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Frymer-Kensky on women in the bible

October 9, 2012

From the introduction to Reading the Women of the Bible.

The Bible, a product of this patriarchal society, is shaped by the concerns of the men of Israel who were involved in public life. As such, it is a public book, concerned with matters of government, law, ritual, and social behavior. But why, then, does this clearly androcentric text from a patriarchal society have so many stories that revolve around women? And why are there so many memorable women in the Bible? The sheer number of their stories demands an explanation: What are they doing here? Why were they written? Why were they included in this compact text?

One possible answer soon occurred to me: could the biblical stories about women have been written because of the desire of Israelite men to explore the nature of women and their role and to understand the question of gender? To explore this possibility, I analyzed the biblical stories from the perspective of gender questions: What, according to these stories, do women want? What are they like? How do they achieve their goals? The results, documented in In the Wake of the Goddesses, were unexpected.

Contrary to all assumptions – my own included – the Hebrew Bible, unlike other ancient literature, does not present any ideas about women as the “Other.” The role of woman is clearly subordinate, but the Hebrew Bible does not “explain” or justify this subordination by portraying women as different or inferior. The stories do not reflect any differences in Goals and desires between men and women that are different from those used by men who are not in positions of authority. There are no personality traits or psychological characteristics that are unique to women, and the familiar Western notions of “feminine wiles,” “the battle between the sexes,” “sisterly solidarity,” and “sex as weapon” are all absent, as are any discussions of the nature of women. There are also no negative statements and stereotypes about women, no gynophobic (“women-fearing”) discourse. The only misogynist statement in the Bible comes very late in biblical development, in the book of Ecclesiastes, and shows the introduction of the classical Greek denigration of women into Israel.

The Bible’s lack of ideas about female otherness does not make it a feminist paradise any more than the presence of memorable women does. Women were still socially disadvantaged and excluded from public power. But the Bible does not add insult to this disadvantage, does not claim that women need to be controlled because they are wild, or need to be led because they are foolish, or need to be directed because they are passive, or any other of the justifications for male domination that have been prevalent in Western culture.

The Bible’s lack of justification for social inequity can be interpreted in two radically different ways. Reading with a hermeneutic of suspicion, we might speculate that the Bible did not need to justify patriarchy, because partriarchy was so firmly entrenched, and that the Bible’s lack of stereotypes about women is simply a gender blindness that totally ignores eeryone but economically advantaged males. If, however, we follow the hermeneutic of suspicion with a hermeneutic of grace, we might conclude that even though the Bible failed to eradicate or even notice patriarchy, it created a vision of humanity that is gender neutral. Biblical thinkers treated social structure as a historical given: they sought to regulate social behavior, but not to explain or justify the social structure itself.

The Bible’s view of gender sets up a dramatic clash between theory and reality. On the one hand, women occupied a socially subordinate position. On the other hand, the Bible did not label them as inferior. This gap between ideology and social structure has a major disadvantage: it did not explain people’s lives, did not give people a way to understand why women had no access to public decision making. Such dissonance could not last forever: one of the two had to give, and the Bible’s vision of a gender-neutral humanity ulitmately gave way in the face of ongoing patriarchy. At the same time, the biblical vision had the enormous advantage of not adding prejudice to powerlessness. The biblical view understood that women were powerless and subordinate without being inferior. This insight had enormous implications for the way Israel viewed itself. Israel was always small and vulnerable in comparison to the empires surrounding it. As time went on, this vulnerability gave way to defeat, and Israel was conquered by more powerful nations. The Bible’s view of women became central to Israel’s thinking, for it provided a paradigm for understanding powerlessness and subordination without recourse to prejudicial ideas. Israel was subject to the power and authority of others on an international level just as women were subordinate within Israelite society, and the Bible’s own image of women enabled its thinkers to accept this powerlessness without translating it into a sense of inferiority or worthlessness. In this way, the Bible’s image of women was an essential element in its self-image and its understanding of Israel’s destiny.

I welcome this analysis, that the stories about women are not about women. They are about the marginalization of a people. Women are generic human beings, they represent their own nation. They are not “Other.” While I celebrate the differences in the physicality of men and women, I deplore the alienation of women by some writers.

It had been dawning on me lately, knowing that Joseph and Esther were alike “beautiful” and that men and women could also both be “valiant” that perhaps stories of women in the Bible had been vastly misread in English. We don’t so easily see the themes and threads which cross gender, drawing similiarities between men and women such as Abraham and Rebecca, both recipients of the blessing of offspring, both willing to “go.” But Frymer-Kensky is a linguist par excellence and opens up new material in each of the narratives she treats.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2012 12:36 am

    This is very interesting, that the Bible is so unlike other ancient literature in this area. Looked at in terms of accommodation, I can see the hand of God in this– accommodating patriarchy but not letting it descend to misogyny.

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