to the question of procreation in that way? I’m thinking about the world-wide booming fertility business and on international adoptions and the whole question of having the right to be a parent. Were the ancient authors aware of such questions? What makes Philo’s interpretation even more interesting is that whereas he is usually known for his noticeable misogynist views, in this case, he presents Pharaoh’s daughter as an independent educated woman, a character stronger than her husband. All in all, it is up to the reader to decide which side adopt: her representing the oppressive class, being only Moses’ facilitator, or as an example of a woman acting on her own?  Which interpretation is the more liberating or can help us move in the direction of justice?


It is not irrelevant who the people analyzing the ancient texts are. I am convinced that those fields of Biblical exegesis which manage to incorporate men and women of different backgrounds stand the best chances to advance, be innovative and create new paradigm-shifting theories. In many ways, the future of several subfields of Biblical studies depends on whether or not they succeed in making themselves not only accessible but also attractive to different scholars. In my view, the field of Qumran studies is a good example of a field where not only men and women, but also different religious backgrounds and denominations, are equally represented. The fact that it is a relatively new field plays a major role in this. It is more difficult for women to enter in those fields of Biblical studies that have been established and occupied by men for long, and that hold firm research traditions than to have a role in newly established areas of Biblical scholarship. Even if women were not members of the original editorial team of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they quickly became members in it and thus the questions posed for the texts that derive from the Dead Sea Scrolls are problems formulated by both men and women. I am optimistic regarding interdisciplinary fields involving new methods, and new material findings etc. because women will find themselves at home in these new fields of research.


I am much less convinced about the future of some other areas of Biblical, because they remain exclusive men’s clubs. We must remember what had been said in the past about gender justice, namely, that it is not necessary for men and women to operate the same avenues. As gender groups, men and women have the right to be different, yet whatever work is undertaken, pay-offs or rewards should not be influenced by gender. Therefore, it is not necessary that women are present in every subfield of Biblical studies.  Yet, when we look at those subfields where women are still not full-players, some critical reflection is necessary: are women not actively involved in these areas because they do not want to be, or because their presence is still somehow hindered? If the latter, I am sad that not all colleagues have recognized the significance of inclusiveness especially in terms of reaching for the highest academic standards and I am not sure whether such short-sightedness can be fixed from outside.


Let me then turn to ponder some contemporary questions of feminist interpretation more closely. In this talk, I locate myself in present day Europe, which for me is between Finland, my native country, and Belgium, where I currently live. The past year has in many ways been very turbulent where European internal politics are concerned, and one of the hottest topics touches on the newcomers to our continent. From last fall millions of refugees have arrived in Europe and many are here to stay. As many of us have experienced personally, and other witnessed more indirectly, the welcome has been mixed. Whereas many individual Europeans have been ready to welcome the strangers, thinking back to our own turbulent history, others’ response has been less inviting. Racism and prejudice have become daily news and sadly, the level of hatred has not been only reflected in words, but also in violent actions.


All this has also had a clear gendered bearing. Feminists have pointed out the gendered language used in this discourse. Populist politicians express their willingness to help women and children, but not single men. It has become commonplace to judge men looking for asylum as traitors, who should have remained in their home countries to help the weak and protect their families. The underlying message here is a violent one; they should have remained in their home to fight. Men should choose an honorable death over a possible future in another country.


Moreover, in the new home countries, many people deem the arriving male refugees a threat for the local female populations. A popular opinion is that refugee men will take advantage of the liberated western women who naively do not understand how to keep a safe distance and protect themselves. Cases of harassment, where an immigrant man approached a local woman are much more widely covered in the news than similar situations where European men are involved. Such biased coverage results in even more negative attitudes, and in some cases to reactions that are not in proportion to the possible threat. For instance, in Finland some Finnish men have been so concerned about this situation that in many towns they have formed gangs that walk the streets to protect the female population. This type of action is very peculiar. It seems that the threat of foreign men taking advantage of white women is equal to the economic burden, which the accommodation of refugees lays on our society. Women’s bodies are being used as instruments in intolerant politics.


