Sex and Slaughter in the Tent of Jael
A Cultural History of a Biblical Story
If biblical scholars relinquish the religious authority of the Bible in order to embrace secular or academic norms, they can still justify their labor through an appeal to the Bible’s cultural influence. What happens, however, when it becomes clear that by ceding the Bible’s religious authority, secular modernity has also unraveled its cultural power? Colleen Conway situates her study of the reception history of the biblical story of Jael and Sisera in this aporia by framing her history with discussions of a short story by A. S. Byatt that narrates the difference between a generation for whom the Bible has lost religious authority but retains cultural relevance, and a younger generation for whom it is simply a closed book (11, 146-60). Conway sets out to “examine the use of a cultural tradition, transmitted at an early stage by way of the Bible as it becomes ever more distant from a religious culture” (5). While Conway shows no discomfort with the trend in the West that religious cultures are receding, her book ends with a lament that “if these stories are indeed vanishing from our world, we are at risk of losing not just the stories, but also a powerful means of constructing and contributing to a common cultural discourse” (169). Conway does much to demonstrate the cultural vitality of people’s efforts to rework a biblical story over the last two thousand years, but perhaps the most significant contribution of Sex and Slaughter in the Tent is to alert us to a potential identity crisis in Biblical studies. Conway’s hope is that her cultural history will slow the loss of memory that would provoke said identity crisis. Whether her hopes are well-placed remains to be seen, but in the course of telling her story, she uncovers a very wide range of fascinating sources that I, for one, look forward to engaging directly.
The book of Judges recounts the story of Jael killing Sisera with a tent peg twice, once in a prose version in which Jael waits for Sisera to fall asleep and drives the tent peg through his head, and once in a poetic version in which Sisera is standing when she kills him. For Conway, this double narration allows her to drive home the point that she parts ways with an assumption in Biblical reception studies that what is at stake is the interpretation and dissemination of a previously stable object. Thus, the object of her study is not Judges 4-5 and interpretations of it, but rather of Jael and Sisera. The implications of this shift from a biblical text to the characters as such are clearest in her discussion of renaissance paintings. Here, she argues against a recent line of investigation into “visual exegesis,” especially as advanced by Paolo Berdini (69). Rather, she takes seriously the fact of widespread illiteracy among artists, who would not have been able to read the Bible in order to exegete it. Rather, their immediate point of reference would be other paintings of the subject, pointing to a cultural mediation of the story of Jael and Sisera that does not rely on direct engagement with the Bible itself. Conway furthermore describes all of the versions of the Jael and Sisera story as performances, not productions, in order to differentiate her approach from previous critical approaches that incorporated Marxist perspectives (6). By thus depoliticizing the category of “performance,” her methodological approach is in tension with her stated focus on the issues of sexuality, gender, and power (7).
The bulk of this book is a chronological survey of “performances” of the Jael and Sisera story, beginning with biblical and postbiblical retellings. These performances are primarily literary and visual; Conway notes in the acknowledgments that she did not include operas (xii), which would have allowed her to examine literal performances. Recurring tensions in the depiction of the characters occur throughout these performances. Is Jael morally praiseworthy or blameworthy? Is the story erotic or not? Does Jael model “womanhood” in an appropriate way—however appropriate is defined? What motivates the violence? How various agents resolve these tensions tells us much about the state of gender relations at any given stage in history. The shift from religious to cultural approaches comes in her chapter “From Allegory to Morality,” where Conway notes how market forces in the sixteenth century shaped the representation of the characters. This is, significantly, where the book hits its stride. Not only does the argument sit more comfortably with cultural rather than religious understandings of the Bible, but once it gets to the Renaissance, it can incorporate juxtaposition of men’s and women’s engagements with the tradition. The juxtaposition of male and female voices is most productive in her examination of early twentieth-century versions by the poets John B. L. Warren (Lord de Tabley), Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Florence Kiper Frank. The subsequent chapter dealing with feminist reworkings in the novels of Joanna Russ, Aritha van Herk, and Sara Maitland vividly shows the tensions in 1970s feminism around the question of how understandings of female identity intersect with effective feminist strategy. Despite her protestation that examining all the representations of Jael and Sisera would be “tedious” (8), Conway has unearthed a wide range of cultural performances that give further texture to familiar stories of the cultural changes in the West over the last thousand years.
Dirk von der Horst is instructor of religious studies at Mount St. Mary's University, Los Angeles.
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