After Eden: Essays Take a New Look at Women in Scripture

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OUT OF THE GARDEN Women Writers on the Bible Edited by Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel 352 pages, Fawcett Columbine, $23

EVER SINCE second-grade Hebrew school, Rebecca Goldstein has been fascinated with the biblical story of Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt for disobediently looking back at the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

While at weekly synagogue, she was terrified to think that the same plight could befall her if she disobeyed her mother and peeked back while standing in the pew during the priestly blessing.

Throughout her life, Goldstein wondered: Who was Lot's wife, and what motivated her to look back, against God's will, and risk her very life? Was it voyeurism or skepticism, nostalgia or bravado?

These are the kinds of stories and questions that Goldstein and 27 other writers explore in "Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible." This collection of essays, written by both Christians and Jews, focuses on the Old Testament/ Hebrew Scripture. It is an effort to help women rediscover female images in the Bible and to come to terms with what those stories say about the way women think, live and are treated.

While the Bible has been used through the centuries to defend the subordination and even abuse of women, editors Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel correctly observe that, for decades, the Bible also provided many women with the only opportunity to engage in ideas.

As is clear from some of the essays, there are many women - both today and yesterday - who find some biblical ideas disturbing for what they say about the dignity and value of women: A daughter is her father's possession, and he may sell her if he wishes; a woman's husband is her lord, she cannot initiate divorce, and she cannot inherit property unless there is no male heir; brides who are not virgins are stoned to death and so are women adulterers; women's menstrual blood defiles, requiring isolation and separation.

Thanks to the biblical account of Eve, women still can't shake the image of temptress. Even normally secular Madison Avenue has no trepidation about exploiting and repeating this scriptural story. But the editors challenge readers to read this biblical account in a new light: "We can view the garden as a traditional environment of confinement for women or as a fertile place of origin that may still have something to offer."

The difficulty for many women is that the Bible appears to be a collection of stories largely about men: Moses, Noah, King David, Jonah and so on. …