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Tyler D. Mayfield
Review of Susanne Scholz (ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect; Panel from the 2017 SBL Annual Meeting in Boston (MA)
I want to express my thanks first to Dr. Scholz for her editorial work on these three volumes. They represent a tremendous amount of editorial guidance and concern. I count at least 46 essays in total. These volumes exemplify a valuable snapshot of the past and present conversations in feminist interpretation. Each essay, almost without exception, takes seriously the notion of “retrospect” that is found in the series title, Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect. The contributors work had to tell a focused but full story of feminist interpretation, to establish “genealogies of knowledge,” as Scholz calls it in her introduction to the first volume. This is the first strength of the volumes. I hear underneath these dozens of essays a shared message and value around the importance of listening to and learning from the last forty years of feminist interpretation. I hear an invitation to the next generation of feminist biblical scholars to learn from previous discussions. And while, even with three substantial volumes, the work does not constitute an exhaustive treatment of feminist interpretation, there is, I would argue, a wide-ranging quality to the volumes taken together. To review this collection, I want to focus on Volumes 1 and 3 and look at them as a whole product, taking all the essays together to highlight two interpretive issues.
The First Volume: Biblical Books
I begin with the first volume in the trilogy. It has the subtitle “Biblical Books.” These fourteen essays survey the remarkable work of feminist biblical scholars. Each essay moves biblical book by biblical book of the Hebrew Bible so that all of the essays provide a history of feminist interpretation of each biblical book. As I read through the volume, I imagined using these essays in my theological classroom, given their ability to summarize substantial amounts of the history of feminist scholarship on any given book. Instead of assigning several articles related to the multiple different characters, I would select one essay from this volume to give students a survey on the various interpretive options. In addition, the excellent footnotes lead readers further into the feminist discussions on the various biblical issues, topics, and texts.
Of course, fourteen essays on the whole Hebrew Bible do not cover every biblical book in its own essay. We find that Genesis has an entire essay devoted to its feminist scholarship, whereas the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are brought together in a single, impressive essay. The Song of Songs is also treated in one essay, but Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are treated together. An excellent treatment of wisdom literature brings together the feminist works on Proverbs, Job, and Qoheleth. These editorial decisions make good sense, as individual essays for each individual biblical book would have probably severely limited some discussions, say, on Genesis. So, I am not here to second guess what seems to me to be a reasonable layout for the volume. What I do wish to point out is the fact that, according to this review of feminist interpretation in retrospect, certain landscapes in the Bible have been investigated more than others. We all know this issue well. It indicates that we have more work to do, and that is great because many of us have more essays and books we want to write! But allow me to explore this issue further.
Many, if not most, of the surveys of feminist scholarship in these volumes focus on individual passages such as laws about sexuality, individual women such as Sarah and Hagar, or individual topics such as prophetic marriage metaphors within given biblical books. How might feminist interpretation attend to both these concerns, namely specific passages within biblical books prominently featuring women and larger literary contexts such as whole books or even multiple books? How might we see individual female characters as in ongoing need of serious attention since androcentric and heteronormative readings of biblical women are still around, while noting that these female characters exist within larger stories or frameworks that expand to the level of a biblical book or even the Hebrew Bible as a whole? In other words, does a feminist reading of Exodus pay attention to Puah and Shiphrah or Miriam and Zipporah only? You get the sense from this volume that, yes, feminist scholars pay a great deal of attention to any one of these characters. But what about a feminist exegete applying a feminist lens to a broader set of issues by moving through every chapter of Exodus? (Is this, by the way, a place where the Wisdom Commentary series could help us?) Or how about taking all the women together in Exodus? I also wonder if this volume somehow deemphasizes the amount of feminist interpretation that transcends the boundaries set up by biblical books, the feminist work that occurs across several biblical books.
As I look in retrospect at what feminist biblical interpreters have accomplished so far, this first volume demonstrates rather intensely that feminist interpretation has generally emphasized a segmented approach to biblical texts. I think that this type of reading was completely necessary to address feminist concerns and to call for gender justice concerning the lack of treatment regarding women in biblical texts. If after forty years of feminist interpretation we still feel like we need another article on individual female characters, then I hope feminist interpreters will write it. But I also hope that feminist biblical scholars will apply their feminist lens to broader and broader portions of the text, not turning away from female characters but situating them in larger and larger literary contexts.
The Third Volume: Methods
The third volume on “methods” is particularly to be celebrated for displaying the truly diverse methods used by feminist biblical scholars. From historical, archaeological, and anthropological to the literary to womanist scholarship, ideological criticism, queer interpretation, postcolonial work, masculinity studies, feminist interpreters are clearly engaging a myriad of methods. In fact, the first and second volumes contain fourteen essays each and the third one includes eighteen essays. I am interpreting the larger number of essays in the third volume as an indication of the desire by the editor to display abundantly the variety of methods at work in feminist exegesis. The volume is organized around the familiar interpretive schema of “readings behind the text,” “readings within the text,” and “readings in front of the text.” It is interesting to note that five essays relate to the first and historical category, three essays are in the second and literary category, and eight essays are in the third and cultural category.
In her introduction, Scholz lays out one of the central questions for this third volume. She observes that feminist Hebrew Bible scholars have not been particularly engaged in conversations about method. They have tended to use the methods of their training, whether the methods were historical, literary, or cultural, without reflecting too much on exactly how the preferred method fits with the feminist interpretive goals.
The layout of the third volume, with all its many methods and this general lack of explicit attention to method in feminist biblical scholarship, leads me back to the old question of whether feminist criticism is in fact a method. To help us think through this question, I recommend the first essay in this third volume. It is a conversation between Pamela Milne and Susanne Scholz about methods and methodology. They state that feminist scholars sometimes use terms such as method and methodology interchangeably, and they agree that feminist criticism should not be called a method. It would be interesting to hold a panel discussion—and maybe this has happened and I missed it—that reflected on just this single essay and the questions of method versus methodology, feminist criticism as method or methodology, and what makes a feminist reading feminist. Since the three volumes are concerned with a retrospective look, they helpfully demonstrate that in the past scholars have not agreed on these issues, that feminist interpreters do not always use precise terminology in their analysis, and that they often write in order to interpret a particular text using their preferred method without reflecting on these larger interpretive issues.
I am not interested in going forward by getting all feminist interpreters on the same page. That sounds boring and unfeminist. But I am interested in conversations related to these questions. Sometimes I wonder about the relationship between feminist criticism and our actual method, which has its own history and epistemology. Do we see feminist criticism as a supplementary interpretive move that we place as an additive to our actual method? Or does feminist criticism change the way we use our method? In other words, does feminist criticism change the object of our study to women and women’s lives or does it change the method itself—historical, literary, or cultural? In other words, do we see methods as tools that are neutral and thus of use to feminist interpreters or can methods be in need of feminist critique?
In conclusion, let me ask my main question this way: if feminist criticism is a methodology that employs many methods, as Milne and Scholz assert, how do we decide which methods are available or suitable for feminist critics to use? And what might happen if we use feminist theory to critique particular methods, to uncover how a method’s assumptions are rooted in patriarchy?
Many thanks again to Dr. Scholz for her years of work on this project. We are grateful for her contribution.
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Tyler D. Mayfield,
is A.B. Rhodes Associate Professor of Old Testament and Faculty Director of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Claremont School of Theology in southern California, and the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of Literary Structure and Setting in Ezekiel published by Mohr Siebeck in 2010.