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Feminist Theology Unit One

This course offers a theological examination of the representation of women and gender in Christianity. Attention is given to the historical and cultural contexts of the first century and contemporary period. Theological, historical, literary, exegetical, and feminist methods are variously employed

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Course Requirements

 

  1. Active class participation: Assigned  readings,. [20% of the grade] Students are required to read assigned readings.

 

2.      Mid-term examination in class on the content of the readings and the material discussed in class. [20% of the grade]

 

  1. Three 4-5 page essays, one for each of the sections of the course (History of Feminist Theology, Feminist theology, and what you learned from reading assignment  [30% of the grade]

 

  1. One final examination on the content of the readings discussed in class [30% of the grade]

 

 

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In Memory of Her-A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins-Online Book

Is a Christian Feminist Theology Possible

Re-Contextualizing Theology

Feminist Theology

Women's Bible Commentary

Feminist Theology Unit Two

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Feminist Theology Unit One

 The Pleasures of Her Text by Alice Bach

Introduction

The question of how feminism should define itself in relation to other critical methods and theories has caused sharp debate both in Europe and the U.S.A. As Judith Fetterley declared in The Resisting Reader, feminist criticism has been characterized by a resistance to codification and a refusal to have its parameters prematurely set. At this time most feminists agree that there are many communities of women, crucial differences within the category of women, and most important, there is no single message of feminist hermeneutics.

Gender is a word that heralds both risks and resistance. The resistance comes usually from those who have never thought of gender as influencing reading. The male gender has dominated the voice of the text, including also its interpretative voice, for such a long time that it is considered normative, objective, usual. "Objectivity is really male subjectivity," to use Adrienne Richís aphorism. As we have noted, the gender code in the interpretation of biblical texts has usually been adopted in its masculine version. But each time the canon is termed universal, the life of the patriarchal myth is extended. When the gender code is implicit, it contains the same characteristics as the moral code. It imposes upon every signifying element of the text a unified and preestablished theme. Only since the development of womenís studies has the gender code been explicitly criticized and explicitly embraced ó in its feminist version. If feminist criticism has demonstrated anything, it has demonstrated the importance of the reader to what is read.

Of course feminists are products of the patriarchal culture too, and so have to deny the temptation of trying to produce a universal truth, a univocal meaning. Feminist criticism must remain fluid, not fixed, so that each one of us can contend with the ripples and waves of the dominant culture, diving into language to recover everything that is duplicitous and resistant and confounding. Elaine Showalter in a recent article has called for feminists to insist upon the recognition that gender is a central problem in every text, read or taught, whatever the era and whoever the author. A central problem, yes. But surely there are major risks in focusing on gender, splitting the world of reader into two. The first risk is reductiveness, to lose sight of the fact that focusing on certain categories obscures individual variation. Proclaiming the feminist agenda glosses over each womanís struggle for self-definition. Rather than locking people into categories, feminist literary critics need to form temporary alliances and coalitions. Shifting boundaries of sexual difference must not be prevented from shifting. It is the desire to remain fluid, not fixed, to encourage spontaneity instead of linear argumentation, that inspired this volume. A large part of the pleasure of the text is the sense of process, of moving along a road toward feminism, a term which refuses definition or categorization.

In her chapter "Protestant Feminists and the Bible," Mary Ann Tolbert illuminates general characteristics of the Protestant tradition that are barriers for many women in appropriating a considerable amount of recent feminist research. Protestant feminists, Tolbert argues, experience special problems (not encountered by Catholic or Jewish feminists) specifically related to the Protestant tradition, the diversity of Protestant denominations one of the most evident. A primary problem, the ramification of sola scriptura for feminists, is that Protestant feminists have difficulty dispensing with the authority of scripture in favor of historical reconstruction. Tolbert calls for feminist literary critics to raise the issue of gender, to read with suspicion against the "male as norm" convention of reading biblical texts. Tolbertís article begins the book because it raises the basic issues that concern each of the contributors: the question of gender and sexual difference in our scholarly lives.

Feminist literary critics are now examining the role of woman in biblical texts as enabler of the patriarchal society. In "The Pleasure of Her Text," I have offered a rereading of the story of Abigail, the prototypical good wife. While interpreters have always praised her, I wondered why, if Abigail was so good, she wasnít rewarded with a son who became king? What I learned is that women have moments of strong speech and proud action in male-centered biblical narratives, but strong independent women act at the pleasure of their male creators. Too forceful and they embody male fears, and must be silenced or written out of the narrative.

Cheryl Exum protests the marginalization of female biblical characters through analysis of the phallogocentric texts in which they appear. Her chapter, "Murder They Wrote," examines the silencing of female characters by their male creators. Punishing a woman like Michal, who speaks her mind with barrenness and silence (narrative death), is one sort of message to women readers. Another patriarchal message is to glorify the obedient daughter who sacrifices her own life to help her father keep a vow to God. According to the biblical text, this model daughter is remembered in song each year by other obedient daughters. Exum demonstrates that we can choose to read the story of Jephthahís daughter differently, "to expose the valorization of submission and glorification of the victim as serving phallocentric interests and to redefine its images of female solidarity in an act of feminist symbol-making."

Female scholars working with historical texts are confronted with a problem similar to that of their literary colleagues: they are reading the female voice as a palimpsest through the script of the dominant narrative. The texts that concern Carole Fontaine in her chapter, "A Heifer from Thy Stable," come from ancient Near Eastern societies: Mesopotamia and Anatolia. One of Fontaineís major concerns is whether patriarchal texts can speak the reality of womenís lives. Fontaine searches for a model to evaluate the status of ancient women and the relationship of that status to the presence of goddesses and their worship. While Fontaine is faced with methodological considerations, she is attuned to the voices of these long-forgotten women. Never losing the thread of the women themselves to the temptation of scholarly method, Fontaine listens to the past. In their own words ancient women reflect the strength and wit with which they addressed and expanded the roles decreed for them by society.

Ellen Ross wonders what use feminist theologians have for a concept that characterizes human persons as imitators of a God who is often portrayed as a male deity. By creating a dialogue between two medieval theologians of the Augustinian tradition and two feminist theologians, Rosemary Ruether and Dorothee Soelle, Ross suggests that the heritage of the concept of imago dei may yet offer guidance to contemporary communities of renewal and hope. Rossís exploration points to the role of feminist theology in recognizing the implications of the image of God theme for shaping our political experience "insofar as theological claims have praxis implications that call for concrete responses."

Martha Reineke looks at an important time of womenís history, the witch hunts of 1450-1750. In "The Devils Are Come Down Upon Us," she sets out to redress the Reformation historiansí neglect of this period of victimization of and violence against women. Through a synthesis of methodologies, especially the work of Rene Girard, she challenges other scholars in religious studies to refocus current strategies of analysis in order to be more responsive to the charge of feminist history. Reineke argues that "we seriously underestimate the resources of our discipline at a point where they are most crucial for our work in memoriam on behalf of our foresisters. To speak adequately of the witch craze, to remember all that we must remember if we are to free our foresisters from a history of victimization, we must treat myth as essential to the witch craze and its violence."

For some female scholars devising a new voice as well as new methodologies in which to cast their ideas is a way of deconstructing the patriarchal mold. Thus genre becomes a means to a political statement. While I am not suggesting that all female scholars search for a new means of written expression, or even that such a universal search would be desirable, let us consider some questions that Luce Irigaray has raised: "What other mode of reading or writing or interpretation and affirmation may be mine inasmuch as I am a woman, with respect to you, a man? Is it possible that the difference might not be reduced once again to a process of hierarchization? Of subordinating the other to the same?" Based on a corporeality of difference, writers such as Irigaray and Helene Cixous attempt to dislodge the primacy of the phallogocentric binary opposition of sameness by breaking down the hierarchy of presence/lack, or what Irigaray calls the "old dream of symmetry." In the "new" syntax, as she imagines it, "there would no longer be either subject or object, Ďonenessí would no longer be privileged. . . . Instead the syntax would involve proximity that would preclude any establishment of ownership, thus any form of appropriation."

Whatever forms are constructed, the important element is to appropriate a nonhierarchical articulation of sexual difference in language. However, a language of universal gynocentrism is not the answer. Women do not share the same cultural and social conditions. Feminist writing should be resistant to sameness, to speaking someone elseís language, even if that language imitates other feminist scholars. Cultural and racial differences are often first noticed (and first submerged) in language. Women must take the initiative in preserving the particularity of their own language. And feminists will have to work to assure diversity of language in scholarly publications. Women in all scholarly disciplines will have to work together to assure diversity ó to bring pleasure to the text.

ALICE BACH
New York City

June 1900

Chapter 1: Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister? By Dory Previn
 


 

Dory Previn is a lyricist, novelist, composer, and performer. She is the author of two autobiographical works Midnight Baby and Bog-Trotter, and several musical plays, among them Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign. One hears in her songs and her books a womanís voice, sometimes brave, sometimes scared to be alone, always exploring ó from the star-stained heights to the depths where the iguanas live. She is currently at work on a volume of short stories.


did jesus have a baby sister?
was she bitter?
was she sweet?
did she wind up in a convent?
did she end up on the street?
on the run?
on the stage?
did she dance?
did he have a sister?
a little baby sister?
did jesus have a sister?
did they give her a chance?
did he have a baby sister?
could she speak out by and large?
or was she told by mother mary
ask your brother heís in charge
heís the whipped cream
on the cake

did he have a sister?
a little baby sister?
did jesus have a sister?
did they give her a break?
her brotherís
birth announcement
was pretty big
pretty big
i guess
while she got precious
little notice in the local press
her mother was the virgin
when she carried him
carried him
therein
if the little girl came later
then
was she conceived in sin?
and in sorrow?
and in shame?
did jesus have a sister?
what was her name?
did she long to be the savior
saving everyone
she met?
and in private to her mirror
did she whisper
saviorette?
saviorwoman?

saviorperson?
save your breath!
did he have a sister?
a little baby sister?
did jesus have a sister?
was she there at his death?
and did she cry for maryís comfort
as she watched him
on the cross?
and was mary too despairing
ask your brother
heís the boss
heís the chief
heís the man
heís the show
did he have a sister?
a little baby sister?
did jesus have a sister?
doesnít anyone know?

Chapter 2: Protestant Feminists and the Bible: On the Horns of a Dilemma by Mary Ann Tolbert
 


 

Mary Ann Tolbert is associate professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Virginia (English literature) and University of Chicago (biblical studies). She is the editor of The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics (Semeia 28) and the author of Sowing the Gospel: Markís World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Fortress, 1989).


For many women the freedom to proclaim their own experience in the world and their own vision of the world as authoritative and legitimate, rather than marginal and deviant as patriarchy would have it, is the profoundly liberating dynamic of the feminist movement. However, for many feminists, and especially for many Jewish and Christian feminists, their own experience is often painfully split within itself because, to echo Elaine Showalterís words,1 we are both the daughters of the male tradition, of Abraham and the patriarchs, of Jesus, Paul, and the Church Fathers, of our male ministers and rabbis, professors and dissertation advisors, and at the same time sisters together in a new consciousness, which rejects the submissive, victimized roles Western society, formed and molded by these two great religious traditions, has forced us, and generations of our foremothers and sisters, to play. Consciousness of the mutilation of minds, spirits, and bodies perpetrated for centuries on women by patriarchal misogyny demands not only our rage but also our absolute commitment to oppose and dismantle all the societal structures still supporting that misogyny. We cannot will away this new consciousness no matter how much discomfort it sometimes causes in our personal and professional lives. We can no longer teach or preach male history, androcentric ethics, or patriarchal biblical interpretations as though they were universals; we can no longer pledge unquestioning allegiance to existing religious hierarchies and institutions as though they actually served the whole family of Mother God rather than mainly the brethren. We cannot forget what we as feminists now know, any more than we can deny the degree to which patriarchal patterns continue to shape our lives and careers, either through our acceptance of them or through our rebellion against them.

This split within our experience, being both the heirs and the victims of patriarchy, is nowhere more apparent than in many womenís struggles to come to terms with the religious traditions in which they were born, raised, or formed. Short of throwing out whole traditions and developing entirely new religious systems, an option I believe all feminists must leave open, is it possible for feminists to extract the gold, silver, and clothing out of their religious lands of slavery without also keeping the manacles and chains, just as the children of Israel were successful in doing with Egypt (Exod 12:35-36)? In this essay I wish to explore that question specifically in relation to the struggles of women in one particular strand of the Christian tradition: Protestantism. I have chosen this group not only because it is the one I know best, having been myself raised in a Protestant denomination and having taught for the past nine years in a non-denominational, primarily Protestant divinity school but also because I believe that Protestant feminists encounter special problems related to their tradition that have not been analyzed sufficiently for their similarities and differences with feminists from other Christian and Jewish traditions to become clear, and such clarity may let us understand each other better and thus help each other more. This essay is only as an initial attempt at assessing these issues and, hence, in no way pretends to be a final or full explication.

The specific experience which inaugurated my thinking on this subject was the observation that many of my Protestant women students find difficulty in appropriating much current feminist biblical research and proposals for Women-Church or the ekklesia of women.2 They certainly comprehend the issues and are indeed eager to learn of and investigate the fuller, more central role of women in early Christian history, as feminist reconstructions are uncovering it. The difficulty arises, however, in drawing from such studies a definite praxis for them. There appears, in other words, to be some lack of fit between these feminist writings and their own concrete experiences. Since feminism, like all liberation movements, should always result in praxis, for the point is to change the world, not simply add to our knowledge about it, this difficulty in appropriation is in need of analysis and explanation.

