lectio difficilior

European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegesis

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Karin Tillberg

For my response in this panel, and to the books, I have chosen to focus on how feminist interpretation of the Hebrew Bible can function as an arena for activism and for fighting for women’s rights, and how this needs to continue as we move forward. Secondly, I will discuss the use of theory within feminist biblical studies. One can say that I approach the books as stepping stones for discussing socio-political dynamics, as Susanne Scholz put it, rather than as a book review. For my title I have integrated the notion of intellectual activism, outlined by Patricia Hill Collins,[1] which she defines as: “…the myriad ways that people place in the power of their ideas in service to social justice (On Intellectual Activism, p. xi). In the book On Intellectual Activism, Collins, as a sociologist who rewrites and redefines many of the questions that had been posed in her field, describes how her seminal work Black feminist thought came about “[the book seeks] to provide an interpretive context for many of the experiences that I encountered as an African American woman” (p. 7).  Similar things can be said of much of the work denoted “feminist interpretations of the Bible”, where the experiences of different women have, to a great extent, informed feminist scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. Issues such as rape, domestic violence, motherhood and economic inequality (as in the case of inheritance) are all mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and have been studied at length by feminist biblical scholars. Today we rarely speak of “women’s experience” as a key aspect of feminism, because as Third Wave feminism has shown, the notion of a shared sisterhood is very complex and complicated and often sees past issues of race, class or sexuality. It is good that “women’s experience” as a sort of united, single entity has been questioned, but at the same time it is problematic that much work being done within gender theory today has cut itself off from reality, in a sense, and is often criticized of being too theoretical. Instead, we find that lived experience and social reality is a much bigger part of works branded postcolonial or queer, also in biblical studies. If we believe the motto of the women’s liberation movement from the 1960’s and 70’s to be true; “the personal is political,” we need to find a way back to linking the work being done in feminist biblical studies to lived experience. This means that we have to keep analyzing texts that oppress as well as those that liberate, since the Bible is still used as a weapon aimed at the Other. Thus, the ethical aspect of biblical interpretation that was the key for many scholars in the 1990s and early 2000s has to remain an integral part of studies concerned with issues of power relations and domination. We also need to be aware of the different social locations where biblical stories are being interpreted, how that affects research on those stories and how different academic ideals from around the world together can improve the study of the Bible.


In the second book in the series “Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect” the focus is on different social locations where the Hebrew Bible is interpreted. It has become apparent to me in the reading of volume 2 that the different reading of the same stories of women in the Hebrew Bible makes it possible for women in different contexts to give meaning and discuss their own situations. This achievement is perhaps most clearly described in the discussion on the situation for women in South Asia (chapter 3), written by Monica Jyotsna Melanchton, and to some extent also in chapter 1 written by Musa Dube, about how women theologians have interpreted the Bible in different parts of Africa. In those chapters it is clear that the struggle for women’s rights has not come as far as we sometimes think, and that the conditions of women in different parts of the world are appalling. Even in Europe today, and in very egalitarian countries such as my home country Sweden, the discussion of old questions such as free abortion has been rekindled and to date we have also never had a woman lead Sweden as prime minister. These issues point to a reality in which women are still struggling, especially when we take other aspects apart from gender into account in a more intersectional manner, such as class, sexuality, race and ethnicity or physical ability. I believe that the study of the Hebrew Bible can be used in the discussion on the condition of women, not just in confessional settings but also in the political debate.

