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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.

Critique: Speaking Against the Biblical Texts

Feminist criticism by definition begins with the critique. When the object of critique is the Bible it can be tempting to rush to apologetic before the problems are fully articulated. But to do this is to run the risk of not making it absolutely clear why a modern feminist reader often feels like an alien and stranger on the Bible's pages.

Vatican Museums & Galleries, Vatican City/Bridgeman Art Library.

The first phase of feminist critique, in biblical studies and theology as in other branches of the humanities, concentrates on exposing negative images of women, and in picking out texts that, to use Marie-Theres Wacker's wonderful play on Luther's phrase, would make ‘right strawy epistles for the Women's Bible’. This process—known as Images of Women criticism—began when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her team first began literally cutting out biblical passages about women and then exposing why the representations were problematic, and it is still a dominant feature of feminist biblical critique today. Outside the guild of biblical scholarship, the figure of Eve—spare rib, helper, derivative, bringer-of-sin-and-death-into-the-world—became iconic for the feminist movement (famously Spare Rib became the title of a ‘Women's lib’ magazine). Within the field, the critique went beyond Genesis 1–3 , and engaged precisely with those less well-known texts, the ones barely preached on or discussed, the ones tucked away in dark corners of the canon. In Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies, Phyllis Trible famously and painfully exposed four ‘texts of terror’—the stories of Hagar, Tamar (daughter of David), Jephthah's daughter, and the Levite's concubine—women who are rejected, raped, murdered, cut up into pieces, and sacrificed in the fulfilment of a paternal vow. These texts so graphically militate against women's interests and women's bodies that they could be said to act as a rallying cry for women engaging with the Hebrew Bible (rather as the dismembered concubine's body in Judges 19 is meant to act as a rallying cry for the tribes of Israel to go to war).

As well as treating the lives of real women, the feminist critique has looked at the ways in which, to use Karen King's apposite phrase, biblical authors ‘use women to think with’. One of the most notorious uses of woman-as-metaphor is the harlot-nation in the prophets: a metaphor applied to Israel, Judah, Samaria, and Nineveh, graphically detailed in Ezekiel 16 and 23, Hosea 1–3, Jeremiah 22: 20–3, and Nahum 3: 5–6 , and critiqued by a whole host of feminist commentators including Mary Shields, Cheryl Exum, Athalya Brenner, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Renita Weems, and Fokkelein van Dijk-Hemmes. The marriage metaphor, in which God is male and the nation, or sin, is female, expresses a damaging inequality between genders; it also legitimates male violence against women as the relationship becomes ‘pathological’ (Frymer-Kensky) and the imagery turns (to use Athalya Brenner's provocative phrase) ‘pornoprophetic’. The idea that God has the right to punish his sinful people may, as Renita Weems suggests, be a ‘congenial theological point’, but what about when that punishment gets entangled with highly disturbing language about lifted skirts, exposed genitalia, bared breasts, and the story of a woman who is stripped, beaten, starved, and paraded naked in the sight of her lovers (Hosea 2 )? For some the language is innocuous because it is ‘only a metaphor’, but metaphors have a dangerous tendency to leak into reality, and ‘some metaphors create more problems than they solve’ (Weems). The Hebrew Bible itself demonstrates this when it shows how the metaphorical language of the rape of a city too often collides with the ‘real’ rape of the female inhabitants (see Judges 5: 30; cf. Deuteronomy 21: 10–14 ).

Z Radovan, Jerusalem.

A feminist critique of the Bible cannot progress very far focusing only on concrete images of women; it needs to articulate the absence of women, the silence about women's lives. Phyllis Trible focuses on texts where women are graphically, violently fragmented; Cheryl Exum articulates how women's stories are fragmented, and how they often have walk-on bit parts in the stories of men. Women are often peripheral, named only by possessive patrynomic, or as a man's possession—Jephthah's daughter, the Levite's concubine, Lot's wife. And not only is Yhwh a male God who deals primarily with males (he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rather than Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel) but the textual perspective is one of a male author addressing an audience of males. Sarah is painfully invisible from the narrative of the Akedah (Genesis 22 ) and the Ten Commandments, with their instruction ‘not to covet your neighbour's ox, ass, or wife’ obviously assume a male addressee who owns an ox, ass, and wife. (As well as uncovering texts that have always made readers uncomfortable, and articulating why they make them uncomfortable, feminist criticism is also about reading more familiar texts in unfamiliar ways.)

Courtesy S4C.

There are some passages in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible that, like Eve, seem to be absolutely iconic of the injustices challenged by the feminist movement. Leviticus prescribes forty days of uncleanness after the birth of a boy child and eighty after the birth of a girl, and values women at 30 shekels, men at 50— you can read these texts as starkly mathematical illustrations of gender inequality, even as an ancient example of differential wages (but for a different reading see Meyers, Discovering Eve). The Law of the Sotah in Numbers 5 painfully exposes double sexual standards with all the vividness and horror of medieval witchhunts, and there is no clearer illustration of patriarchy than the Genesis genealogies in which fathers beget sons who beget more sons (as if women were somehow removed from the biological process, and daughters were never born). Texts like these are not only on a direct collision course with values that we think of as distinctively feminist, but they sometimes assault those basic understandings of equality and human rights that have been enshrined and normalized in law.