In conversations, both formal and informal, with groups of students over the last two years, three general characteristics of the Protestant tradition consistently surface as barriers for many women in appropriating a considerable amount of recent feminist research. I would like to list and explain the problems caused by each characteristic briefly and then devote the remainder of this essay to a fuller exploration of the first, the role of scripture in Protestantism.

Problems in the Protestant Tradition

From the time of Martin Lutherís defense before the Diet of Worms in 1521, the first principle guiding the Protestant Reformation and the various groups growing out of it was the conviction of sola scriptura: "Scripture alone is the true over-lord and master of all writings and doctrines on earth."3 Although feminists cannot help but notice the patriarchal language by which Luther articulated this doctrine, the primacy granted to scripture and its authority over all human ideas, structures, decisions, and theologies continues to be one of the most potent influences in the religious formation of anyone raised in the Protestant tradition. While I intend to return to this principle and its ramifications for feminists later, even on a simple reading of it the reason why some Protestant feminists have difficulty dispensing with the text of scripture in favor of historical reconstructions becomes more evident.

The second characteristic of modern Protestantism that poses major problems for feminists is its striking diversity. One cannot speak of a Protestant view or position on anything; rather one encounters many views. Even the various denominations tend often to be split into several factions, so that, for example, one cannot talk about the Lutheran position but must say the Missouri Synod Lutheran position. This diversity is found not only in dogma and tradition but also in liturgy, church organization, and denominational structure. Such pervasive diversity tends to isolate Protestant feminists from each other, and womenís isolation from other women has always been one of the best weapons of patriarchal oppression: divide and conquer. Protestant women attempting to worship together, for instance, must begin by deciding whose order of worship to follow, whose hymnal to use, and whose liturgy to enact, so that our celebrations of sisterhood end up emphasizing our lives of separation. The actual number of feminists throughout all the Protestant denominations would prove, I believe, to be a substantial and highly influential body, but by dividing that body into separate groups of Methodist women, Presbyterian women, Disciples women, Baptist women, etc., and pitting each group against frustratingly different androcentric denominational structures, the numbers and influence of Protestant feminists have often been successfully marginalized. Indeed, so serious are the many differences in denominational structures and politics that Protestant feminists often do not even understand what their sisters in other denominations are facing and thus do not know how to support or help them. In such a situation, ideas of Women-Church or the ekklesia of women involve the visionary power of a longed-for "new Jerusalem"; yet, attempts to enact that vision tend only to underscore the reality of competing Protestant traditions that block unity.

Perversely enough, what little unity Protestant women were able to forge in the late sixties and early seventies in quest of the right of ordination in a number of denominations was quickly eroded by the very success of that campaign. Ordination itself has now become one more line of division among Protestant women, and one, I think, of the most dangerous, for it has the possibility of co-opting women into an androcentric hierarchical power structure rather than changing that structure.4 The difference in power, status, and authority between clergy and laity in most Protestant denominations is arguably one of the clearest examples of patriarchal patterning in the social organization of Christianity. Priests and ministers stand over their congregations as fathers over children, shepherds over sheep, holy people over secular people, in an obvious dominant-subordinate relationship. Some denominations, in fact, formalize this gulf between clergy and laity by enrolling clergy, not in the membership of the churches they serve, but rather in the area association of other clergy.5 Hence, the "church" for clergy are other clergy.

In past years many feminists hoped that as more women were ordained and filled parish posts, a different, more egalitarian model of ministry would emerge. So far, such has not proved to be the case. Sometimes ordained women feel they must act with greater authority and rigidity than their male counterparts to "prove" that they are really worthy ministers. Even more typically, ordained women find themselves assigned as associate pastors to a male senior minister, a situation which often quickly degenerates into the worst wife-husband dynamics. Nevertheless, however successful individual women may be in embodying their own vision of Christian ministry, the simple existence of an ordained class of women separate from lay women further divides and marginalizes any feminist influence. Clergy women tend to develop their own networks and organizations separately from lay womenís groups and find participation as equals with lay women in church groups or even in support groups difficult. Between denominational divisions and clergy-laity divisions, Protestant feminists are thoroughly isolated and robbed of effective power bases.

The third characteristic of Protestantism that thwarts feminists efforts is its emphasis on the individual rather than the community. In the early years of the Puritan settlement in New England, the right to vote was based on church membership, and church membership could only be won by each individual (male) being able to give a credible account of his personal experience of grace.6 Founded on the "inner-worldly asceticism" of the Reformation and refined by the Calvinistic doctrine of the unique worldly "calling" fashioned by God for each person,7 a staunch individualism occupies the center of the historic Protestant experience. The critical issue for salvation is the relation of each individual to God, not participation in certain groups or performance of certain rituals, although both of these latter actions have their places. It is this stress on the state of the individual soul that has encouraged the importance of conversion and revivalism in Protestantism. Moreover, this individual emphasis tends to foster a more private or personal vision of the good rather than a public or social one.8 Yet, for feminists it is vital to recognize the systemic nature of patriarchal oppression, rather than being totally occupied with its local and private manifestations. Asserting that none of us are liberated until all of us are liberated is not exaggerated rhetoric but the realization of the pervasive, systemic structure of oppression.

I am not saying that Protestant feminists tend to be self-centered and concerned only with their own pain, whereas non-Protestants are universalistic in their aims. It is just that the heavy value placed on the individual in Protestantism may encourage a shorter vision, focused on more immediate and limited objectives, like, for example, ordination or the election of a woman bishop, or on ad hoc responses to blatant instances of discrimination. Such short-term goals are obviously important, but they cannot substitute for a more broadly sustained social and systemic critique of oppression in all its various forms. African-American Protestant women have been much less distracted by this individual bias than their European-American sisters, perhaps because their double oppression, both racial and sexual, forces a broader assessment of the causes and structures of oppression in Western society and perhaps also because the social function of the Black Church in a segregated society and its roots in African tribal culture have served to mitigate the privatizing influence of Protestant individualism. Greater conversation between African-American and European-American Protestant women might be one way of keeping the longer-range issues of oppression more clearly in view.

Since in the traditional Protestant formulation each individual was to work at her or his specific divine "calling" in the world as a holy person, separate orders of religious men and women were discouraged. The model of a womenís community, allowing greater independence and communication among women than society at large generally permitted, was essentially lost to Protestant women by the Reformation.9 Instead, womanís divine "calling" in the world as wife and mother was emphasized. Unlike Catholic women, Protestant women have had little opportunity or encouragement to define their religious identity in relation to other women or even to see that model as a possibility, for orders of Protestant nuns are rare. The religious identity of most Protestant women is defined primarily in relation to the family unit. Hence, Protestant individualism has acted also to stress Protestant familialism: the family as the focus of worship and Christian formation (as, for example, in "The family that prays together, stays together").

This familial emphasis has been so inculcated in many Protestant women that attempts to organize women-only retreats, worship services, or even meetings raises conflicting emotions in people otherwise committed to feminist issues. To exclude husbands, brothers, and sons even from those essential events required for women to raise their own level of consciousness, to learn how to support each other, or to begin to bond together to overcome generations of isolation seems to some a violation of true Christian love and discipleship. However, these actions are seen as violations mainly because for most Protestants the family has been made the ideal focus of oneís religious identity. To the degree that ideas of Women-Church or the ekklesia of women inevitably demand some amount of separatism, Protestant women often find them difficult to harmonize with their own tradition.

While each of these three characteristics of Protestantism has serious implications for the future of Protestant feminists, their combined weight may explain why the most important and compelling formulations of a feminist vision for contemporary Christianity have come by and large from the Catholic community.10 I in no way mean to denigrate the important contributions of some Protestant feminist theologians and biblical scholars,11 but any fair appraisal of the scene would have to acknowledge the wider role of women formed by the Catholic tradition. If Protestantism is to be challenged and changed by feminism or, to put it another way, if Protestant feminists are to find some means of remaining in their tradition, the many problems raised by the role of scripture, Protestant diversity, and individualism must be addressed in a serious and sustained fashion. As a first step in that broader discussion, I would like to examine the role of scripture in Protestantism and delineate possible feminist responses to it.

Sola Scriptura

Deeming it the sole authority in all matters religious, the early Protestant reformers used scripture to purge what they viewed to be a decadent and decayed Church. Scripture liberated them from the teaching of the Church Fathers and from the ecclesiastical structures which had developed over 1,500 years of Church life. Since according to Luther not even the revelations of angels could supercede scripture,12 all authority was vested in the Word of God, including the authority to interpret itself. Thus, elaborate allegorical readings were to be rejected, and the task of minutely studying scripture in order to establish its own meanings was begun, a task upon which we are still engaged almost 500 years later.13 For Protestants, the central and unavoidable problematic posed by the role of scripture is its authority, but exactly what that authority entails varies from denomination to denomination and indeed is often a hotly contested issue within denominations.14 So, rather than beginning with theoretical debates over authority, an argument which I will eventually have to enter, I wish to begin with the simpler question of functions: how does scripture function in Protestantism?

Although within the diversity of Protestantism generalizations are somewhat suspect, it seems justifiable to say that most Protestant worship centers on scripture: in public ceremonies, scripture readings and sermons based on scripture (though occasionally the connection between the scripture and the sermon may be rather tenuous) form the heart of the service with other liturgical elements (prayers, music, or eucharist) sharing greater or lesser amounts of attention; in private devotionals, scripture reading and prayer are the essentials. Scripture, then, for Protestants becomes the primary medium of communion with God; if Catholics commune with God mainly through participation in the sacraments, and especially the mass, Protestants Commune with God through scripture. Neil Hamiltonís assessment of scripture is representative of the Protestant perspective: "God, who is the Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for a certainty spoke in these writings, and this same God continues to speak through their witness. The New Testament is where to go to listen for the Ďcall.í"15 The crucial images have to do with "call," "speak," and "listen." For Protestants, the Bible is not simply a source of knowledge about God or the early Christians or the Hebrew people; it is, rather, a source for experiencing, hearing, God or God-in-Jesus in each present moment of life.

Nevertheless, Protestant feminists along with their Roman Catholic and Jewish sisters must also acknowledge that this same Bible is often misogynistic and anti-Semitic, thoroughly androcentric and patriarchal, and seeped in ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic mythology.16 Indeed, along with many of the so-called "classics" of Western literature, the Bible continues to exercise over women, and other oppressed groups like homosexuals, a form of "textual harassment,"17 appropriating social discrimination into textual structures and categories. To excuse the Bible, or other "great" Literature, for these acts of textual violence on the grounds that they are simply reflecting the social ethos of earlier cultures is either to underestimate the continuing power of these alienating images or to approve tacitly the existence of oppression in times past just because they are past.18 Jewish and Christian feminists, and especially Protestant feminists whose religious formation has been so permeated by scripture, are thus faced with a difficult dilemma: honesty and survival as whole human beings requires that we point out and denounce the pervasive patriarchal hierarchies of oppression, both social and sexual, that populate the Bible, and yet at the same time we must also acknowledge the degree to which we have been shaped and continue to be nourished by these same writings. How are we, then, to understand "the same Bible as enslaver and liberator"?19

Feminist Responses

At present the predominant feminist scholarly response to biblical androcentrism is to use the text, not as an authority in and of itself, but as a source for reconstructing the history of women in early Christianity or Judaism.20 This approach, which understands the Bible as prototype rather than archetype,21 has many advantages: it employs a well-recognized mode of analysis, the historical-critical method, with appropriate feminist modifications;22 it frees feminists from the chains of extant textual formulations by judicious appeal to the disciplined exercise of the "historical imagination"; it reveals the androcentric biases of most male reconstructions of early Christianity or Judaism by proving that the available evidence does not inevitably lead to the conclusion of womenís marginality; it empowers a new vision of an egalitarian community by uncovering the leadership roles and full participation of women in the historical development of early Christianity and Judaism; and it unequivocally asserts the damaging patriarchal tone of scripture as a whole and thus allows women to reject its "textual harassment" and shift the locus of revelation from text to history and from ecclesial authority to womenís community. Moreover, influenced by the Protestant principle of returning to the purer origins as a corrective for current degeneration, historical reconstructions of early Christianity or the historical Jesus have always sprung from overt, or more often covert, reforming aims.23 Feminist reconstructions are indeed no more of an advocacy stance than other reconstructions; they are simply more honest and open about their advocacy than white, male reconstructions have tended to be.

Along with these definite advantages, the feminist response of historical reconstruction has, as does any well-defined perspective, a number of limitations. All historical reconstructions face the difficulty of establishing which point in the historical origins ranks as the purest and thus possesses the authority to stand in judgment over later degeneration. For Luther, the New Testament period as a whole held that authority,24 but for later historical critics considerably narrower slices of that period are demonstrably purer, be they Paulís missionary activity, the historical Jesusí ipsissima verba, or the egalitarian movement called forth by Jesus. These contending points of historical authority are often related ó not surprisingly ó to the advocacy stances that generated the reconstruction in the first place and have perhaps served to return some of the flexibility of interpretation to scripture that was lost when the historical consciousness of the Enlightenment dethroned allegorical interpretation. However, if one hopes that by moving from ancient androcentric texts to historical reconstructions one has escaped patriarchal biases or reduced the polyvalent text to the objective, unitary truth of history, one is greatly mistaken: reconstructions are just as subject to advocacy and just as polysemous as any text has been.