I also believe that feminist activism in academia can be achieved, not only through what scholars choose to write, how they cite and more importantly, who they cite, but also how the reality for women scholars are and what can be done to change it. Furthermore, I believe that academia is an important site for intellectual activism, and that there are still important struggles to be fought. As Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza writes, quoted by Scholz in chapter 6, vol. 2, “feminist biblical scholarship must be informed by a hunger and thirst for social justice” (p. 146). Biblical studies as a field is still, to a great extent, male dominated, as is shown for example in the interesting statistics on SBL and AAR in Scholz’s introduction of volume 1. As noted in there, feminist perspectives are not part of the mainstream curriculum, but still counted as a niche interest. In fact, from my own perspective, and I think you might agree with me, the backlash that affects us in society is also prevalent in academia and in the study of the Hebrew Bible. Feminist perspectives are, to some extent, “outdated” and other theoretical approaches gain more ground instead. I will return to this issue below. At the same time, women are still not equal to men in the academic setting. This problem begins with the “heads”, i.e. there are not as many women as men in the field, not to mention how homogenous the group “scholars” is, and more so when we look past gender.


A major problem is that so-called feminist studies on the Hebrew Bible are not seen as mainstream. Feminist scholars have come up with very important insights into ancient societies as part of their work, as for example Carol Meyers’ work on the family in Discovering Eve[2] or Gale Yee’s findings on the political landscape of the Ancient Near East in her work on the marriage metaphor in Hosea, which is cited by Haddox in chapter 8, vol. 1, p. 182. However, because these works are labelled feminist, they are not as broadly read as other, more “traditional” studies. I am not saying that these works should not be called feminist, I am merely stating a problem that lurks beneath such a label in the field of biblical studies. This can be related to what Pamela Milne, quoted by Scholz in chapter 6 of volume 2, says about the relationship between the women’s movement and biblical studies, where she claims that feminist biblical scholars often apply traditional methods to non-traditional questions.


A third problem relating to the inequality between men and women in biblical studies concerns something that is very clear from my perspective, but which might not be true for other places. I find that issues relating to power, theories and methods dealing with power structures and the role of marginalized groups in the texts is a “fashionable thing” within the humanities, and has been for some time. Unfortunately, to study who is actually being oppressed, or whose voice is being heard, is no longer a major subject for many scholars, but rather their main concern is more theoretical, and therefore more abstract. Furthermore, many male scholars do this type of research, and even though I think it is good that many voices are being heard I find it very problematic that male professors and lecturers, who do not live according to feminist values in their daily life in academia, but rather help to maintain the status quo and perhaps even contribute to the sexism prevalent in their institutions, can focus on questions of power and oppression in their scholarly work. This might sound like a luxury problem for feminist scholars, who are struggling to gain recognition for their research in a more traditional or conservative environment, but it is still an issue, which can be related to what Theresa Hornsby discusses when she talks about the relationship of gender studies to the neo-capitalist society in ch. 6, vol. 2.


However, I do believe that the use of theory and a deeper theoretical foundation for feminist biblical studies is part of the way forward. On p. 8 in the introduction of the first volume, Ester Fuchs is quoted as urging for more theoretical reflections in feminist biblical studies. When I first read this, I could not really believe it, as I think there is a large theoretical discussion going on which is integral to feminist biblical interpretation. The context for the quote by Esther Fuchs, as well as the whole chapter in volume 2 on social location and the need for deconstructive, decolonizing feminist interpretations of the Bible, makes it clearer that she is looking for a deeper, theoretically grounded debate within feminist biblical studies, that is concerned with an intersectional approach looking beyond gender as a sole category. This can be related to what she says in an interview conducted with her by Lenemann in chapter 1, volume 1 where she discusses whether gender should be understood as an umbrella-term, or as a subcategory. I understand her to mean that the focus today seems to lie on the latter, which is problematic. I agree with her that it is a problem if gender is only understood as a subcategory, and I find it instructive to look at gender studies, which have become an arena not only for studies concerning women, but rather displays a plethora of perspectives all concerned with issues of power. This is especially true for the Swedish context, where “Lesbian and Gay studies” as an academic discipline has never existed, nor has research on masculinities ever been a separate field; it is studied as part of gender studies with feminist perspectives since its introduction into Swedish academia. The reasons for this are probably linked to how political feminism works in Sweden, with its close ties to leftist politics and Marxism, as well as anti-racist struggle and LGBTQ activism. Swedish feminist politics has also become dependent on gender theory, and is “intersectional,” a technical term used by politicians and law-makers in official documents. I would therefore claim that “feminism” as a political term is concerned not only with women’s issues, but with wider fields as well. I believe that this has informed gender studies and keeps doing so, although I find that the epithet “feminist” no longer as commonly used as before. This could be explained by the fact that it is still a loaded term. It could also mean exactly what Fuchs argues, namely that gender, or reading as women, is not the only important facet of feminism, and that other categories have to be taken into account as well, and this has already been done to some extent. As part of such a debate, I agree with Fuchs that a deeper theoretical discussion is necessary. Julie Kelso manifests the problem when in chapter 13 she claims that there are virtually no feminist studies on Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. She is also right in saying that those that exist are not strictly feminist, and several studies surface each year, discussing “othering”, identity politics and power relations in the texts.


