Tuesday, March 18, 2008

REVIEW: Anthology Takes New Look at Ancient Texts

Patriarchs, Prophets, and Other Villains, ed. Lisa Isherwood (Equinox 2007), 240 pages, softcover

This thought-provoking anthology presents a number of ideas off the beaten biblical path, many of them related to sex. Part of an ongoing series on "Gender, Theology and Spirituality," Patriarchs, Prophets, and Other Villains centers around interpretations of the Hebrew Bible or Scriptures (aka "Old Testament," an old-fangled term I won’t use except for this mention). This is a scholarly book, with essays by Christians, Jews, Pagans, and probably people of other faiths as well as aetheists and agnostics, from the perspectives of feminism and queer theory.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Asphodel P. Long (1921-2005), who has been called "a grandmother of the Goddess Movement in Great Britain." I was fortunate to become acquainted with Asphodel in the last few years of her life through an assortment of online mailing lists. Long was born Jewish and considered herself feminist-Goddess-Pagan. She received a degree in Theology from London University at the age of 62, and was the first Sophia Fellow at the College of St. Mark and St. John in Plymouth, England. She authored In A Chariot Drawn by Lions (Women’s Press [UK] and Crossing Press [USA] 1992), an ovarial work on Wisdom goddesses, particularly in the Ancient Near East. Long and Lisa Isherwood, Professor of Feminist Liberation Theologies at the University of Winchester (UK), planned this anthology. Isherwood writes in the Preface, that they decided to focus on the Hebrew Bible because in it

we saw the initial roots of the exclusion of the Goddess in both Jewish and Christian traditions and we also wished to honour Asphodel’s Jewish heritage through attempting to provide creative and alternate ways of reading those scriptures.
If you’re one of those people (and I confess, I’m one) who sometimes skips prefaces and introductions, I strongly recommend that you don’t skip this Preface. It has many interesting details about the motivation and conception of this anthology, and includes some of Asphodel’s writing about Lilith (beginning on p. xii, and ending at the last paragraph of p. xvii. I’m telling you because there are no quotes around the passage, so it’s a little hard to define.) Once I had read the Preface, first essay (also by Long) and the second essay by Carol P. Christ, I felt I had gotten my money’s worth. But these are just the beginning of this book’s gifts.

"Asherah, the Tree of Life and the Menorah: Continuity of a Goddess Symbol in Judaism," is the Asphodel Long essay that begins the book (an earlier version is on her website, where she graciously posted a good deal of her writings). In it, Long explores the relationship between the Tree of Life, both a Goddess symbol and a symbol in Judaism, and the branched Jewish candelabra called the Menorah, also a Jewish symbol. She also discusses Asherah, both as alluded to in the Hebrew scriptures and as related to trees in general and to the Tree of Life in particular. Long brings together a huge amount of material in this essay and I highly recommend it.

Carol P. Christ writes that the title of her essay, "The Road Not Taken," refers to "the incorporation of female language for God into Christian and Jewish worship, prayer, and liturgy...." Christ, who holds a Ph. D. in Religious Studies from Yale, is author of a number of Goddess books, the more recent of which are Rebirth of the Goddess (Addison-Wesley 1997) and She Who Changes (Palgrave MacMillan 2003). She asks a number of provocative questions in this essay. For example, after noting that some younger female Episcopal priests "consider the issue of inclusive God language to be uninteresting and unimportant," she asks:

...why is this so? Is the God of Judaism and Christianity as they have been developed and transmitted ‘really’ a male after all?
She says that after discovering Raphael Patai’s book, The Hebrew Goddess, when she began teaching Women and Religion courses in 1973, she had assumed that based on Patai’s findings, as well as other material, that

the path to reintroducing God the Mother and Goddess back into Judaism and Christianity would be a simple one. Yet this has not been the case. I wonder why.
She recognizes that some Jewish and Christian sects have dropped the male pronouns from Bible translations and prayers and but notes that while this allows some people to remain in their mainstream religion with some degree of comfort, these nominal changes

do not require those who ‘know’ God as a dominant male other to change their understanding of ‘His’ power and glory.
Christ decides that the reason that feminists who remain in mainstream religions have made only these minor changes is that