More seriously, rooting authoritative revelation in a particular historical moment suggests that those groups not participating in that moment are somehow less worthy than those who do. Just such an assumption has undergirded the second-class status assigned to women by Christian patriarchy, for, so one argument goes, since Jesus chose twelve men as his disciples, women should not now be ordained as priests or ministers. While feminist reconstructions have done much to explode the patriarchal myth of womenís marginality in early Christianity, the underlying assumption that historical participation is a necessary prerequisite for full status in the present has not really been challenged. Hence, other groups who cannot reconstruct their historical participation (as, for example, certain racial groups, homosexuals, handicapped people,25 etc.) still face disenfranchisement. Unless male and female are seen to be the most basic categories of existence and thus, establishing the presence of both in the formative history of Judaism or Christianity empowers all people of whatever other identity groups, retaining the importance of historical participation will inevitably continue to relegate some people to marginal status.

Finally, from the perspective of Protestant feminists, reconstructions of the leadership roles of women in early Christianity, although adding vital elements to our formerly solely patriarchal picture of early Christianity, does not address the pressing question of how to work with biblical texts as they stand, considering their central function in Protestant worship and religious formation. Furthermore, in excavating the text for history, reconstructions by-pass, and consequently fail to explain the curious dynamic experienced even by many feminists: reading admittedly androcentric, occasionally misogynous, texts can still fill women with the passion for and vision of liberation. How is it that texts that negate the experience of women and define them as "other" are also texts that women continue to wish to claim as their own ó and not out of ignorance but out of the realization that they have actually experienced these "negative" texts as liberating? Raising this last point suggests another direction for a feminist response to scripture, not as a substitute for historical reconstruction but as an additional alternative to it: the exploration of gender in relation to the reading of texts.

Gender and Reading

Various analyses of what is involved in the whole process of reading have dominated the debates in literary-critical circles during the last decade as interest in so-called "audience-oriented" or "reader-response" criticism has grown.26 Feminist literary criticism, beginning in this country in the early 1970ís with Kate Millettís Sexual Politics, has now entered those debates by raising the question of the relation of gender to reading. Although the "canon" of literature faced by feminist literary critics is rather more malleable than the one faced by feminist biblical critics, many of the same issues (e.g., the invisibility of women writers, misogynous characterization, and thoroughly androcentric texts) arise in both. Indeed, the stages through which feminist literary criticism has developed since the early 1970ís reveal a striking correspondence to feminist biblical interpretation. Elaine Showalter suggests that three stages in the progression of feminist literary criticism can be perceived:27 the first stage "concentrated on exposing the misogyny of literary practice"28 both in its negative, stereotypical image of women and in its assumption of womenís lesser status as writers and critics. From Elizabeth Cady Stantonís Womanís Bible to Mary Dalyís The Church and the Second Sex to collections of essays on the plight of women throughout church history, like Rosemary Radford Ruetherís Religion and Sexism to analyses of the textual violence against women in the Bible, like Phyllis Tribleís Texts of Terror, one of the earliest and continuing tasks of feminists in religion has been to document the overwhelming misogyny of Western religious traditions.

For feminist literary criticism the second phase "was the discovery that women writers had a literature of their own, whose historical and thematic coherence, as well as artistic importance, had been obscured by. . . patriarchal values. . .29 The recovery of the tradition of women as writers was and remains one of the most important contributions of feminist literary critics. This reconstruction of womenís literary tradition parallels the discovery and reconstruction of womenís leadership roles in the birth and development of Judaism and Christianity, the current predominant feminist response to religious patriarchy. For many literary critics, establishing the roots and tradition of female literature remains the most vital contribution feminist scholars can make to the battle against patriarchy. For others, however, although such reconstituting of the literary universe must be pursued as far as possible, the end result will still be unsatisfying because patriarchal values and institutions not only ignored the women who did write, they actually prevented many talented women from writing at all. Similarly, after every fleeting hint in scripture of the historical role of women in biblical times has been tracked down and every story involving women characters has been explicated, the sum total will still be only one coin in ten,30 the other nine manifesting the androcentric economy. Patriarchy and misogyny are not simply textual entities; they were and are cultural, social realities that fix definite limits to the participation and power of women in every age, including our own.

Given the finite limits of historical reconstructions, a third phase of feminist literary criticism has recently begun that demands "not just the recognition of womenís writing but a radical rethinking of the conceptual grounds of literary study, a revision of the accepted theoretical assumptions about reading and writing that have been based entirely on male literary experiences."31 I am proposing the need for just such a phase of radical revisioning of the accepted assumptions concerning scriptural interpretation and authority in feminist religious circles. Feminist revision, in Adrienne Richís words, is "the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction."32 One such "new critical direction" is reading the old androcentric texts of the Bible as women, out of the experience of being women in a patriarchal world. The texts themselves are not discarded nor are they used only as mines for a few precious glimpses of womenís history; they are rather to be re-read from a new perspective, that of women reading as women. Much recent feminist literary criticism has been charting the course for this kind of revisioning by exploring the relation of gender and reading.33

Such revisioning begins with the insight that readers make meaning. Scripture never has ó nor ever could ó interpret itself. Claims of that kind have been used to mask the institutional biases of authorized interpretations. Even the history of modern biblical research reveals the degree to which various scriptural interpretations are colored by the concerns and predispositions of each interpreter.34 While one may wish to take a moderating position that views the meaning of a text as the interaction of reader and text rather than simply the action of the reader,35 it nevertheless remains obvious that readers propose the meanings of texts which other groups of readers must then evaluate for themselves. That those evaluations occasionally result in a consensus of opinion indicates a second major aspect of the reading process: readers do not make meanings ex nihilo. Readers in every age are controlled to some degree in the meanings they construe by the dominant conventions of reading and writing governing the period.36

Moreover, these conventions, usually absorbed during each personís educational and cultural development, are rarely discussed openly; they are rather the conventional "frames" orienting all other intellectual intercourse and are often referred to as oneís critical "sensibility" or "taste." They guide the way writers of an age write and readers of an age read, if they wish to be judged as good writers or perceptive readers. Realism, historical consciousness, and objectivity are conventions that have shaped modern discourse in the last two centuries, although objectivity is finally beginning to fade under the attack of psychoanalytic and Marxist ideological suspicion. It is also evident that conventions shift from age to age so that what passed as reliable and intelligible discourse in one period may be rejected by another. The striking demise of allegorical interpretation since the Enlightenment is a prime example of such a shift. Yet, both the intricate four-fold allegorical method of the medieval period and the historical-critical method of the Enlightenment are conventions of reading quite foreign to the periods in which most of the biblical texts were written.37 Consequently, while it might be possible to reconstruct some of the conventions governing the writing and reading/hearing process of Hellenistic literature and thus gain some insight concerning how the New Testament texts, for example, might have been read/heard by their earliest audiences,38 such a procedure has not been the major concern of religious establishments for the very good reason that the biblical texts are assumed to have contemporary rather than simply antiquarian relevance.39 So every age has seen in the biblical texts the reflections of their own concerns, issues, and dilemmas.

The realization that readers make meanings acts to relativize all interpretations of biblical texts and should allow women to reread them as women in open challenge to the dominant androcentric or patriarchal readings of the establishment. Only, unfortunately, it is not that easy. Though many of the conventions molding the writing and reading processes of various ages have indeed altered, at least one convention has stubbornly resisted change: the view that the ideal reader and the ideal writer are always male. Feminist literary critics by raising the issue of gender in relation to the conventions of reading have demonstrated the dramatic power of "male as norm" on the history of Western literature and on the generations of women schooled in its image.40 Since the male has been presented as normal and universal with the female as marginal and deviant, women have been forced to learn male language and identify ó against themselves ó with the male experience. As Judith Fetterley argues:

Though one of the most persistent of literary stereotypes is the castrating bitch, the cultural reality is not the emasculation of men by women but the immasculation of women by men. As readers and teachers and scholars, women are taught to think as men, to identify with a male point of view, and to accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values, one of whose central principles is misogyny.41

The long-term effects of the immasculation process on women, Fetterley asserts, "is self-hatred and self-doubt"; "Intellectually male, sexually female, one is in effect no one, nowhere, immasculated."42 What is true of the Western literary tradition is even more true of the Western religious tradition. That the biblical texts are overwhelmingly androcentric forces women to identify with a male perspective (e.g. Jacob getting Leah when he wanted Rachel; David wanting Bathsheba and plotting the demise of Uriah; Jesus choosing twelve men as disciples, etc.) in order simply to follow the story-line; we must, in other words, imagine ourselves as male in order to fulfill the conventional role of reader. In the case of scripture the underlying message is that to be addressed by God, to be a full member of the divinely created universal order, we must pretend we are male and consequently pretend that we are not female.

Since the immasculation process begins with the earliest experiences of reading and culture, women must now consciously work to exorcise "the male mind that has been implanted in us."43 The first step in the feminist radical re-reading of scripture is, then, to become a resisting, suspicious reader, to refuse to agree to the "male as norm" role assigned to the reader by androcentric conventions. Because the male identity has been so thoroughly embedded in our experience, accomplishing this first step will require women to help each other read together in a new way, naming the androcentric perspective each time it appears and hence freeing ourselves to see it for what it is. Such an action assumes theologically that revelation and authority do not occur in the Bible, nor did they occur once upon a time in some historical past; rather, revelation and thus authority come now in the present experience of the believer, who with others begins the task of re-visioning the past in order to live as a full human being in the present and in the future.

Can the response many feminists have had of experiencing liberation in androcentric biblical texts be explained by the immasculation process? Surely, some of it can, for by submerging our female reality and identifying with the male, we can, like Moses, lead our people to freedom or we can, like the disciples in Matthew, receive the commission to spread the gospel to the world. However, I suspect there is more to this response than immasculation alone accounts for. If androcentrism assumes male as universal, feminism in rejecting that assumption must be careful not to reject the universal as part of female experience as well. As Sandra Gilbert has pointed out, feminism and humanism should not "be mutually contradictory terms."44 Some androcentric texts ó not all ó clearly do touch authentic human desires and experiences: hopes for liberation, love, companionship, integrity, justice, and peace ó what Patrocinio Schweichart calls the "utopian vision." These "male texts merit a dual hermeneutic: a negative hermeneutic that discloses their complicity with patriarchal ideology, and a positive hermeneutic that recuperates the utopian moment.

Thus, the second step in the feminist radical re-reading of scripture in the case of some, not all, biblical texts is to retrieve the genuinely liberational ideology that gives to them their basic emotional power. In order to perform this hermeneutic of recuperation, certain reading strategies may prove useful. Schweichart proposes that feminists use role reversal in reading some texts. Imagining Jesus and the twelve as women and a man anointing her head with oil (Mark 14:3-9) gives an entirely different, almost satiric, feel to Markís story, suggesting perhaps that a heavier sexual stereotyping underlies the episode than one might suspect at first reading. Alternatively, substituting a female synagogue leader and a female prostitute for the Pharisee and tax-collector in Lukeís parable (Luke 18:9-14) alters the storyís emotional effect and point not at all, providing an insight into its more universal claims. Other such strategies will need to be worked out as women re-read biblical texts as women.

Entering biblical texts from a new critical direction founded on a conscious understanding of both the thoroughly androcentric nature of the texts and the freedom of women as readers to make their own meanings provides another option in addition to historical reconstruction for Jewish and Christian feminists, and perhaps especially for Protestant feminists, to deal with their scriptural traditions. It has the advantage of being a way to work with the texts themselves, acknowledging their patriarchal disposition but resisting their destructive marginalizing of women while at the same time attempting to retrieve the utopian or truly liberational ideology embodied in them. It is, anyway, a place to begin.

 

NOTES:

1. Elaine Showalter, "Toward a Feminist Poetics" in E. Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) 141.

2. See Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983) 343-51; and Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-Church: Theology and Practice (New York: Harper and Row, 1985).

3. Lutherís address to the Diet of Worms as formulated in the Smalcald Articles, as translated and cited in W. G. Kummel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems, trans. S. Gilmour and H. Kee (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972) 20.

4. On the problems with ordination, see Sara Maitland, A Map of the New Country: Women and Christianity (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983).

5. For example, United Methodist clergy are members of their conference and Presbyterian clergy are part of their presbytery; neither are members of the congregations they serve.

6. See the discussion of this practice and its downfall, first in the Bay Colony in 1691, and then elsewhere in New England in N. Q. Hamilton, Recovery of the Protestant Adventure (New York: Seabury Press, 1981) 16-23.

7. Ibid. 10-15.

8. Hamilton argues that the division between private and public understandings of the churchís mission is the single most enervating controversy in Protestantism; see ibid. 1-5. The pervasive influence and danger to North American culture generally from our passion for individualism, when what we need are communal solutions to pressing social problems, has been superbly analyzed in Robert I3ellah, Richard Madsen, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

9. See the excellent discussion of the losses and gains of women in the Reformation in Jane Dempsey Douglass, "Women and the Continental Reformation" in R. Radford Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) 292-318.

10. Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, to name but three, have contributed extensive foundational work of great diversity, clarity, and depth.

11. Certainly Sallie McFague and Letty Russell in theology and Phyllis Trible in biblical studies have provided major feminist studies.

12. "It is the Word of God that is to determine an article of faith ó nothing else, not even an angel." In Lutherís Diet of Worms address as cited in Kummel 21.

13. For a discussion of the relation of the Protestant Reformation to the beginnings of biblical historical-critical scholarship, see ibid. 20-39.

14. See the recent discussion of the issue of authority in James Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980).

