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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Feminist Scholarship

Yvonne Sherwood

The Bible is strangely full—and empty—of women. There is Eve, whose name means Life but who is ‘born’ of a man, and who, at least according to the 1 Timothy 2: 13–14 reading of Genesis, is a Pandora-creature, guilty of the first transgression. There are women who ensure that the plot continues to the next chapter: Esther and Deborah who fight for or deliver their people; the midwives in Exodus who save male Israelite babies, and Moses' mother, who saves one baby in particular; the women in Matthew who carry the news of the resurrection, as well as women such as Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Hannah, Manoah's wife, Ruth, Elizabeth, and Mary the mother of Jesus, who give birth to heroes and provide crucial links in the genealogical chain. There are women who are the victims of violence (Dinah, the Levite's concubine in Judges 19 ); exemplary women (the widow and her offering, the haemorrhaging woman who touches Jesus' garments); women in positions of authority (Hulda, Deborah, Prisca); dangerous women (Jael, Delilah, Herodias, and her daughter); women with strange peripheral roles (Lot's wife who turns into a pillar of salt, Abishag who acts as a human blanket in 1 Kings 1: 1–4 ). And there are metaphorical women, female symbols of the awful and the ideal: Woman Wisdom; the restored Jerusalem as city jewel and suckling mother (Isaiah 66 ); the church as bride of Christ; the whore-nation in the prophets; the ‘strange woman’ of Proverbs, whose lips drip with honey and whose speech oozes with oil …

Even if feminist biblical criticism confined itself to texts about women (which it does not), evidently there would be plenty of material—and silences—to go on. And, as might be expected of a book written by many authors over several centuries and appropriately named ‘the library’ (ta biblia), the Bible by no means offers a homogeneous view of woman.

Feminist Scholarship

The Rescue of Lot (Genesis 19: 23 ) by Gustave Doré, 1865. In the background the calcified figure of Lot's wife is to the right of the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

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photo AKG, London.

Feminist Scholarship

Mary Wollstone-craft (1759–97) portrayed by John Opie c.1790. She was author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and an anti-slavery activist in mid-19th-century America.

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photo AKG London.

Feminist Scholarship

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) around 1910. She was a prominent campaigner for women's suffrage in Britain.

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photo AKG London.

Over the last two centuries, and particularly over the last few decades, a whole new range of female ‘characters’ have emerged—Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, to name just a few. And these figures, who have arguably had more opportunity to speak for themselves than their biblical counterparts, have posed considerable challenges to our perceptions of society and justice. Some of the early views and demands of these women are now enshrined in Western law: few would deny a woman's right to vote, for example, or contest Emmeline Pankhurst's claim that ‘a husband should not imprison his wife to enforce conjugal rights’. And because of the feminist movement and campaigns for human rights, there is increasing awareness of issues such as sex discrimination in the workplace, unequal pay, and unequal access to positions of power, or, more starkly, issues of wife-battering, or the lower social valuation of female children (resulting in less access to education, abortion, even child-death). The global women's movement has not only offered a different (and disturbing) perception of the world by compiling evidence about women's lives, but has also questioned the very structures of epistemology—our ways of knowing and of seeing. Although there is no official feminist ‘creed’, the following two claims can be seen as foundational to the modern feminist movement:

  • 1. Knowledge, religion, society, and human institutions are androcentric (male-centred). That which is considered to be normative, standard, or neutral is in fact skewed towards the interests of men. When feminists change words like ‘mankind’ to ‘humankind’, they are doing more than tweaking language. They are making the point that the interests, ideas, and beliefs of this alleged universal—man—do not represent their own interests, ideas, or beliefs, and that reading themselves into ‘mankind’ involves a dangerous kind of self-forgetfulness (or self-abnegation).

  • 2. Sex is a biological given at birth, but gender (the templates we have in our minds of what it means to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’) is something we learn from culture. The roles are not equally distributed: as Simone de Beauvoir famously put it in The Second Sex,

    Woman is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.