to go any farther is to challenge the image of God as an image of dominant male power that most congregants find not only acceptable but comforting.
She challenges whether even the most progressive Jewish and Christian feminist changes, including those of Liberation Theology, go far enough in creating the necessary new "structures of meaning." She then delves into the suppression of Goddess in these religions, including the interpretation of biblical texts, updating and reinforcing her famous essay, "Why Women Need the Goddess" (1977 and widely reprinted thereafter). She ends on a subject of great concern to me: the unfair criticism of the Goddess movement by Christian, Jewish, and secular feminists. She points out these criticisms are made

with no recognition or apparent knowledge that some of them are untrue (for example that Goddess feminists are not political) or others that have been responded to time and again (for example that Goddess feminism replaces a male dominant God with a female dominant Goddess)....Is dismissing the Goddess Movement a way to avoid the challenge that the image of the Goddess represents to the mystifications of male power...within Christianity, Judaism, and the larger world of which they are a part?
In "‘Dealing With a Jealous God’: Letting Go of Monotheism and ‘Doing’ Sacrality," Ruth Mantin, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Chichester (UK), takes on the implications of monotheism in attempts to establish female autonomy and a variety of sexualities in religion. She traces the elevation of the male god Yahweh to the Only God, and the subsequent demotion or disguising of Goddesses, most especially Asherah in biblical scripture. Mantin writes that she is proposing

a radical, post-realist approach to ‘Goddess-talk’, which offers the potential for refiguring expressions of spirituality and of the sacred...which has much to share with the insights offered by queer theory.
In addition to the term "post-realist," full understanding of Mantin’s essay requires a knowledge of such terms as post-modernist, modernist, Cartesian, heteroglossia, and "nomadic subject." So be prepared!

In "The ‘Torafaction’ of Wisdom in Ben Sira," Dominique Olney, a teacher in Nicaragua educated at the College of St. Mark and St. John, examines the changes of "Wisdom" as a female figure in Proverbs and the later identification of Wisdom with the Torah scrolls. Olney assumes the reader knows that Ben Sira was a Jewish scholar who worked in Alexandria, Egypt and authored, c. 180-175 BCE, a scripture called Ecclesiasticus, (aka "The Wisdom of Ben Sira) which is included in the Roman Catholic holy scriptures, but not in the Jewish or Protestant, though it was popular in Judaism between the 3rd century BCE and 3rd century CE. The same scholar also authored "The Alphabet of Ben Sira," which includes a story about Lilith. By ‘Torafaction,’ Olney means the transformation of Wisdom personified as female into the Torah (first five books of Bible, honored in scroll-form in Hebrew in synagogues). This essay is a thorough and exacting look at how that transformation took place, including a comparision of Ben Sira’s work with Proverbs, on which it is based. Olney sees, as part of this transformation, the change in Wisdom, from having "free and fluid mobility as the all embracing lover-creator of the universe" to being "instantly frozen into servile obedience just as her boundary-free territory is collapsed into one small area." Olney writes:

Ben Sira weaves Wisdom in a tight web, shrinking her domain in a few verses from the universe...to earth...then to a Israel’s territory...and a wilderness tent...and last to a city...and a tabernacle in the Temple.
The next several essays focus on specific biblical texts. Sarah Rogers’ "Sarah: Villain or Patriarchal Pawn" looks at the role of the Genesis matriarch Sarah, including her treatment of Hagar, and propounding (with references) the view that Sarah and Hagar were of different races; specifically that Hagar was African and Sarah was not, and that this is part of the friction between them. I’m not fully convinced by this argument. If we look at the physical characteristics of people in the Middle East today, it is hard to distinguish between those who might be seen as the descendants of Hagar and those who may be the descendants of Sarah. IOW, Jews and Arabs look the same "racially"– their skins colors are similar; both vary from light beige to dark brown (human skin isn’t really "white" or "black"–we are all various shades of brown, but that’s another blog). I would agree that people of the Ancient Near East probably made distinctions among themselves that may have been just as strong as the racial distinctions we make today (or that were made until recently?), but these ANE distinctions were based on tribe or ethnicity. Sarah and Hagar were of different families, different tribes, perhaps slightly different ethnicities. But different races? In another instance of comparing modern prejudices to ancient ones in a way that may not be entirely accurate, Rogers compares Sarah and her tribe to "modern gypsies or migrant workers." I have a problem with this use of the term "gypsies" to, I assume, refer to the Roma, who have a history of being persecuted in Europe. Rogers uses the term in a negative way, writing, for example, "It is possible to interpret Sarah as having lived the life of a gypsy-bandit." IMO it isn’t appropriate to use the term "gypsy" (Roma) as synonymous or hypenatable with "bandit." Rogers continues: "Like the modern Gypsy, Sarah would have been the product of generations of racially mixed marriage." Why single out "Gypsies?" Aren’t many of us of a variety of "races," nationalities, and ethnicities, products of "generations of racially mixed marriage"? Despite my criticisms here, Rogers’ essay does present some intriguing thoughts and questions. I couldn’t help but wonder that she didn’t include among her many references, the late Savina J. Teubal’s book, Sarah the Priestess (Swallow/Ohio U 1984). Perhaps when Rogers was writing this essay it wasn’t available in Britain, where Rogers studied at the College of St. Mark and St. John. IMO, Teubal’s well-researched book, in which she portrays Sarah as struggling to preserve a non-patriarchal system in the face of encroaching patriarchy, would respond to many of Rogers' wonderings about Sarah's role.

