Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach

Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach by liana Pardes [Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1992] $12.95

What can a Jewish feminist find to love in the Bible? Mainstream feminism has tended to treat traditional religion in general, and the Bible in particular, as uniformly oppressive to women and femaleness. But a new generation of feminist biblical scholars is making use of the fact that Scripture is by no means monolithic, but profoundly layered; the Pentateuch alone contains multiple strata dating from the 10th to the 5th century B.C.E., filled with fascinating inconsistencies and contradictions spliced together and only partially smoothed over by its ancient editors.

While liana Pardes emphatically agrees that biblical texts are in general powerfully patriarchal, what fascinates her is the evidence of half-suppressed “antithetical female voices” that hint of older polytheistic stories, express female power, female skepticism, and female eroticism—and even challenge the masculinity of the covenant between God and Israel.

Pardes, who teaches Hebrew literature at Princeton University, begins her book with a survey of earlier feminist approaches to the Bible, from the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 19th century, to the recent work of Phyllis Trible, Esther Fuchs and Mieke Bal—showing the striking diversity of interpretations possible even within an ideological critique of patriarchy, and arguing that conservative scholars need to pay attention to this branch of biblical analysis. Her own readings are a wonderful mix of careful attention to the Hebrew text, a rich command of Rabbinic and modern commentary, and a fresh sense of the many ways women act and suffer in the Bible.

She notices, for example, that while Adam is supposed to be the name-giver according to most (male) accounts of the creation story. Eve, in Genesis 4:1, not only is the name-giver of her first son, but startlingly asserts herself as a creatress alongside, or comparable to, God. [“I have created a man equally/together with the Lord.”] Though almost all translations disguise it, “Eve’s naming-speech may be perceived as a trace from an earlier mythological phase in which mother-goddesses were very much involved in the process of creation.”

In her chapter on Exodus 4:24-26, the cryptic “Bridegroom of Blood” story in which God attempts to kill Moses on the way to Egypt and is stopped when Zipporah circumcises her son and touches “his feet” with the foreskin, Pardes brilliantly argues that Zipporah may be a trace memory of the savior-goddess Isis. Sounds incredible? Zipporah means “bird,” and Isis is often depicted with wings; both figures save their husbands by enacting rituals connected with the penis.

Many commentators have observed how exceptional the book of Ruth is, in its representation of female bonding. Pardes goes further: She finds in the love between Naomi and Ruth a parallel to the Demeter- Persephone myth, an idyllic reversal of the Rachel-Leah rivalry, and a counter-ideology to the Biblical stress on exclusion of the Other. Is it an accident that a woman-centered story also supports an ethos of tolerance? Pardes doesn’t think so.

In the Song of Songs, she sees “an antipatriarchal model of love” between men and women, and between ourselves and God, which is stunning in its erotic woman-centeredness, and metaphorically challenges the Law of Israel. Her discussion of how this “deviant text” came to be admitted to the Bible, and what its presence means in terms of “a dialectic between wishes and restrictions” in the Bible and Jewish life, is both intellectually brilliant and emotionally satisfying.

Not all the texts Pardes examines are hopeful. Rachel’s story is tragically limited. The “nameless wife” of Job is rebuked for questioning, and omitted from the “scene of familial bliss” at the close of the Book of Job. Here, as elsewhere, Pardes recognizes patriarchal dread of female power. Yet she insists that the traces of our mothers in biblical texts can add “color and intensity to our own lives,” if we follow the example of the Shulamite with her lover in the Song of Songs (3:4): “I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.”

Though the “mother’s house” is a rare construction in the Bible, is remains a precious one.

Alicia Ostriker on “Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach”