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Carol J. Dempsey
Review of Susanne Scholz (ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect; Panel from the 2017 SBL Annual Meeting in Boston (MA)
My first response to Susanne Scholz for her magnificent edited three volume work entitled Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect is “Congratulations!” - Congratulations on work so sorely needed in the field of Biblical Studies. You and all of your contributors have pulled together decades of inquiry into the Hebrew Bible from feminist perspectives, and in doing this task, you have shed light on the sheer brilliance, passion, and creativity of women scholars from around the globe. Your work is no small feat, and the collective volumes are a first of its kind. To the many contributors of Professor Scholz’s volumes, I say, wholeheartedly, “thank you!” - Thank you for your insight, your knowledge, your piercing and curious inquiry into familiar and not so familiar biblical texts. The fruits of your labor are succulent, and you have graced us all, scholars and non - scholars, with an awareness of how far feminist biblical scholarship has come, where it still needs to go, and what in our world still is in need of deep change and transformation with regard to attitudes, mindsets, systems, structures, institutions, the stories that have been told, and the stories yet to be told and which need to be told.
As I was reading through each chapter, page by page, in each of the three volumes, I found myself being wonderfully enlivened by the sheer energy that exudes from each chapter, each volume, and I thought to myself: “My, my, we women truly can change the course of thinking.” And if we can change the course of thinking, how much more can we change the course of history, and the world in which we live with all creatures, both human and non - human. Just look at what we have done to biblical scholarship in a remarkable short amount of time! And now, the time is at hand for feminist interpreters of the Bible to keep moving forward in the field and also outside of the elite world of academia so that the new world order so beautifully envisioned by the poet of Isaiah can become more of a reality and less of a prophetic vision. And so, I will now turn to the volumes themselves and make, what I hope, will be some fair comments on work that deserves the academy’s deep respect and honest gratitude.
Volume 1: Biblical Books
In the “Introduction: The Past, the Present, and the Future of Feminist Hebrew Bible Interpretation,” Scholz makes the point that from this first volume “we learn that there is still little dialogue among the various feminist interpretations” (vol. 1, p. 9). I would agree with this simple, astute point. The past years of feminist biblical scholarship have seen the development of methods and approaches. These various methods and approaches have been used, often quite successfully, to explore texts in an effort to expose biases, injustices, and downright oppressive attitudes, images, or metaphors embedded in the prose and poetry of the Hebrew Bible. We now live in a world, however, that calls for a deeper integration of knowledge that draws upon an interdisciplinary understanding of life and its many facets and issues. Foundational to this interdisciplinary understanding of life is dialogue. The same is true for feminist studies on the Bible that needs to move beyond seeing a text from solely a womanist perspective or a literary approach or a comparative - historical method.
The time has come to bring the various interpretations, as well as the interpretative methods and approaches of feminist scholarship, into dialogue with one another. Before this integration of methods can happen, however, perhaps feminist scholars first have to be in dialogue with each other to understand fully each other’s method and approach and how a single text can be heard from a variety of perspectives. How lively a text could become when heard from a feminist meta - method approach whereby similar and divergent views on a text can be heard together and pondered anew as in the case of Genesis 34.
The task is daunting because it would require a biblical feminist scholar to be cognizant of all the feminist methods and approaches when examining a text. Perhaps it would be easier if the analysis of a text involved two or more feminist scholars in dialogue with each other and with each other’s method(s), with the scholars then approaching the text from various perspectives that have been integrated as a result of the scholars’ dialogue. Think of a prism. Only when we can see its many different sides with different rays of light shining on and through the prism can we appreciate fully the beauty of the prism. A biblical text is like a prism; the feminist methods, approaches, and perspectives are like the rays of light. Only when different feminist methods, approaches, and perspectives simultaneously shed light on a text can the text be seen in all its spectral colors. The new Wisdom Commentary Series tries to do some of this integration with its single authorships, co-authorships, and its contributing voices. Thus, this simple observation that Scholz makes about the little dialogue among the various feminist interpretations was a point worth noting.
