- Female Labor in the Bible:Recognizing its Value While Exposing Reader Assumptions
This book is Mercedes García Bachmann’s revised doctoral thesis, which she completed at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (1999). The topic concerns lower class female labor in the Bible, in particular in the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH). This is a timely study on an important topic, which pursues a neglected field of inquiry involving the role and contribution of marginal women characters in the biblical world. The book challenges the conventional portrayals of women in ancient Israel, and ultimately seeks to revise the shame-honor scheme as an analytical model. Bachmann brings a perspective from the global “south,” with a liberation feminist approach that takes as its point of departure the intersection of gender and class.
The book consists of nine chapters (an introductory chapter plus chapters 1–8). The introductory chapter is fairly short and functions more as a preface, in that it is a reflection shared with the readers that looks back on the writing process, while providing a rationale for the book’s organization and the use of analytical concepts such as “work,” “slave,” and “free.” Chapters 1–3 are introductory in the more traditional sense and discuss methodological and theoretical issues and history of research impacting the subject of the study. Chapters 4–7 explore women’s occupations and “work,” approached through various designations used to refer to or describe what these women are or do. Chapter 8 presents final reflections.
The “Introduction: On Female Labor in the Hebrew Bible” begins by calling attention to the fact that many biblical characters, particularly women, function in narratives by virtue of their place as “dependents” and “expendables.” In fact, although the Bible portrays the ideal society as one which offered individuals socio-economic protections such as land ownership and free status, Israel acknowledged that this was not always the case, and even traced its own beginnings to one of bondage, from which they were delivered by YHWH. This observation sets the tone of the book by highlighting the existence of numerous figures that are overlooked or taken for granted, yet who contribute at key junctures in biblical narratives precisely because of [End Page 403] readers’ assumptions about these characters. After pointing out that the commonly applied shame-honor paradigm is not adequate in accounting for how the biblical texts assess all women, and that the descriptions usually offered of ancient Israelite women are too one-note and in fact resemble the modern middle class, Bachmann sets out to challenge what she refers to as the “dominant view” of what is honorable. The chapter also contains a discussion of the semantic field of “work” and a rationale for why female labor in the realms of religion and politics is not included in this study.
Chapter 1, “The Challenge of Studying Working Women,” says Bachmann, “lays bare the main assumptions and choices made in this study in terms of the body of research, methodology, and the lens through which I read,” (p. 5). Presenting her work as an “exegetical study from a liberation feminist perspective,” (p. 17), she discusses a variety of challenges associated with the task of studying lower class women’s labor, and proceeds to account for her methodologies. Bachmann outlines her reasons for choosing to focus on the Deuteronomistic Historian, one of which is that the narrative material “allows for a sample of terms inserted in believable contexts,” (p. 23). Further, she surveys a number of terms describing women’s work and the grammatical features of these, thereby demonstrating the elusive nature of these terms. Her critique of a number of models from social scientific research (the concept of “peasantry” as a social model, the “Mediterranean Basin culture” model) develops into a large section devoted to a discussion of the difficulties involved in applying the shame-honor paradigm if, as she insists, a focus on the categories of gender and class are to be maintained as...