The Women’s Bible Commentary
edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe
Westminster/John Knox Press, 396 pages, $20
Like most children of my era who got a religious education, I grew up on Bible stories. The stories of the women in the Bible—rare as pearls of great price among the effusive genealogies of the men—were my favorites. Even their names had a spice-scented poetry—Rachel and Esther, Mary and Martha. There they were in the illustrations to the antiquated children’s biblical histories handed down from class to class in my parochial school: exotic, powerful female creatures with their veils and sandals and the bracelets they wore on their upper arms and ankles as well as on their wrists. These women were glamorous and sensual and intelligent—and they were holy, too!
As Catholics of the 1950s, we took our Bible stories from the sixteenth-century Douay translation of the Latin Vulgate, whose Old Testament uses Hellenicized names derived from the Septuagint Bible, a Greek translation from the Hebrew made by the rabbis of Alexandria during the first century B.C. The Greek versions of the Hebrew names made them seem even more vivid and strange than their direct-from-the-Hebrew equivalents in the King James Bible used by the Protestants. In our Bible, Abraham’s wife was “Sara,” a name redolent of the nomad’s tent and the cinnamon that the mother of the Hebrews might have used to spice the bread that she baked for her shepherd family. In the Protestant Bible, she was “Sarah,” an undoubtedly more accurate transliteration, but one that called to my mind a sturdy American pioneer housewife with a rolling pin rather than a veiled and braceleted Middle Eastern matriarch.
The women of the New Testament were an even more arresting lot to my child’s imagination. Mary the sinless Mother of God was, of course, lovely beyond all dreaming, but I was more drawn to the women among whom Christ lived who had shadings of flaws and ordinariness, of quintessentially female weakness: Martha testy in her kitchen, Mary Magdalene the penitent with her foolishly expensive perfume, her hair long enough to dry the feet of Christ, her tears for her many sins. There were other, shadowy women who took care of Christ’s daily needs out of their “substance,” wrapped the dead Lord in His burial shroud, and were the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Who were they? We know almost nothing about them beyond some of their names. Here they are (from various Gospels in the King James version): “Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward,” “Mary the mother of James and Joses,” “Salome,” “Susanna,” and the anonymous “mother of Zebedee’s sons.” Prosperous, practical, and likely middle-aged, these women who did the washing and the mending for the Apostles get such fleeting mention in the Gospels that they have-never become the object of saints’ cults. Yet Joanna, Salome, Susanna, and the rest have an honest plainness about them, reminding us that Christ did not come to earth just to save Ph.D.’s and investment bankers.
Turning from women in the Bible to women on the Bible—that is, to the predictable exegesis that is The Women’s Bible Commentary—is like turning from one’s mother’s garlic-fragrant kitchen to the snack-vending machines in the divinity-school lounge. It is a collection of essays by forty-one female scholars, all more or less at the middle-management level in theology departments across the country (many associate professors, no big names) purporting to explain each book of the Bible from a feminist perspective “in order to share it with the larger community of women who read the Bible,” as editors Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe explain in their introduction.
Actually, the Women’s Bible Commentary is most definitively not for the “larger community” of Bible-readers, for they are women and men who happen to believe in what the Bible says. Christians among that group might be upset to find their faith described as “the Jesus movement.” They might be further upset to read how Jane Schaberg, professor of religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, interprets Christ’s injunction against divorce as an open invitation for men to beat their wives: “Interpreted in this rigid fashion,” she writes, “this prohibition has … condemned women and men to the alternative of an intolerable bondage or a life of isolation and sexual repression.” Needless to say, neither Schaberg nor her forty colleagues take seriously such core Christian doctrines, literally recounted in the Gospels, as Christ’s divinity, His virginal conception, and His Resurrection (or “resurrection appearances,” as Deirdre J. Good, associate professor at General Theological Seminary, calls the first Easter). The feminist exegetes give equally short shrift to pious Judaism; in a commentary on the Book of Genesis, Amherst College religion professor Susan Niditch dismisses the culture of the ancient Hebrews as one “in which powerful women are regarded with suspicion as unnatural and evil” (actually, the women in Genesis seem quite the opposite, inspiring quite a bit of respect from their menfolk).
Nor could the Women’s Bible Commentary possibly be designed for everyday feminists, most of whom are determinedly secular and actively hostile to religion (try to imagine Susan Faludi turning to the Good Book for inspiration at the end of a long day in the patriarchy-battling trenches). And for all its claim to fashionable multiculturalism (“Women from the dominant culture, class, and ethnic group—especially in the United States—need to be careful not to generalize our experience as that of all women,” writes Ringe), the book is laughably parochial, designed strictly for Americans. Its very “Bible” is the American Protestant Bible with its Old Testament of thirty-nine books. The standard Jewish Bible has the same canon but in twenty-four books, and the Old Testaments used by Catholics and the Orthodox—the vast majority of the world’s Christians—contain a good many more books than does the Protestant Old Testament, including the stories of Judith, Tobias, and the Maccabees. The Women’s Bible Commentary relegates the entire Apocrypha, nine books in all, to a mere nine pages.