I like to briefly now point to my own doctoral project, where the overarching question guiding my study was, how are values and norms presented in the text, with special regard to the Outsider in postexilic texts? What is it in a text that makes it possible for us to understand the conventions and ideologies present in it?  It was my aim, in this study, to find a way of studying conventions and norms in relation to language and, more specifically, language usage. I have let both linguistics, philosophy of language and critical theory inform this approach, since norms are something which in many ways affects all aspects of life but is perhaps most noticeable in the way we speak. My focus is on the Outsider, a character in which several intersectional categories manifest themselves, primarily ethnicity but also body and gender. In my work, I pay close attention to how theory can be integrated when reading texts. By this I mean mainly that questions of historiography, practice and social context can be discussed through a theoretical lens, and I show how this can be done. There is, however, a risk of succumbing to that which Yvonne Sherwood and Stephen Moore refer to as “methodolatry” and I agree with them that there is a danger of trying to turn theory into method. I also believe that there is a risk of using theory for theory’s sake if the theories used are not integrated in the reading and analysis of the primary material. I wish to use theory, as a way of reading and analyzing the texts in a different way. It is not my wish to let theory control my study; “if theory is allowed to dictate approach and questions―that is, to serve as a method―then the result is not an inquiry but rather a demonstration,”[3] as Robert Hume notes. However, I do believe that power and attitudes are unspoken to a degree that they are impossible to trace without allowing oneself to form a hypothesis based on theoretical notions.


Much more can be said on the topic of feminist interpretation of the Bible. I have chosen in this paper to touch upon how feminist interpretation of the Bible can be used as a social space for intellectual activism, and as part of this, I have also discussed the use of theory as a vital part of the continued discussion. As I stated above, the use of theory sometimes becomes too abstract and closed off from reality, and thus it might sound strange that I have chosen to discuss activism on the one hand and theory on the other. However, I think they are both part of the future of feminist biblical studies, since I believe this to be the arena for critical, analytical and subversive work, whatever the focal point. However, if we wish to be able to do this we need to find strategies in daily life in academia where different approaches are welcomed and where sexist bias is made visible and overcome. As part of this enterprise, it is important to be realistic about how far we still have to go and we also need to help each other battle the obstacles to which a repressive environment can give rise, be it issues of combining an academic career with motherhood, or a heterosexist agenda or western perspectives taking precedence over all others. If we use feminist interpretation of the Bible as a political arena, I think that there will always be a future in it, since new questions will surface in society, that need to be discussed in relation to the Hebrew Bible as well.

[1] Collins, Patricia, On Intellectual Activism, Philadelphia (PA) 2013.

[2] Meyers, Carol, Discovering Eve. Ancient Israelite Women in Context, Oxford 1991.

[3] Hume, Robert, Reconstructing Contexts. The Aims and Principles of Archaeo-Historicism, Oxford 1999, p.153.

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Karin Tillberg is a doctoral student at the department of Theology at Uppsala University. Her research focuses on the study of views and social norms concerning the Outsider, or Stranger. Her research interests are, among others, the incorporation of critical theory and linguistics in the study of the Hebrew Bible.


© Karin Tillberg, 2016, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317