15. Recovery of the Protestant Adventure 3.

16. It was the Protestant need to have the New Testament continue to speak to the present coupled with the recognition of its deeply mythological nature that influenced Rudolf Bultmann to develop his de-mythologizing program; see R. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribners, 1958).

17. This wonderful phrase was coined by Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in This Text?" New Literary History 14 (1982) 119.

18. For a good discussion of these issues in relation to the Western literary canon, see Lillian S. Robinson, "Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon" in E. Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism 105-121.

19. It was with these thoughts that I concluded an earlier article on the Bible and feminism; see "Defining the Problem: The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics," Semeia 28 (1983) 113-26.

20. The major reconstruction for early Christianity would be E. Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her.

21. Ibid. 33-36.

22. The use of the historical-critical method may not be totally advantageous, for feminists have yet to evaluate carefully what patriarchal assumptions may lie behind certain aspects of this method (for example, its adversarial nature, in which one proves one is right by showing everyone else to be wrong).

23. See, e.g., Joachim Jeremiasís claim that recovering the words of Jesus was the only way to "invest our message with full authority" in The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribnerís, 1963) 9.

24. Actually Luther himself rather doubted the authority, both historical and theological, of four New Testament books (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation), thus beginning a Protestant tradition of seeing a "canon within the canon;" see the discussion in KŁmmel 23-26.

25. The issue of handicapped people in relation to the New Testament is difficult: people with physical and mental disabilities are numerous in New Testament stories, but their affiliation with Jesus in the gospels is always indicated by their healing. What, then, of handicapped people who are not healed, who are still blind, deaf, and mute? What is their relation to Christianity?

26. Two excellent collections of essays covering the broad spectrum of audience-oriented criticisms are S. R. Suleiman and I. Crosman, eds., The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) and J. P. Tompkins, Reader-Response-Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

27. The following discussion is drawn from F. Showalter, "Introduction: The Feminist Critical Revolution" in E. Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism 5-10.

28. Ibid. 5.

29. Ibid. 6.

30. See the use of this parable in P. Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) 200-202.

31. Showalter, "Introduction" 8.

32. Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision, College English 34 (1972) 18.

33. The importance of gender issues for reader-response critics may be seen in the interesting discussion of I. Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982) 43-64. New articles are constantly appealing in the area of gender and reading. Recent anthologies in E. A. Flynn and P. P. Schweickart, eds., Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); N. K. Miller, ed., The Poetics of Gender (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986); and J. Spector, ed., Gender Studies, New Directions in Feminist Criticism (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986).

34. See, e.g., the modern history of parable scholarship in relationship to the specific interests and backgrounds of the scholars themselves, as discussed in N. Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom: Symbol and Metaphor in New Testament Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) 89-181.

35. Among audience-oriented critics, such a position would be represented by a critic like Wolfgang Iser (see, e.g., his The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978]). Although such a position makes practical sense, it is very difficult to argue theoretically, for in Iserís case one must argue that a text is both determined and undetermined at the same time. Holding both poles together is almost impossible, so that Iserís theory tends to alternate between a text-centered perspective and a reader-centered perspective, as many of his critics have pointed out (see, e.g., Culler, On Deconstruction, 75-76).

36. For theoretical and practical discussions of the importance of conventions, see J. Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975) 113-160; idem, On Deconstruction 31-83. and S. Mailoux, Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).

37. Actually, allegorical interpretations probably bore a closer similarity to the typical and universalistic formulations of Hellenistic literature than the particular and historical conventions of contemporary discourse.

38. For an attempt to accomplish this type of literary-historical analysis, see my Sowing the Gospel: Markís World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

39. Some modern experiences of reading the Bible might be clarified, however, by comparison with ancient conventions. For example, I have wondered whether the difference between the dominant ancient convention of using totally reliable narrators and the dominant modem convention, fostered by the modern novel and psychological character development, of using unreliable narrators and shifting points of view might predispose modern readers of the Bible to "hear" those texts as more authoritative and infallible than other stories they read.

40. See, especially, E. Showalter, "Women and the Literary Curriculum," College English 32 (1971) 855-62; idem, "Towards a Feminist Poetics"; and J. Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).

41. The Resisting Reader xx.

42. Ibid. xxi, xxii.

43. Ibid. xxii.

44. "What Do Feminist Critics Want? A Postcard from the Volcano" in F. Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism 32.

45. P. P. Schweickart, "Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading" in E. A. Flynn and P. P. Schweickart, eds.. Gender and Reading 43-44.

Chapter 3: The Pleasure of Her Text by Alice Bach
 


 

That which you are, that only can you read.
Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism

No sooner has a word been said, somewhere, about the pleasure of the text, than two policemen are ready to jump on you: the political policeman and the psychoanalytical policeman; futility and/or guilt, pleasure is either ideal or vain, a class notion or an illusion.
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

My reading of Abigailís story, found in 1 Samuel 25, is concerned with woman as reader of male-produced literature, and with the way the hypothesis of a female reader changes our understanding or vision of a text1 by exploring the significance of its sexual codes.2 Formerly, in analyzing biblical texts, it was de rigueur to present scholarly interpretations as objective or neutral descriptions; some critics now recognize that such a "neutral reading" is no more innocent than any other. All this time scientistic scholars have been telling it slant, reading from the male point of view. The typical reader response to female characters has held them in thrall to the dominant male figures, who are accepted as the keystone of each narrative unit. Female character is defined by male response. Often the perception of female characters as "flat" results from scholarsí crushing assumption that male authors have created male characters to do the bidding of their male god. A hermeneutical version of the old-boy network.

In this paper I consider the story of Abigail as a self-contained narrative unit which achieves its dramatic effect by the skillful interweaving of dialogue and by contrasts of character.3 By examining the sexual code, I am presenting an unabashedly subjective reading.4 Instead of evaluating and praising Abigail as a suitable partner for David, reading the text as it has been controlled by codes of male dominance, I adopt a revisionary approach, in order to explore female influence in a male-authored work. Understanding Abigail to be the focus of her own narrative, I award her an opportunity to break free of the traditional plot of love and marriage. The text lends itself to this interpretive strategy since all the other characters, the young outcast David, Abigailís landowner husband Nabal, and the peripheral male and female servants, interact only with Abigail. No other character in the episode interacts with all the other characters. Thus, even though the story appears to be about male authority, female presence shines through.

A closer examination of the sexual codes in the text shows Abigail to be more subversive than her male authors have understood. During the time and space of her narrative, she has used her wise good-sense to control her life verbally while appearing socially dependent and compliant. The moment she encounters David, she speaks. Her determination is reflected in the series of active verbs (v 23) which rapidly move the narrative: wattemaher, wattered, wattippol, wattishtahu.

She hastened and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground.

The first speech is hers. Before David can articulate the anger which the reader has heard him express to his men as Abigail was riding toward him, she delivers a series of beseeching demands, orchestrated to absorb the insults her husband had spoken. Well-chosen words will wash away the villainous words spoken earlier.

"upon me, my lord, be the guilt" v 24
"let your maidservant speak" v 24
"hear the words of your maidservant" v 24
Let your maidservant arrange for the gift to be given v 27
[loose rendering]

Calling herself "maidservant," amateka or shiphateka, synonyms delineating a lower-class woman of no power, Abigail reflects the opposite in her actions: the text has informed us that Abigail is a wealthy woman, and now we see her in charge, comfortably issuing orders, while at the same time deflecting male anger. One suspects she has spoken equally soothing words to her husband to still his rages. There is no reply from David. The scene continues to belong to Abigail. After offering the gift of nourishment for him and his men, she proffers a greater gift: spiritual nourishment in the form of the prophecy endorsing Davidís destiny to reign as the chosen one of God .5 Once she is assured that David has no further violent intentions toward Nabal, she dissociates herself from this husband, who she concedes has no hope of survival (vv 25-26), and seeks to link herself with David. "When YHWH has made good his promises to my lord, may you remember your maidservant" (v 31). Throughout her speech, Abigail continues to emphasize a power hierarchy, repeatedly calling David adoni and herself amateka/shiphateka. While her actions show that she is accustomed to controlling situations, her words assure David that she is handing over power to him. Abigailís cloying humility is a result of her belief in her own words of prophecy. Her deference to the landless pauper underscores Davidís position as prince in disguise. We are in no doubt that Abigail would not herald a rogue with words suited to royalty.

Abigailís ability to act halts the negative progress of the story. The young men, who reported the foul acts of Nabal (vv 14-17), are incapable of reversing their masterís action. Abigail, the woman, acts swiftly. Nabal had refused to give David bread and wine and meat (v 11); Abigail gathers up extravagant amounts of those items and more. "Two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of parched grain, one omer of raisins, and two hundred fig cakes" are brought to David (v 18).

A central illustration of her verbal power is provided in Abigailís prophecy. Her words echo and elaborate Saulís acknowledgment (chap. 24) that David will become the next king of Israel. But her words have a more powerful effect on David than Saulís had; they stop him from committing a violent act. In the previous episode in the cave, David had spared Saulís life before Saul extracted Davidís promise of protection. Abigailís words to David change the course of his action toward Nabal, and possibly the echo of her prophecy in chap. 26 guides Davidís hand when he so flamboyantly seizes, then returns, Saulís spear.

One impression of the patrician landownerís wife is that she is the maternal wife of order and control. She sets limits on her husbandís refusal to comply with Davidís request; she brings calm to Davidís fury. The biblical author does not consider Abigail merely as the good mother. If she were, she would have been rewarded with a long life (in the text) and a top-rated male heir, a common patriarchal convention for conferring praise on a biblical woman. For a moment Abigail steps outside the bounds of convention: a woman succeeds in stopping the future king from committing bloodguilt. But in exercising power and speaking in her own distinctive voice, perhaps Abigail has been guilty of the crime of female ambition. In order for male power to be restored, her voice must be stifled. Her recorded moment of prophecy is not to be repeated.

Scholarly readings of Abigailís story have often reduced it to "1 Samuel 25," that is, the commentatorsí somewhat mechanical explanation of how David annexed his second wife and the valuable territory south of Jerusalem. Perhaps that is why Abigail has no passionate admirers. Few have taken pleasure in her text.

Suppose we befriend for a moment this woman brave enough to ride out from the closed security of her home to face the storms of her husbandís enemy. Instead of imprisoning her in the language of wife, let her break those restraints and relate to other women. We know she is strong and decisive; might she be capable of sustaining friendships, perhaps with Michal and Bathsheba? As Elizabeth Abel discovered in her study of womenís friendships, "through the intimacy which is knowledge, friendship becomes a vehicle of self-definition for women, clarifying identity through relation to an other who embodies and reflects an essential aspect of the self."6 Might Abigail comfort Bathsheba on the death of her baby? Did Michal return as "primary wife"; or had that position been claimed by Ahinoam, mother of Amnon, Davidís eldest son? Was Abigailís gift for pro-flouncing the right words at the right time necessary to keep peace among the wives of the monarch?

As the story unfolds, we can contrast Abigailís behavior with the menís actions; by holding our literary mirror at another angle, we can contrast her with the other women within the Davidic cycle. When Abigail is placed at the center of her drama, she emerges as a redeemer whose action and prophecy are necessary in assuring the future role of David, the divinely chosen monarch of Israel. Is it surprising to find that the historical code, strengthened with added muscle from the theological code, inscribes a woman in the role of Godís helper? Permitting a woman to pronounce a crucial prophecy remains well within the Deuteronomistic Historianís narrative program. The prophecy is supportive, highlights the role of the deity in the selection of David as king, and "emphasizes Davidís success in avoiding any action that would later jeopardize the integrity of his rule."7

Among the thematic threads that bind together chaps. 19-28 one can identify the depiction of Saul as the seeker and David as the vulnerable one whose life is sought. Holding the thread, like Ariadne guiding the reader through the Deuteronomistís maze, is Abigail, who makes explicit the connection between the "seekers alter David" and Nabal. At the center of the maze, the minotaur is Saul/Nabal. Abigailís action is "providential persuasion," part of the larger pattern within chaps. 24-26 of Godís active protection of David.8 Like Ariadne rescuing Theseus, Abigail keeps David safe from the devouring minotaur. Comparing Abigail with Ariadne is not frivolous; both women figure as a trajectory in a story about men; both women rescue/protect the questing hero and then follow him to a different land. Once in Davidís land, Abigail is left out of Davidís story. Theseus deserted Ariadne on the island of Naxos. As a figure of the process of solution Abigail/Ariadne rewards the hero (as well as the reader who makes her/his way to her) with a way out of the story. When we grasp Abigail/Ariadneís thread, we follow a different path through the labyrinth. Instead of admiring the man who entered the arena to do violence, we admire the woman who led him out alive.

Neglecting to put Abigail at the center of her drama, as a primary actor, weakens her role as Godís helper. Adele Berlin does not regard Abigailís words of prophecy (vv 28-31) as crucial to the narrative, claiming the insertion is "hardly relevant to the events of the Abigail story."9 Many scholars agree,10 however, that the primary theological function of Abigail is to speak the word of YHWH to David. While Nabal is ignorant of Davidís true identity, Abigail recognizes David as the future king of Israel. Her prescience is a clear indication that Abigail is Godís chosen prophet-intermediary.11 Abigailís assurance to David that he is YHWHís intended ruler and must remain innocent to do Godís will is the link between the anointing prophecy of Samuel and the dynastic prophecy of Nathan.12 In an ironic twist, the fate about which YHWHís prophet Abigail has warned David, that of shedding innocent blood, prophesies his downfall while it connects this episode of David acquiring his good-sense wife with that future episode of David acquiring another wife (2 Sam 11:1-25). Possibly Abigailís words reveal a latent subtextual desire for connection with Bathsheba, for a community of women.