So, to whom exactly is The Women’s Bible Commentary addressed? The answer is simple: women like the forty-one who collaborated on this book. That is to say, divinity school professionals and other career academics. No other reader could work her way through the pages and pages of wooden writing (by way of sample, here is Sharyn Dowd, associate professor at the Lexington Theological Seminary, on the Epistle of St. Jude: “Two issues raised in this brief letter give evidence of the transitional period of church history when it was written”) or the description given by Susan R. Garrett, assistant professor at Yale Divinity School, of the Book of Revelation as “psychedelic.” None but the tenured and the wannabe tenured would approach the Bible as a mere work of literature—much less as a text of divine inspiration—with so little imagination or so little appreciation for the imagination of its authors. This is sobering, for today’s student theologians are likely to be tomorrow’s women of the cloth. Expect to hear many a sermon from the pulpit over the next decades on such topics as “ambiguous gender imagery,” “God as woman,” and how St. Luke’s Gospel “is an attempt to legitimize male dominance in the Christianity of the author’s time.”
It is one thing simply to regard the Good Book as a bad book, as echt-feminist Germain Greer does in her fits of anti-Christian eloquence. It is another—a hanging offense, in my opinion—to grind the Bible down into propagandistic mush, as these professors, associate professors, and assistant professors do in The Women’s Bible Commentary.
As a final example, consider how the feminist exegetes treat the brief Book of Ruth, a portrait of a brave and magnificent woman if there ever was one. Because it is so appealing, the story of Ruth is familiar to most people with a passing knowledge of the Bible: Ruth is a young Moabitess who marries a Jewish refugee in her land. When her husband dies young, Ruth chooses not to return to her family but to accompany her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Bethlehem where Naomi’s kin live. It is the time of the barley harvest, and Ruth gleans in the field of Boaz, a rich kinsman of Naomi’s late husband. She attracts Boaz’s eye, and soon enough, in conversations of remarkable courtesy and formality, he invites her to eat with his reapers and orders them to leave extra grain on the ground so that she can glean a plentiful measure for her mother-in-law. Naomi, seeing that Boaz is a likely prospect for Ruth under the Jewish levirate law that required men to marry their dead brothers’ widows, sends Ruth in her best dress to lie down at the feet of Boaz on the threshing floor where he has fallen asleep after the harvest. She is to uncover his feet before she lies down. Awakening at midnight, Boaz, struck by the modesty and “kindness” of his young kinswoman, offers to marry her even though he is not her closest male relative and not necessarily bound by the levirate law. He sends her home loaded with grain. The next day, in another scene of noble courtesy, Boaz secures Ruth’s rejection by her closer kinsman and publicly declares that he will make her his wife. We learn that Ruth bears Boaz a son who is the grandfather of King David.
Told in an economical four chapters, the story of Ruth is charged with romance and sexuality, but romance and sexuality that are inextricably linked to the making of the family and the fertility of the land. It is a story of what marriage is: the public forging of family to family out of the carnal longings of bride and bridegroom and also out of their regard, respect, and, ultimately, love for one another. For Christians, the story is heightened by the knowledge that Ruth and Boaz are the ancestors of Christ’s foster-father, Joseph, by scriptural revelation and of His mother, Mary, by tradition.
Now for some words on Ruth from Women’s Bible Commentary contributor Amy-Jill Levine, associate professor of religion at Swarthmore college. Just to set us straight, Levine informs us—without any citation to scholarly authority—that the “feet” of Boaz uncovered by Ruth are a euphemism for his “genitals.” A real card, that Ruth. Her story (whose theme, by the way, is “the lot of single women in rural Palestine”) may seem to have a happy ending, but don’t be fooled, girls: The Book of Ruth is actually “a pernicious, exploitative tract,” reinforcing the idea that “a woman’s happiness and fulfillment require men, that is, a husband and sons.” Levine adds: “Ruth’s actions offer no means for improving the social system of Bethlehem,” and: “It is the reader’s task to determine whether this book affirms Ruth or ultimately erases her, whether she serves as a moral exemplar or as a warning against sexually forward Gentile women.” Well, sure. I guess I would rather live in a ditch reading the Book of Ruth one more time than be an associate professor of religion at Swarthmore for all the tenure in the world.
Charlotte Allen, a regular contributor to First Things, is an associate editor at the Washington City Paper.