Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Lillian Klein, From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).  Pp. 154.  Paper, US$15.00.  ISBN 0800635922.

This study by Lillian Klein examines a number of female characters and gendered images in biblical literature, giving particular attention to the books of Judges, Samuel, Esther and Job. Klein notes that most female characters in the Bible play peripheral roles, and she surmises that this representation is related to both the attitudes of male authors and the actual social conditions of women in the world that produced the texts.  Thus, her literary investigation of female characters involves matters of ideology or worldview, and social context.  Special emphasis is placed on the fact that the biblical texts are “narratives of females coping with male-imposed constraints, of living meaningful lives within social boundaries or by extending those boundaries” (8).

            Klein’s first two chapters consider the book of Judges.  She begins with an overview of the book as a whole, classifying its female characters by asking about “positive” and “negative” evaluations, “active” and “passive” roles in the story, interactions with male characters, age, marital or sexual status and so forth.  Notwithstanding the diversity of female characters in the book, all of the women of Judges are interpreted as acting in some relation to male interests and patriarchal constraints.  Klein goes on to argue in a second chapter that such interests and constraints are at work even in the representation of Deborah and Jael, for Klein suggests that both Deborah and Jael are characterized in such a way as to play on male fears of the feminization of men, and in relation to the goals of men.  Thus Deborah and Jael exemplify one of Klein’s major points, which is that even exceptional women must navigate a “sexual politics” structured by male domination.

            Klein’s third chapter interprets the story of Hannah by means of an interdisciplinary dialogue with both René Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire” and psycholinguistics.  This strategy allows Klein to examine interrelations among Hannah, Peninnah and Elkanah in more detail than do most readers of the story; and it also results in a more negative account of the words and actions of Elkanah and Eli than one often finds.  Klein interprets Hannah’s characterization in terms of an evolution from “marginalized other” to a “paradigm” of female, indeed Israelite, behavior.

            In her fourth chapter, Klein suggests that Bathsheba, often understood as passive victim of David’s desire, in fact lures David into desiring her by bathing on her roof when she knows David will see her.  Bathsheba’s goal, however, is not simply sexual seduction but rather conception: she has been unable to bear children by her Hittite husband Uriah.  While this interpretation is novel, Klein makes a case for reading Bathsheba’s motives in relation to the stories of Tamar and Ruth, women in the royal line who also secure offspring in enterprising ways.  By attributing agency to Bathsheba in the earlier part of her story, Klein interprets Bathsheba as a consistent character whose efforts on behalf of her son at the beginning of 1 Kings are less unexpected.

            In a book that focuses on narrative literature and emphasizes female characters, Klein’s fifth chapter on Job initially seems surprising.  In addition to examining the role of Job’s wife, however, Klein calls attention to sexual language that peppers the book’s poetic dialogues.  Her analysis of the book’s repeated references and allusions to the “womb” coheres with her emphasis on female sexual reproduction elsewhere in her volume.

            Female sexual reproduction plays something of a negative role in Klein’s sixth chapter, which focuses on “Michal, the Barren Wife.”  Here Klein’s emphasis on gendered characterization is extended to God, who becomes one of several male characters (along with Saul and David) who “persecute” Michal (93).  Klein makes a strong case for finding in Michal the complexity of character more often extended to her father and husband.

            A final chapter reads the book of Esther from the point of view of anthropological notions of honor and shame.  Klein underscores the gendered nature of these notions and argues that Esther partly transgresses such notions when the collective survival and honor of her people are at stake.  By the end of the book, however, Jewish male honor and female modesty (or shame) are again safely in place.

            Most of the chapters in Klein’s book have previously appeared in various volumes of Sheffield’s “Feminist Companion” series, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the book at times reads more like a collection of disparate essays than a unified volume.  Klein is not afraid to exercise her interpretative imagination when confronted with ambiguous passages, and individual readers will no doubt be more persuaded by some of her arguments than others.  Taken as a whole, though, her book makes a lively and accessible, though seldom simplistic, contribution to contemporary discussions of sex, gender and biblical literature; and it should prove useful to all scholars and educated readers who wish to be involved in those discussions.

Ken Stone
Chicago Theological Seminary