Is the Bible Bad News for Women?

Article excerpt

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the god in whom many women today find comfort. In response to New Age spiritualism or feminist need, such women are inventing goddesses or reclaiming ancient deities to give direction to their spiritual lives. Yet the rejection of the biblical God, and of the Bible itself, might be overly hasty - or so suggests a new generation of biblical scholars.

The ruins of ancient Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, lie across the Tigris River from what is today the Iraqi city of Mosul. When the Assyrian Empire was brought down, in the seventh century B.C., by invading Babylonians, Scythians, and Medes, the conquerors destroyed the capital and carried off into slavery the inhabitants they didn't kill outright. The conquerors did not spare the great library of Ashurbampal, with its record of Assyrian civilization stored in the form of cuneiform writing on some 20,000 clay tablets. They burned the library down.

In a way, explains Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky, a scholar of the Mesopotamian world, it was the best thing the conquering armies could have done, from our point of view - an inadvertent exercise in what would now be known as "cultural resources management." Under ordinary circumstances the clay tablets, each about the size of a bar of soap, would have turned to dust in a few centuries, if not a few generations. But the conflagration fired the tablets, turning them into durable ceramic.

Frymer-Kensky is talking, actually, about other things - the role of goddesses in polytheism; the revolutionary implications, for people in general and for women in particular, of monotheism; the emergence of such feminine biblical images as the figure of Lady Wisdom - when the discussion veers off in the direction of writing and historical serendipity. This turns out to be not quite the tangent it might seem.

Frymer-Kensky is an Assyriologist and a Sumerologist who has focused her interest in questions of gender in antiquity as much on the Hebrew Bible as on the literature of the great Mesopotamian civilizations. She was until 1996 the director of biblical studies for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, where she lives, and she has been and remains a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago, to which she commutes. She recently began a sabbatical at the Center for Judaic Studies in Philadelphia. Frymer-Kensky has won wide recognition for a cross-cultural study titled In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (1992), in which she attempts to take the goddesses of polytheism as serious theological constructs and social reflections but at the same time disdains the wish-fulfilling popularizations of "the Goddess," a romantically conceived being who now seems to sustain vast territories of certain bookstores and gift shops.

Frymer-Kensky understands why some women have turned to the "earth-centered, immanent Goddess of contemporary neopaganism" as "a refuge from, and counterbalance to, what many consider the remote and punitive God of western religious." But do these devotees and theorists understand that the societies that actually possessed goddesses were deeply patriarchal and would have had no patience for their New Age conceits? Do they appreciate the larger ideological dynamic of monotheism and, in some respects, its potentially positive implications? The presumption that we can speak sensibly about ancient goddesses on the basis of a heartfelt emotional outpouring rather than painstakingly acquired knowledge drives Frymer-Kensky to exasperation.

Yet while forthright in her belief that some feminists' depictions of the past "come right out of their own psyches," she is also sensitive to the demands of psychic want. She is the mother of two children and also published Mother-prayer (1996), a compilation of spiritual readings on pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, some of them new but most of them ancient prayers - translated from Sumerian, Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. …