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  • The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible by Rachel E. Adelman
  • Hagith Sivan (bio)
Rachel E. Adelman The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible Hebrew Bible Monographs, 74 Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2017 (paperback edition; first published 2015). 276 pp.

Rachel Adelman's The Female Ruse is a thoughtful presentation and interpretation of an interesting argument about how devious women advance divine designs in the Hebrew Bible. In a field that has been exceptionally active, not to say crowded, in recent decades, Adelman finds her niche by creating a gallery of familiar biblical women connected by a thread of deceit. Theirs, however, are no mere female ruses. The tactics to which these women resort are indeed feminine, the type that men are unlikely and incapable of adopting. To bring these different characters under a single book-umbrella seems justified not solely because of their distinct gender identity but also because the ruse is regarded as instrumental in cementing an exceptional degree of dependence of God's own plans upon female ingenuity and vice versa. Each "ruse" is also a story of a family in which a decision is made to side with one member against another, and a story of unrequited or one-sided love, adding paradox to pretense.

We meet Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, Lot's daughters, Naomi and Ruth, Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba and Esther—but not Jezebel or Eve. In complex discussions that range from the biblical narrative through rabbinic writings (but not piyyut) of late antiquity, Adelman demonstrates an exceptional grasp of a wide range of scholarship and a readiness to engage constructively with other interpretations, as well as a delightful creativity in adding her own original midrash. Adelman's is a close reading of the text, noting carefully the echoes of women incorporated in the Bible's hi/story, as though the redactor aspired to create a feminine meta-text, a perfect foil for the main masculinized narrative of God, men and covenant. The result is a dense analysis, thought-provoking and challenging. [End Page 221]

By way of demonstrating the strengths of this book, let me engage with Adelman's Rachel. Her story is no mere morality tale of a quid pro quo in which the male protagonist, Jacob, is confronted by tricks that equal and even surpass his own checkered history. It is an amalgam of masks, with each one, when pulled off, revealing a new layer of knowledge and ignorance. In the beginning, Jacob, albeit a penniless stranger in Haran, is singularly equipped with physical strength and knowledge. He can water her sheep. He knows who she is, while she has yet to learn who he is (Genesis 29). He acts boldly, kissing her even before he reveals his identity. Kissing is an ambiguous manner of communication, rarely referred to in the Hebrew Bible. It is recorded on just three other occasions, which do not cross gender lines: when Moses meets Aaron at God's mountain (Ex. 4:27); when Samuel kisses Saul, whom he has just anointed king (1 Sam. 10:1); and when Orpa, Ruth's sister, kisses her mother-in-law Naomi during a tearful departure scene from the latter's adoptive home (Ruth 1:14). Rabbinic opinion deemed the Genesis kissing a lewd gesture, tiflut (Genesis rabba 70:2)—a condemnation that clearly echoed Rabbi Eliezer's famed dictum that "whoever teaches [his daughter] Torah is teaching her tiflut" (Mishnah Sotah 3:4). To open the cherished Torah to females amounted to equipping girls with weapons improper to their sex.

To which category can we ascribe the kiss of Genesis 29? Whatever its nature, it constituted an unusual if not troublesome prelude to subsequent marital negotiations between Rachel's father and Jacob, ending in the substitution of one sister for another on the wedding night. The family into which Jacob sought admittance via marriage, and not by virtue of existing kinship, is a typical patriarchal unit, not unlike his own. Similarities, as well as differences, are significant.

Jacob ends up "laboring like a slave" for his uncle (Adelman, p. 43). Love apparently condenses time, and even...


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