    Western thought tends to be constructed around hierarchies in which one term is elevated and one demoted: pairs such as day–night, objective–subjective, active–passive, self–other, mind–body, and masculine–feminine. ‘Woman’ as a category often acts as a negative mirror for positive male attributes: thus the characteristically emotional and passive female acts as a foil for the rational and active male.

Since these rather stark claims can make the issues seem more simple than they are, it needs to be stressed that feminism is not about the absolute and conscious victimization of women by men. Even in the most patriarchal societies, as Gerda Lerner notes, ‘women are not totally powerless, or deprived of rights, influences and resources’, and because men and women are born into a world and a way of seeing which habitually privileges the male over the female, the denigration of women is often unconscious, and complied with by women. Like all creeds and foundational statements, these are being constantly interrogated and reworked (the ideas of sex and gender in particular are currently very controversial). And of course no one is claiming that male and female genders are always everywhere the same: learning to be a woman in twentieth-century China or Iran, or, indeed, in ancient Israel.

As feminism exerts an increasing (and contested) influence on society, the difficult question asked by feminist biblical critics is how to work between these two bodies of knowledge—feminism on the one hand and the Bible on the other. The fact that traditional biblical scholarship tends to regard feminist questions as peripheral, and that mainstream feminist scholars studiously avoid the Bible (even as they engage with other patriarchal edifices, such as Freudianism) suggests a common perception that there is something absolutely incompatible about the Bible and feminism, and that both might be compromised and demeaned by even speaking to the other. As early as 1895, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the compiler of The Woman's Bible, speaks on the one hand of educated women who dismiss the Bible as having ‘lost its hold on the human mind’, and on the other of male biblical scholars who refuse to ‘wipe the dew from their spectacles’ and ‘see that the world is moving’. Because many feminists and mainstream biblical critics regard feminist biblical scholarship as something of an oxymoron, feminist biblical critics are doing something doubly transgressive, doubly perverse. And it is a credit to their ingenuity that the conversations that they create between feminism and the Bible are more subtle than slanging matches and more interesting than sweet-talking mediation sessions.

There are almost as many ways of engaging the Bible and feminism in conversation as there are feminist critics. Though ‘feminist biblical criticism’ may suggest something homogeneous, monolithic, even a kind of bland sisterhood, the voices it encompasses are extremely diverse, as are the feminisms. For some, feminism is a position intricately theorized through the work of French psychoanalytic critics such as Hélène Cixous or Luce Irigaray; for others it is a label aquired simply through arguing for equality (‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is,’ wrote Rebecca West, famously. ‘I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.’) For some, feminist biblical criticism is about reclaiming the Bible for women in Jewish or Christian communities; for others, it is about exploring the influence of the Bible on contemporary society. A good example of the ‘dissonant buzz’ in contemporary scholarship can be found in Ilana Pardes's study ‘Creation According to Eve’, where she analyses how Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Phyllis Trible, and Esther Fuchs read Genesis 1–3 , and sets up a round-table discussion between the critics.

Feminist Scholarship

Hagar, portrayed by the black 19th-century American artist Edmonia Lewis, is presented in noble and dramatic posture, as opposed to the biblical account of her as a servant driven out by Abraham and Sarah.

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National Museum of American Art, Washington DC/Art Resource, NY.

