Introducing the Women's Hebrew Bible

Feminism, Gender Justice, and the Study of the Old Testament (2nd edition)

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Susanne Scholz
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $15.36.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780567663368.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Susanne Scholz’s expansion of the first edition of Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible (2007), she incorporates many suggestions from critical readers by including chapters about queer hermeneutics and the Christian Right’s interpretation of the Bible. She traces her evolution as a feminist Bible scholar whose teachers were exemplars of German white male academics to her being in the vanguard of what she calls the “quiet revolution.”

One of Scholz’s major contributions is to introduce international contributions of feminist and proto-feminist scholars in her survey. Although Scholz’s review of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible points to its revolutionary approach, she undermines its significance by noting the second-wave feminist critique of its being monolithic, narrow, provincial, and a “product of [Stanton’s] white, upper class, Protestant background” (16). Despite her stated goal to be inclusive in her brief survey of the 1970s, she barely mentions the nascent Jewish feminist scholars who were influenced by and influential in the feminist religious developments of this period.

Her choice of four feminist biblical scholars to focus on is admittedly subjective, acknowledging her great professional and personal debt to Phyllis Trible. Athalya Brenner, in her nineteen volumes of a Feminist Companion series starting in 1993, generously included many female Bible scholars who might otherwise have remained unknown. Scholz’s insights into their professional trajectories are enlightening. By adding two relatively unknown scholars in Western scholarship, Elsa Tamez (Latin America) and Marie-Theres Wacker (Germany), Scholz is being inclusive and educating the reader on the scope of feminist biblical scholarship. In her conclusion to this section, she argues that the third generation is “far removed from a time when people considered the Bible as the main cause for androcentrism” (64–65). She suggests that this is why even Christian fundamentalists are more apologetic than earlier believers were. However, she does not refer to Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists.

The third chapter deals with the “hermeneutical triangle,” namely, the historical, literary, and cultural criticism that has shaped the study of the Bible from the beginning of the modern period. Scholz gives short shrift to the entrance and use of rabbinic commentaries and does not connect them to women’s commentaries. In a section on literary representations of biblical mothers, she introduces the work of J. Cheryl Exum and Esther Fuchs, who both point to how these “mothers serve androcentric purposes that center on male characters, and how most, if not all, narratives are silent on questions such as these” (76). Yet Scholz notes the ambiguity of the biblical portrayal, since, as Exum points out, these same mothers are women who are “mean-spirited, deceptive, untrustworthy . . . [and] dangerous” (77). In her conclusion to this chapter, Scholz points out that “feminist work that takes advantage of the developments in cultural criticism holds the greatest potential for innovation and significance” (83).

Scholz’s expertise, personal involvement, and passion for the topic are displayed in a chapter titled “Rape, Enslavement, and Marriage: Sexual Violence in the Hebrew Bible.” She clearly states her goal that she will be taking “an unapologetic look at rape in biblical literature” (88). In her determination to consider Jacob’s secondary wives (Bilhah and Zilpah) as rape victims, she does not entertain the thought that the intercourse was perhaps consensual and that these “slaves” might have gained higher status and more advantages by becoming Jacob’s wives. On the other hand, her long discussion of these two women is an eye opener and, once read, makes it impossible to overlook the argument that Sarah, Leah, and Rachel were all complicit in the rape of their maids/servants/slaves, and that “the women are deeply co-opted into androcentric theology” (94). Moreover, in an exceedingly close reading of this text, one can further argue that Laban was handing over his sexual property (shifchato) to his daughters to do as they wanted with them (see Genesis 29:24, 29).

Chapter 5 treats the “other” women from the perspective of postcolonial feminist scholars and focuses on Ruth the foreign worker, who in Brenner’s words was only “absorbed” rather than “integrated” into ancient Israel. Scholz totally accepts Musa Dube’s approach to Rahab, who “accept[s] and proclaim[s] the colonizers’ superiority and pledge[s] loyalty to them” (125) as being co-opted into the colonizing project. By viewing Rahab as a symbol of the “domestication of the distant land,” Scholz and Dube overlook Rahab’s autonomy, that is, her choice of a better life and not as one necessarily selling out to the imperialists.

Scholz discusses queer and masculinity studies with the purpose of showing the wide range of feminist study and how biblical interpretations continue to address and influence “the ruling hegemonies in the field and in society” (7). She also shows how “queer exegetes have destabilized and subverted the exegetical foundations of the academic study of the Bible” (128). Two examples of this are the sections “Queering the Heteronormative Reading of Leviticus 18:22” and “The Gay-Terror Text of Judges 3:12–30.”

It is not clear why Scholz chose to conclude her book with a chapter on the strategies of neoliberalism in the Christian Right’s interpretations of the Bible, which she describes as a “grim” situation (168), in which their interpreters are currently “limit[ing] biblical women’s lives to motherhood, marriage, and childbirth [thus] reinforc[ing] the gender binary . . . [and] divid[ing] biblical women into good and bad ‘girls’” (168). Some may agree with Scholz that this is worrisome but disagree with her placement of this threat as her final chapter, since it undermines all that has been accomplished since the beginning of feminism. Perhaps her choice reflects the political climate in which this book was written.

On the whole this book is a stimulating, thought-provoking, and passionate sample of current and past scholarly voices by an author who clearly cares and who, by pointing to the androcentric aspects of the Bible, reminds readers that the personal is indeed the political.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Naomi Graetz is a retired senior teacher at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Susanne Scholz is Professor at Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

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