Ministering Angels

"They neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those what are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory."

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Book Review: "Reading the Women of the Bible," by Tikva Frymer-Kensky

By Melinda

When Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law, Judah (Genesis 38), she was striking out to save herself from a polite prison. Tamar's story had always faintly repulsed me, until the author explained her motives. Tamar had married Judah's oldest son. When her husband died, Tamar was given to the second son so that he could father a child to carry on his brother's line. After God struck the second son dead, Judah sent Tamar away. Eventually, Tamar realized that Judah's failure to provide a husband for her, or to completely release her from his family, would leave her dependent and alone for the rest of her life. Tamar could not force Judah to act, so she acted in the only way she could, by trickery, to secure her own future by producing an heir (p. 264 et seq).

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, a Jewish professor of the Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, introduces the reader to the women of the Old Testament, explaining the culture and customs that defined the existence of these women.

The introduction to the book caught me, because it immediately called to mind the way Mormon women interact with authority in our own patriarchal society. About Hebrew society, Frymer-Kensky states:

The role of women 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. Nor do they point out any strategies or methods used by 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 ("woman-fearing") discourse. . . .

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 of the other justifications for male domination that have been prevalent in Western culture." Introduction xv-xvi.

Interesting, isn't it? Women are subordinate, but there is no attempt to justify their subordinate position. It's simply the way things are. This is quite different from the questioning and theorizing that goes on in the Bloggernacle about the respective roles of men and women. Anyone who has tried to figure out why women are subordinate to male authority in the Mormon Church quickly discovers that the explanation is a tangled mess, and eventually falls back on faith and a claim that God hasn't changed it, so it must be right.

So what happens if we look at a society full of subordinate, yet not inferior women, without trying to justify and explain the subordination of women and the power of men? One aspect of Biblical society became clear immediately. The men, who have the authority, have a duty to protect the women, who are vulnerable. Indeed, the Bible uses stories about injustices against women to measure the civilization level in the Bible, for a civilization that cannot protect the vulnerable is not civilized at all. Against that backdrop, the story of the violent death of the concubine in Judges 19 becomes a harsh condemnation of Israelite society, illustrating the need for a king to restore social order and justice. (One realization necessary to understanding the Bible is that God does not approve all of the behavior portrayed therein.)

Another factor in a patriarchal society is that when women are officially silenced, they resort to other means to achieve results. So when Rebekah tricks her blind, elderly husband into bestowing the birthright blessing on Jacob instead of Esau, she has cleverly found a way to reach the right result. Today we are uncomfortable with her actions because we are not accustomed to a society in which a wife and husband would have a communications failure of such magnitude. But Rebekah was doing what she thought she had to do, and God blessed the outcome, without condemning or endorsing Rebekah's methods.

Fortunately, Mormon women do not have to work 'behind the scenes' to such an extent, but women's voices are absent from much official discourse and policymaking. To the extent women's voices are being officially heard in the Church, it is because the men have been persuaded that there is no reason to silence us, and have seen that our input is valuable. Thus, female influence in Mormon society is due to a softening of the patriarchy (which has plenty of room for women), obviating the need for trickery or manipulation.

I very much appreciated the de-sexualization of many of the Biblical stories involving women. According to Frymer-Kensky, after the Jews were conquered by the Greeks, the ensuing Hellenization of Israelite society contributed to the sexualizing of many Biblical stories. However, the text does not bear out these erotic assumptions. For example, Delilah simply asks Sampson the secret of his great strength, rather than seducing him (pp. 77-84). And the great sin at Ba'al-Pe'or was not sexual transgression with foreign women, but eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (pp. 215-224) (Numbers 25). Sexual overtones have soaked out of our saturated society and into so many stories; it was a relief to hear someone say, "this story has nothing to do with sex."

Frymer-Tensky's reasoning does not read freedoms or power into the text that are not there. She does not argue that women had any more power or influence than the text will support. Given the society she was studying, and her realistic assessment of women's vulnerability, I found it surprising that she appeared to think sexual freedom for women was a positive. She puzzles about why a society would prize virginity in unmarried women (pp. 183-185). Outside of chastity being a commandment, one reason came immediately to my mind. Placing value on virginity compelled the men to protect an unmarried woman from sexual exploitation. In such a male-dominated society, the protection of men would be the only protection available. Given the young age at which girls were married, sexual freedom was simply not an advantage from the girl's point of view. Instead, if no value were placed on virginity, men would be free to sexually exploit any woman. Valuing virginity and fidelity protected women from seduction and rape. A woman's sexual freedom is only an advantage in a society advanced enough to recognize the woman's right to say no.

And Julie M. Smith at Times and Seasons will enjoy the author's explanation that the Shunamite woman who befriends Elisha is quite possibly a daughter of Zelophehad (see pp. 64-73).

I highly recommend this book. I do wish the author had included analyses of the stories of Eve, Miriam and Esther. The exclusion of Eve and Miriam was deliberate. The author explained that Eve and Miriam are so powerful that their stories overshadow the stories of other women, and so she left them out. I wish she hadn't. But there is enough here that any complaints about exclusions sound whiney, so I won't complain.

"Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories," by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, (Schocken Books 2002).



at 7/12/2005 1:23 PM Anonymous Kurt said...

One thing to remember when reading the book of Genesis is that it is deliberately structured to be thought provoking. It doesnt necessarily lay out "this is wrong, this is right", it presents messy situations, and then asks, usually implicitly, "So what do you think about that?" Take Gen. 34:31 for example where an explicit question is left unanswered by the text after a harrowing story.

The matter-of-fact presentation of women being stuck in subservient roles is one of those things Genesis is asking the reader about.

I havent read the book youre reviewing. A couple of good commentaries on Genesis are the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary on Genesis and Everett Fox's The Five Books of Moses. If you are interested in delving deeper into the Hebrew approach to the text, I reccomend them.

at 7/13/2005 11:40 AM Blogger Melinda said...

Thanks for the book recommendations, Kurt, I'll put them on my list.

I think one reason people may find the OT more difficult to read than the BOM, for example, is because it does have messy situations. We spend so much time reading scriptures to find good examples to follow. Then in the OT, we find lots of stories that we *don't* want to imitate. Realizing that is one of the first steps to being able to appreciate the Bible. I'm glad you brought that up too.

at 7/13/2005 12:21 PM Blogger mindy said...

great review, Melinda. (My full name is Malinda, btw.) This sounds like a very interesting book. My husband and i started a "women of the scriptures" study for our couple study, but after reading Ruth (we weren't going in order) we decided to branch out because, frankly, it's hard to find much that is spiritually enlightening (for me at least) in the OT. I think I am one of those people who get too bogged down in the cultural norms of their day, and end up just thinking "Where is the spiritual aspect of all this, and is it worth plowing through all of this mess?" I guess it requires taking a step back and looking at the broader messages told. But even then it can feel like a lot of excess stuff is included in the OT.

at 7/13/2005 3:51 PM Blogger Sarita said...

I tried taking an institute class centered around the women in the scriptures at the institute hoping to learn more about these women and their roles and responsibilities in their time. All I came out with is that Sarah was really old when she gave birth and her name was changed. Golly, never heard heard that before.Oh, and that all femminists are going to hell in a handbasket. Needless to say I wasnt impressed. I suppose that I could have done further studying on my own. Those refrences should help.

at 1/15/2006 10:27 AM Anonymous androstenone said...

thanks for the info


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