The Dissenting Reader: Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible

Article excerpt

The Dissenting Reader: Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible, by Eryl W. Davies. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2003. 143 pp. $29.95.

The virtual explosion of scholarly feminist writing about the Bible, the publication of commentaries, companions, dictionaries, anthologies and monographs on specific biblical women and on various aspects of their representation, requires theoretical and methodological reflection, an attempt to review and evaluate this burgeoning body of literature and to summarize its contributions to the field of biblical scholarship in general. Eryl Davies, a self described "non-feminist," argues in his book that the contribution of feminist biblical scholarship has indeed been weighty, and that mainstream Bible scholars must recognize this contribution and engage in a serious dialogue with its basic insights. Though, as will be seen, Davies emphasizes the position of the reader as a central theoretical paradigm, he does not reflect on his own position as a "non-feminist," male reader.

In his introduction, Davies explains that though feminist critique questions biblical ideology and though it challenges biblical "authority" or its traditional perception as sacred text, it can be justified on "inner biblical grounds" that is by biblical texts that already challenge male power. He suggests, in other words, that oppositional critics do not necessarily pose a threat to traditional and religious conceptions of the Bible.

Chapter One, "The Patriarchal Bible," offers an overview of feminist critical investigations of the legal corpus, the biblical narrative, the Prophets, and Wisdom literature. He traces the origins of feminist criticism to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 19th century, and to Christian feminists like Phyllis Trible, Rosemary Ruether, and Fewell and Gunn in the 1970s and 1980s. Chapter Two, "Feminist Models of Reading," distinguishes between an "evolutionary" approach-that perceives a progressive improvement in the treatment of women; "cultural relativism"-a theory that insists on reading biblical androcentrism within the ancient cultural context of the ancient Near East; the "rejectionist" approach-that sees the entire biblical tradition as irredeemably patriarchal; a "canon-within-a-canon" approach-that singles out specific biblical texts as supportive of women and their plight within the patriarchy; and a "holistic" approach which argues for a broader generalization about the biblical treatment of women.

In Chapter Three, "Feminist Criticism and Reader-Response Criticism," Davies selects one particular approach, namely adversarial or oppositional criticism, as the focus of his discussion. This approach does not give up biblical literature, but rather opts to explore it through dissent, or resistance. What he refers to as the "dissenting reader" is the feminist reader who questions male God-talk in the Bible, the tendency to marginalize women characters in the biblical narrative, and the tendency of subsequent interpreters to impose a male-centered coherence on the biblical narrative. Among the main practitioners of this approach Davies mentions Judith Plaskow, Mieke Bal, and Cheryl Exum. Though Davies should have attended to the history of feminist criticism, noting when relevant who the originator of this resisting hermeneutics was and how it was elaborated subsequently, he nevertheless does mention some of the key names in the field. …