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Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible: Book Review

Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible is written by Susanne Scholz. Coming from a German context, her conception of feminist theology is as one part of a broader feminist agenda. Religion in Germany is institutionalised to a greater extent than in Australia (or even the US or Britain) and so the lines between Christian and secular scholarship are more blurred. Thus as she calls for a new generation of feminist theologians, she sees them as continuing the work of the Second Feminist Movement.

Scholz’s Challenge

Scholz is concerned about the rise of “Christian evangelicals [who] consider the Bible as the word of God in contrast to…. the feminist view [that] the Hebrew Bible is a document created by humans that has to be studied with modern critical approaches.” Of course, that well describes me! Perhaps even more infuriating to Scholz, I have benefited greatly from the work of the Second Feminist Movement, both in their scholarship and in the opportunities that I am afforded! Yet, I refuse to carry on its work. Of course that’s frustrating to our feminist mothers: we spend our time engaging and critiquing their thought in order to do something different with it rather than finish their work.

One of the great strengths of this book is the way that Scholz traces the development and variety of feminist thought over time. She starts with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s ‘The Women’s Bible’ from the later 19th century, the first attempt at a feminist reading of the Bible, though it maintained the racism and classism of her ‘white, upper-class, Protestant background’. From there, she moves through the twentieth century, surveying critical methods (historical, literary and cultural) right through to the emerging field of feminist post-colonial studies. Her survey is appropriately broad, just as feminist studies are.

The Personal Touch

The chapter I found most helpful was ‘A Career as a Feminist Biblical Scholar: Four Stories’.  I’m most familiar with Phyllis Trible and Athalya Brenner so their stories were particularly meaningful for me.

I was interested to learn that Athalya Brenner, of Jewish background describes herself as ‘a-religious’ and a ‘non-believer’. It was sobering to read that it took her 10 years to recover from the academic setback of having her dissertation rejected because her attempt to integrate a feminist perspective with biblical research was considered ‘mad’.

I was charmed by the story of Phyllis Trible‘s Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher who reminded the girls in the gender-and-race-segregated class that as God’s creation became better and better, woman was his last creation. Even more so, I was encouraged by her exhortation to ‘love this book’ (the Bible) and that ‘despite opposing [feminist] voices that rejected religion as thoroughly patriarchal’ she maintained that ‘the Hebrew Scriptures and Women’s Liberation do meet and their encounter need not be hostile.’

Reading the Bible

I’ve been thinking recently about this last comment. The intersection between feminism and the Bible is contested among feminists themselves though largely dismissed by evangelicals, at least in my circles. Scholz’s discussion of feminist hermeneutics helped me to see the categories and where I might ‘belong’.

I’m hoping to consider further the work of Phyllis Bird whose exegetical method leaves room for those who seek to honor the Bible. First, she suggests, use historical criticism to discover the ‘authorial meaning and how it aimed to persuade the ancient Israelite audience’, even if it doesn’t ‘contain a ‘recognizable’ feminist message.’ Having done this, the feminist reader can move on to identify ‘some signs of feminist orientation in the biblical text’. While I think there’s room to move beyond historical criticism (for example, to literary criticism), what I like about Bird’s approach is that it locates authority in the Bible rather than in the feminist framework.

All in all, a short, readable and interesting introduction to the historical issues of feminist biblical interpretation and its diverse women and views.

Categories: Book Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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