Inevitably Abigail must join Michal and Bathsheba, the other wives of David who experience moments of narrative power. A clear illustration of gender politics is found in the biblical portrayal and scholarly interpretation of Davidís wives. Seen through the stereotyping lens of male authority, each of these women typifies a particular aspect of wife; Michal is the dissatisfied daughter/wife of divided loyalties; Abigail is consistently the good-sense mother-provider, and Bathsheba, the sexual partner. There is no interdependence of the wives of David, although in their actual lives there might well have been.13 Nor is any of the three women portrayed as a woman with depth or timbre. In the text as traditionally interpreted, as well as in their lives, the wives of David cede to male domination, and in ladylike fashion allow biblical literature to privilege male gender and to demystify their own. However, by rerouting the circuits of conventional comparisons, we can clarify and restore the identity to each woman through her relation to an other who embodies and reflects an essential aspect of the female self. We can imagine alliances based upon affiliation instead of kinship and filiation.

As the only female character in her story, Abigailís isolation is apparent. When, however, we join her story to and make it part of and a link with Michalís story (Michal is essentially erased from Davidís life when Abigail is inserted into it) and then link Bathshebaís story to the previous two, we see female power, or self-identity, asserting itself. We can bring the women together by altering our usual chronology of reading with a Lacanian moment of mirroring. This strategy allows the women to reflect one another as whole bodies, and deflects the bits-and-pieces views we get from glimpsing a shard of each woman in the Davidic mirror, where she appears as a distortion of the male image. Such revisioning provides the reader with a method to probe the ideological assumptions which have resulted in the polarized "good wife, bad wife" stereotypes, the popularly held view of the women within the Davidic narratives.

Abigail: The Good-sense Wife

Abigail is labeled the good-sense wife, the embodiment of sekel in contrast to her husband nabal, the fool. The connection to the book of Proverbs where the use of the word sekel is the most extensive in the Bible is immediate. The portrait of Abigail at first glance seems to be a narrative interpretation and expansion of the qualities attributed to the good wife of Proverbs 31, who provides food for her household, and "opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue" (v 36).

Providing us with some of the details of the life of an upperclass wife, Proverbs offers a clue to Abigailís many accomplishments. She considers a field and buys it; she perceives that her merchandise is profitable she spins, she takes care of the poor, she makes all manner of garments and sells them. Clearly she does not eat of the bread of idleness (when would she have time!), while her husband sits in the gates of the city. Not surprisingly her children call her blessed. She is rated far more precious than jewels. Perhaps Nabal thought his good-wife Abigail was a glittering gem until the morning she told him that she had appeased the greedy son of Jesse. Discovering that his precious jewel had sided with the young brigand struck the undefended hungover Nabal in his heart with the force of a stone.

Traditional interpretations of 1 Samuel 25 have consistently focused upon Abigailís good-sense works as advantageous to the men in the story: as appeasing David in his anger, thus saving the lives of her husbandís workers; preventing David from committing bloodguilt by killing her husband, and of course providing quantities of food for David and his men. The moral code reflects patriarchal values: a womanís personal payoff for virtue is connecting herself to a "better" husband, one as beautiful, pious, and pleasing to God as she is herself. The rabbinic view of Abigail expands and escalates her biblical goodness. In b. Megillah she is considered the most important wife of David, equal with Sarah, Rahab, and Esther, as the four most beautiful women in biblical history.14 In the womenís Paradise, Abigail supervises the women in the fifth division, her domain bordering those of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.15 Josephus also emphasizes Abigailís goodness and piety, referring to her as gynaikos díagathes kai sophronos.16This description of Abigail is close to that of the ethical paragon par excellence, Joseph, a model of sophrosyne, "self-control," for both Josephus and Philo. In both stories, of course, there is the motif of sexual restraint bringing divine rescue. It is understood by the rabbis also that Abigailís moral goodness and self-control cools Davidís ardor, thus distinguishing her from Bathsheba. The mere sight of Bathsheba enflames David to sin, whereas encounter with Abigail cools Davidís fervor to kill Nabal.

Kyle McCarterís summary of the narrative unit is typical of the traditional patriarchal response to the portrayal of Abigail as necessary piece in the grander Davidic mosaic: "the partnership of such a wile bodes well for Davidís future, not only because of her good intelligence and counseling skills, but also because she is the widow of a very rich Calebite landowner."17 Jon Levenson characterizes Abigail as one who "rides the crest of the providential wave into personal success."18 His view of her as an opportunistic surfer is no more complete than McCarterís wife of mergers and land deals. The pleasure of her text comes from acknowledging both these aspects of Abigail and celebrating her subtleties and contradictions.19

Although the biblical author describes Abigail as wipat toĎar, her beauty is apparently not the sort to inspire sexual desire (pace to the ancient aggadists who have dreamed on paper of her) since there is no hint of a sexual relationship between Abigail and either husband. We are riot told of any children from her marriage to Nabal, indeed if Abigail had had children with Nabal, they, not David, would have inherited their fatherís important estate. The biblical narrators/writers are not interested in Abigailís son from her marriage to David, referring to him as Chileab (2 Sam 3:3) or Daniel (1 Chron 3:1).20 The text emphasizes Abigailís importance as the wife with the goods, the flocks and herds, detailing the quantity of every delicious item of food and drink she brings to the outcast David. His sexual hunger will be satisfied by another wife.

To illustrate the textual denial of sexuality to Abigail we might compare how the themes of sexuality, nourishment, and death are developed in another story, that of Judith, a different story to be sure, but one with striking similarities. A woman rushes from the security of home to halt the destructive action of a male. Unlike Abigail, Judith spends a long time dressing to please the male, to seduce him into helplessness. Once in the presence of Holofernes, Judith tantalizes him with possibility. She stays in a tent adjoining his for three days, offering words that are sharply double-edged, meant to fool her enemy into believing that she is preparing for a sexual banquet and that she has come to lead him to victory, when the audience understands she plans the opposite. Taking with her the same items as Abigail does, a skin of wine, barley cakes, loaves from fine flour, and dried fruit (Jdt 10:5), Judith brings the food to nourish herself, not to appease the appetite of Holofernes. Food in the book of Judith functions as a symbol of impending death; Abigailís vast amounts of the same food serve the opposite function. The gift of food comforts David and permits him to accept her words of prophecy. Abigail does not deceive David with words or with food. Judith serves tempting words and is herself the tasty dish.

Another textual silence concerns Abigailís lineage, for she is not the wife of important bloodlines. That connection with Saulís house is achieved by Davidís marriage to Michal. After Abigailís prophecy, assuring David that his own house is secure, v 28, the mosaic is altered, the royal connection to Saul is no longer necessary. As if to underscore his awareness of Davidís relentless rise to power, Saul, flailing in his own impotence against the challenger, gives Michal to Paltiel (v 44).21 From the chronological order of wives in Davidís life, one can posit a setting of priorities of male ambition. First, the connection with the royal house, then the acquisition of personal wealth and the assurance of kingship, and finally a pleasurable sexual liaison.

Casting Abigail in the role of mother-woman represents a view of woman as a respite or dwelling place for man. She functions "as a kind of envelope [for man] in order to help him set limits to things."22 in its positive aspect, as we have noted, Abigail helps David set limits to his fury. While this envelope or place sees the female body as offering a visible limit or shelter, it also views her place as dangerous: the man risks imprisonment or murder within the villainous other unless a door is left open. Thus, to protect himself from the possibility of her engulfing him, the man must distance himself from her, and place limits upon her that are the equivalent of the place without limits where he unwittingly leaves her. After acknowledging that Abigail has stilled his murderous sword, "unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by the dawning of day not a single man would have been left to Nabal" (v 3.4), he must limit her power. Serving Davidís unconscious will, the narrator turns down the heat of the female hero. Our last image of her is as she is riding subdued toward Davidís house, in the company of female servants, playing her role as traditional wife, obeying the will of her husband. How different from that passionate ride down the mountainside in the company of male servants! Shut away from the action of the story, Abigail is no longer

a threat.

Mieke Bal has noticed a similar framework expressing the unconscious fear of woman in the story of Abimelech by connecting six motifs (identified by Fokkelman): death, woman, wall, battle, shame, folly. Bal interprets the linking of these images as a strong chain of warning from male to male to keep his distance, to proceed with caution. "One dies a shameful death as soon as one is so foolish as to fight woman when she is defending her wall/entrance from her mighty position as the feared other."23 Abigail has defended her entrance with words instead of violence. By offering David all her goods, she keeps her own body secure. Ironically David does not risk imprisonment in her house, indeed does not even show curiosity about what might be within. Instead he sends messengers to her in conventional fashion to define her as wife, as though her moment of power and prophecy had never occurred.

As Abigailís absence in the subsequent text of the Davidic narrative proves, David is more successful than Nabal in keeping Abigail shut up in his house, within her own limits.24 Only when she breaks free of the container of Nabalís house, does she become all-powerful, simultaneously saving and threatening the men in the story. The story is resolved when the narrator serving the male characters puts Abigail in her place.

A feminist reading intent on restoring dimension to flattened characters must account for pieces that do not fit. Abigail the woman resists being dismissed as a literary type, "the exemplum, the perfect wife."25 Nor is equating Abigail with mother-provider congruent if we understand Mother to be the Earth Mother, the well-spring of fertility. Abigail, the good wife of Nabal, is the mother of none. As the wife of David, she is the mother of a son, whose name Chileab, "like [his] father,"26 removes him from her influence and control. Abigail is clearly the mother-provider of transformation. She turns the raw material provided by her destructive husband into salvific nourishment. She is not the tender of lambs, but of dressed sheep; she does not offer grain, but baked loaves. Model wife? She refers to her husband as a fool (v 25), sides with his enemy, and does not even mourn his death.

The Women

In introducing the character of David, Meir Steinberg has observed that the biblical author provided a complete, formal, and ordered portrait of David through "summary epithets" in the glowing report Saulís servant makes about "the young son of Jesse, skillful in playing, able in deed, a man of war, wise in counsel, a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him" (16:18).27 Most biblical portraits, unlike this one, are the product of the readerís gap-filling activity; one collects shards of information as the narrative unfolds. Usually the biblical text provides the reader only a partial picture of each character. This is certainly the way in which interpreters have read the relevant texts in the Davidic cycle in which female characters are present. Critics consistently define women as foils for Davidís development. As we have noted, female characters tend to have their identity stolen.28 Traditional commentary has failed to fill out the identity of Abigail, Michal, and Bathsheba, binding them by their gender to the overpowering portrait of David. In Steinbergís schema the entire personality of marginal characters gets telescoped into one or two words: churl and paragon.29 Thus, he robs the story of elements of paradox. A reading that lingers over the collisions and conflicts between characters adds pleasure to the text.

Assigning to each of Davidís wives her summary epithets provides us with a male-produced map of each womanís place in the larger landscape. Michalís summary epithet states that she loved David, a fact not revealed about his other wives. Next the narrator tells us that Saul gave Michal "as a snare for him" (18:21). The language of her epithets is clear. Described as daughter of Saul and snare, she is to spell death for David, although her love for him keeps her from snapping the trap. Abigail, as we noted earlier, is the good-sense wife. She is also wise and beautiful. But neither her name nor her epithets are presented until after a description of her husbandís flocks. Nabal is mentioned first. David hears that Nabal is shearing his sheep and sends his men to ask for the payoff. David seems unaware of or uninterested in the beautiful wife inside the landownerís house. In contrast is a later David, inactive, no longer a fighter or outlaw, watching a beautiful woman in her bath. In this case Bathsheba is mentioned before Uriah. Immediately after identifying Bathsheba as the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah, David30 sends for this other manís wife and lies with her. In this narrative the biblical author develops themes of sexual power: in contrast to his earlier stories of Davidís marital alliances, which are really male power struggles.

Bathshebaís epithets are the most telling of the three products of male fantasy. For her creators, Bathsheba certainly provided pleasure in her text. Through the eyes of the focalizer David we see beautiful Bathsheba bathing: we observe her having sex with him. Then the narrator takes over, revealing that she is at the beginning of her menstrual cycle and then that she has just conceived a child. Bathshebaís first spoken words, "I am with child," could serve as her summary epithet. But the language of sexual intimacy continues. We learn that Uriah will not have sex with her. After his death she mourns Uriah, is brought to Davidís house, becomes his wife, lies with him (again), and bears him a son. The explicit details of Bathshebaís sexual life stand in sharp contrast to the absence of any sexual language in the story of Abigail. Thus, the biblical author exposes private matters to paint the portrait of Bathsheba as the wife who inspires improper desire; he uses the language of prophecy and deference to describe Abigail, the wife of legitimacy and public acquisitions.

Examining these summary epithets provides major clues about the fate of each woman. The daughter of death inherits death (in a woman figured as barrenness) from her father; she does not pass on death to her husband. In the concluding episode about Michal (her stories are split as are her allegiances), she is scornful of David, uncovering himself before maidservants. David, Michalís husband, triumphant in his sexuality, is a sharp contrast to the dispirited figure of Saul, Michalís father, holding in his hand his spear, a symbol of male potency, and failing to kill David with his ineffectual shaft (1 Sam 19:10). As Saulís life force wilts, Davidís grows stronger. Deprived of Davidís sexual energy, Saulís household is powerless: in the first episode, Saul cannot stop David from playing his lyre until Saul hurls his spear at him; in the second Michal cannot stop David from ecstatic dancing. Since there is no sexual life between Abigail and David, Abigail enjoys no further textual life either. Only Bathsheba, the wife of sexual intimacy, participates in the ongoing story of Davidís reign. The length of female textual life seems to be directly connected to the extent of sexual pleasure she provides her male creators.

