- Feminist Theory and the Bible: Interrogating the Sources by Esther Fuchs
Feminist Theory and the Bible: Interrogating the Sources
Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts Series
London: Lexington Books, 2016. 160 pp.
In her collection of essays Feminist Theory and the Bible: Interrogating the Sources, Esther Fuchs, Professor Emerita of Near Eastern Studies and Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona, maps out contemporary feminist approaches to the Hebrew Bible, delineating her own methodology within the wellspring of scholarship that has emerged in recent decades. After reading the book almost in one sitting, I have a better sense of her methodology, on both a theoretical and an applied level. I also understand why Fuchs characterizes classic feminist scholars on women in the Bible—Phyllis Trible, Ilana Pardes, Carol Meyers and Tikva Frymer-Kensky—almost dismissively, with the provocative accusation of being “essentialist,” and why my own work might meet the same condemnation at her hands. Rather than succumb to a defensive response, I ask: How does Fuchs place herself on the map of feminist scholarship and define others through that lens? How does this alternative perspective broaden our work as readers? What are its limitations?
In her introduction, Fuchs suggests that the challenge in feminist scholarship derives from an age-old crisis in the field of biblical studies, where “discourses of inquiry are not only divided between the modernist and postmodernist, but between the theological and the secular” (p. 9). Fuchs writes under the latter rubrics—postmodernist and secular—leaving the Bible open to multiple interpretations that deconstruct the authorial intent and theological messages embedded in the text. Gender (the feminine/masculine binary encoded in social and cultural tropes) provides the analytic prism, and women, the “bodies” onto which that binary is projected, become the subject of inquiry.
As a third wave feminist, Fuchs critiques these gender categories through what Paul Ricoeur has called a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” assuming that the biblical text is informed by a patriarchal and androcentric agenda. Though she never defines patriarchy, I offer a definition, coined by Deborah Rooke, for the sake of clarity: Patriarchy (lit. “rule of the father”) “denotes a hierarchical society in which power resides in the male property-owning father-figure both at the familial level and by extension or parallel at the state level. . . . [It also refers more widely] to a system in which males in general are privileged over women in general.”1 In Chapter 1, Fuchs identifies her [End Page 166] own strategy as “feminist criticism,” which begins with the premise that the Hebrew Bible is “not merely authored, edited, transmitted and canonized by men, but that it also endorses and promotes a patriarchal ideology” (p. 16). That is, the biblical text is always prescriptive; it advocates for the supremacy of man over woman. The task of the feminist critic is to deconstruct that agenda. Feminism ipso facto entails an ideological critique; it stands outside the biblical text and judges its characterization of women and the gendered terrain of power relations.
By implication, the other two contemporary reading strategies defined by Fuchs are not really “feminist.” Fuchs identifies the first approach, represented by Trible, Myers, Frymer-Kensky and Pardes, as “gynocritical”; it is “woman-centered,” yet purblind to the patriarchal agenda embedded in the biblical text. The second approach, represented by Mieke Bal, Phyllis Bird and Athalya Brenner, is “pluralist”; acknowledging the androcentric bias of the Hebrew Bible, it points to the heterogeneity of the corpus and mostly attempts to reconstruct or recover women’s voices, in a reader-centered interpretive strategy. The problem with the first approach, Fuchs emphasizes, is that it assumes that the biblical text is neutral and that “to the extent that androcentrism exists it is the result of post-biblical cultures and interpretations” (p. 14). Gynocritics are impelled by a desire to complement or compensate for the androcentric perspective. Interested in female agency or the lack thereof, they tell “herstory,” reconstructing women’s histories or women’s discourse (Myers), characterizing women as victims or heroes (Frymer-Kensky), or exposing their stories, told through “texts of terror” (Trible) or through voices reclaimed and “countertraditions” excavated (Pardes). The primary...