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

Tammi J. Schneider, Sarah: Mother of Nations (New York/London: Continuum, 2004). Pp. xii + 146.  Paper, $US24.95, CAN$32.50.  ISBN 0-8264-1625-X.

In Sarah: Mother of Nations, Tammi J. Schneider examines this biblical mother in an attempt to provide a fresh exegetical examination of the literary portrayal of her character. Sarah is a strong, favoured, and important character in Genesis, according to her. Schneiderís presentation is full of new insights into the character of Sarah (and by association Abraham, God, and Lot) and every turn of the page provides the reader with innovative ideas. Even if not convinced by Schneiderís conclusions, after her analysis one is forced to grapple with the questions she raises.

In chapter one, Schneider attempts to identify the beginning of the First Family Narrative, which she concludes begins with the genealogy of Terah, in which he is the focus. She emphasizes how this beginning links what comes before and what comes after and is not the dramatic break that is usually seen by Genesis scholars.

Chapter two focuses on the relationships between Abraham and Sarah and Abraham and Lot in Genesis 12-13. Her claim is that these shorter narratives must be interpreted together because of the juxtaposition of Sarah and Lot. She also introduces the relationship between Sarah and the Deity, something which is often overlooked by other commentators.

Her next section focuses on Genesis 14-17, particularly on chapter 16 because Sarah has received the greatest criticism because of this passage. In this chapter Schenider argues that the Deity makes his allegiance to Sarah, which was only implicit in Genesis 12, explicit.

The next chapter focuses on the stories surrounding the messengers of Yahweh. The way in which she divides the text is important for her analysis because it suggests that the visit to Abraham, in which Sarah finds out that she will bear a child, is the primary purpose of the narrative, rather than a stopover on the way to Sodom and Gomorrah. In this chapter she is particularly critical of the character of Abraham.

Her criticism of Abraham carries on into the next chapter, which focuses on his character rather than the character of Sarah. She argues that Genesis 20-22 highlights the faithful relationship of Sarah to the Deity, in contrast to the disbelief of Abraham, regarding the chosen seed. In her final chapter, which deals with the death and burial of Sarah, Schneider attempts to demonstrate that the relationship between the couple has deteriorated to the point that they no longer live together and that Abrahamís provisions for Sarah are merely ceremonial and his responsibility.

Her concluding chapter and the short appendix on the New Testament address how scholars could have overlooked her analysis of the text for so long and what implications her conclusions have for the future of scholarship.

Despite an overall excellent presentation, there are a couple of shortcomings in this monograph. The first area was her use of secondary material. She claims that she will be interacting with three commentaries, von Rad, Spesier, and Brueggemann and articles from the Anchor Bible Dictionary (p. 4). She has chosen these three because they represent different methodological approaches to the text, but this is really insufficient, especially since none of them use the same methodologies she uses. This makes it difficult for the reader to know what is new about her argument or what it contributes to the scholarship based on that methodology. However, she does not actually apply this method, as she often brings in the analysis of other scholars and does not always use the work of the three named commentators.

The second area that needs improvement is her extensive discussion of other characters in the narrative. She often uses many details to explain what is happening in the structure of the text or in the development of other characters. While this may be important for understanding Sarah because she is a character in relationship with other characters and bound by the restrictions of the text, she does not take the second step of explaining how these details contribute to a better understanding of Sarah. Most of chapter one would fall into this category, with the notable exception being the discussion of Milcah; chapter five also suffers from this problem.

These points notwithstanding, this is a very good, modern feminist literary approach to the character of Sarah, which is long over due. This is mandatory reading for any scholar who wants to study Sarah in a serious way and a significant contribution to the academy. 

Ellen White
Faculty of Theology
University of St. Michaelís College