Bibliothèque Municipal, Besançon.

Lest a sense of discomfort with the Hebrew Bible propel us into a kind of feminist neo-Marcionism, scholars have also challenged the idea that the New Testament can be seen as a kind of proto-feminist refuge for women battered by their reading of the ‘Old’. The New Testament does indeed reflect a different view of gender: it reflects the androcentric social structures of the Graeco-Roman world. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza warns the woman reader to proceed with ‘caution’ since the New Testament ‘could be dangerous to [her] health and survival’; while Daphne Hampson warns that, though not a misognynist, the Jesus of the gospels is certainly not a feminist, even by the most minimalist definition. The story of the New Testament orbits around men—a male Christ, male disciples, male church elders, male authors or pseudonyms (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter) and male addressees (Timothy, Philemon), and passages like 1 Thessalonians 4: 4 assume a male audience just as naturally as the Ten Commandments when it talks of ‘taking a wife for yourself’. Women looking for traces of women's roles in the early church are often employed in a process of cherchez la femme, picking at tantalizingly brief allusions, for example to the diakonos Phoebe in Romans 16: 1–2 . Like their Old Testament/Hebrew Bible counterparts, female characters often hover in the background, in the sub-plot, and can also suffer from namelessness and anonymity: Matthew's Gospel may praise the woman who anoints Jesus, and may condemn Judas and Peter for their betrayal and denial, but, as Schüssler Fiorenza points out, the name of the betrayer is remembered, but the name of the faithful (female) disciple is forgotten. Moreover, in Luke's version the woman is described as a prostitute, an example of the sinners with whom Jesus interacts, rather than a prophetic figure annointing Jesus before his death. The New Testament, like the Old, has its more notorious ‘strawy’ texts, texts such as the pastoral epistles, which seem so keen to repress women's active roles. And occasionally these texts can themselves become ‘texts of terror’: Tina Pippin, for example, sees the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17–18 ) as the bloody culmination of the woman-as-whore metaphor in the prophets, and is profoundly disturbed by the depiction of Rome as female, at the moment when hate is most powerfully unleashed against her. Ephesians uses the conventional patriarchal household structures of the paterfamilias as a reflection of unity and harmony; Romans 7: 1–6 uses a wife's obligations to her husband as a metaphor for the obligation of Christians to the law, and so on. The examples may be less stark than in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible but, as Susan Durber points out, sexism may be most dangerous when it is at its least violent and obvious—when it simply seduces the reader into accepting a normal, male point of view.

If the Bible, as Phylis Bird puts it, is largely a ‘collection of writing by males from a society dominated by males’, then so too is commentary. Feminist meta-commentary (or commentary on commentary) shows how the scholarly tradition has often unthinkingly reinscribed biblical prejudices against women, and in some cases written gender inequalities larger than in the original text. The garden of Eden has, as Trevor Dennis puts it, been crammed full of theological ‘litter’ that has made Eve into the ‘devil's gateway’, ‘the unsealer of the tree’, and ‘the one who crushed the image of God’ (as Tertullian sweetly put it). But other biblical characters have also been distorted: Sarah's laughter has been amplified and castigated; the Samaritan woman at the well has been described by commentators as a ‘five-times-loser’ or a ‘tramp’; the woman who anoints Jesus' feet has been condemned for her ‘hysteria’; while popular cultural interpretation has made Mary Magdalene into a prostitute, established Delilah and Bathsheba as culpable femmes fatales, and totally created the eroticized figure of ‘Salome’. Sometimes male commentators have underplayed the roles of women: Phoebe, the prostatis (the feminine form of prostates, generally translated leader, chief, patron, guardian, protector), is usually denied the strong role that the text seems to give her; Junia (fem.) the apostolos in Romans 16: 7 undergoes a sex-change in modern translations to become Junias (masc.); while commentators explain the role of Prisca (co-worker with Paul, together with her husband Aquila) on the basis that perhaps she had special access to ‘women's areas’ (maybe she was the ancient equivalent of the Sunday school teacher). As well as exposing the androcentricism of scholarship, feminist metacommentary may also expose how male commentators are caught out by their own criticisms of the woman-in-the-text (Moore), or how, even as they condemn feminist criticism for its unscholarly subjectivity, they sometimes stray into subjectivity themselves (Sherwood).

Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau © photo RMN-RG Ojeda.

Private Collection/The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library.

‘Reading as a woman’ is not something that comes naturally, instinctively, just by being a woman, because women are socialized to identify themselves with a male point of view. But critical reflection on the text can be a necessary act of self-protection from biblical ideology, a way of preventing oneself reading with, and so complying with, the scapegoating, denigration, and silencing of women. By training themselves to become resisting readers of the Bible, feminists have become among the first ideological critics, the first to articulate their difference from the biblical texts. The effect on ‘the Bible’ is disorientating: the book that is usually associated with liberation is shown to be, in some ways, unliberating; the book that has habitually been invoked to comment on society is critiqued from the standpoint of twentieth-century social values; and the visionary book is shown to be myopic about women's rights and women's questions. Having articulated the tensions between the Bible and feminism, the critic can no longer assume that the voice of the biblical texts and tradition will merge with her own. But this is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning, as the feminist responses below show.

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