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Chapter 4 Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible Esther Fuchs When I first began to publish essays on gender and the Hebrew Bible there were but a handful of publications on this subject, mostly in the history of religion.1 Little did I imagine that within two decades the topic would burgeon into a sub-field within biblical studies, complete with conflicting interpretive theories and methods as well as a full gamut of interdisciplinary approaches, ranging from literary criticism to history, from sociology to theology, from anthropology to narrative theory. Three major commentaries on women in the Bible have appeared since the subject emerged as a legitimate area of scholarly study, including a dictionary of named and unnamed women, and a number of entries in encyclopedias and reference books.2 In addition, there are a number of anthologies, including a volume on feminist theories and methods, as well as introductions and readers.3 The interest in gender and the Bible has become all the more intense since the early 1990s with the recognition of the role played by racial, ethnic , sexual, national, and religious differences among feminist readers.4 In the United States, the religious authority or status of the Bible has generated a spate of publications among theologians as well, for whom the question affects practices, such as ordination and inclusion in leadership positions, as well as educational, ritual, and administrative activities in various denominations in Christianity and Judaism. Despite the sudden wealth of publications, little has been done to map out a history of contemporary feminist theoretical thinking about the Hebrew Bible.5 Few have been the attempts to sort out the various feminist approaches, how they evolved, and their lines of contention and of 76 convergence. Alice Bach’s Women in the Bible: A Reader reprints frequently used scholarly articles side by side without trying to classify them by category , discipline, focus, theory, or method.6 Some feminist scholars have interpreted specific passages, chapters, and even biblical books without tracing their assumptions to previous scholarship or offering a context in relation to contemporary scholarship.7 This practice has a longstanding tradition within biblical studies, where interpreting specific textual passages is considered to be an achievement in and of itself, regardless of its relation to previous work. As a result, the field is rife with insightful and important and creative commentaries on biblical texts, but not necessarily with theoretical thinking about methods or assumptions. Understanding feminist histories and theories of interpretation is crucial , not only to give credit to pioneering efforts, but also to offer useful paradigms for those involved in the field as well as for those who attempt to enter it. The most prominent theories that dominate the field today emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the risk of simplification and recognizing that various approaches have been used by various scholars at various times, I will propose that three major approaches dominate the contemporary feminist study of the Hebrew Bible. The first focuses on women’s historical experiences and literary expressions , on women’s authentic cultures and voices. Those engaged in this approach search for traces of women’s activities and influences, exhume forgotten customs and traditions, explore the textual celebration and validation of women, and emphasize passages that reflect the historical or rhetorical power of women. This approach, therefore, includes depictions of women as deities and leaders, prophets and embodiments of wisdom; and ways in which women have changed history, created their own rituals and practices, and followed their goddesses whether as marginal practices or in the dead center of male monotheism. As a result, those who treat the Bible this way are likely to find textual evidence for the historical equality and power of women, arguing that some passages were composed by women and that some expressions are distinctly feminine. To the extent that male domination has been found in the Bible, they argue that it is the result of post-biblical cultures and interpretations. This approach then focuses on female activity, its priority, superiority, and pervasiveness in ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Attempts to focus on female images of God and on ancient Near Eastern goddesses and their presence in or in- fluence on the Hebrew Bible in essence elaborate this approach. Wherever this approach has been used, it always requires reconstructive work— Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible 77 reconstructing women’s histories or their experience. Foremost among those who follow this approach are...


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