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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2004
Number 61
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Problems of Biblical Patriarchy

Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Intrepreation of Their Stories by Tikva Frymer-Kensky
New York: Shocken Books

A Review Essay by Kristin Swenson-Mendez

I wish that this book had been available when I led a course on women in the Hebrew Bible for a small group of adults in our community. My class, then, was composed of women, most of them active members of Jewish, Roman Catholic or Protestant congregations. They proved to be keen-minded, creative thinkers, eager to learn more about the ancient world of biblical texts and especially about women of that world and then to discuss the implication of such texts for us today. Frymer-Kensky’s book is written to appeal to just such readers — intelligent and inquisitive, ready to approach old texts and traditions with fresh eyes. Readers of Reading the Women of the Bible need not have years of academic biblical study behind them but will find the book even more thoughtprovoking and satisfying if they already have some familiarity with the stories.

Following a brief introduction and concluded by a short section concerning reading then and now, the body of the book comprises chapters about individual women and/ or stories. These chapters are divided into four parts, identified as “Victors,” “Victims,” “Virgins” and “Voice.” The divisions may seem a bit artificial but, as Frymer-Kensky explains in her introduction, the four “categories of stories” reflect “four ‘discourses’ to which these stories address themselves” (p. xvii), discourses that broaden the appeal and range of application further than does a simple recital of female persons in biblical stories. Indeed, the book is less concerned with developing biblical sketches of particular women and more about what the position, role and function of these women’s stories play in the greater matter of Israel’s development and self-identity.

The author explains that the “‘woman as victor’ stories are tales about heroic women who become saviors” (p. xvii); yet, they are more broadly encouraging stories for a people challenged by disadvantageous circumstances. Similarly, while the “women as victim” stories are “tales of women who suffer at the hands of the men in power” (p. xvii), Frymer-Kensky maintains that they also illustrate Israel’s experiences as “marginalized” and “vulnerable,” “battered by her enemies” (p. xxi). The group of stories that Frymer-Kensky calls “Voices (of God)” include narratives of women who “appear as oracles,”serving as “the voice of God’s decisions” concerning the history of Israel (pp. xviii-xix). These, too, have broader application, Frymer-Kensky argues. For “[j]ust as these women, not politically powerful themselves, are privileged to know the will of God, so too Israel, small and marginal between the great empires of the world, is nevertheless the bearer of God’s word” (p. xxi). Finally, in the category of “Virgins,” Frymer-Kensky discusses stories concerned variously with “marriage, intermarriage, ethnicity and boundaries with non-Israelites” (p. xix). Consequently, they address “the complex issues of identity and survival” (p. xix) and “define the borders of Israel” (p. xxi). Because her aim is to discuss “the meaning of the women-stories as a group and … the concept of ‘woman’ in the Bible” (p. xxvii), Frymer-Kensky does not discuss every woman who appears in biblical texts. She even avoids such “greats” as Eve and Miriam, whose shadows the author explains may inhibit our appreciation of how other women’s stories shed light on Israel’s self-understanding.

Nevertheless, the book addresses the stories of matriarchs, queens and prophetesses as well as of many lesser-known biblical women. Among those stories that Frymer- Kensky examines in the context of “Victors” are the Rivka stories; the women of the exodus (including the women involved in Moses’ birth and infancy, and Zipporah); Rahab; Deborah and Yael; the “wise women of 2 Samuel; the Shunammite woman of 2 Kings; and the “Villians” — Potiphar’s wife, Delilah, and Athaliah. Among the “Victims,” Frymer-Kensky discusses stories of Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister, effectively consigning her as concubine first to Pharaoh and second to Abimelech. Also included are stories concerning Lot’s daughters, Jephthah’s daughter, the Levite’s “concubine” at the end of Judges, Bathsheba, Tamar of 2 Samuel and the “cannibal mothers of 2 Kings 6. Within the section, in a chapter titled “Kings to the Rescue?” the author briefly discusses the place of kingship in Israel’s development. In the context of the biblical discourse on issues related to marriage, in Frymer-Kensky’s “Virgins” chapter, she examines the Dinah story, texts concerning women indentified simply as “Canaanite,” also Jezebel, Cozbi, Hagar, Ruth, Moabitesses in general, Tamar of Genesis 38 and the foreign women that so irked Ezra and Nehemiah. Also in this section, Frymer-Kensky offers an excursus of the association of such women with royalty, “The Royal Way.” The “Voice” section includes discussion of the role of Rahab and Deborah in the conquest of Canaan; the relationship of Hannah and the Witch of Endor to Israel’s first king, Saul; Abigail; and Huldah. In a chapter titled “Woman as Voice,” Frymer-Kensky reflects on the role women have played as oracles, “presenting by their existence and by their messages the direction in which Israel will move” (p. 327). Finally, a brief “Part Five” concerns techniques of “reading the women of the Bible,” reflections on the “later adventures of biblical women” and “reading these stories today.”

