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The Women's Bible Commentary.

In 1889 Frances Willard urged young women to study Greek and Hebrew so they could become biblical commentators. Several years later when Elizabeth Stanton looked for scholarly contributors for her projected Woman's Bible, those with appropriate biblical credentials declined, fearing participation would compromise their careers. Stanton proceeded without their expertise. The appearance of the Woman's Bible in 1895 shocked many. Some feminists publicly dissociated themselves from it. Now, 100 years later a superb scholarly work exists which would have won highest praise from Willard and Stanton. Superlatives cannot do it justice. Yes, feminist scholarship has come a long way since 1889.

Many contemporary feminist scholars have done excellent critical works focusing on different books or passages, but the overview that only an in-depth analysis of each book offers was missing. In a sensitive yet straightforward way, the authors challenge the most basic and accepted biblical images of God and God's relation to humankind, especially gender-related ones (e.g. husband/wife). The collective impact of the role violence plays in the Bible stunned this reader - especially the violence directed against women and their bodies.

Scholars, teachers, and preachers need to counteract the effect such texts continue to have, lest people internalize harmful assumptions and usages. What does it mean to feminize cities and nations, and then set up God in a marital relationship, punishing, often brutally, his "wife" to heal a broken relationship, to return to a former intimacy? Does this mean God condones wife battering? Such texts appear to say "yes." In Jeremiah 13 God rapes the female nation because of its sins. Does that justify raping women perceived as sinners? What about prostitution as metaphor for infidelity, and menstruation as symbol of shame and humiliation? Today's prostitute is too often victim, not sinner. Menstruation should function as sign of creative potential. Can we remove this sexist bias from Scripture without destroying its message? Our commentators leave this problem unresolved. The continuing appropriateness of such images must be questioned. Without better images we risk alienating entire generations of women from the Church.

Stanton's book focused on verses of particular relevance to women. By including even the apocryphal books and thought-provoking reflections on texts notable for the absence of women or where women are mentioned only in passing, the new Commentary goes much further. For example, Job's wife is usually brushed off as an unsympathetic nag. In the Septuagint and the Testament of Job she speaks of her own sufferings, recognizing the conflict between innocence and integrity, and God's goodness. She urges Job to say what is really in his heart. For seven days he ponders her troubling remarks. His patriarchal image of God, based on rights and justice, intensifies his suffering to the point that he longs for death. God as power for life challenges these assumptions with a radically different understanding of reality which balances the needs of all creatures, not just patriarchs. It is not enough that we understand the significance of every woman who appears or every gender-related statement. Job seen through feminist eyes highlights the presence of the depatriarchalizing principle ignored by most scholars for centuries. This makes the Commentary a particularly valuable resource.

To underscore liberating messages for women in books seemingly by, for, and about men and male concerns, the texts must be read through the lenses of women's multiple experiences in ancient and modern contexts (something the title wants to stress). After a brief resume of a given book and consideration of critical problems, the authors proceed with deft strokes to raise hard and difficult questions about women's situation and make visible the invisible values and assumptions of the biblical authors, unmasking the dominant (patriarchal) culture. Their efforts enrich our understanding and appreciation of the text.

Is it legitimate to ask questions the original author did not ask? Given the finite limitations of the biblical author and the infinite depth and breadth of God and God's Word, the answer is obvious. In the Bible, women are objects, not subjects of the verbs of religious experience. How else do we discover what God meant to them? To distinguish between the intent of the biblical author and the results of how their words have been interpreted and applied is truly an enormous task, calling for a letting go and an attentive listening to the text.

In contrast, the treatment of some New Testament books proved disappointing after so many new insights gleaned from the Hebrew Scriptures. This probably reflects the obvious. Much of this terrain has already been explored in depth by Christian feminists who have noted how NT literature begins in the context of an egalitarian community and then shifts abruptly from pro to anti-egalitarian structures. Did late NT authors consciously set out to rewrite woman's role? Did they deliberately relegate women to the margins? In the Hebrew Scriptures, authors generally reflect their male patriarchal experience, reinforcing the status quo rather than trying radically to reverse existing customs. Do we then read the NT authors as pragmatists sensing survival depended on conformity to the status quo, or simply as male chauvinists? Did women even protest? What happened to their legacy? In Genesis, patriarchal structures turned women into tricksters. Did something comparable occur in Christianity?

Clearly not intended as a definitive work, this Commentary stands head and shoulders over Stanton's, offering an excellent model of how to engage the text and how to understand the significance of the presence or absence of women. In addition, excellent articles on interpreting the Bible, everyday life for biblical women, and extracanonical writings may even stimulate further questions. How much one takes from this Commentary really depends on how much one brings to it. It is written in such a unique style that any educated person should find it both fascinating and challenging.
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Author:Quitslund, Sonya A.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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