DOI:10.5508/jhs.2006.v6.r40

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Irmtraud Fischer, Women Who Wrestled with God: Biblical Stories of Israel's Beginnings (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2005). Pp. viii + 149. US$16.95. ISBN 0-8146-5160-7.

Amidst a growing trend in feminist scholarship to render the Bible as a hopelessly patriarchal text, Irmtraud Fischer has adopted a bold and optimistic stance. The biblical authors, she argues, give more attention to women's stories and voices than is evident in traditional scholarship. While acknowledging that the Bible reflects the patriarchal culture in which it was produced, she notes that it is “remarkable how many women are told about at Israel's beginnings, and how thoroughly they determine the course of family life … (p. 146).” Sarah is the bearer of the divine promise. Rachel and Leah are portrayed as founders of the nation of ancient Israel. The schemings of Rebekah and Tamar accomplish the divine will.

According to Fischer, there are a number of reasons why women's stories have been overlooked. OT theologies tend to sketch the general contours of the biblical story only in terms of men and dwell on stories about men alone as being fruitful for exegesis. Moreover, the common designation for the stories in Genesis as the Patriarchal Narratives serves to reinforce androcentric interpretation, focusing the reader's attention only on male protagonists. Finally, section and chapter titles chosen by translators further add to the marginalization of female characters by summarizing texts in terms of male actors. For Fischer, it is not the biblical text that undercuts the promotion of justice and equality between men and women, but its interpretation within the church and academy.

Women who Wrestled with God is an effort at correcting this history of “misreading” in order to retrieve what the biblical authors intended to reflect about the origins of the nation of ancient Israel. Fischer pursues her task by applying what she calls a “gender fair” approach with a “pro-women option” to the biblical text, tracing the origins of ancient Israel through the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Dinah and Tamar, the women at the beginning of Exodus, and Naomi and Ruth. For each set of stories, Fischer engages in a close reading of the canonical final text, examining the literary layers of the text only when the intention has changed in the history of transmission and redaction. Her close reading reveals some surprising results. For instance, Fischer argues that the genealogy at the end of Ruth is not secondary but rather, integral to connecting these life stories of Israelite women to the records of generations that structure the book of Genesis. This is one instance, then, where the biblical authors reflect on Israel's foundations and self-understanding in terms of women's lives and from a woman's perspective.

Fischer also comments on the significance of women's stories, countering the notion that they merely reflect tales of domestic life of women in ancient Israel. If the “patriarchal” narratives are to be read as “ultra-political ‘national history’”, then the stories of women cannot be reduced to “idyllic ‘family stories’”. Insofar as these stories reflect a national history, the women as well as men are engaged in political actions, operating in the public sphere.

This work was first published in German in 1995, with a second edition released in 2000, and was translated into English by Linda M. Maloney. As with the German editions, this monograph is intended for students and those interested in practical theology. But even though Fischer does not primarily address biblical scholars, one is immediately impressed by her ability to engage and incorporate contemporary scholarly ideas into her own reflections on the text. This is no naïve reading of the canonical final form, but a critical analysis that employs source and redaction criticism as well as extensive knowledge of the ancient Near East. As the footnotes attest, Fischer also critically engages the growing body of feminist scholarship on these stories, at times challenging such readings for attending to earlier layers rather than the final form of the text. Her competence in interacting critically with both traditional and feminist scholarship makes this a valuable contribution to the discussion of ancient Israel's origins and women's stories.

While Fischer's reading of these stories is convincing, the question remains whether they can provide much of a challenge to patriarchy today. In the end, the reader is still left to wrestle with redactional layers that marginalize women's experiences and women's voices: the divine birth announcement to Sarah that is placed after the same announcement is given to Abraham, Hagar's oppression by Sarah which receives divine sanction, and Dinah's lack of voice in the story of her rape. No matter how optimistically one can construe the final form of these stories, women will continue to wrestle with a biblical text that refers to the supreme being as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Whether her optimism about the Bible will impact her readers remains to be seen. However, what Fischer effectively shows is that the biblical text embodies a tension between authors and redactors who were sympathetic toward the women in these ancient stories and others whose work perpetuates an androcentric and patriarchal perspective. This reviewer highly recommends this book for anyone interested in the history of Israel's origins.

Amanda W. Benckhuysen, Wycliffe College