In several of the chapters of this volume, the contributors, including Scholz, comment on “God.” How the “Sacred Presence” is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible and the language associated with this “Sacred Presence” has long been an interest of mine, especially since I approach the Bible in general and the Hebrew Bible in particular from a faith perspective. In her chapter entitled “Image, Status, and Regulation,” Amelia Devin Freedman makes clear that feminists note that the biblical God is heavily referenced with male terminology. Scholz makes the point that “feminist interpreters wonder whether the characterization of a male God was a major factor in women’s societal oppression” (vol. 1, p. 49). Issues about the “Sacred Presence” as a male Deity have given way to women reclaiming goddess traditions, and debates on this topic wait to be tackled by feminist scholars. Rabbi Suzanne Singer is troubled by the statement in Exodus 10:1 that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart which led to a night of horror for the Egyptians which Jews, Singer states, must never forget. Such a night of horror, she continues, is celebrated yearly in Jewish Passover observances, and she makes the plea that “[a]s we recall at our Seder table the wonders of God performed for us, we must remember the price the Other paid for our liberation” (vol. 1, p. 64). Cheryl Kirk - Duggan pushes the point even further. She calls readers to think about the Egyptians’ plight who were Pharaoh’s subjects, and the premeditated, sacrificial murder of the Egyptian first born (vol. 1, p. 64). Both Singer and Kirk - Duggan thus suggest that “readers must approach the Exodus motif with open eyes, attentive to the high human cost of the divinely authored liberation that it depicts” (vol. 1, p. 64).
The image of a male deity must be a major factor in women’s societal oppression for three reasons. First, the biblical God wields power by sending judgment upon innocent people who are victims of their own political regimes’ needs. Second, this kind of God sanctions the murder of little Egyptian babies for the dual purpose of setting the Israelites free from Egyptian bondage and as an act of getting back (lex talionis) at a Pharaoh who had once ordered the death of Hebrew baby boys. Third, the biblical deity is more powerful than all the diviners, sorcerers, and gods in the land. The kyriarchal images for the biblical God are especially disturbing since the metaphors describing the covenant between the deity and the people assumes marital imagery with God as the faithful yet scorned husband on the one hand and Israel/Zion/Jerusalem as the unfaithful wife deserving of being hedged up, battered, ridiculed, and called “whore,” “harlot” on the other hand.
This Deity liberating one group of people from oppression at the expense of the lives of others embodies liberation theology at its very worst. Singer’s plea for Jews, and by extension, for all people to remember how liberation for Jews happened is a refreshing reminder of just how feminists hear the biblical text from the perspective of the victim, the disenfranchised, and the innocent one. What kind of God would do such things? Who is this God? And is this the God we want to place our faith in? Perhaps a better image for God is a female one? But would it be really?
I am reminded of Carleen Mandolfo’s work on Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the Book of Lamentations (2007). Mandolfo opens the door to dialogue about how the biblical text portrays God metaphorically. She dares to question and to critique this biblical God because she recognizes that the God of the text, especially the God of the prophetic texts, is a metaphorical construction that can be challenged and deconstructed not only to undermine the authority of the text but also to allow the community of readers and believers search for a new understanding of God beyond the biblical tradition. Without a doubt, the God of the Bible is historically, socially, culturally, and theologically conditioned and to take the image of God literally is to do a disservice to the text and to the Sacred Presence whom we have labeled “God.” The metaphorical portrait of God is a theme of interest for Sandie Gravett.