Another contrast among the women is the way in which David wins each of them: within the consistent framework of fragmented episodes about the women, there are full reports of how David gains these wives: Michal through violence against the Philistines; Abigail through withholding violence against Nabal; Bathsheba through violence against Uriah. While Abigail prevents David from acting against Nabal, Michal has no part in the deal struck between her father and David. She is the reward of a struggle between men doing violence to men. Bathsheba, a casualty of Davidís sexual imperialism, has no part in Davidís death-dealing plan. Only Abigail actively opposes Davidís violence.31 In her story, David refrains from the impetuous act of killing the unpleasant Nabal and so gains Abigail through YHWHís will; in the episode of Bathsheba, after he has gained the power of kingship, David arranges the death of Uriah in order to assure with his own actions that he may possess Bathsheba. When Saul set the bride price of Philistine foreskins for his daughter, he hoped the violent encounter would kill his enemy David (20:21). Rather David triumphed through sexual slaughter. David himself sent his enemy Uriah into battle, again the prize being a woman. David kills the Philistines with the sword; Uriah is also killed by the sword. In Abigailís story, David and his men strap on their swords but never unsheathe them in battle. It is the only one of the three stories in which sexual violence does not lead to marriage. It is also the only one of the three in which there is no allusion to sexual union, or nonunion in the case of Michal. After Nabalís death, David sends his messengers to collect Abigail, "to make her his wife" (v 42). After Bathshebaís period of mourning for Uriah was over, "David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son (2 Sam 11:27). Saul gave Michal to David as a snare for him, but with the help of the wife who loved him, David escaped the snare and fled. And Michal was left with an empty bed, stuffed with teraphim, an imitation man. David escapes Michalís bed; Bathsheba is ensnared in his.

Fathers and Son

In his vigorous examination of the literary history constructed by the Deuteronomistic Historian, Samuel and the Deuteronomist, Robert Polzin uses a strategy of "allusive readings" to make interbiblical connections among episodes within 1 Samuel. Through his comparisons of Saul and Nabal, he makes a convincing case for Nabalís death as proleptic of Saulís. Earlier David Gunn concluded that "one of the important functions of Abigailís speech, in the context of the story as a whole, is to foreshadow Saulís death."32 But it is Abigail herself who first made this connection explicit in telling David, "Let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal" (v 29). Following their lead, let us test connections between foolish men.

As Polzin notes, one of the major themes of the first book of Samuel is the establishment of kingship in Israel. Read through a psychoanalytic lens, this translates into a taut chain of fathers and sons, tensions of male power. Beginning with the birth of Samuel, spiritual father to both Saul and David, and ending with the death of Saul and his sons, and the kingship or coming of age of David, 1 Samuel can be read as a record of war games of slaughter and betrayal. The cycle of doom is compressed into a question in a Margaret Atwood poem:

Arenít you tired of killing
those whose deaths have been predicted
and who are therefore dead already?33

But the struggle is inevitable. Until the father is vanquished, the son cannot flourish. David Jobling sees the motif of heredity as the most important aspect of continuity between the books of Judges and Samuel.34 The sins of Eliís sons lead to the rise of Samuel as Eliís surrogate son; David, the one who can soothe Saul when the dark spirit comes upon him, becomes a surrogate son to Saul and a brother to Jonathan. Jobling understands the rise of monarchy under Saul as a move toward continuous and hereditary government. There is, however, no mention of kingship as hereditary in 1 Sam 8:4-12:25. As Jobling recognizes, the theological code supports monarchy in circumstances much like those of the judge-deliverers. The king unifies Israel and does not appear as a dynast.35 For a dynasty is "a direct negation of divine initiative in the raising of Israelís leaders."36

Struggles between fathers and sons abound throughout the biblical narratives. Within the scope of this paper we can only glance at those that involve David as son. As we have noted earlier, the son of Jesse refers to himself as son to two surrogate fathers: Saul and Nabal. This self-designation underscores the liminality of Davidís situation. No longer the child-shepherd guarding his fatherís flocks in the hills of Bethlehem, not yet ready to discard the time of sonship.37 We can contrast another son connected to David, his "brother," Jonathan, who struggles against his father, but dies alongside Saul, never to escape the role of son.

From the time David flashes his sword against the Philistines to capture the bride price for the daughter of Saul, assuring himself sonship to the king, the woman-mother is the prize for the murder of the father. Michal never quite achieves this status; she remains a transitional figure, the link between Saul and his successor. Her divided loyalties mirror the difficulties of the reader in deserting Saul and taking up emotional residence with David. Although David may be the ultimate Fatherís chosen son, the biblical authorís ambiguous feelings toward him remind the reader that David is not always the popular choice. Abigail like Michal stands between David and a father figure. On first reading, the authorís response to Nabalís wife appears to be different from his response to Saulís daughter. After all Abigail is the subject of an entire chapter in the narrative. And she is rewarded with a son, even if an "unimportant" one. David flees the daughter of Saul, and neither her husband nor the biblical authors praise her for her courage in helping David escape her father. Michal, the companion of Davidís liminal period, is discarded like an outgrown garment. She remains childless, a daughter until the day of her death.

However, there is a similarity between the two women David has taken from older men: he seems to lose interest in them after he has possessed them and overcome the fathers their husbands represent. They are his public wives, as he publicly wrenched power from their husbands. Bathsheba, the wife of his bed, with whom he mourns the death of his infant son, is the wile of adulthood and privacy. Davidís victory over Uriah was born in an act of concealment. The only benefit from that marriage was Bathsheba herself. No kingship, no land, no wealth. Of course there is a future benefit for David from Bathsheba herself. From her womb comes the son Solomon, who will rule after his father.

Mother-women are at the center of the father and son battle from the first chapter of the book of Samuel through Elkanahís question to his wife Hannah, "Am I not more to you than ten sons?" It is also possible to imagine the question posed to Abigail by the young man who has introduced himself to her husband as bineka, "your son." Standing as intercessor between him and the father, she answers his question with resounding affirmation. Presenting him with the goods of the father, she tells him that his house will be secure, unlike the houses of his predecessors, Saul and Nabal. And she plans to follow him into the house. Lest he be overcome with her devouring power, she calls herself amateka/shiphateka, signaling that he will be the ruling father, and she will be his obedient mate. David acknowledges this transfer of power by telling Abigail that he has heard her voice and granted her petition (v 35).

Earlier in the narrative David instructs his men to ask Nabal for a payoff because they had not harmed his shepherds. In other words David wants a reward because he behaved correctly. He had not invaded the older manís territory; he requests recognition from the father: "give whatever you have [in] your hand to your son" (v 8). At the rejection of the father, David responds in anger and pain and threatens to kill him. Abigail holds up the mirror to the son David in this episode, assuring him that he is good. It is the father Nabal who is evil and who must die.

The death of Nabal marks the end of this liminal period for David begun with the death of Goliath, also felled by a stone. In the next chapter, in what is to be their final meeting, David possesses Saulís spear, the metonymic weapon of sexual power, and receives acknowledgment from the father, "Blessed be you, my son David." Not believing Saulís words. David flees the borders of Israel, but the record of Saulís pursuit of David has ended. The transitional time of Davidís struggle to overtake the older king, which began with his battling Goliath in Saulís name, concludes with another scene of displaced victory, the death of Nabal. During this liminal period, David has depended on women to assure him that he is better than the father. In the episode with Bathsheba, he has become the man in charge. Bathshebaís announcement, "I am with child," proclaims that David is no longer a son. No longer does he need a woman to defend him from the threatening father. No longer does he depend on the ultimate Father to do his killing for him. In this story he takes control from the Father God and proves that he can kill in his own name. And, thus, with this supreme act of disloyal sonship, he incurs the wrath of the Father, who takes the life of Davidís infant son.

Abigail Almanah

After Nabalís death, Abigail becomes a widow, almanah.38 The word is derived from the root lm, meaning dumb, without speech. From the same root comes the noun elem, meaning silence.39 In Akkadian, lemun, a cognate word, means "it is bad." In spite of her marriage to David, Abigail remains a widow, that is, she survives without speech in the text. Her name is mentioned twice to remind the reader that she lives. Although she has a son, he is Chileab, like (his) father, and thus not connected with his mother. We do not hear her wise voice again. Ironically, in spite of the textual insistence that Abigail was improperly paired with the fool, that marriage gave her the power of speech as well as the power to ride down a mountainside, emboldened by her mission to stop David from killing her husband. In spite of the implication that Abigail lived happily ever after with her Prince Charming, the vibrant, verbal Abigail seems to have functioned better as the wife of Nabal. While he lived, she demonstrated bravery. She had the power of prophecy. After his death, Abigailís voice is absorbed into Davidís, much as she is absorbed into his household. Once inside his house, she is no longer a threat or a redeemer to men.

Living on in the echo of her story as widow, isolated by the tradition as the good-sense wife, the Paragon, Abigail is denied political agency and her own identity. At the moment at which readers conceive of Abigail as agent, as actor, as subject, they restore dimension to her. And delight in the pleasure of her text.

 

NOTES:

1. For our ongoing exploration of woman as reader and for providing pleasure in analyzing texts, I am grateful to J. Cheryl Exum of Boston College.

2. For a feminist literary delineation of the difference between women reading male-authored texts, and women reading books written by women ("gynocritics") see Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) 243-270.

3. Flaubert, in a letter to Louise Collet, Oct. 12, 1853, thus defined his own aspirations in attempting to write the perfect artistic novel.

4. Mieke Bal in Murder and Difference (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988) has illustrated the effectiveness of a reading strategy that employs a combination of codes, "a transdisciplinary approach." The advantage of Balís method is that one avoids privileging one code, allowing it the voice of authority, obscuring social realities. This paper owes much of its understanding of examining codes to Balís perceptive work.

5. In this central scene, vv 14-35, Kyle McCarterís sensitive translation reads with Vaticanus against Alexandrinus and Venetus and against MI, eliminating the name of Nabal. Thus, the name Nabal is not spoken by either the servants, Abigail, or David, until the potentially violent situation has been resolved. The loss of his name reflects the loss of his status, as well as his importance to the story. By removing his name, McCarter has emphasized the loss of the power Nabal possessed at the beginning of the narrative. See P. Kyle McCarter, I Samuel, Anchor Bible 8 (AB), (New York: Doubleday, 1980).

6. Elizabeth Abel, "[Emerging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women," Signs 6 (1981) 413-435.

7. Robert Polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist (New York: Harper and Row, 1989) 213-215. Although Polzin does not characterize his approach as a reading of the theological-historical code active in the text, his strategy of tracing allusions and repetitions within the History results in laying bare this code.

8. Polzin 206-207.

9. Adele Berlin, "Characterization in Biblical Narrative: Davidís Wives," JSOT 23 (1982) 77. Incorporated in Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983) 23-43.

10. See Gunn, McCarter, Polzin.

11. Jon Levenson ["1 Samuel 25 as Literature and as History" CBQ 40(1978) 20] acknowledges that Abigail is the first person to announce that David will be chosen nagid al yisra el, "ruler over Israel" (v 30) and that her assertion that YMWH will build David a bayit ne eman, "secure house" (v 28) is an "undeniable adumbration of Nathanís prophecy which utilizes identical language." Levenson, however, decides that "the narrator does not present Abigail as a prophetess [sic] in the narrower sense; she is a person who from intelligence rather than from special revelation senses the drift of history, and who endowed with the highly valued initiative and efficiency of the "ideal woman (see Prov 31:10-31) rides the crest of the providential wave into personal success." It seems highly speculative to assume Abigail does not possess special revelation. At best Levensonís tone indicates that Abigailís intelligence is a gift secondary to prophecy.

12. Splitting the impact of Abigailís prophecy (vv 28-31) by concluding that these verses are a later Josianic addition to the earlier story of Davidís meeting with Abigail is another way to diminish the female role in the story. McCarter falls victim to this approach by calling the later redaction "a vehicle for an early reference to the promise of dynasty to David" (AB 8: 402). McCarter does not mention that the Josianic historian has chosen to put the prophecy on the lips of Abigail, nor does he suppose any connection between the Josianic addition of v 1, the report of the prophet Samuelís death, and the addition of the proleptic prophecy within the chapter.

13. See Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Womanís Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). Gilligan argues that women typically develop different moral languages and decision-making styles from those of men. Gilligan has concluded from her female informants that women embrace an ethic of responsibility, nurturance, and interdependence, which differs from the male ethic of autonomous individual entitlement.

14. There were apparently only four women of perfect beauty. In b. Meg 15a Sarah, Rachel, and Abigail are consistently mentioned although there is no agreement as to the fourth beauty. Vashti, Esther, Rahab, Michal, and Jael are all competitors.

15. When it comes to describing women, the rabbis seem to suffer from narrative exhaustion, since they describe Michal also as a woman of entrancing beauty, who was a model of the loving wife. Beit HaMidrash III, 136.

16. Josephus, Biblical Antiquities, Book VI, 296.

17. McCarter 402.

18. Levenson 20.

19. Adele Berlin describes the wives of David with phrases that prolong gender stereotyping: e.g., Michal as "unfeminine" for declaring her love for David, and "aggressive and physical" (apparently negative qualities) for helping him to escape through the window. Collaborating with the patriarchal agenda, Berlin describes Abigail as an exaggerated stereotype of the "model wife and modest woman." See Berlinís chapter, "Character and Characterization," op. cit. 23-43.