Feminist interpretations have much to offer to reflect this situation. One can, for example, think about biblical marriage legislation. The laws themselves are written from the perspective of men, and even if they favor marriages between kin, a man can ultimately choose whom he wants. In a situation of a war, Deuteronomy allows marrying a beautiful captive woman, given that she is willing to follow a man’s rituals. Moreover, various narratives present exemplary men marrying foreign women: Moses weds Zipporah, Joseph Asenath, and David Batsheba.  Meanwhile, women do not marry whom they want. Their mating is ultimately a decision of their kinsmen. In light of the rhetoric used to talk about the refugees, I am compelled to ask, to what extent does this worldview still hold, or in other words, do some men feel that even in modern western societies they have some right and privilege to express their opinion on women’s choices? At least on the level of accepted populistic rhetoric, women are not as free as men.


Even more so, the texts that Phyllis Tribe classified as “texts of terror” provide an additional point of friction. Tragically, in the Bible, foreign men do not pose a threat to women in as disgusting ways as their closest kin do. Jephtah sacrifices his daughter for a military victory, Absalom rapes his sister Tamar and then throws her out of his house, and the Levite generously offers his concubine for a gang rape. Similarly, in our own contexts, the most obvious threats do not come from foreign “conquistadors,” but from our own settings. Going back to my previous example about the new self-appointed gangs who aim at protecting women, it has been shown that many of these men are themselves convicted felons for domestic violence. Therefore, the idea that these same men who violate women in their private lives are the first to “protect” them against the foreigners, draws us very far from the concept of justice that is in line with equal opportunities between men and women.


Finally, I was asked to elaborate on the impact that digital media has had on feminist interpretation. Above, I acknowledged how digital media has a positive impact in the field by facilitating correspondence between colleagues of different regions. Digital media decreases distances and makes networking accessible for everyone. Because of digital media, we can all learn from each other more easily. Moreover, I’m sure that digital media increases women’s opportunities to publish their work and to make it reachable to a wider audience. In sum, the digital media certainly offers potential for equal opportunities.


However, one cannot look at the positive outcomes without a critical eye. I have discussed this issue with quite a few colleagues and they all agree that women are not as free in this area as men. This is a point that specifies the difference between equal capabilities and equal opportunities. Female scholars have the same material possibilities to use digital media as our male colleagues. We use the same equipment, publish mostly in the same journals, and use the same methods. If we publish anonymously, it is virtually impossible to tell whether the author is a male or female. Nonetheless, when we put our faces and names out, a female scholar becomes much more easily a target of harassment and bullying. In other words, inside academia, inside a building (cf. house culture vs. appearing in public), it is ok for a woman to be present, but if she is outside, blogging and seeking attention for her ideas, it is easily viewed as looking for some kind of other attention as well. A female colleague who blogs said that whenever she posts, she receives photos and invitations to meet of unknown men as a response to her blogs, which by the way, concern strictly professional matters. I do not blog, but nevertheless, my experiences are somewhat similar. People who seemingly randomly contact me via my profile on my university website or my academia.edu profile and who somehow indicate that they do not seek professional exchange, are all men. I can easily conclude that ALL unprofessional contacts I have received throughout the years are from men. By unprofessional I mean that the messages contain tones that I do not take as a part of regular conversations, or they contain nuances that I feel uncomfortable with. For instance, I was once sent an offensive Biblical quotation and the man who sent it to me asked me to tell him “as a feminist” what that passage tells about the role God assigned for women. I am really puzzled by such messages. I cannot really tell why they have looked me (or any other female colleague) out, and what they think they might gain from this exchange. Do they want to upset me? Do they imagine that contact could lead to some other type of exchange? I simply do not know and to protect myself from further harassment, I do ask them.


In sum, I want to compliment the editors and authors of Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect for putting together this beautiful collection of articles. They demonstrate the long way that the feminist Biblical scholars have already made. While we can be proud of past scholarship, it is in the nature of feminist scholarship, as a movement towards justice, to aim at taking another step forward. Critical feminist reflection provides useful and powerful tools for analysis of our contemporary world, and in my view, it has a lot to offer for our complex societies including reflections on gender relationships, concepts of masculinity, and race.


[1] Stephanie Seguino, “Toward Gender Justice: Confronting Stratification and Unequal Power.” The article can be found online under https://www.uvm.edu/~sseguino/pdf/justice.pdf (last accessed 12/15/2016).

[2] ibid.

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Hanna Tervanotko, Th.D., Ph.D., is Academy of Finland funded postdoctoral researcher. She works at the Centre of Excellence “Changes in Sacred Texts and Traditions” at the University of Helsinki and at KU Leuven. Her monograph “Denying Her Voice: The Figure of Miriam in Ancient Jewish Literature” was published in 2016.


© Hanna Tervanotko, 2016, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317