In her chapter on “Biblical Metaphors as Part of the Past and Present: Feminist Approaches to the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel,” Sandie Gravett brings the image of God into sharper view. She draws on the thought of feminist theologian Sallie McFague who observes that “the problem with introducing a feminine dimension to God is that it invariably ends with identifying as female those qualities that society has called feminine. Thus, the feminine side of God is taken to comprise the tender, nurturing, passive healing of aspects of divine activity” (vol. 1, p. 166). Gravett notes that the prophetic literature contains a whole host of female images for God, particularly in First and Second Isaiah, thus giving McFague’s argument credence. Gravett rightly points out that “some feminist exegetes are eager to identify representations of the divine as both fertile and nurturing” (vol. 1, p. 168). Gravett then draws the views of Kathleen S. Nash into the conversation. For Nash, the female imagery in the prophetic literature is problematic. She argues: “If the male YHWH can provide a mother’s love for Israel, there is no need for a divine mother” (vol. 1, p. 168). Gravett suggests that the male God “takes on all the gender,” crowding out the need for a goddess (vol. 1, p. 168).
Another concern of feminists who deal with the image of God in the prophetic texts is the pattern of violence and reconciliation, which is suggestive of an abusive relationship. Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1–3 are classic examples of this pattern. Such a pattern in the context of human - divine relationships can indeed influence how humans relate to God or have chosen not to relate to God. In short, the biblical portrayal of God is problematic for feminists, but the adaptation of a female image for a male image or the move into the direction of goddesses may be helpful only for some feminists. In the broader reality, however, the portrayal of God in the Bible and the understanding of who God is are a problem. Feminists would do well to liberate “God” from the text and from the gendered metaphors in which the “Sacred Presence” is encased. Feminists would also do well to explain that the God of the Empire reflects the social, political, and theological agenda of the biblical writers who were, presumably, all males. Those feminists who read the biblical text as Scripture need to find new ways to approach the difficult portrait of God in the Hebrew Bible. I remain unconvinced that male or female metaphors and their related characteristics adequately capture the Spirit that breathes life into all that exists. In the context of our contemporary world, we can see more and more that the commander-in-chief - the one who acts like a bully, who brandishes a sword amidst words of judgment and threat, and who also bends down to feed babes like a mother (see Hosea 11) - is really a God we have fashioned in our own image, according to our own likeness.
While I found all of the chapters in the first volume to be wonderfully crafted and offering a wealth of knowledge and wisdom at every turn of the page, the chapter that struck a particular chord with me are Sandie Gravett’s discussion on “Biblical Metaphor as Part of the Past and Present” and Susan E. Haddox’s essay on “Engaging Images in the Prophets: Feminist Interpretations of the Book of the Twelve.” By citing and discussing the contributions of many feminists working in the area of metaphor and the prophets, both authors expose the violence embedded in the metaphorical language, particularly when cities are described as women or as wives, not to mention the family metaphors, and specifically the parental metaphor. One of the voices contributing to Haddox’s analysis is Julia O’Brien who questions the theological implications of the parental metaphor:
In demonstrating that the image of God the Father reinforces not only scripts about gender but also scripts about parenting, ideological critique challenges “simple fixes” to the metaphor. Simply substituting “she” or “mother” for “he” and “father” or even speaking of the divine as gender - balanced Father/Mother, might indeed challenge certain gender stereotypes, but it does not address the inherent dangers of the parental metaphor (vol. 1, p. 185).
Haddox also offers some possible new directions that feminists might take. They include developing additional ideological and theological perspectives that illuminate various prophetic texts and reveal the prophetic voice within those texts laden with gendered metaphors.
Volume II: Social Locations
Of the three volumes, this second volume is the one I found most interesting because the context of one’s social and cultural location always shapes how one hears a biblical text. Hearing biblical texts from diverse feminist perspectives and approaches in relation to diverse social locations makes for exciting readings and brings to fruition Scholz’s statement that “the Bible needs to be liberated from its captivity to one-sided white, middle-class, male interpretation” (vol. 2, p. 4).
