The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible, a collection of thirty-seven scholarly articles, is more focused than the title suggests. Susanne Scholz, the volume’s editor, identifies it as the “unofficial fourth volume” to three previous anthologies on Hebrew Bible feminist criticism that she has edited. The collection concentrates on four modern trends within Hebrew Bible feminist criticism: globalization, neoliberalism, media cultures, and intersectionality. While some of the pieces get technical, the volume is for generalists and includes many fun reads. Anyone who is interested in the cutting edge of feminist criticism will find essays worthy of their time.
Part 1 is entitled “The Impact of Globalization on Feminist Biblical Studies.” The first article of this section, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s summary of the development of “kyriarchal” criticism in a global context, could well serve as the theme article for the entire volume. The concept of a “kyriarchy,” first proposed by Schüssler Fiorenza in the 1990s, holds that various markers of domination prevent classes of people from achieving full equality and access to society’s decision-makers. Authentic feminist criticism must press for emancipation for all those who are oppressed and disadvantaged, not just women. It should engage the realities of the biblical texts, including their androcentric language and ideologies, while in the end focusing most on the struggle for positive change on oppressive world systems. While this is the only essay that uses the term “kyriarchy,” virtually every piece in the volume highlights the application of feminist biblical criticism to establish justice and freedom in today’s world.
Carole Fontaine’s succeeding essay describes the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), then identifies problems with that model and discusses western biases that make universal rights difficult to achieve. Fontaine lauds Genesis 1:26–27 as an ancient tool for promoting the rights of women in an otherwise androcentric world. Other essays in this section focus on narrower “two thirds world” topics, including several on translation issues and queer readings.
Part 2 is “The Impact of Neoliberalism on Feminist Biblical Interpretation.” Esther Fuchs begins with a foundational article that describes the feminist shift in biblical studies that began in the 1970s. Fuchs summarizes and critiques the feminist approaches of Phyllis Trible’s “Depatriarchalizing Strategy,” Carol Meyers’“Historicizing Strategy,” Ilana Pardes’ “Textualizing Strategy,” Susan Ackerman’s “Mythologizing Strategy,” and Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s “Idealizing Strategy.” These modern approaches are “neoliberal” in that they evaluate biblical women without reference to patriarchy; Fuchs deems works that draw upon pre-feminist scholarship to be “neoconservative” in that they validate patriarchal assumptions. While the five highlighted approaches each have their strengths, Fuchs wants to curb the fragmentation of modern feminist biblical studies by encouraging scholars to become cognizant of the body of work of non-biblical feminist theologians, historians, and literary critics.
Succeeding articles in this section by John W. Fadden, Hanna Stenström, and Teresa J. Hornsby define and describe neoliberalism, a movement that tries to shape elements of society around free markets and majority consensuses. Feminist biblical scholarship is needed to curb the excesses of marker-driven policies and practices, and to ensure that the rights of women and others who exist outside of the mainstream are respected.
The essays of Part 3, “The Impact of (Digital) Media Cultures on Feminist Biblical Exegesis,” describe the portrayal of biblical women in assorted media, including novels, film, music, game theory, and video games. Particularly noteworthy is Linda Schearing’s analysis of the Bioshock action RPG series, which locates the player in an underwater city that had been constructed as a paradise but has turned dystopian. The player’s best chance to escape lies in killing genetically altered prepubescent girls to harvest a life-saving substance that they carry. Players also have the option of getting less of the substance without harming the girls. Numerous features of the storyline and game characters merge ideas from Genesis 2–3 with the works of Ayn Rand. While Schearing does not use the term “intersectional” in her essay, I sensed that the plight of the girls, who are neither male nor fully human, raises questions about the place in the world of women who are also not quite regarded as on the same level as women who are white, cisgender, and Christian.
Adele Reinhartz analyzes stoning scenes in post-World War II epic films featuring Bathsheba, the Queen of Sheba, and Ruth. Each film adds a scene to the Biblical story in which the people seek to stone the lead female; in each film the male hero prevents the stoning from taking place. The underlying implication is that a courageous male Christ-like figure shows how Christian grace overcomes Jewish law. Also in the section, Vanessa Lovelace describes 19th century novels that depict Hagar as a black woman who challenges conventional ideas about the place of women in society.
Part 4, “The Emergence of Intersectional Feminist Readings,” is an assortment of intersectional feminist approaches, including queer, transgender, ecological, and interfaith readings. The articles of Schüssler Fiorenza and Fontaine could have well headed up this section, especially as Fontaine’s main text, Genesis 1:26–27, is frequently referenced by scholars who ponder the implications of humans made male and female in the Imago Dei (“Divine Image”).
The essays in this volume celebrate a variety of ways in which feminist approaches have impacted and continue to impact study of the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, it is unfortunate that in her introduction Schotz bemoans that “feminist, womanist, gendered, and queer” reading strategies are not “fully integrated” into the academic disciplines of biblical, theological, and religious studies, and are not a major part of much preaching and teaching in synagogues and churches (xxiv). I must disagree with this perspective. The fields of Bible, theology, and religion are so broad that outside of some dedicated context, no reading strategy can or should be “fully” utilized. Much more important is that today virtually every serious work on the Hebrew Bible, even works that conform to Fuchs’s “neoconservative” rubric, reflect awareness of and influence from neoliberal feminist analyses.
The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible is an important collection, with essays that will benefit specialists and generalists alike.
John W. Herbst is the scholar-in-residence at the Virginia Peninsula Baptist Association.
Date Of Review:
August 28, 2023
Susanne Scholz is Professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas. As a diasporic German-American feminist post-Holocaust scholar, she researches, writes, and teaches in the area of sacred text studies, primarily in Hebrew Bible studies.
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