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  • The Dangerous Sisters of Jeremiah and Ezekiel
  • Amy Kalmanofsky

Like many feminist biblical scholars, I am challenged by the metaphor of Israel as God’s sexually promiscuous wife as developed throughout the prophetic literature. 1 Much recent scholarship addresses the origins, rhetorical purpose, and theological relevance of this metaphor.2What follows is an examination of one feature of this metaphor that has been noted but not fully considered by scholars. Three texts personify Israel and Judah (and in the case of Ezekiel 16, Sodom as well) as sisters married to God: Jer 3:6–11; Ezek 16:44–63, and Ezekiel 23.3 I contend that [End Page 299] the portrayal of Israel and Judah as sisters introduces a particular set of anxieties into the metaphor of the wayward wife that are an essential part of the prophets’ rhetoric of horror designed to terrify their audience into reform.4

Represented as sisters within the patriarchal literary context of the Hebrew Bible, Israel and Judah pose a formidable threat. As I will show, sisters raise anxieties related to their interpersonal relationship and their sexual desire. Their sister-bond challenges the authority of the patriarchs in their lives, and their sexual promiscuity is a devastating act of externally focused sororal desire. Thus, Israel and Judah’s relationship as sisters is a potent rhetorical feature of the metaphor of the wayward wife that both heightens the tensions and expresses the terrors related to Israel’s demise while conveying what is necessary to secure Israel’s redemption. If the sisters break their bond, maim their bodies, and redirect their desire to God, they can resume their place in God’s metaphorical family.

I. Sisters in Victorian Literature and the Hebrew Bible: A Theoretical Framework

In order better to understand the role sisters play in the biblical texts, I draw from another literary context in which sisters also play a significant role—Victorian literature. Though at first glance, these literatures may appear too distinct in time and place to draw comparisons, Victorian and biblical literature share a focus—the family. Certainly, family is essential to the narratives, metaphors, and theology of the Hebrew Bible. The national story of Israel is, at heart, the family story of Abraham, his wives, and their descendants. Family also provides the metaphorical framework in which to understand the relationship between God and Israel. The Hebrew Bible presents God alternatively as father/mother/husband to his wife/son/daughter Israel.5 Family is central also to nineteenth-century Victorian [End Page 300] literature.6 In fact, scholars credit Victorian literature with the creation of the domestic ideal perhaps best exemplified by the March family (a family with four sisters) in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868–69).7

Literary theory, which examines the representation of the Victorian family and, in particular, the sister, provides a helpful framework in which to understand the roles sisters play in the Hebrew Bible.8 Commenting on the critical role sisters play in Victorian literature, Leila Silvana May writes:

The nineteenth century’s well known fixation on the family has generally been dealt with by critics in terms of the parent-child relationship, with remarkably little attention given to the sibling bond. Yet, to a great extent, that century’s obsession with the family, particularly in England, proves to be an anxiety about the [End Page 301] horizontal line of the family axis, and, most specifically, about sisters as they relate to each other and to their male siblings.9

According to May, Victorian society perceived sisters as paradigms of sexual innocence and virtue. Deeply invested in constructing the home as a pristine if not sacred10 sanctuary from the moral ambiguity of the public realm, patriarchal Victorian society assigned women the task of maintaining and representing the domestic realm.11 Thoroughly ensconced in the household, unmarried sisters in particular embodied the domestic ideal. Unlike their mothers, who have sexual partners and interact with the outside world, these sisters are sexually unsullied, physically and morally pure.12 It becomes the task of the family to protect and to cultivate their innocence by teaching them obedience, tenderness, and loyalty. Often these values are taught through...


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pp. 299-312
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