Additionally, in her chapter entitled “Beyond Colonialism and Postcolonialism: Feminist Readings of the Bible in East Asia,” Wai Ching Angela Wong proposes a feminist biblical hermeneutics that calls for “solidarity and resistance to the dominating biblical discourse of the West, not only on the basis of anti-colonialism but also in terms of a commitment to exploring our collective historical, political, cultural, and religious complexities” (vol. 2, p. 49). What a wonderful experience my students have when they read new ideas contained in feminist commentaries, book chapters in feminist works, and journal articles that interpret biblical texts from feminist perspectives. Too long have they been reading commentaries by white, male, European, and American scholars that debate dates, philology, settings, and authorship. These commentaries rarely touch on the importance of gender, class, race, ecological, cultural, and sexual concerns that my students from different global social locations and cultures always raise when they read the biblical text. If the biblical text is to have any impact on our world today, then its interpretation needs to be brought into dialogue with all human and non-human life. Musa W. Dube’s marvelous essay entitled “Talitha Cum Hermeneutics: Some African Women’s Ways of Reading the Bible” offers thoughts from Teresa Okure who observes: Life as the starting point and abiding context of hermeneutics is not only important; it is the reality that imposes itself. Emerging and liberative trends in biblical studies (Third World, women’s feminist, womanist, reader-response hermeneutics and inculturation) require that readers address their life situations as part of interpreting scripture. The biblical works themselves are records of people who struggled to understand the meaning of their life in relation to God. (vol. 2, p. 26)
For Okure, a “life-centered hermeneutics is grounded not only in God as the creator of life but also in God as the author of the good life” (vol. 2, p. 26). For those feminist scholars who view the biblical text as scripture, Okure’s insight has profound merit.
In her essay entitled “Engaging Women’s Experiences in the Struggle for Justice, Dignity, and Humanity: Hebrew Bible Readings by South Asian Women,” Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon suggests that the most viable method for feminist readers in South Asia currently is “reading in juxtaposition” or “reading cross-textuality.” Such a method focuses on the transformation of life. I agree with Melanchthon’s suggestion. I add that such a method is viable not only for South Asia but also for all other countries around the world since the transformation of life involves all creation. These essays are just a few highlights of a volume rich in thought, challenge, and new directions for biblical interpretation, including an essay on a feminist hermeneutics of respect for Judaism and a discussion on female Bible characters from a feminist Muslim stance.
Volume III: Methods
The brilliance of this volume is Scholz’s vision of bringing together the many methods of feminist interpretation. The contributions that each feminist scholar makes to this volume is unparalleled and provides a compendium of knowledge that showcases each method, each perspective. One could say that this particular volume is the crowning jewel of the collection. What makes this volume informative and accessible is the fact that each method is defined and then it is employed to analyze a particular biblical text.
The conversation between Scholz and Milne on methods and methodology portrays a rich dialogue between two feminist scholars, one who assesses the texts as sacred witness and one who does not; one who is glad to see the Bible’s influence decline in Western countries and one who regards the Bible’s decline as regrettable. In response to both positions, I am more inclined toward Scholz’s position. I do regard the Bible’s decline as regrettable, and I do see the biblical texts as sacred witness. The various biblical stories give us a window into the human condition with all its beauty and depravity, a human condition that remains forever embraced and graced by an enduring Love that pulsates at the heart of all creation, all life. I agree with Scholz that “feminists destabilize, subvert and deconstruct traditional interpretations in such a way that religious and secular readers will be less able to remain silent about rape” (vol. 3, p. 33) and other horrific injustices. Like Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, the Bible is a looking glass that shows us who we are as human beings. It also teaches us the deep need for ongoing transformation within all walks of life. By exposing the injustices and oppressive attitudes and metaphors within the biblical text, interpreters of the text help to ground the Bible in lived reality. Too often the text is viewed as a “spiritual text,” a “holy text,” and a “sacred text” whose words are to be taken literally and heeded. For too long, the stories have not been held up for ongoing critical theological reflection. I consider the text to be a sacred witness to the reality of life and people’s search for and attempt at describing the Divine, even though this description looks more like a description of ourselves than anything else. A healthy critical interpretation of the biblical text can shake people out of their drunken religious stupor and inspire us to change either the course of history or to allow it to continue as it has for centuries with people chopping off one another’s heads like Judith did to Holofernes and David did to Goliath.
