DOI:10.5508/jhs.2007.v7.r10

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Cheryl Anderson, Women, Ideology and Violence: Critical Theory and the Construction of Gender in the Book of the Covenant and Deuteronomic Law (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 394; New York: T. & T. Clark, 2005). Pp. xii + 148. Paper, US$39.95. ISBN 0-567-08252-0.

This book, based on Anderson's PhD thesis, has five chapters. In an introductory Chapter 1 basic concepts are set out, together with a review of previous research about the role and function of so called ‘biblical law’ and considerations of methodology (pp. 1-20). Chapter 2 contains a survey of laws on women in the Book of the Covenant (BC; Exodus 20:23-23:19) and in the law passage in Deuteronomy (DL), broadly divided into inclusive laws and exclusive laws (pp. 21-50): for Anderson, an ‘inclusive’ law is one that treats women and men in the same or similar ways and hence does not construct gender while ‘exclusive’ laws treat men and women differently, hence both shaping and reflecting gender ideologies. On the basis of this classified survey, in Chapter 3 Anderson proceeds to discuss how identities are constructed in both corpora (pp. 51-76). Here she moves from discussing class, age and national identities to the construction of gender identity and legitimization of identity. In Chapter 4, entitled ‘Law, Gender, and Violence,’ ‘law’ is analyzed as ‘violence’ if by its nature it represses the feminine in order to construct masculinity (pp. 77-100). The implications are summarized in Chapter 5 (pp. 101-117). There are two useful Appendixes: A, reproducing the NRSV for the laws read, classified according to topic; and B, of relative social privileges as constructed by the law. A bibliography and two indices—of references and authors—conclude the work.

As can be seen from this brief outline, the book's structure has a lot to recommend it. It is simply well done. Anderson first states her basic assumptions, namely, that there are certain properties of biblical and any other ‘law’ that should be taken into account: ideologies, reflected and created; its nature as a speech act; potentiality of constructing identity, including gender identities; potentiality of oppression, built in according to the laws’ bias and ideologies. Her survey of previous literature highlights two basic questions: is biblical Law actually ‘law’, i.e., is it legal literature? And can it be used, historically, for reconstructions of ancient Israelite societies, at any time? Her answers are measured and, in general, she opts for caution, preferring mental history over history, ideology over [dubious] reconstructions of guessed ‘realities, which seems to this reader a good move. Why, then, Anderson continues to bow to the Guild's wisdom in calling this type of literature ‘law’ (understandable in a dissertation, but is it necessary in this book?) remains obscure.

Caution continues to be a hallmark of the work, and it is coupled by sound judgment. Yes, not every ‘law’ concerning females is gender-specific; and the division into inclusive and exclusive categories makes sense: both modes are significant for constructing gender, in different ways, as dictated from their ideologies. Consequently, the presentation and short discussions of the relevant BC and DL materials (Chapter 2) are lucid and form a solid building block for the next moves: considerations of identities, gender and law as violence, which are at this work's core.

Anderson restates that female sexuality, as apparent from the law collections studied, is controlled by males. However, as she further states, privilege and penalty (which are the law's business) are relational: some males, some females, according to their place in the social hierarchy (marriage, parenthood, origin, economic situation) are more privileged than others, which is relevant to the understanding of gender as well (see Appendix B). This nuancing is highly welcome, and timely.

What about violence? In Anderson's words, “The BC and DL, because they inscribe a patriarchal ideology that constructs masculinity as male dominance and, correspondingly, female subordination, are inherently a form of violence” (p. 98), which may promote male violence in order to ascertain predominance, and male violence on women, even today. In Chapter 5 the inherent violence in additional biblical texts is studied, from the prophetic collections and elsewhere in the bible, and some reading strategies are suggested as countermeasures. This conclusion is hardly new, but its careful extraction from a nuanced consideration of inclusive and exclusive laws, and its anchoring in a relational analysis, lends it extra strength and additional authority. I find that restating accepted wisdom, after a reexamination and deployment of additional feminist (biblical and non-biblical) literature, is certainly of value.

This book is a welcome addition to the growing volume of feminist readings/writings on biblical ‘law’, readings that mostly reaffirm older feminist views on biblical literature's ideo-social bias on women, but are anchored in a broader theoretical and critical base. It ought to be helpful for anyone interested in biblical ‘law’. And I recommend it, among other reasons, also for its brevity: it is short, but backed with selective erudition and good sense.

Athalya Brenner, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands