NWSA Journal 15.1 (2003) 179-181
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Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman by Esther Fuchs. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, 244 pp., $64.00 hardcover.
Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman, by Esther Fuchs, brings together traditional literary approaches to biblical narrative with the politics of feminist biblical criticism in an effort to forge a more ideologically sensitive literary critical reading. Fuchs argues that when most literary critics read type scenes involving women as mothers, brides, wives, daughters, and sisters, they fail to interrogate the underlying assumptions about women, thus reinscribing the patriarchal ideology of the text as well as allowing these narratives to function prescriptively with regard to questions of gender in the contemporary community. Her book begins by briefly outlining an assessment of the current state of literary and feminist criticisms of the Bible, before illustrating her own approach through readings of select texts.
The strength of Fuchs's work rests in her close attention to Hebrew phrasing, the structure of the stories, and the similarities she draws between narratives about women within the Bible. For example, in her discussion of Amnon's rape of Tamar, she considers the recurrent use of seemingly protective labels like "sister," "brother," and "house." She then pushes the reader to recognize that home and family work against Tamar as obedience to her father's and brothers' commands places her in Amnon's trap, does not allow her to be an agent in seeking justice for the crime committed against her, and more generally, constricts her from enjoying any degree of freedom or autonomy. She also compares this narrative to that of Dinah and illustrates both the similarities and differences of their stories within the larger tales about their families. [End Page 179]
The primary weakness of Fuchs's work, however, is situated in the foundational assumptions that initially serve her so well. Indicting the approach of many literary and rhetorical critics of the Bible for privileging the texts and its poetics, she concludes that
the "good" reader, who in recent theoretical articulations of biblical literary criticism is invariably male, must not bring "his" own concerns into the process of deciphering and enjoying the biblical text. As a good obedient son, the contemporary literary critic is not supposed to question the Bible's claim to authority and its interpretation of human history and destiny. A peculiar collusion thus emerges between the procedures of traditional religious readings of the Bible and contemporary rhetorical or literary readings. (36)
For Fuchs, the entirety of biblical narrative is suffused in patriarchal assumptions and she rightly notes that interpreters who claim to use unbiased reading methods lack the tools to provide a critical resistance to the ideologies inscribed in the text. Her point breaks no new theoretical ground; this observation is a basic tenet of most ideological reading strategies, however slowly it might be entering biblical criticism. The problem comes when Fuchs wants to salvage the idea of the biblical text as a unity, and posit patriarchy as a universal condition, thereby creating a system as fraught with difficulties as the one she disdains.
Fuchs argues against the "tendency to give priority to the historical context over the biblical narrative in its final shape" and thus against reading the biblical text as a product of widely varying social and historical conditions (21). Because she sees the text as expressing an overarching and consistent patriarchal ideology, her method cannot account for circumstances within a given setting that shaped the presentation of gender in a text or with how preferential options for men may or may not have been operative in a culture across lines of ethnicity, class, and gender. For example, in writing on the book of Ruth, she struggles in dealing with Ruth's ultimate displacement by Naomi, who is named the child's mother, and then Ruth's complete absence in the male genealogical list. Fuchs can only conclude that such a movement typifies what happens to...