Carol L. Meyers’ chapter on “Beyond the Bible: Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and the Study of Israelite Women” should be read by scholars and non-scholars alike. Meyers reminds us that the biblical text cannot be taken literally with respect to the roles of women in the ancient world. A feminist ethnohistorical approach is indispensable because it not only “problematizes the biblically-based supposition of female subservience” (vol. 3, p. 89) but also because it exposes unconscious attitudes of oppression written into the text from the time when biblical writers and editors shaped the stories and poems. Such an approach puts biblical literalism and fundamentalism “on notice” because, as Meyers asserts, “looking beyond the Bible will enable us to see the Bible more clearly” (vol. 3, p. 90).
Finally, among the many other wonderful chapters is Caroline Blyth’s essay on “Engaging with Cultural Discourses: Cultural Feminist Criticism in Hebrew Bible Studies.” Engaging the biblical text with cultural discourse allows interpreters and listeners of the text to hear the text beyond the “cloistered” walls of academia. Cultural Studies firmly anchors the biblical text in the realities of everyday life. After all, the biblical text is a window into everyday life, and much of what went on in the ancient world is still going on today despite all of our advances in technology, communication, and interpersonal skills.
In sum, this volume is a teaching and learning tool not only for readers new to feminist interpretation but also for students and seasoned scholars in the field. Each contribution offers new insights into familiar stories, revealing to us a little more about ourselves as a human community and what needs to be done within us and among us if we are to become “a holy people.”
The purpose of these three volumes comes clear through Professor Scholz’s own words: “The series as a whole contributes to the present task of describing, explaining, and evaluating what has been done in feminist biblical exegesis. All three volumes intend to assist feminist exegetes in building upon the feminist achievements as they stand today” (vol. 1, p. ix). She acknowledges that much more work waits to be done in feminist Hebrew Bible studies. In one sense, Professor Scholz, by means of her three volumes, laid a solid foundation upon which future feminist interpreters can continue their studies, and thus she now passes the torch to a new generation of feminist scholars who must take up the mantle if women are to have a transformative presence and voice in a world that is increasingly growing more patriarchal and hierarchical as the days go by with nation upon nation jockeying for position on the political scale and in the global arena. Scholz reminds us that “feminist readers have thus aimed at changing society’s structures of domination, envisioning a society built on justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. Theirs is the comprehensive goal going far beyond the field of biblical studies” (vol. 2, p. 3). Women and men who have a feminist perspective and approach to the biblical text and life in general have no other choice right now than to keep rolling up our sleeves in the spirit of our sister Rosie the Riveter. Our world waits for the new order to be born, and who better can bring it to birth than today’s feminists who understand what it means “to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly” with the One whose transformative energy, pulsating in the midst of all life, longs to make a new heaven and a new earth, of which Isaiah speaks, more of a lived reality and less of a prophetic dream.
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Carol J. Dempsey, OP, Ph.D.,
is Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Portland, Oregon, USA. She is the author of eight books, the latest of which includes The Bible and Literature (Orbis Books, 2015) and Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk (Liturgical Press, 2013). She is also the editor of 11 books and serves on the editorial boards for the Wisdom Commentary series (Liturgical Press), the New Paulist Bible Commentary (Paulist Press), and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly (2017–present; 2004–2008), Old Testament Abstracts (2010–present), and Theology in Dialogue series (Orbis Books). She is currently working on a commentary on Isaiah for the Wisdom Commentary series (Liturgical Press) and Isaiah 1–39 for the Berit Olam series (Liturgical Press). Her research focuses on Prophets, Feminist Hermeneutics, and Ecological Studies.