Daughters in the Hebrew Bible

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Kimberly D. Russaw
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , March
     238 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Daughters in the Hebrew Bible, Kimberly D. Russaw provides the scholarly community with a fascinating study of an overlooked population of characters in the biblical narrative—those women who are explicitly identified as daughters. Doubly marginalized due to their gender and status as unmarried non-mothers, these daughters are often missing in both scholarship and preaching. Russaw’s text, a revision of her doctoral dissertation at Vanderbilt University, is an important contribution to the feminist project of recovering the voices of those who are marginalized in biblical text.

Russaw defines daughters as “a female member of the household who is not yet a mother … [who] resides under the legal authority of the head of household and is readily identifiable with a parent” (1). Russaw focuses on those daughters whose parents are explicitly identified, as parentage and lineage are important to biblical writers. Therefore, Russaw investigates the stories of women such as Lot’s daughters—Rebekkah, Leah, and Dinah; Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam; the daughters of Zelophehad; Rahab; Jephthah’s daughter; David’s daughter Tamar; and Abihail’s daughter Esther. While several of these female characters go on to become mothers, we meet each of them while they are still unmarried non-mothers living under the authority of their male head of household. Russaw’s definition of daughters necessarily limits the scope of her project, and she does not consider women who are identified as daughters but whom we only meet after they have become wives and/or mothers. As a further limit on her project, Russaw prioritizes scholarship since 1970 as a way of prioritizing feminist biblical scholarship in which structures of patriarchy are critiqued.

In her first two chapters, Russaw provides a broad review of ideas that swirl around the stories of biblical daughters—virginity, land inheritance, marriage, the physical space inhabited by daughters, their contributions to the household, and father-daughter relationships. Chapter 3 provides a useful review of the Hebrew terms used to describe daughters (daughter, damsel or unmarried girl, virgin, woman or maiden, girl, and sister) while chapter 4 identifies major stories of daughters in the Hebrew Bible along with reviews of the scholarly literature discussing these stories. Chapter 5 introduces the concept of power, and the ways that power is stratified and deployed in the Hebrew Bible, utilizing the categories described by Max Weber and Gerhard Lenski, and nuanced with an attention to questions of gender and power. In chapter 6, Russaw applies these conceptualizations of power to the stories of the biblical daughters, analyzing the ways in which the daughters respond to systems of power. A final chapter provides Russaw’s conclusions about the treatment of daughters in the Hebrew Bible and suggestions for additional research.

The strongest chapter in this book is the one in which Russaw analyzes the narratives of the biblical daughters and their responses to the exercise of power. Russaw notes that “in a world that affords power to those with legal authority and control of economic surplus, daughters are indeed vulnerable, which means they must navigate various systems of power in order to survive” (123). Russaw suggests that biblical daughters can acquiesce to the patriarchal systems of power arrayed against them, they can resist those systems of power, or they can engage in some combination of acquiescence and resistance. These responses are also analyzed according to the relative status of the daughter—royal versus non-royal, Israelite versus non-Israelite, insider Israelites versus those Israelites “who exist on the margins of acceptable society” (124). Russaw then reviews narratives of daughters responding in one of these ways to various systems of power—such as male control of female bodies or reproduction, gendered role expectations, and rape. The strength of this chapter lies in the ways that Russaw carefully investigates the story of each daughter, analyzes the deployment of status and power in the story, and nuances the choices of response available to each daughter. It is clear from her analysis that there is a wide variety of responses to power among these biblical daughters. Therefore, these women cannot be treated as a uniform category. Ultimately, Russaw concludes that most biblical daughters resist the systems of power that threaten them, although this resistance is contextual. “As a royal, Pharaoh’s daughter overtly resists the systems of power when she overtly defies legal and traditional markers of power. The outsiders, Lot’s daughters and Rahab, also resist, but their acts of resistance are executed covertly and deceptively. Finally, Dinah transgresses a gendered boundary and is silenced by the biblical writer” (164).

Daughters in the Hebrew Bible is an interesting and useful contribution to biblical scholarship—particularly feminist and womanist scholarship—that seeks to identify the ways that the biblical text has marginalized various groups, and effectively excluded them from our view. Russaw’s work brings forward the category of the daughter—the unmarried non-mother—and analyzes questions of patriarchy and power, showing us the richness of these characters, and their responses to their situations. While its origin as a dissertation is obvious in its structure, its appropriate focus on the Hebrew text, and its attendant review of scholarship of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, this reviewer found it to be accessible by both specialist and non-specialist.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia L. Cameron is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rivier University in Nashua, NH.

Date of Review: 
March 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kimberly D. Russaw is visiting assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Claflin University.



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