Graham Harvey, Lecturer in Religious Studies at The Open University (UK), delves into what is probably a lesser known biblical story in his essay, "Huldah’s Scroll: A Pagan Reading." Harvey looks at the treatment of Huldah, a prophetess whose story he says "seems to interrupt the Bible’s narrative of an ancient men’s movement." He questions why there aren’t more details on some aspects of this story, such as the weaving "of something" for Asherah, and finds their absence frustrating and suspicious. He concludes that the question remains: Who was Huldah?

Ken Stone, professor of Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics at Chicago Theological Seminary (US), takes a bold look at biblical s/m in his essay,"‘You Seduced Me, You Overpowered Me, and You Prevailed’: Religious Experience and Homoerotic Sadomasochism in Jeremiah." After giving a summary of scholarship on Scriptural s/m, Stone focuses on Jer. 7-13. Rather than considering text as metaphor, his approach is to take the sexual language literally, and since what is transpiring is between a man and a male God, it is homoerotic. One of the questions, he asks is whether in this text, "sexual overpowering" can mean something other than rape.

In "The Monstrosity of David," Janet Wooten, director of studies for the UK Congregational Federation, looks at the charismatic king credited with forming the tribes of Israel into a hereditary monarchy. She compares two intertwined narratives in Samuel I; one "gives an amazingly positive spin," the other describes "the absolute power of a monarchy over lives of individuals." Including material about Saul, Wooten tells the story of David through the narratives of the women with whom he had relationships. She notes that "in order to preserve intact the moral character of David," it has been necessary to vilify and blame the women, especially Bathsheba. Wooten also looks at David’s relationship with Jonathan which, she says, "is described in explicitly sexual terms," and explores the relevance of David’s story to the story of Jesus.

In "Searching for Queer Sophia-Wisdom: The Post-Colonial Rahab," Marcella Maria Althaus-Reid, approaches applying queer theory to the Bible as "an art of cruising" and delineates the relationships among desire, theologies, and imperialism. Althaus-Reed is Professor of Contextual Theology at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and author of The Queer God, and From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology, as well as other books . In this essay, Althaus-Reid seeks to answer the question : ‘What has sexuality to do with Liberation Theology?’ The extensive and detailed search for an answer leads her to look for "the deity in the female" and to view "Sophia-Wisdom" as an "alternative intelligence." She goes on to give what she terms a "subversive" reading of the story of Rahab, a woman in the book of Joshua who lived in Jerico (Canaan) and helped the invading Israelites.

