In The Pleasure of Her Text Alice Bach counters those who believe that gender is too narrow a lens for re-interpreting the bible: “Resistance comes usually from those who have never thought of gender as influencing reading. The male gender has dominated the voice of the text, including also its interpretative voice, for such a long time that it is considered normative, objective, usual. “Objectivity is really male subjectivity.”‘ Of course, feminists don’t claim to be any less subjective. Cheryl Exum says, “I am no more capable of telling the truth and nothing but the truth than the biblical narrators. I shall use my interests to expose and undermine theirs in the interest of possible truths.” That’s what she attempts to do in ‘Murder They Wrote’.
Exum introduces the concept of narrative death. You can kill someone off in the text, or you can simply cut them out of the story. She takes two examples: Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11 and Michal, wife of David and daughter of Saul, in 1 and 2 Samuel. Judges 11 is the story of Jephthah, a judge of Israel who, upon returning home after military victory promises God that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house as a burnt offering. Unfortunately, the first thing that comes out is his only child, a daughter. Both father and daughter are grieved by his oath but his daughter (no name is given) agrees that her father must go through with it, asking only for 2 months to weep with her friends because she will never marry. After she returns, he does as he promised. She dies. Yet this is not narrative death because she is commemorated with a tradition, a four day ceremony.
Michal is married to David, perhaps for political expediency. She loves David and helps him to escape from her father but the text never mentions David seeking her. However, we know that he came back at some point because he had meetings with Michal’s brother, Jonathan, whom David loved. He does demand that Michal be returned to him when he is offered the opportunity to become king over the northern tribes. In the famous scene in 2 Samuel 6 when David is dancing naked in the street, we’re told that Michal despises David, though the reason is unclear. She confronts him and her disdain is blatant. We’re then told that she had no children – in the ancient world, this is as good as death. She also pretty much disappears from the remainder of the narrative (though some textual variants have her popping up after this).
Though one woman dies, she is remembered, lauded and celebrated. Though the other one lives, she is punished (in Exum’s language) with no progeny, condemned to obscurity. Even more telling is that the woman who is celebrated is the submissive daughter – even to death! Glorification of the victim condones if not perpetuates the crime. Meanwhile, the woman who is punished is the one used by men who attempts to assert her own personhood. The message is clear: protest will not be tolerated; patriarchy rules.
Reading a larger story
When I read something like this, I identify pretty strongly with Exum. I don’t like what happens to these women, but even more disturbing is the way the text treats them. For example, even if Jephthah’s daughter did the right thing in being submissive, surely there should at the very least be some editorial comment about Jephthah’s foolishness! Instead, the narrative just moves on without condemnation of Jephthah. Of course, read in context, there’s more to this story. Each of the judges apart from Deborah are presented as deeply flawed men, and the refrain of Judges is that each person did what was right in their own eyes. This is a story of what not to do, not what to do.
Likewise, reading Michal’s story in context helps. Her disdain of David and her subsequent childlessness have more than a personal dimension: they’re also political. This is David taking her father’s throne; if she had children, a descendent of Saul would sit on the throne. Part of what’s going on is the issue of whether she will accept God’s anointed king. These texts are less about patriarchy, more about God and his people. Michal’s story might be interesting to us, yet the Bible is not the story of Michal but the story of God.
The difficulty is that the story of God seems so often to be the story of men. Jephthah and Michal may both have got God wrong, yet it’s Jephthah’s story that’s told while Michal’s is lost. David and Jephthah’s daughter are both wise and good, yet one ends up dead and celebrated while one is alive and celebrated! So, does this show God’s preference for male stories? Or is this just the preference of patriarchal writers? If so, did they taint God’s story? Or is God’s story tainted already because he allowed it to occur in a patriarchal culture? These are the questions that the likes of Cheryl Exum ask and seek to overcome.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.