Given that there are so many, varied and complicated stories about women in the Bible, Frymer-Kensky writes that the question that first drove her inquiry was “could the biblical stories about women have been written because of the desire of Israelite men to explore the nature of women and their role and to understand the question of gender?” (p. xv). She admits that after exploring the role and function of women’s stories, her conclusion was negative. That is, rather than developing and defending the idea of woman as “Other,” the stories of women in the Hebrew Bible portrayed and illuminated Israel’s understanding of herself. This is an intriguing hypothesis and one largely borne out by and successfully described in Frymer-Kensky’s present study.

This does not, however, preclude an inevitably patriarchal perspective. In a kind of apologia for the patriarchal nature of biblical texts, Frymer-Kensky reminds readers that the Hebrew Bible is a product of its time(s). For example, she writes, “The male Lord did not create patriarchy. The truth is just the opposite: patriarchal thought required that the one Lord of all be conceived as male and portrayed in a masculine grammar” (p. xiv); and “though patriarchy preexisted the Bible, the Bible was not written to construct it … the Bible did not eradicate slavery, it did not eliminate patriarchy, it did not eradicate economic oppression” (pp. xivxv). Despite this context, however, Frymer-Kensky shows some of the ways the Bible challenged the status quo. Indeed, some stories depict women in positions of leadership and exercising sanctioned power; other stories depict creative and resourceful women whose accomplishments undermined the powers-that-be.

While Frymer-Kensky discusses both these models and others in exploring the remarkable nature of women’s stories in the Hebrew Bible, occasionally her explanations did not seem plausible. I find it difficult to believe, for instance, that the namelessness of certain “wise” women was due less to their dismissal by the biblical writers than to some sense, as Frymer-Kensky maintains, that their kind was so common. Similarly, it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that David’s blindness to Amnon’s determination that Tamar alone should serve her lustsick brother because the food she would serve may be semantically related to the term for a Babylonian medicine and maybe “princesses of the realm were instructed in the creation of healing foods” (p. 158). However, in defense of her conclusion, Frymer-Kensky points out that the food Tamar prepares is both special (“heart cakes”) and three times described as something that may heal.

Among the most intriguing and valuable aspects of Reading the Women of the Bible for me were Frymer-Kensky’s discussion of the women who served as “oracles,” announcing the direction that Israel’s development was to take at crucial junctures; and her more general ideal that in the stories of women, biblical writers explored their identity as “Israel” and sought to understand and describe Israel’s relationship and the greater world. I also appreciated Frymer-Kensky’s frank acknowledgement that troubling biblical stories of women have meaning for us today, in part because our society is not free of victimization and destitution. We have the experience necessary to make the biblical metaphors of women ring true. However, the presence of such stories and our critical reflections on them may hasten the dismantling of oppressive social structures. She explains, “[w]hen there is nothing in reality that corresponds to the biblical victim stories, then these stories (in their revealed state) will have done their job and the old metaphors will cease to have their power” (p. 354).

That Frymer-Kensky closely reads the stories about women with recognition of their patriarchal setting (socio-historical and literary) does not mean that finally she challenges the value, even authority, of biblical texts. Many readers will find this settling; others may find it disappointing. But the author explains that her interpretations, informed by her scholarship as an Assyriologist, reflect her disinclination to reject either the biblcal texts or her feminist principles. She writes, “[m]y feminism combined with my love of the Bible determined my interpretative choices. They cause me to combine a hermeneutic of suspicion with a hermeneutic of grace, not assuming evil intent on the part of the biblical authors but not ignoring the patriarchal difficulties” (p. xxvi). The difficulty of balancing these sympathies is great, and Frymer-Kensky’s attempt is admirable.

Kristin Swenson-Mendez is a Professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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