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  • Introduction
  • Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg (bio)

In recent decades, reception history has gained an increasingly prominent place in biblical studies. Concerned not with how scripture came to be, but with the influence it has come to have, this branch of the discipline attends to the ways that the Bible has been read and interpreted throughout time. Reception history examines the use of the Bible in faith communities and in secular culture; its role in the evolution of religious beliefs and practices; its impact on later social and political developments; and its recastings in post-biblical literature, art, music and film. Some of the most important work done in Bible studies and its subfields in the past thirty years has deployed feminist theory in the service of literary, anthropological, socio-historical and contextual analysis of the Hebrew Bible. However, few venues have been dedicated to feminist work in reception history. This issue of Nashim provides such a venue.

Not only do the articles contained herein marry reception history and feminist scholarship; they all also engage a third field: the literary approach to the Bible. Over the past few decades, as feminist criticism has permeated Bible studies, there has also been a scholarly turn in Bible studies, if not precisely to the Bible as literature,1 then to the literary qualities of the Bible. Sometimes this undertaking is driven by a theological impulse, a desire to understand the ways that the literary construction of scripture reflects or reveals its theological meaning. Often, however, the primary motive for it is to understand better what the Bible might be saying or might be construed to be saying. To understand the way the Bible speaks is germane to understanding the ways it has been understood.

Israeli scholars Menachem Perry and Meir Sternberg, pioneers in the literary approach to the Bible, showed us “how to attend more finely to the complex, tersely expressive details of the biblical text.”2 The biblical style is laconic: Far, far more is left unsaid than is said. Erich Auerbach famously observed that biblical narrative is “mysterious and ‘fraught with background,’ ” in sharp contrast to Homeric epic, in which phenomena are “uniformly illuminated.”3 Auerbach notes particular qualities of biblical prose:

. . . the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are [End Page 5] undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches.4

And yet there are moments of uncharacteristic expansiveness. Whereas most characters are loosely drawn or lightly sketched and most speech acts not recorded, from time to time we find a character fleshed out in detail or a conversation reported with verisimilitude. A literary approach allows us to think about what is conveyed, both when the biblical account is sparse and when it is more forthcoming. It allows us to attend to what is there in the text, while heightening our awareness of what is not there or left in background.

The feminist reader who pays close attention to what is illuminated and what is not cannot help but see the extent to which the Hebrew Bible leaves the female in obscurity. The world of the Bible is masculine; its primary actors are men. Even those women connected by blood or marriage to significant men are often unnamed, undeveloped. By and large, the women of the Bible are ancillary.

A major thrust of early feminist biblical criticism was thus to call attention to the androcentrism of the text. Heightened awareness of the Bible’s patriarchal quality manifested itself in two opposing modes of feminist interpretation. The first, evidenced, for example, in the work of Phyllis Trible, attempted to reconcile the Bible with feminism, to find ways in which the Bible itself, however obliquely, expressed feminist concerns. The second, found in the work of Esther Fuchs, foregrounded the text’s patriarchal dimension, arguing that the Bible reflected (and indeed perpetuated) a worldview that is at best indifferent to women, at worst hostile or even, at its most awful...


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