Next is Daniel E. Cohen’s, " Taste and See; A Midrash on Genesis 3:6 and 3:12." It's delightful to have this story popping up amid the heavier articles. Not that Cohen isn’t capable of the heavy stuff: he’s Emeritus Reader in Pure Mathematics, Queen Mary University of London, and, as he puts it, a "Freelance Thealogian." He was also co-editor, with Jan Henning, of the well-known British Pagan publication, Wood and Water. A close friend of Asphodel Long, Cohen has dedicated his work to retelling myths from the perspective of men’s relationship to the Goddess, providing new images of "the hero." He does this with a light, sometimes even humorous touch, yet in a way that honors the deep knowledge base he is drawing from. This retelling of the Adam and Eve story, in which he looks at "what might have happened if Adam had accepted responsibility for his actions," is one example of his work. Another," Iphigenia, A Retelling," appears in the epilogue of Carol P. Christ’s Rebirth of the Goddess. I’ve heard through the grapevine ;-) that Cohen is gathering his stories together so they can be published in book form. I very much look forward to that publication.

In "‘Eat Friends, Drink. Be Drunk With Love’ [Song of Songs 5:2] A Reflection"Lisa Isherwood, editor of this anthology and the series of which it is part, looks at the Song of Songs, a biblical book that doesn’t mention God and is filled with sexual allusions. Isherwood calls some more traditional interpretations of the text "villainous" and says they "have led to centuries of body-denying repression and even witch hunting." In particular, she rejects Christian interpretations that argue the text is metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the Church and use the erotic text to justify celibacy. (In Judaism, the Song is often metaphorically interpreted as showing the close bond between God and the Jewish people– without the celibacy interpretions.) Like many others, Isherwood searches for the real source(s) of The Song (the attribution of The Song to Solomon is no longer accepted by most scholars) and mentions several possibilities but doesn’t include the theory, mentioned by Marcia Falk in The Song of Songs: A New Translation (Harper 1990) and others that The Song is derived from a number of individual lyric poems written over several hundred years (by unknown authors); best guess: between either 950 or 500 BCE and 200 BCE. Perhaps Isherwoood isn’t satified that there is sufficient data to back this up and so did not include it? At any rate, her essay is a fascinating exploration of the explicit meanings of the sexual language in The Song.

Thalia Gur-Klein, a scholar at the University of Amsterdam, explores a little-known, rarely-discussed custom that explains a lot of mystifying biblical activity in "Sexual Hospitality in the Hebrew Bible: Patriarchal Lineage or Matriarchal Rebellion?" Gur-Klein discusses Ancient Near East customs of men sexually sharing their wives and daughters (and sometimes also male family members) with male strangers (sometimes humans, sometimes "angels") who visit their homes. The purpose of the custom was to safeguard the host’s honor and protection and to achieve fertility (of both crops and humans). Gur-Klein points out the influence of this custom in many biblical stories including those of Sarah, Rebecca, Lot, and Sampson. I found this one of the more fascinating essays in the book.

Closing the anthology, K. Renato Lings’ "The Culture Clash in Sodom: Patriarchal Tales of Heroes, Villains, and Manipulation," contrasts the biblical approach to the hero/villain issue in the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah with modern Jewish and Christian interpretations. Lings, who is Translator/Interpreter and Honorary Research Fellow at The Queen’s Foundation (UK), provides some excellent tables that make this contrast easier to understand.

Before I close, I want to mention the placement of footnotes at the bottom of the pages in this anthology. I really appreciated this. Many books today, especially if they are aimed at a general rather than academic audience, transfer this additional information to endnotes, either at the end of each chapter, or all together at the end of the book. Sometimes notes contain just bibliographical references, but often they also contain fascinating tidbits, so I always try to read them; but when they’re not directly on the page they reference I have to make a special effort to remember to look them up. There are at least two reasons that most books for the general public now place them as endnotes: publishers fear that putting them at the bottom of each page as footnotes may make the book seem too scholarly, and thus forbidding, to the general public; and modern printing practices make it far easier to gather them as endnotes at the end of a chapter or book than to interrupt the typographic flow of each page with footnotes. Because the footnotes in this book are not extensive, I think it worked well to have them on the bottom of each page and I want to thank the editors for that--as well as for the entire book.

Patriarchs, Prophets, and Other Villains is an excellent text for college instructors and students looking for a solid yet somewhat unconventional anthology about religion, especially for classes in women’s studies, gender studies, and queer studies. It’s also a good find for the rest of us, with new ways to look at familiar and not-so-familiar texts.


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At Wednesday, March 19, 2008 10:36:00 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Many thanks for the really thorough review. After reading it I decided to order a copy.



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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.