Tivka Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories.
(New York: Schocken, 2002), xxvii, 446 pp. Cloth. ISBN 0-8052-41213. $28.95
Reviewed by Susan Graham
University of Exeter

This fine new study of the stories of often neglected women in the Bible has its roots in Tivka Frymer-Kensky’s life-long love for, and study of the Hebrew Bible, and its present form grew out of her intuition, gained in her study of gender and the ancient religious imagination (In the Wake of the Goddesses, 1993), that there is a “surprising lack of specific gender differentiation in Biblical thought” p. ix). Certainly the Bible includes stories about both women and men, but Frymer-Kensky’s thesis is that while women may play subordinate roles in the Bible, they are not portrayed as different or inferior to men. Even though, as she admits, the Bible “failed to eradicate or even notice patriarchy, it created a vision of humanity that it gender neutral” (p. xvi). Biblical women’s stories “provided a paradigm for understanding powerlessness and subordination without recourse to prejudicial ideas.” For Israel as a nation subjected to conquest, these images of women enabled biblical thinkers to accept powerlessness “without translating it into a sense of inferiority or worthlessness,” and thus were “an essential element” in the biblical understanding of Israel’s destiny (p. xvii). This approach to the Bible, combining a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion with a “hermeneutic of grace,” enables Frymer-Kensky to read ancient texts in ways that provide hope and healing for women and men in the contemporary world.

Frymer-Kensky proposes a new taxonomy of the women in the Bible, four “discourses” alliteratively labeled “woman as victor,” “woman as victim,” “woman as virgin (bride-to-be),” and “woman as voice (of God).” Her method begins with a close reading of the text, informed by historical critical tools. She then turns to the techniques of literary and rhetorical analysis, concentrating on the final form of the story, but aware of its historical development. Then she explores the wider literary and cultural contexts. Calling upon all of these tools of the biblical scholar’s trade, she builds nuanced and complex interpretations of the stories. But Frymer-Kensky, true to her feminist stance, recognizes that no reading is value-free; she provides a quick view of her own presuppositions, particularly her “feminist philosophy of the equality of men and women, and her “hermeneutic of grace,” which refuses to assume “evil intent on the part of biblical authors’ despite “patriarchal difficulties.” She adjudicates among alternative readings of stories by choosing those she believes “will prove most beneficial to people” (p. xxvi). Her tone throughout, whether celebrating the women of the Bible as saviors of Israel, or mourning women victimized by the violence of others, is irenic. This is a book that enables readers to navigate through the most violent of the texts of terror in the Bible free from the stranglehold of rage.

While the close readings of the texts provide a wealth of insight, it is the grouping of stories by type that enables Frymer-Kensky to compare various ideas of “women” in the Bible and to contrast those ideas with contemporary views. She thus does justice to the historical world of the ancient text and provides readings that illuminate current social issues. Thus the story of Jephthah’s daughter provided girls in ancient Israel with a role model as they approached puberty and its dangers: the archetypal “daughter” demonstrated both courage and power in her decision to honor her father’s vow. Her father, as chief of the Gilead family, has the ultimate authority to do what he had vowed, but when the vow requires him to act against his own will, there is no higher authority to whom he can appeal. In Frymer-Kensky’s reading, the pious Jephthah too is a victim, and his story is “the first hint that lack of control over families is a crucial flaw that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the social order” (p. 117). The connection to contemporary concerns is not made immediately, but at the conclusion to the book, the lines are clearly drawn: “no society can be considered just that does not protect its most vulnerable” (p. 351) and the biblical stories work subversively, in this case to show us “the difficulties inherent in proclaiming ‘family values’ to be the ultimate social institution” p. 351). Frymer-Kensky finds apt analogies to biblical stories in contemporary issues of poverty and violence against women and within families, and she concludes that when the biblical stories no longer resonate in the contemporary context, they “will have done their job and the old metaphors will cease to have their power” (p. 354). That time is not yet, and this book helps readers to listen for the word of God, speaking powerfully through the Bible to our world. The book provides excellent and detailed readings of biblical texts for students of the Bible, in a style that will prove accessible for readers outside the academy, but without sacrificing scholarly rigor. The Hebrew is transliterated, and evidence of the thorough engagement with critical scholarship that underlies these readings can be found in the endnotes. A more detailed index, including references to the critical literature used, would be helpful; and the lack of a bibliography is a (minor) disappointment.