Reading the Women of the Bible, by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Schocken Books, $28.95
In this book, which just received the Koret Prize, Frymer-Kensky provides a socio historical interpretation, dissecting a sentence of biblical text word by word and then discussing the broader political situation behind the classic stories, including comparisons from surrounding Near Eastern cultures.
For example. Genesis describes Rebekah as a beautiful virgin, kind enough to offer to draw water for Abraham’s servant Eliezer and his camels. Frymer-Kensky observes that a camel holds a great deal of water, especially after a long desert journey, and additionally that “(a)ncient Near Eastern wells were not vertical shafts through which buckets are lowered by rope. They were inclined slopes that the girl went down and came up. To water ten camels after a long journey, Rivkah had to go down and come up many times.” We now see that the matriarch Rebekah was more than beautiful—she was physically strong and observed the code of hospitality above and beyond the call of duty. Such attention to detail helps us to read these stories as ancient listeners heard them.
Frymer-Kensky uses four categories to describe the types of women in the bible; victors, victims, virgins (or brides) and voices (wise women or oracles). The victor stories are “tales about heroic women who become saviors, helping Israel survive and defeat its enemies.” The victims appear in “texts of terror” whose purpose is primarily to serve as social and political commentary. The female oracles represent the voice of God at different points in Israel’s history, “making a powerful statement about how the marginalized can be chosen to convey the word.” Finally, the virgin stories, concern “marriage, intermarriage, ethnicity, and boundaries with non-Israelites.”
Frymer-Kensky notes the absence of “negative statements and stereotypes about women, no gynophobic discourse….On the one hand, women occupied a socially subordinate position. One the other hand, the Bible did not label them as inferior.” The Bible, she claims, is not a misogynist book per se, and yet it never questions the secondary status of women, accepting it much as biblical civilization accepted slavery, war and pestilence as unchangeable facts of life.
She notes that much of the imagery of the “sexual temptress” or “dangerous woman” comes from later, Greek, interpretations of the biblical tales. Indeed, the stories most problematic for feminists exist not as morality tales of how men and women should be, but as social critiques and warnings.
Frymer-Kensky’s scholarship is thorough and exemplary, yet the book is accessible, possibly the best and most comprehensive introduction for lay readers to women in the Bible.
Rebecca Schwartz is editor of All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet and the Women of Exodus (2001). She holds an MA in Jewish History and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.