Rereading Scripture: Feminist Biblical Criticism

According to Phyllis Trible, one of North America’s most respected feminist biblical scholars, feminist attempts to glean insights and perspectives on the biblical text that have traditionally been overlooked or suppressed in the past are are prophetic in nature, challenging assumptions and calling the church to repentence.  Trible observes that the Bible was “born and bred in a land of patriarchy,” and “abounds in male images and language.”

In Trible’s overview of feminist biblical criticism, she identifies three primary trajectories or approaches to the study of the subject of women in scripture.

“When feminists first examined the Bible,” Trible states, “emphasis fell upon documenting the [apparent] case against women.”  In this wave of study, attention was focused on the status of women in the biblical culture, primarily as it is reflected in the language and law of scripture.  Two examples suffice.

  1. In the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, exegetical attention has often been paid to the actions of the townspeople, attempting to rape the visitors.  Is this primarily a text against homosexual behavior, students of scripture have asked, or against inhospitality?  But with a feminist perspective in mind, attention has come to be focused on the behavior of Lot himself, who offers his daughters to be raped in place of his male guests, and goes uncriticized in the narrative for his mindset.  Similar deconstructions are made of the story of Jephthah sacrificing his virgin daughter to uphold a foolishly worded vow in Judges 11.
  2. The deuteronomic law, while in some places showing great concern to the care of the defenseless in society, continually regards women under the protection of a man as being also the property of the man.  This patriarchal assumption leads to some bizarre ethical standards, such as a “you break it, you buy it” policy in regards to raping a woman: the punishment for raping a virgin was requirement to marry her without option of divorce.

Trible observes that this line of study is generally the first exposure to feminist criticism an individual gets, and that it often leads to an abandonment of biblical faith as hopelessly misogynistic, “although this judgment usually fails to evaluate the evidence in terms of Israelite culture.”

So Trible notes a second approach, which she claims grows out of the first, while simultaneously modifying it.  “Discerning within Scripture a critique of patriarchy, certain feminists concentrate upon discovering and recovering traditions that challenge the culture.  This task involves highlighting neglected texts and reinterpreting familiar ones.”  Here, three primary examples bear the point.

  1. A clearly present but often neglected aspect of the Hebrew scriptures is the portrayal of deity as female.  Psalm 22:9-10 states, “Yet thou art the one who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breast,” while Deuteronomy 32:18 is much more explicit: “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”  Feminist criticism attempts to draw attention to these and similar passages, which some translations seem to intentionally gloss over, as the JB, which translates the latter passage, “You forgot the God who fathered you.”
  2. More prominently, feminist critics attempt to give new life to the importance of women in scripture.  Take the Exodus story.  “So quick are scholars to get Moses born,” Trible writes, “that they pass quickly over the stories that lead to his advent.”  It is in the interest of this sort of feminist rereading of scripture to point out that in fact it was two female slaves who were the first to oppose the Pharoah, when they refuse to kill newborn sons.
  3. Finally, this feminist aim also seeks to reinterpret familiar women of scripture, who are perhaps unfairly characterized in patriarchal ways.  The strongest example of this is Eve’s role in the fall, which feminist critics argue deviates from patriarchal norms in several ways.  The serpent talks to Eve in plural verb forms, making her the spokesperson for the human couple.  When Eve speaks, she discusses theology intelligently, “stating the case for obedience even more strongly than God did.”  Because whereas God said simply not to eat the fruit of the tree, Eve explained that they were not even to touch the tree.  Whereas Christians might understand this as legalism exemplified, a more Hebrew understanding could perceive Eve as building “a fence around the Torah,”a procedure the rabbis developed to protect the divine law and ensure obedience.

Trible describes this strain of scripture, which feminists have set about identifying and reclaiming, as a “remnant theology” and a “counter-liturgy” to the dominant male bias identified by the first set of studies.  She then goes on to identify the third approach of feminist criticism, which “retells biblical stories of terror in memoriam, offering sympathetic readings of abused women.  If the first perspective documents misogyny historically and sociologically, this one appropriates such evidence poetically and theologically.  At the same time, it continues to look for the remnant in unlikely places.”

Again, stories such as the rape, murder and dismemberment of the concubine in Judges 19 are analysed.  In this case, the narrator of Judges suggests that the Davidic kingship is the answer to such violence.  But the feminist critic calls attention to Amnon’s rape of Tamar, which occurred under King David’s rule, calling into question claims that another patriarch is the answer.

Ultimately, in this approach, such a story must be interpreted “on behalf of the concubine, as it calls to remembrance her suffering and death.”  We as readers can move beyond mere indictment of the attacker and enter into solidarity with the victim, which Trible claims is its own way of challenging the patriarchy implicit in the scriptures.

Trible understands that these three methods are not all-encompassing, and that feminist rereading of scripture must incorporate other perspectives.  In particular, she observes, there is “the problem of sexist translations.”  But her intention in describing these ways is to demonstrate that feminist criticism is making concrete progress in challenging old interpretations of the biblical text.  Her hope is that in time such strategies will yield a biblical theology of womanhood, which roots in the goodness of creation, both male and female.

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