Ladies' Night in the Old Testament


A New Interpretation of Their Stories
By Tikva Frymer-Kensky.
446 pages. Schocken Books. $28.95.

In the days before feminism, readers and authors searching for plots focused almost exclusively on the men of the Bible: the Abrahams, Davids, and Moseses. Then, about two decades ago, the realization that patriarchs required matriarchs to cook, sew, weave, bear children, and ask directions for them hit our modern minds with the power of an ass's jawbone slamming into a Philistine skull. Soon there was an outpouring of fiction and nonfiction flowing from this new-found well of story. Instead of concentrating on the men, we're now reading the women of the Bible, which leads me to Tivka Frymer-Kensky's engaging book, winner of the 2002 Koret Jewish Book Award in the Biography, Autobiography, and Literary Studies category.

Reading the Women of the Bible offers us a fresh look at our foremothers and other women of the Torah. Frymer-Kensky, a biblical scholar and professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, divides biblical women into four main role-types: Victors, Victims, Virgins, and Voice, retelling their stories while exploring these categories. In the clear light of Frymer-Kensky's lucid prose, patterns rise from the clutter of centuries of misconceptions and mistranslations to reveal the true strength and importance of the women of the Bible. The biblical text, untainted by interpreters with political axes to grind, does not present females as the threatening Other, as we might expect. Instead, the biblical stories make it clear that although women are powerless compared to men and subordinate to them, they are not inferior beings. One of Frymer-Kensky's major arguments is that Biblical women represent Israel itself: small and weak compared to its neighbors, but with a core of strength and faith that sustains and sanctifies.

However, as a novelist, I'm most intrigued by what the women do or don't do and how their voices are lifted or silenced. Like many readers, I'm neither an academic nor a theologian; when I read the Bible, my interest is plot and character—and these stories do not disappoint.

When Frymer-Kensky discusses Rivka's cunning deception of her husband, Isaac, in order to summon a future of her choosing, we see the archetypal family saga in action, not to mention dark touches of what will, three thousand years later, be called noir. In an even tawdrier pair of plotlines, Abraham twice passes Sarah off as his sister, only to claim her again when the king who has taken her discovers, to his horror, that she is a married woman. Note that Abraham emerges from these affairs loaded with loot—or, as my sister said when I read her Frymer-Kensky's section titled "The Disposable Wife": "Oh, that old con game!" ("Oh no, it's my husband!" "You never told me you were married!" "Well, for a C-note we'll forget the whole thing...")

Some of the stories, like the David/Bathsheba/Uriah triangle, practically demand multiple readings and interpretations. Frymer-Kensky insists that modern readers are mean to Bathsheba, and that we shouldn't assume she wished David to spot her while she bathed. We blame Bathsheba for bathing on her rooftop, Frymer-Kensky objects, "but if she wanted to bathe, where else would she be?" Yet unless Bathsheba is very nearsighted or very stupid, she must surely know that her roof is overlooked by the king's palace. Far from Bathsheba's famous bath being a "private moment," I see it as inevitably and perhaps designedly public. Ultimately, the precise personalities of some of these heroines cannot be pinned down, but only guessed at: in Queenmaker, my novel about Michal, King Saul's daughter and King David's first wife, the Bathsheba I imagine can most kindly be described as a "chocolate-covered light bulb"; sweet but dim.

If I have a complaint about Frymer-Kensky's book, it's that she barely mentions Michal, whose life seems to me to encompass all four of the women's roles. And I couldn't agree with Freymer-Kensky's claim that Michal castigates David's dancing before the Ark (2 Samuel, Ch. 6) as the result of her "minimalist approach to kingship"—i.e., a cool cerebral objection. Despising David "in her heart," and sarcastically harping on his display of the kingly form to miscellaneous maidservants, Michal's reaction sounds to my ear far more like a passionate and personal anger. I read it so; Frymer-Kensky does not.

Such disagreements and multiple readings are just what one would expect from the complicated women of the Bible. Their stories, as laid out by Frymer-Kensky, are intriguing, engaging, and sometimes irritating. Like a whole shelf-full of recent fiction and non-fiction (most famously Anita Diamant's The Red Tent), Reading the Women of the Bible reminds us that women not only stand behind the main male characters of the Torah, but beside them–as well as standing for quite a lot. In Frymer-Kensky's capable hands, the ancient stories blaze bright and new, shedding light not only on lives and times past, but upon our own.