The rabbis teach that each word of the Torah has 70 possible interpretations. Perhaps this accounts for the steady proliferation of Biblical commentaries published each year, including four new books on the women of the Bible. In Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons from the Wisdom and Stories of Biblical Women (McGraw Hill, $24,95), Vanessa Ochs, a professor of .Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia, retells in vivid novelistic detail a particular moment in the lives of a variety of biblical women. These creative renditions serve as modern midrashim, adding brushstrokes to the Bible’s canvas. Thus we see Eve fashioning a table of stone for the home she builds with Adam in Eden; we smell the cracked wheat bread eaten by the daughters of Tzlofhad as they stand in line to speak with Moses; and we feel Sarah’s joy when Abraham parts her clothes and makes love to her with the vigor of a man half his age, as the three angels wait patiently in the shade. Ochs draws on traditional midrash to fill in the gaps in the biblical account, though readers in search of more transparency may wonder which details she derives from rabbinic readings and which details she invents. Of course, our inability to distinguish between the two is a tribute to the power of her retellings, which are both richly allusive and deeply sensitive to the cadences of the biblical text.
Ochs identifies each biblical figure she treats as the source of a particular inspirational teaching for contemporary women. The lessons she chooses reflect a freshness of insight that renders them far from obvious. While we might expect to glean from the relationship between Naomi and Ruth the value of women sticking together, Ochs instead highlights the importance of “revising mother daughter relationships” in light of changing life circumstances. This lesson and others, which are organized into thematic sections such as “being a parent,” “healing,” and “being wise,” will resonate with any modern woman seeking spiritual guidance. However, though Ochs presents original ways in which the women of the Bible can offer wisdom to the women of today, she tries too hard to bring these lessons home. She concludes each chapter with a small ritual which is intended to help the reader internalize the message of each story, but which often seems arbitrary or even hokey. For example, the reader is encouraged to “embrace the gift of Dina” by creating a homemade set of “angel cards” to take with her any time she, like Dina, steps out into new situations.
Ochs writes as a woman speaking to women, with the goal of connecting her readers to “our ancient community of sisters.” In contrast, both Naomi Harris Rosenblatt, author of After the Apple: Women in the Bible: Timeless Stories of Love, Lust and Longing (Miramax Books, $23.95) and Marsha Mirkin, author of The Women Who Danced By the Sea: Finding Ourselves in the Stories of our Biblical Foremothers (Monkfish, $16.95) write for both women and men. Although each of their chapters is built around a particular woman, they tend to focus just as much on the male characters in their blow-by-blow retellings of the Bible’s stories. Perhaps their books are less about women than about what might be considered a feminine way of reading the Bible. Each author interrupts her retelling of the Bible’s narratives every few sentences for an insight into gender dynamics, the power of our emotions, or some other universal truth about human nature. These “lessons” tend to be painfully obvious: In her chapter on Rebecca, Rosenblatt informs us that “the story suggests that when all is said and done, character is the one component we can trust in choosing our mate”; in discussing the banishment from Eden, Mirkin teaches us that “whenever we take a growth-producing step, a step toward more wholeness, we also experience a loss.”
Both Rosenblatt and Mirkin are psychotherapists, although they have followed opposite paths. Rosenblatt relates that a journey that began with childhood Bible study eventually led her to her work as a psychotherapist; conversely, Mirkin maintains that the lessons about family and community that she learned from psychotherapy led her to a way of interpreting the Bible. This difference is reflected in their approaches. Rosenblatt begins with the voices of the biblical women, whose words she often quotes directly, and shows us how they can speak to us today. Mirkin, in contrast, begins each section of each chapter with the annals of modern-day therapeutic situations (“Darlene pondered divorcing her husband…”) to show how we, at various moments in our lives, find ourselves in the same position as characters in the Bible. By and large, however, these books represent very similar projects. Both Rosenblatt and Mirkin explain that they see themselves as authors of modern-day midrashim, both emphasize the strength and resourcefulness of the Bible’s women without overlooking the patriarchal context in which they lived, and both seek out personal relevance in the experiences of the women whose stories they relate. Nonetheless, each therapist writes from her own personal and professional experiences; thus readers who dance by Mirkin’s sea will still find what to savor in Rosenblatt’s apple.
In contrast to these three authors, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago, does not focus primarily on extracting modern lessons from the stories of biblical women. Instead, she examines the Bible’s concept of “woman” as a means of shedding light on Israel’s understanding of its own history. In Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (Schocken, $15), she convincingly demonstrates through rigorous scholarly analysis that the Bible’s women, subordinate but not inferior to their male counterparts, serve as a metaphor for Israel’s experience as a nation. Her reading, more than the other three, most empowers the women of the Bible because she shows how they are a model not for individual women in relationship crises, but for the entire nation of Israel. Just as Hagar is oppressed by her mistress Sarah and then joined in a covenant with God in the wilderness, so too are the Israelites oppressed in Egypt and then joined in a covenant with God at Sinai.
In Frymer-Kensky’s typology, which divides biblical women into four alliterative categories, Hagar is classified as one of the virgins, whose stories serve as a vehicle for exploring questions of intermarriage, ethnicity, and boundaries with non-Israelites. Then there are the victims, those marginalized and vulnerable women such as Jephthah’s daughter whose tragedies indict the societies in which they live. Next are the victors, women such as Rivka and the Egyptian midwives whose determinative role in shaping the history of the Jewish people dramatizes Israel’s ability to redeem itself through persistence and faith. And finally there are the voices, the prophetesses and mediums who, in spite of their powerlessness and marginalization, become conduits for the word of God, much as Israel transmits God’s teachings to the world.
In each chapter of Reading the Women of the Bible, Frymer-Kensky alternates between quoted sections of the Biblical text, which she labels as acts and scenes, and her own “offstage” commentary, in which she often functions as stage-manager, shifting the scenery behind the characters so that their stories become backdrops for one another. Although she writes as an academic, always maintaining the level of discipline and meticulousness that she sets as her standard, her readings are spirited, creative, and refreshing. Whereas other authors draw heavily on the midrashic tradition to round out the stories of the Bible’s women, Frymer-Kensky aims at stripping the Biblical characters of the layers of interpretation in which they have traditionally been cloaked. She examines these stories in their proper historical context, drawing on archeology, anthropology, the history of animal husbandry, and surviving documents from contemporaneous Akkadian and Sumerian societies.
Ironically, it is Frymer-Kensky’s book that ultimately offers the most profundity of insight into our contemporary situation. Readers who wish to see the Bible’s women come to life, from the frayed ribbons on their timbrels to the kohl that rims their eyes, can curl up in an armchair with Ochs’ engaging literary vignettes; and those in search of self-help and inspiration will find many passages to underline in Rosenblatt’s and Mirkin’s more psychological retellings. But those who have the patience for a more intense level of analysis will find that Frymer-Kensky casts the Biblical patterns on a screen with such clarity that we can map our own social reality onto the ancient text without any need for her to explicitly point out the vitality of the Biblical women or the resonance of their situations. Her women of the Bible speak to us on their own.
Ilana Kurshan is a freelance writer and editor.