20. There is a rabbinic tradition that claims Chileab was so named because he resembled physically and in his mental powers his father David (kilíab like [his] father). The name, according to Ginzburg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 6, p. 275, silenced any misunderstanding about Davidís hasty marriage to Abigail. The son is clearly the son of David because he resembles him physically. For similar explanation see Targum 1 Chron 3:1. Davidís marriage to Abigail seems implicitly to be connected with the marriage to Bathsheba. Although both marriages were impulsive, one was born of improper sexual desire; one was proper. Abigailís good name is protected by the name of her son.

21. Although Michal is returned to David (2 Sam 3:13), their relationship is anything but harmonious. When David orders Abner to bring Michal to him, he refers to her as "Saulís daughter"; in the following verse in speaking to Ishbosheth, Saulís son, David refers to Michal as "my wife." Once again the occasion of Michalís becoming Davidís wife is surrounded by male violence. Soon after she has been returned, Abner is killed by Joab.

22. See Luce Irigaray, "Sexual Difference," in French Feminist Thought, ed. Toni Moi (Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1987) 118-130. Irigaray argues that "the relationship between the envelope and the things represents one of the aporia, if not the aporia, of Aristotelianism and the philosophical systems which are derived from it." She concludes that man, in fear of leaving the mother a subject-life of her own, in a dynamic subjective process, remains within a master-slave dialectic. "He is ultimately the slave of a God on whom he bestows the qualities of an absolute master. He is secretly a slave to the power of the mother woman, which he subdues or destroys."

23. Mieke Bal, Lethal Love (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) 33.

24. For a convincing argument of the silencing of Michal within the Davidic story, especially the metonymic function of the house as agent of silence and confinement, see J. Cheryl Exum, "Murder They Wrote," in this volume.

25. Berlin 30-31.

26. Another interpretation of Chileab is, "yes, the father is mine."

27. Meir Steinberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) 326.

28. By reducing the story to slogans, Steinbergís reading does not acknowledge Abigail as the initiator of action. While there are tropes of folktale in Abigailís story ó the wicked husband, the good and faithful wife ó outcast David makes an odd Prince Charming. His threat of violence is not intended to rescue the fair maiden but rather to increase his own wealth. For a stimulating "caution" against reading folktale or myth without expressing its ideological bias, see Mieke Bal, "Mythe a La Lettre," in Psychoanalytic Discourse in Literature, ed. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (London: Methuen, Inc., 1987) 57-89.

29. Steinberg 325-328. Even though biblical texts reflect such formulas, I do not agree with Steinbergís conclusion that the reason for verbal shorthand is to discourage further inquiry into makeup and motivation. He sees omitted features as blanks rather than gaps to be filled in by the reader. While Nabal by his very name is to be thought of as a churl, one can fill in the gaps within the text by comparing his behavior with that of his wife.

30. The text of 2 Sam 11:3 reads wayyomer haloí zoít bat sheba. The identity of the male speaker who identifies Bathsheba is not clear. It could refer to David.

31. Contra Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981) 61. Alter sees a progression of violence in each of the three "discriminated premarital episodes," e.g., Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba. Alter reads each text with David at its center, missing the critical difference in interpretation when Abigail is placed at the center of her story. Her actions stop violence; the other women are not participants in the episodes which lead to their alliances with David; they are the prizes.

32. David Gunn, The Fate of King Saul (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1980) 96.

33. Margaret Atwood, "Circe/Mud Poems," in Selected Poems (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976) 59.

34. David Jobling, The Sense of Biblical Narrative, II (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986) 53.

35. Jobling 64.

36. Jobling 85.

37. I understand the term liminality to refer to important boundaries of the heroís life. Thus, Davidís rite of passage is bounded by the slingshot stone at one end and the stone-dead Nabal at the other. This liminal or transitional period ends with the marriage to Abigail, who marks the beginning of the portrait of the adult David, who soon after this "adult" marriage is anointed king of Judah.

38. Abigail is not called almanah in the text, perhaps because she is already considered Davidís wife. From the moment David tells her to return to her house, for "I have granted your petition," the reader links Abigail with him and not with the drunken Nabal, whose life seems to drizzle out of him like the previous nightís wine.

39. I am indebted to Edward L. Greenstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America for his etymological acumen as well as for his careful reading and valuable discussion about many of the issues and suggestions raised in this paper.

Chapter 4: Murder They Wrote: Ideology and the Manipulation of Female Presence in Biblical Narrative, by J. Cheryl Exum
 


 

J. Cheryl Exum is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston College, has published widely in the area of biblical criticism. She is the editor of several volumes on biblical poetics, including Reasoning with the Foxes: Female Wit in a World of Male Power (Semeia 42) with J. W. H. Bos, and Signs and Wonders (Scholars Press, 1989). She is at work on a literary study, Arrows of the Almighty: Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Nobody seems to go through the agony of the victim. . .
Agatha Christie

In this paper I want to investigate two literary murders. One is a sacrifice, which has all the appearances of a murder, except that the victim does not protest. In the other case, the victim does protest, but the murder does not take place in the story, but rather by means of the story. The story is the murder weapon, so to speak. The stories are those of Jephthahís daughter, offered by her father as a sacrifice to the deity, and of Michal, Saulís daughter and Davidís wife, denied offspring and voice in one fatal stroke, and thus killed off as a narrative presence. One victim is nameless; the other, named, but both are identified in terms of men: one, as a daughter; the other, as "the daughter of Saul" and "the wife of David," but never without one or both of these epithets. They thus illustrate the familiar position of women in biblical times, as under the authority of their fathers before marriage and of their husbands after marriage.1 Neither functions as an independent agent in the sense that, for example, Deborah, Rahab, Delilah, and Jael do. Jephthahís daughter makes no real attempt to act autonomously, whereas Michal unflinchingly asserts herself, with deadly consequences.

The "stories" of these two women are parts of menís stories, part of the "larger story" that we take as the story. David Clines has argued that there is no "Michal story," that focusing upon a minor character in a story results in a distorted, or at least skewed reading of the whole.2 He is right, of course, that there is no "Michal story," nor is there a "Jephthahís daughterís story," and for feminist criticism of biblical narrative that is precisely the problem. But one can nonetheless discern the submerged strains of Michalís voice and Jephthahís daughterís voice, and the challenge for feminist criticism is to reconstruct a version of their stories from that voice. This can be done at least partially, I think, by deconstructing the dominant (male) voice, or phallogocentric ideology of the narratives.

I do not speak of these womenís stories in any absolute sense, as if by deconstructing the male voice, we will be closer to the "truth" or "the real story." To suggest that there is one proper way to read the text results in an authoritarianism characteristic of phallocentric criticism ó a position that feminist criticism rejects in its recognition (and celebration) of contradiction and multiplicity. A feminist reading will not be a neutral reading, "neutral" or "objective reading" usually being terms for what turn out to be androcentric readings. The relation of reading to truth involves the issue of interests, and our interests determine the questions we ask of a text.3 In this quest after literary murderers, I am no more capable of telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, than the biblical narrators. Rather I shall use my interests to expose and undermine theirs, in the interest of possible truth.

For purposes of this study, I wish to set aside the question of who produced these stories, of whether or not, and to what degree, women might be considered responsible for these traditions. In my opinion, that question is secondary to the issue of gender ideology in biblical material. Feminists have long recognized that men control symbolic production. Theirs is the dominant world-view that also controls literary production, with the consequence that the female perspective will be muted, if not altogether excluded.4 Since in patriarchal texts women are frequently made to speak and act against their own interests, an important question faces us: what patriarchal function do these narratives serve?5 What is the motive for these murders? Pursuit of an answer to this question is one option among other possibilities for feminist analysis, and one that brings to light important facets of these two womenís stories. Finally, I hope to show how the female perspective, the female voice, cannot be silenced, even by literary murder. The crime has been committed, the evidence is the text, and the female perspective provides our clue for deconstructing it.

Literary murder is, of course, different from the real thing, and both of our cases can be construed as something else, which may explain why the perpetrators have gotten away with murder for so long. In the case of Jephthahís daughter, the ritual act of sacrifice transforms murder into a socially acceptable act of execution.6 We do not witness Michalís actual death; there is no need for its description, for by the end of 2 Samuel 6, she has ceased to play any role in the Davidic house. As we shall see, poetics and ideology conspire to remove Michal as a narrative presence. There is no similar ideological necessity to get rid of Jephthahís daughter. She is the innocent victim of her fatherís vow. Since by accepting her death at the hands of the father, she poses no threat to the patriarchal system, her memory is allowed to live and to be celebrated within the story. This cannot, for reasons we shall explore below, be the case with Michal.

The Case of the Dutiful Daughter

The story of Jephthah and his daughter appears in Judges 11. In return for victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah vows to sacrifice to YHWH "the one coming forth who comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites" (11:31). His daughter is the one who meets him, and the alarming similarity in vocabulary brings out the dramatic impact: "when Jephthah came to Mizpah to his house, behold, his daughter coming forth to meet him. . ." (11:34). Jephthahís response, rending his garments as a sign of mourning, and his awkwardly expressed agony and consternation, make it clear that he had not expected his daughter to be the object of his vow.

When he saw her he rent his garments and said, "Ah, my daughter, you have brought me very low and have become the source of my trouble. I have opened my mouth to YHWH and I cannot take it back" (11:35).

It has been frequently pointed out that rather than offering solace, the father accuses his daughter ó a classic case of blaming the victim. But his words also, in my opinion, express his feeling of not being solely responsible for this awful turn of events.7 Just as Oedipus did not intend to kill his father and marry his mother but does so only because he does not know their identity, so too Jephthah did not intend to sacrifice his daughter, but utters his vow without knowing who will be "the one coming forth." Both she and he are caught up in something beyond their control.

The very act of making the vow occurs under ambiguous circumstances. Jephthahís success in battle against Ammon and his future as chief over Gilead rest upon divine favor. His attempt to settle hostilities diplomatically meets with failure and the battle lines are drawn. The spirit of YHWH comes upon Jephthah before he makes the vow, and it is not clear whether or not he utters his vow under its influence.

The spirit of YHWH came upon Jephthah and he crossed over Gilead and Manasseh, and he crossed Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he crossed over to the Ammonites. And Jephthah vowed a vow to YHWH. He said, "If you will indeed give the Ammonites into my hand, then the one coming forth who comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be YHWHís and I shall offer him [generic] up as a burnt offering" (11:29-31).

Is the spirit the driving force behind all of these events, or only some of them, and if so, which ones? To complicate matters even further, the next verse tells us, "Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight with them and YHWH gave them into his hand." If not a tacit acceptance of Jephthahís terms, this statement at least implicates the deity. There is otherwise no divine action in the story and, disturbingly, no divine judgment upon Jephthahís act of human sacrifice. The imposition of the vow between the coming of the spirit of YHWH upon Jephthah and the victory renders it impossible to determine whether victory comes as the result of the spirit, or the vow, or both.

The problem lies not so much in the making of the vow as in its object. Had Jephthah vowed to build an altar to YHWH, as Jacob does in Gen 28:20-22, or to dedicate to YHWH the spoils of battle, as Israel does in Num 21:2, it is unlikely that his vow would have elicited much critical commentary. Even the vowing of a person to the deity is not unthinkable, as seen in Hannahís vow to give Samuel to YHWH all the days of his life (1 Sam 1:11). But Jephthah vows the ultimate in order to ensure success, something from his household that will cost him dearly. What is sacrificed must be precious to be meaningful (cf. Davidís avowal, "I will not offer burnt offerings to YHWH my God that cost me nothing," 2 Sam 24:24). Not until the last two words in the Hebrew (weha alitihu olah, "I will offer him up as a burnt offering") do we discover that Jephthah intends a live sacrifice.8 By holding us off until the last possible moment, the text alerts us to this unusual aspect of the vow and intimates its horror.

Yet the vow alone does not determine the tragic outcome. Tragedy is assured when Jephthahís daughter, his only child, comes out to meet him. The conjuncture of these two events, the vow and the daughterís appearance, seals two fates: she to die and have no progeny; he to have no progeny and to die.9 Jephthah takes her life "according to his vow" (11:39). There is no last-minute intervention by the deity to save the child, no ram in the thicket. In the story Jephthah carries out the murder, and the deity is implicated.10 And since this is a literary murder, we shall accuse the narrator of complicity in this crime.

How the young woman knows or surmises the terms of her fatherís vow is not stated. Her readiness to accept the inevitable is striking.

She said to him, "My father, you have opened your mouth to YHWH; do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth now that YHWH has granted you vindication against your enemies, the Ammonites" (11:36).

The daughter submits to the authority of the father. His word is not to be countermanded but simply postponed: she asks only for a two-month respite before the vow is carried out. After a time of lamentation in the mountains with her companions, she returns to her father, and the text states, "he did to her according to his vow which he had vowed" (11:39). We are spared the details, for we could hardly bear them (compare, for example, the piling up of details in the account of Abrahamís near sacrifice of his son Isaac, where a deus ex machina assures a happy ending). A young womanís life is snuffed out in its prime. Yet it would be myopic to see what happens as any less Jephthahís tragedy than his daughterís, for his family line comes to an end when he is forced to take his daughterís life. To commemorate Jephthahís daughter, the women of Israel hold a yearly ritual four days each year.