The diversity of feminist biblical scholarship makes it clear that there is no universal category ‘woman’ with which to replace the abstract ‘man’. Feminism has learned this in painful ways, as, attacked by African-American, ‘two-thirds’ world, and working-class women for its parochialism, it was forced to examine its own middle-class, white, myopic constructions of ‘what women want’ and ‘who women are’. As early as 1892, the African- American activist Anna Julia Cooper protested that ‘the coloured woman of today’ occupies a ‘unique position’ in that she is confronted by both a ‘woman question’ and a ‘race problem’ and is an ‘unacknowledged factor in both’. Elizabeth Cady Stanton demonstrated the problem in rather a different way when, even as she set about the radical work of compiling The Woman's Bible, she addressed herself to ‘American women of wealth and refinement’—emphatically not the Chinese, Africans, Germans, and Irish, and lower-class women. Gradually critics are realizing that colour and working-classness and Jewishness (for example) cannot be added on to feminism as sub-categories (‘I am a feminist, comma, black, comma, and working-class’) but that ‘feminism’ is fundamentally shaken up, and changed, by each ‘qualifying’ identity statement. To demonstrate the difference of view, some African-American critics call themselves ‘womanists’, to distinguish themselves from a feminism that does not speak for them (this move mirrors the way in which feminists refused to see themselves properly represented in the so-called universal—man). In biblical scholarship, the work of womanist, Latin-American and Asian feminist biblical critics such as Renita Weems, Teresa Okure, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, and Kwok Piu-Lan, and Jewish feminists, such as Amy-Jill Levine and Judith Plaskow, has exposed the white Euro-American Christian focus, even the anti-Judaism of early feminist work. A sense of the growing diversity and self-awareness of contemporary feminist criticism can be found in volume one of Searching the Scriptures, where critics from Latin America and Africa offer perspectives on the ‘Bible’ and ‘feminism’ in ways that problematize white Christian perceptions of both. Provocatively, the differences in power that can be seen among women working on the Bible can also be found among women in the Bible: Sarah (the wife, the free woman) obviously has power over the Egyptian slave-woman, Hagar, which she wields quite freely in Genesis 16 and 21 . Paul demonstrates the problem for Jewish women when, in Galatians 4: 21–31 , he uses the inequality between slave and free woman, Sarah and Hagar, to describe the inequality between Christians and Jews, children of the promise and children of the flesh.

Given the plurality of voices in feminist biblical criticism, many attempts have been made to sift and categorize critics and plot them on some kind of spectrum. Since feminism is not a method but an ideology (within which there is considerable room for manœuvre) attempts have been made to categorize critics ideologically. In feminist studies generally distinctions have been made between liberal feminists (who espouse a universalist view of human nature, a sense of the general sameness of human beings), radical feminists (who emphasize difference), and Marxist and socialist feminists (who focus on the social production of gender categories). In feminist biblical studies, ideological distinctions have been made using the Bible and theological tradition as a starting-point: Carolyn Osiek is interested in whether critics collude or collide with the biblical text and tradition, in whether they are ‘loyalist’ like Phyllis Trible or ‘rejectionist’ like Mary Daly (Daly achieved notoriety by, among other things, claiming that, were the positive material in the Bible to be collected together, there would be just about enough for a ‘salvageable pamphlet’). But not only do such categorizations fail to do justice to the complexity of a single critic, and indeed the biblical canon, but they also tend to prioritize the Bible and the Christian tradition over feminism as the basis of judgement. Not only are such approaches reductive but they completely bypass the interests of a critic like Mieke Bal, who emphatically maintains that she does not treat the biblical text as a ‘feminist manifesto’, or a uniformly patriarchal document, and considers this a misleading question to ask of her own—or indeed anyone else's—work. Classification by methodology can be more helpful: since feminist biblical criticism uses as wide a range of methodologies as ‘mainstream’ scholarship, it is useful to know, for example, that Carol Meyers draws on anthropology and sociology, or that Elizabeth Castelli is influenced by post-structuralist literary theory. But since feminists often weave different approaches together, this kind of classification is in danger of producing Polonius-like descriptions of a critic as anthropological-sociological-historical-critical (Mieke Bal, for example, reads Judges through historical, anthropological, theological, and literary lenses). It also ignores the way in which feminism often transforms the methodologies that it uses, and how, as one feminist literary critic aptly put it, it is ideally ‘responsive to all the critical schools and methods but captive of none’.

This introduction is more concerned with outlining a feminist critique of the Bible, and then describing how scholars work in the space opened up by that critique, than with classifying feminists ideologically or methodologically. That is, it concentrates on what is distinctive about a feminist approach—the difference of view. It begins by outlining the basis of the critique—the problems that the Bible and the interpretative tradition raise for feminist readers—and then it looks at ways feminist critics have found to engage with these texts. But these two sections are not about simply denigrating the tradition and then rehabilitating it: I hope to show that feminist critiques and responses are more diverse in their aims and their approaches than that.

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