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Feminist Exegesis of the Old Testament: Some Critical Reflections

Feminist Exegesis of the Old Testament: Some Critical Reflections

by Paul Joyce
First published as Ch. 1, in After Eve,
edited by Janet Martin Soskice.
Collins Marshall Pickering 1990
Reproduced on our website with the necessary permissions

The question of how we are to understand and interpret Scripture, in all its diversity, across a broad cultural divide is one of the central and perennial issues of theology. One area in which this is keenly felt in some contemporary Christian circles is that relating to women and the feminine. Feminist exegesis of the Bible, though having roots at least as early as the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the nineteenth century,(1) has been an increasingly significant feature of the theological scene in recent years. This form of criticism may seem rather alien to those accustomed to more traditional approaches, but its challenges and insights need to be taken seriously by all, not least because they often raise in sharp form many questions which are of importance to biblical interpretation as a whole, including those which relate to the authority of Scripture. In this short essay, we shall consider some of the key issues raised, in specific relation to the Old Testament.

There is, of course, much in the Old Testament which presents a decidedly 'negative' view of women. As an example we may cite the presentation of sinful Israel as a dissolute woman in Ezekiel chapter sixteen, or again the image of the harlot as the embodiment of folly in Proverbs chapter seven. There have been a number of different responses to such material. Throughout much of Christian tradition, the tendency has often been for 'negative' biblical themes concerning women to be given prominence - for example, the part played by the woman in the garden of Eden.(2) Such an emphasis has often both been informed by and in turn sanctioned the assumptions of Church and society regarding the place and role of women. Needless to say, traditional views of this kind have generally gone together with an assumption that a high degree of authority is to be attributed to the canon of Scripture.

At another extreme, we find the so-called post-Christian feminists such as Mary Daly or, in Britain, Daphne Harnpson.(3) Their position shares with most traditional interpretation the general supposition that the biblical witness with regard to women is essentially negative. Indeed, these critics have helped us see much more clearly the extent of the subordination of women in the biblical materials. But whereas much traditional interpretation sanctioned this picture, the response of the post-Christian feminist is to say that the biblical text must be rejected, as the irredeemable product of a 'patriarchal' culture, and with it any notion of scriptural authority in the traditional sense.

However, there is (in spite of all) much in the Old Testament that is more positive with regard to women than either most traditional exegesis or post-Christian feminism has generally acknowledged. Two examples can suffice here. One is the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who leaves her homeland out of loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi and settles in Judah, where she becomes the ancestress of David. The other is the remarkable motif of the personification of the divine Wisdom as a woman in Proverbs chapter eight. Indeed, one of the major contributions of what we might call 'mainstream' feminist exegesis of the Bible has been to demonstrate this more positive side. A good example of the presentation of positive themes is Phyllis Trible's God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, in which texts ranging from Genesis chapter one to the Song of Songs are explored from a feminist perspective.(4) This position certainly acknowledges the so-called 'patriarchy' of much of the biblical witness, but it wrestles with the question of how this may be related to those parts of the text which are more positive about women. Because such 'mainstream' feminist writers attribute some distinctive authority to the Bible (unlike post-Christian feminists), they engage in an important way with issues of change and continuity within the Christian tradition and with questions relating to the authority of Scripture.(5)

Among the important questions of interpretation highlighted by the work of these feminist critics are the following: How are we to respond to the fact that both 'positive' and 'negative' themes concerning women are to be found side-by-side in the Bible? Should we give greater weight to one or the other, and, if so, on what grounds?

One response is the attempt to make the most of the 'positive' themes concerning women and the feminine in the biblical tradition, thereby counteracting the 'negative' bias of much traditional interpretation, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld identifies two aspects of such an approach. One involves giving renewed emphasis to texts in which women play a prominent, positive role; a notable example would be the stories about Deborah, the deliverer of Israel, recounted in Judges chapters four and five. The second aspect involves the positive reinterpretation of texts, finding 'positive' themes in material which has traditionally been thought to present a 'negative' view of women. An example of the latter would be the attempt of some critics to emphasise the co-responsibility of woman with man in the Eden narrative as a positive theme.(6)

This approach, which we might call 'maximising the positive', has many attractions; it is certainly illuminating to be helped to read with new eyes a narrative such as that of Moses' infancy in Exodus chapters one and two, where we discover the important role played by women as the agents of God's saving activity.(7)However, there are also reasons to be cautious here, two of which we shall briefly examine.

