Feminist Theory and the Bible

Interrogating the Sources

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Esther Fuchs
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , February
     2016.
     160 pages.
     $80.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498527811.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This compact volume by one of the foremost contemporary feminist scholars of the Hebrew Bible packs a big punch. Feminist Theory and the Bible: Interrogating the Sources contains six well-defined essays, each of which can stand independently, but which together weave into a succinct yet remarkably comprehensive and thought-provoking assessment and interrogation of feminist theory of the Bible. The introduction first points out the dearth of focused studies on feminist biblical theory (1-5), and next identifies a crisis in biblical studies (6-8). Much of what follows explains and then addresses this situation. In the course of this introduction, Esther Fuchs constructs helpful thumbnail sketches and synopses of arguments, but her generalizations are never simplistic; only someone so completely on top of her game can pull something like this off so deftly!

The first three chapters which follow the introduction provide overviews and astute critical observations on the development of biblical feminist critical theory. The latter three chapters address theoretical concerns in the study of biblical depictions of women, and evaluate feminist analyses of discrete Hebrew Bible texts or themes. The book as a whole, therefore, covers trends and gaps in the diachronic development of both feminist theory and biblical studies, as well as the complex dynamics between them. It then goes on to address, in expert fashion, how literary and ideological-critical investigation can make sense of depictions of women in the Hebrew Bible. Fuchs does not pretend to resolve all the shortcomings and difficulties she identifies, but she delineates and interrogates them with admirable clarity.

The first chapter maps out feminist approaches to the Hebrew Bible. Fuchs classifies the feminist approaches dominant in Hebrew Bible studies into three categories: gynocritic, pluralist, and feminist—giving concrete examples from each and positioning her own work within the intellectual topography she describes. This essay also incorporates helpful characterizations of a range of prominent feminist biblical scholars (such as Phyllis Trible, Mieke Bal, Carol Meyers, Ilana Pardes, J. Cheryl Exum, Alice Bach, Susan Ackerman, and Claudia Camp). Both for students trying to come to grips with a surprisingly polyvocal sub-discipline, and for established feminist biblical scholars seeking to understand their positionality, this essay is a significant resource.

The second and third chapters probe more closely the theoretical and political dimensions of biblical feminism. Again, this is a very important piece in terms of demarcating the variety of approaches within feminist biblical studies. In the course of providing a broad canvas, Fuchs also examines how her own work developed in response to the interpretations of other scholars. She also introduces her emphasis (like that of Exum) on probing whose interests are being served (cui bono) in terms of the ways women are represented in biblical texts. Moreover, she defines her work as “postcolonial” in its focus on women in general, and foreign women in particular, as constituting colonized groups (41). Both of these emphases reappear in later chapters of focused analysis (e.g., in chapter 4, when Fuchs discusses Jephthah’s daughter, as depicted in Judges 11). Fuchs’s point about scholars frequently failing to elaborate on their theoretical approach, on the influences drawn from forerunners, or on disciplinary assumptions (48) is well taken, as is her analysis of the fragmentation of approaches into “feminisms,” and their attendant claims to multiplicity and diversity, which she identifies as characteristic of neoliberalism and capitalism. As Fuchs points out, assertions of multiculturalism, when probed, are often rather globalizing and actually counter-productive for liberation or inclusiveness (49). The scope of this essay is, again, remarkable and calls on biblical feminists to be acutely self-reflexive and attuned not only to biblical texts and their ideological subtexts, but also to the ideologies of the present interpretive context.

The final three chapters, two of which (chapters 4 and 5) are original to the volume (unlike the other chapters of this book, which are either republished or adapted), offer careful intertextual literary analyses, acutely sensitive to ideological assumptions pertaining to gender.

I am left deeply admiring this volume and how Fuchs succeeds in being both concise and comprehensive; self-reflective, aware of the big picture, but able to provide insightful and pertinent detail; theoretically informed but also providing concrete examples. This volume distils significant contours and developments in feminist biblical theory and pushes them further, demonstrating in the process the significant contributions of Fuchs herself, which span over three decades. Feminist Theory and the Bible is erudite but accessible, and is consequently a rich resource for both students and scholars.

Fuchs’s extensive discussion of feminist interpretation of women in Judges would, in my view, have benefited from inclusion of the important work of Deryn Guest (Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012). Yvonne Sherwood is another (also UK-based) scholar who receives but scant mention, even though Sherwood’s extensive body of publications amply demonstrates the theoretical self-consciousness Fuchs is advocating. Finally, some in-depth discussion of the neoliberal phenomenon of postfeminism would have been desirable (as seen in the work of Katie B. Edwards, for example, in her Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012). These criticisms do not, however, detract significantly from my considerable respect for this volume.

It has to be acknowledged that Fuchs’s Feminist Theory and the Bible covers an extraordinary amount in a slim volume and I, for one, will draw on this text often and heed its call for reflective and critical theoretical positioning.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Johanna Stiebert is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at University of Leeds.

Date of Review: 
September 2, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Esther Fuchs, PhD, is the author of numerous academic books and essays in Hebrew literature, Israel studies, Holocaust studies and biblical studies. She taught for over a quarter of a century at the University of Arizona, as a tenured professor of Judaic studies, and prior to that she taught at the University of Texas in Austin and at Brandeis University. Her interest is focused on the intersection of gender, identity and scholarship in Jewish studies. Among her publications are Cunning Innocence: Ironic Art in S.Y. Agnon’s Work (1985 in Hebrew),Israeli Mythogynies: Women in Contemporary Hebrew Fiction (1987), Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation (1999), Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman (2000),Israeli Women’s Studies: A Reader (2005) and Israeli Feminist Scholarship: Gender, Zionism and Difference(2014). She is the co-editor of On the Cutting Edge: The Study of Women in Biblical Worlds (2004), and her latest book is Feminist Theory and the Bible.

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