KENSKY, “The Bible and Women’s Studies” (assigned for Jan 17)
Biblical texts are one of the only sources for information about early Judaism, but we have to approach them carefully, for a number of reasons.
Because the Bible was written to tell the communal (i.e. public) history of Israel and women did not play predominant roles in that public history, women are rarely the major actors in Biblical stories. Because the stories were written by men, they never reflect women’s perspectives or the character of their private lives.
The stories don’t focus on women, and when they do, these tend to be exceptional women. Nonetheless, we can determine some things about the lives of women in a patriarchal society: a) most women were economically dependent on men; b) individual women as a whole were not publicly powerful, although individual women could be (as prophets, wealthy women (Shunnemite); c) women’s sexuality a particular concern. Although individual women could be powerful, as a group, women did not have the same responsibilities and privileges and powers as men.
We also have to remember that the Bible is not “history” in the sense we use the term today, it is a work of art and a literary creation. Individual female characters in the Bible often serve as symbols for the community at large, for the moral state of society, for Israel, or for its destiny.
As a result, uncovering the lives of Biblical women poses methodological problems.
This has consequences for what we can know about the lives of women in Biblical times, since these texts are one of the few sources of documentation that we have for these times.
Kensky identifies 4 strategies that we can employ when reading these texts:
a) recognizing that the Bible is a patriarchal text from a patriarchal context and therefore reflects that context. We need to read the stories carefully with this in mind.
Example: she reads the Bible as not justifying women’s social and economic subordination to men, but simply reflecting it as an accepted feature of the social context in which the stories were written. When read carefully, the Bible portrays women and men as having the same goals, abilities, and strategies. However:
b) because many of the stories are laconic, they demand filling in and interpretation. This means that how they are understood depends on the assumptions of the readers (recall the example in the film of the woman who studied Scripture with her male partner and his reaction to the text about women being forced into intercourse).
Example: She reads Genesis as portraying gender inequality as the norm of an imperfect universe, not as the will of God. Interpretations which emphasize Eve’s inferiority are simply that: interpretations. We can also interpret the story in ways that emphasize Eve’s superiority.
2) focusing on minor characters:
She reads the story of the Shunnemite as an example of how women might have acted when the economic constraints of patriarchy were removed (the women owns her own property, makes household decisions—is not dependent on her husband). Also indicates that women could be prophets and queen mothers and influence society in these ways.
3) recognizing a countervoice: what she refers to as a non-patriarchal voice (often the voice of God).
Example: story of Moses
4) recognizing when female characters are used as symbols for something else (Israel, the moral order; the state of the nation, etc.)
Example: the “texts of terror.” In these stories, the treatment of women (and other vulnerable categories of people like slaves) becomes the clue to the morality of the social order. She interprets these stories as moral tales meant to show how things went wrong in Israel (reflecting the time of their composition during the period of the Babylonian conquest when the Israelites had been sent into exile and were trying to understand how God could have let that happen to his Chosen People). That is, the stories are intended to show how Israel went astray and why it deserves conquest and destruction as punishment, or how Israel is relatively small and vulnerable, just as women are vulnerable. Women in these stories are used in symbolic ways to represent society at large.
Other symbolic uses of women and female imagery (wife, lover) can perpetuate male power if women themselves are excluded—if the human is always male and his partner is always an unearthly female.
Example: Israel described as the “wife of God” or the Sabbath as a bride. This use of the feminine codifies the gender of God as male. “If the gender of God is frozen as male, then the danger is present that males will become the earthly representatives of divinity and females will be frozen out of what is sacred.” (p31)