First, there is the danger of attempting to reclaim too much, trying to redeem the irredeemable. Occasionally, one feels that eisegesis rather than exegesis is at work; this criticism is certainly made by some of those who study the place of women in the biblical world from a more strictly historical viewpoint.(8) Moreover, one detects in some feminist exegesis a certain lack of clarity with regard to what is being claimed. At times, it is not quite clear whether the reader is being offered a historical-critical judgment about the original meaning of the text or a free reading for our own day, which does not necessarily claim to tally with the original meaning; indeed, some feminist critics appear to slide between the two.(9) We must beware of being simplistic in our criticism here, for the relationship between exegesis of an ancient text and its appropriation in a modern situation is, of course, always a complex one. Nevertheless, more consistent clarity about what is being claimed by feminist exegetes would undoubtedly help others weigh the value of their contribution.

Second, even when it is employed appropriately, the approach which we have dubbed 'maximising the positive' has obvious limitations. For there will inevitably remain texts for which no reinterpretation seems possible, a significant residue of what some have called 'irredeemably sexist material'. Integrity and honesty demand that such 'negative' texts be acknowledged for what they are. But how then are we to deal with them?

The approach of Phyllis Trible in her book Texts of Terror is a sophisticated attempt to grapple with this very question.(10) She reviews four particularly gruesome narratives. The first is the story of Hagar, the Egyptian maid who bears Abraham's son Ishmael but becomes the innocent victim of rejection (Genesis 16.1-16; 21.9-21). The next is the account of the rape of Tamar, princess Judah, by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13.1-22). Trible's third text is the harrowing tale of the betrayal, rape and dismemberment of an unnamed concubine from Bethlehem (Judges 19.1-30). And then, finally, there is the story of the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter, in fulfilment of the father's foolish vow (Judges 11.29-40). Trible is not concerned to rehabilitate her 'texts of terror', in the sense of demonstrating that they are positive after all. On the contrary, she presents them in all their darkness, calling the reader to identify with biblical women both in their oppression and in their struggle for freedom. These four texts are themselves undeniably 'negative', and yet Trible enables an engagement with these biblical narratives which is both profound and challenging.

We have mentioned the attempt to discern and highlight more 'positive' themes. We have also seen that even 'negative' passages can, in a sense, be used positively. But given that both 'negative' and 'positive' themes are to be found, how are they to be related? Can we find any criteria which might help us to order these diverse biblical materials?

The approach of Rosemary Radford Ruether attempts to address this question by looking beyond those texts which speak explicitly of women. She claims to discern in the Bible a more general theological perspective which is the key to the whole. She finds this in what she calls 'Prophetic Principles'. These, she says, 'imply a rejection of... every use of God to justify social domination and subjection'.(11) Within the Old Testament, these principles are found in, for example, the Exodus tradition and the Classical Prophets. This strand of the biblical witness is given normative status - and all biblical 'sexism' (to use Ruether's word) is subordinated to its critique. Whilst many passages make no reference to the situation of women, they give a scriptural charter for the liberation of women in our own day. Consciousness of oppression is contextual, Ruether stresses, and the appropriate response in the modern context is to make explicit the critique of sexism which is implicit in the 'Prophetic Principles' of the Old Testament.

This approach is, in many ways, attractive. But why should we elevate these 'Prophetic Principles' to normative status? The Old Testament presents us with a very 'mixed bag' of materials on most issues of major concern, including those of power and justice. There are, of course, legitimate debates about what is central and what is marginal, but it is by no means clear on what grounds 'Prophetic Principles' could conclusively be shown to be normative in the Old Testament.(12) There are indeed many texts which might be used to support feminist concerns (and these might well include some which contain no explicit reference to women), but there are clearly also many other texts which point in a different direction. Some feminist critics weaken their case by failing adequately to address this question of the criteria upon which selection is to be made and emphasis given.(13)

This is ultimately, of course, an issue of authority. The Christian may wish at this point to bring in the New Testament and ask whether it can yield the key to our problem. We have, after all, been using the term Old Testament (rather than Hebrew Bible), which implies a Christian theological context. Cannot the New Testament show us what should be the normative, authoritative emphasis within the diverse materials of the Old? But here we face the difficulty that the diversity of the New Testament witness on the place of women and the feminine is comparably complex to that of the Old Testament. How, for example, are we to reconcile Jesus' apparently positive attitude towards women with the so-called subordinationist texts in Paul, both of course much debated? No more than the Old Testament does the New Testament, in its own right, give us unequivocal grounds for attributing greater authority to one emphasis rather than another.(14)

One way forward seems to lie in broadening the scope of our inquiry still further. Our principles of discrimination can be drawn only in part from within the Bible; we have to go outside Scripture too. Ruether is, in practice, quite evidently drawing on a whole range of extra-biblical considerations when she chooses to give primacy to her 'Prophetic Principles'.(15) And this is surely nothing new; throughout the centuries, whatever interpreters have claimed they were doing, they have in fact operated with their own 'canon' within the biblical canon, conditioned by their own theological, confessional and ideological perspectives.(16) Today we see the range of factors involved to be broad indeed (certainly including philosophical, sociological, political and psychological factors). Robert Morgan has reminded us recently just how multi-faceted is this task of biblical interpretation.(17) It is important that we should acknowledge that we are all engaged in a broadly-based theological endeavour such as this when we read Scripture. Such a recognition will compel us to reflect self-critically upon this task and upon the difficult question of how we can appropriately express the authority of the Bible within such a process. Moreover, we shall find ourselves forced to think hard about a host of closely-related questions, concerning revelation and natural theology, change and continuity within a religious tradition, the development of doctrine and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, issues of objectivity and subjectivity, committed reading and detachment, and the importance of the context of interpretation. In short, we shall be required to think theologically.

Feminist exegesis not only poses an important challenge to many of our assumptions about the Bible and about ourselves with regard to the place of women and the feminine; it also highlights, as we have seen, many issues which are central to all interpretation of the Bible. If we have raised several critical questions concerning the method of feminist exegesis, this is in the recognition that these issues are being addressed by a number of feminist critics themselves, and also that these methodological observations have a bearing upon most other forms of biblical interpretation too.

In closing, we shall summarise the main general issues of method which have been highlighted.

1. It is important to strive for clarity about what is being claimed in biblical interpretation. Above all, we should avoid any tendency to imply in a merely casual or covert way that our reading coincides with the original meaning. If historical-critical judgments are offered, they must be defended with exegetical rigour.

2. The diversity of Scripture on most important issues must be acknowledged; where the 'centre' of the biblical witness on any particular theme lies is rarely, if ever, self-evident; as we sift the biblical resources we must reflect self-critically on the criteria upon which selection is made and emphasis given.

3. It is to be acknowledged that, in practice, these criteria are usually drawn from a wide range and that interpretation is always influenced by many extra-biblical factors; that it is indeed shaped, to a significant degree, by the entire context of interpretation. We must strive to express our understanding of the authority of Scripture in such a way as to take seriously the fact that the Bible is but one factor (albeit of foundational importance) in the complex business of finding meaning and identity as Christians in a changing world.


1. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman's Bible (London, 1985; first published 1895); cf. Elizabeth Griffin, In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Oxford, 1984).

2. Of the wide range of examples which might be cited, we note: Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 22, 4; Tertullian, On the Dress of Women, I, 1, 1-2; Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis, XI, 42; Ambrose, On Paradise, XII, 56.

3. Mary Daly's influential contributions Include: Beyond God the Father (London, 1985; first published 1973); Gyn/Ecology (London, 1984; first published 1978). Cf. Daphne Hampson, 'The Challenge of Feminism to Christianity', in Theology September 1985, pp. 341-50; 'Is There a Place for Feminists in the Christian Church?', in New Blackfriars January 1987, pp. Iff.

4. Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia, 1978).

5. The focus of my concerns in this short essay is with change and development within the Christian tradition and its implications for hermeneutics and the authority of Scripture within that tradition. This is in no way to overlook important work being done in this area by those who stand within the Jewish tradition. See, for example, Judith Hauptman, 'Images of Women in the Talmud', in Rosemary Radford Ruether (ed.), Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1974), pp. 184-212.

6. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 'Feminist Uses of Biblical Materials', in Letty M. Russell (ed.), Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Oxford, 1985), pp. 55-64.

7. This feature of the narrative is attractively highlighted in Hans-Ruedi Weber, Experiments with Bible Study (Geneva, 1981), pp. 67-74.

8. I am grateful for the observations of Leonie Archer here. As an example of her written contribution in this area, see 'The Virgin and the Harlot in the Writings of Formative Judaism', History Workshop 24 (1987), pp. 1-16; cf. also Leonie Archer, Her Price is Beyond Rubies: The Jewish Woman in Graeco-Roman Palestine (Sheffield, 1990).

9. Such ambiguity is an occasional feature even of Trible's valuable treatment of Genesis chs 2-3: Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 72-143.

10. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia, 1984).

11. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology {London, 1983), p. 23; cf. 'Feminism and Patriarchal Religion: Principles of Ideological Critique of the Bible', in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 22 (1982), pp. 54-66.

12. Among valuable recent treatments of the diversity of the Old Testament, see: Paul D. Hanson, The Diversity of Scripture: A Theological Interpretation (Philadelphia, 1982); John Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987).

13. When Ruether asserts that the 'prophetic-liberating tradition of Biblical faith . . . can be fairly claimed, on the basis of generally accepted Biblical scholarship, to be the central tradition' she is surely underestimating the problematic nature of this question (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, pp. 23-4).

14. On the New Testament, see Robert Morgan's essay in the present volume.

15. Ruether's formulation of 'Prophetic Principles' would seem to reflect the influence of Marxism, Liberation Theology and secular Feminism, among other factors.

16. Cf. John H. Hayes and Frederick C. Prussner, Old Testament Theology: Its History and Development (London, 1985).

17. Robert Morgan (with John Barton), Biblical Interpretation (Oxford,

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