The Case of the Nagging Wife

Michalís "story" must be gleaned from scattered references in 1 and 2 Samuel, where she plays a significant but minor role in the events surrounding the demise of Saulís house and Davidís rise to the throne. For my purposes here, I will focus on Michalís fatal confrontation with David in 2 Samuel 6, though some summary of what happens earlier will be necessary.11 Michal is King Saulís daughter, who loves David and becomes his wife. Saul and his house have been rejected by YHWH (1 Samuel 13 and 15), and David has been secretly anointed king by Samuel (1 Samuel 16). David becomes a popular hero after his defeat of Goliath (1 Samuel 17 and 18) and Saul very early realizes the threat David poses to his kingship.

"They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?" And Saul eyed David from that day on (1 Sam 18:8-9).

When he learns that his daughter Michal loves David, Saul is pleased and uses the opportunity to dangle a desirable prize before his rival, "become the kingís son-in-law." He hopes that David will be killed trying to meet the bride price of a hundred Philistine foreskins. But why should it matter to Saul that Michal loves David? What do the womanís feelings have to do with it? Saul had already tempted David with his older daughter Merab ó where love is not mentioned ó but he gave her to another (1 Sam 18:17-19). In fact, the reward for killing Goliath was rumored to be marriage to the kingís daughter (1 Sam 17:25). Thus for the charmed third time, David has a chance at what Saul seems unwilling to let him have. From Saulís perspective, Michalís love for David may be convenient but otherwise largely gratuitous. I think it is largely gratuitous from Davidís perspective as well. The situation is one in which the menís political considerations are paramount, while regarding the woman, we hear only that she loves. Already the text perpetuates a familiar stereotype: men are motivated by ambition, whereas women respond on a personal level. It would be much more to Saulís advantage if David loved Michal ó but that is precisely what the text leaves unsaid, suggesting that Davidís motives are as purely political as Saulís. Note that the text tells us "it pleased David well to be the kingís son-in-law," not that it pleased him to have Michal as his wife. Saul even appears to recognize the threat Michalís love for David poses for him,

When Saul saw and knew that YHWH was with David, and that Michal Saulís daughter loved him, Saul was still more afraid of David,12

and rightly so, for in the next chapter, Michal defies her father by helping David escape Saulís attempt on his life (1 Sam 19:11-17).

In saving David from Saul, Michal loses him, for he leaves his house-within-Saulís-house, his advantageous position as the "kingís son-in-law," never to return. He does return to meet Jonathan and to conspire with him to discover Saulís intentions (1 Samuel 20) and he hides for three days until Jonathan brings him news ó but all this time, he apparently makes no effort to see Michal. David becomes a fugitive and an outlaw, futilely pursued by Saul, and he manages to gain not one, but two wives while roaming about the countryside (1 Sam 25:42-43). At this point we learn that Saul had given Michal to Palti, the son of Laish (1 Sam 25:44).13 Saulís political motive seems clear enough, to deny David any claim to the throne through marriage. Time passes, Saul is killed in battle at Gilboa (1 Samuel 31), and David is anointed king over Judah. About Michal we hear nothing until David is offered the opportunity to become king over the northern tribes. (In the meantime David has acquired more wives and many children, 2 Sam 3:2-5.) Then he does precisely what Saul had sought to prevent; he demands the return of his wife Michal as a symbol of his claim to Saulís throne. The description of her grief-stricken husband Paltiel, who follows in tears as Michal is being taken to David, draws attention to the absence of information regarding Michalís feelings. Michalís reunion with David is not reported, a highly significant textual silence that suggests a volatile subtext.

It is little wonder, then, that when Michal has her big scene in 2 Samuel 6, it is a veritable emotional explosion.14 In the only dialogue that ever takes place between them, Michal accuses David of blatant sexual vulgarity, and he responds with a devastating rebuke. Immediately thereafter the narrator laconically informs us, "Michal Saulís daughter had no child to the day of her death."

A review of Michalís story reveals that only twice does she appear as an agent in her own right, here and in 1 Samuel 19, where she saves Davidís life. Elsewhere she neither speaks nor initiates action but is rather the object of the political machinations of the two men, her father and her husband, locked in bitter rivalry over the kingship. When used as a symbol to represent their conflicting interests, Michal is referred to as both Saulís daughter and Davidís wife (1 Sam 18:20, 27, 28; 25:44; 2 Sam 3:13, 14). The intense nature of the Saulide-Davidic rivalry, however, the exclusiveness of eachís claim to the throne, makes it impossible for Michal to belong to both houses at once. She becomes a victim of their prolonged conflict, and her two attempts to act autonomously by choosing her own allegiances result only in her own losses. In 1 Samuel 19, Michal is called "Davidís wife," for she allies herself with her husband over against her father. She orchestrates Davidís escape into freedom by letting him down through the window when Saul seeks to kill him. But she thereby, in effect, loses her husband, who does not come back for her or seek her return to him until it is politically expedient. In 2 Samuel 6, she becomes once again "Saulís daughter," for she speaks as the representative of her fatherís house, and by doing so, forfeits her role in the house of King David.

In 2 Samuel 6, David and "all the house of Israel" bring the ark of YHWH to Jerusalem amid great rejoicing. Michal, however, is inside, watching the fanfare through the window. From her perspective we see "King David leaping and dancing before YHWH," and for the first time since telling us Michal loved David (1 Sam 18:20), the narrator permits us access to her feelings: "she despised him in her heart" (2 Sam 6:16). That her love has turned to hatred serves as a pointed indication of her suffering at Davidís hands. It has been suggested that as a kingís daughter, Michal finds the behavior of the present king beneath the dignity of that office. But her heated exchange with David when she goes out to confront him reveals much more. It doesnít take a psychologist to recognize that Davidís attire, or lack of it, is not the real issue.

David returned to bless his house, and Michal the daughter of Saul went out meet David. She said, "How the king of Israel has honored himself today, exposing himself today in the eyes of his subjectsí maidservants as one of the worthless fellows flagrantly exposes himself" (2 Sam 6:20).

That nothing less than the kingship is involved can be seen from Michalís reference to David as the "king of Israel," and from Davidís reply, where he first takes up the subject of kingship and only then turns to the subject of his comportment.

David said to Michal, "Before YHWH who chose me over your father and over all his house to appoint me king-elect over the people of YHWH, over Israel ó I will dance before YHWH. And I shall dishonor myself even more than this and be abased in my eyes, but by the maid-servants of whom you have spoken ó by them I shall be held in honor" (2 Sam 6:21-22).

Notice the pointed references to Saulís rejection ó "over your father," "over all his house" ó and to Davidís authority "over the people of YHWH," and "over Israel." Davidís response to Michal touches on a critical issue that the narrative has repeatedly repressed but never really resolved: Davidís taking the kingship from the house of Saul.

With regard to what Michal considers his shameful behavior, David promises to go even further. How will he dishonor himself? I suggest the next verse hints at an answer: by ceasing to have sexual relations with Michal, by putting aside the woman who once risked her life to save his.15 The juxtaposition of Davidís rebuke and the narratorís statement that Michal had no children invites us to posit a causal connection. Significantly, however, the text carefully avoids this connection. Do we have here a case of male solidarity between the narrator and David? Or should we consider other possibilities? Since it is YHWH who opens and closes the womb (Gen 20:18; 29:31; 30:2, 22;1 Sam 1:5, 6; Isa 66:9), perhaps the deity bears responsibility (it has been suggested that Michalís childlessness is her punishment for speaking out against YHWHís anointed). No one to my knowledge has proposed that Michal refuses to have sexual relations with David, yet it would not be out of character for her. The very ambiguity hints at the textís unease about locating the responsibility.

The rift between David and Michal is not only inevitable, given the resentment Michal must surely feel toward David, from a narrative point of view it is essential, for any possibility that Michal and David have a child, who would symbolize the uniting of the two royal houses, must be precluded. The transfer of the monarchy from Saul to David is far from smooth and requires justification.16 To be sure, Saul has been rejected as king by YHWH and David elected, but Saul has no intention of relinquishing his kingdom without a struggle, and after Saulís death, "there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David" during which "David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker" (2 Sam 3:1). One well-established political solution to the rift between the two houses would be their union through marriage and a child, who as a scion of both royal houses might someday reign. Theologically, however, that solution is unacceptable, for YHWH has declared that no descendant of Saul may sit upon Israelís throne (1 Sam 13:13-14). Saulís house threatens David politically and YHWH theologically. Accordingly, Saulís family is systematically eliminated. Jonathan and two of his brothers are killed in battle with their father (1 Samuel 31). Abner and Ishbosheth are treacherously murdered, and the narrator goes to great lengths to declare Davidís innocence (2 Samuel 3 and 4).17 Shortly thereafter, we learn that Michal will remain childless, and the way is thus cleared for 2 Samuel 7, where YHWH promises David an eternal dynasty, a dynasty in which Saulís house will play no part.

Poetics and ideology work together to remove Michal from the narrative. The rejection of Saulís house requires that Michal have no children. But the narrative goes beyond simply reporting her childlessness; it chronicles in painful detail her humiliation and elimination~ē The woman provides an opportunity for narratively displacing a strategic and embarrassing problem at the political level onto the domestic level, where it offers less of a threat. The animosity between the houses of Saul and David is then symbolically resolved as a marital conflict. In it David directs toward Michal the hostility one would have expected him to show toward Saul, who sought his life, and toward Jonathan and other members of Saulís family, who to varying degrees stood in his way. Michal, for her part, becomes the spokesperson for Saulís house (she speaks as "Saulís daughter" not as "Davidís wife") and her rebuke of David the king functions as a protest from Saulís house against Davidís usurpation of royal prerogative. As we proceed to reconstruct Michalís story, we shall seek in her protest another level, one that symbolizes the victimís outcry at being (literarily) murdered.

Words as Weapons

It is no criminal coincidence that in both our stories words make potent murder weapons. Not only are the words spoken by the male characters deadly instruments of power over women, but the storyteller also uses the womenís own words against them. The central role words play in extinguishing the authentic female voice underscores the appropriateness of "phallogocentric" to describe the narrative ideology. The seriousness of words and their power, especially in cases of blessings and curses, oaths, and vows, is well-documented in ancient Near Eastern literature and assumed in Judges 11. Thus Jephthah makes no attempt to modify the terms of his vow by which he is bound to sacrifice to God his only child; nor does his daughter challenge its inviolability.18 The word kills. The vow cannot be retracted ("I have opened my mouth to YHWH and I cannot take it back," Judg 11:35), and both Jephthah and his daughter are caught up in its immutable course toward fulfillment. But if words can kill, they can also heal. The destructive power of language is counterbalanced in this tale by its sustaining capacity.19 Jephthahís daughter asks that one thing, haddabar hazzeh, "this word," be done for her, that she be given two months during which to grieve in the company of her companions. After her death, the women of Israel commemorate Jephthahís daughter in a yearly ritual, understood as a linguistic act, not a silent vigil. Jephthahís daughter finds life through communal recollection, though different, to be sure, from the life she might have had through family and children, the life her father took away.

I shall return below to the subject of the womenís commemoration of Jephthahís daughter and its complex effect on this story. For now let us consider Jephthahís daughterís voice. How does she speak against herself? By neither questioning the man who consigned her to death nor holding him accountable. In encouraging her father to carry out his vow, she subordinates her life to the communal good. The seriousness of the vow is upheld, the need for sacrifice is satisfied,20 and paternal authority goes unchallenged. It might be argued that she does not protest her fate because it would be useless. The futility of protest, however, does not deter Michal, who thereby lays claim to her own voice.

Michal and David engage in a battle of words in which David has the last word because he holds the power. These are the only words he ever speaks to her, words of rebuke, and they have the effect of critically wounding their victim. Unlike Jephthahís words, however, Davidís do not kill. Here the narrative serves as the instrument of murder, accomplishing the deed in one blow. Depriving her of children is a symbolic way of killing Michal. Denying her a reply to David kills her off as a narrative presence. By representing her as challenging the king from a position of weakness, the narrator has Michal essentially commit verbal suicide. Notice how negative her portrayal seems at first glance. A kingís daughter and a kingís wife, Michal appears not as a regal figure, but rather as a jealous, bitter, and worst of all, nagging woman. She has overstepped her bounds, she dares publicly criticize the kingís behavior, and we should not be surprised to see her put in her place by an angry and dismissive husband. On the surface her criticism sounds petulant and exaggerated ó so what if the king makes a fool of himself? But we have seen that her words only barely cloak the real issue, the political problem that the narrator downplays by foregrounding the domestic dispute.

The Danger of Going Out

Jephthah came to Mizpah, to his house, and behold, his daughter coming out to meet him. . . (Judg 11:34).

David returned to bless his house, and Michal Saulís daughter came out to meet David . . . (2 Sam 6:20).

Both our victims meet untimely "deaths" when they leave the security of the house to meet the man who will be instrumental in their murder. The house is the womanís domain; here she is safe and can even exercise power, while outside in the larger world, men wield authority.21 The men are the leaders, the heroes whose actions have far-reaching consequences effecting whole peoples. Jephthah has gone to battle, made a vow, and returned victorious; David has consolidated his kingdom and brought the ark to Jerusalem. The men have acted; the women respond and are caught up by forces beyond their control, though somehow apparently still under the control of the men. That is to say, both Jephthah and David could have reacted differently: Jephthah by seeking an alternative to the actual sacrifice; David by treating Michal with respect.

When Jephthah returns victorious from battle, his daughter goes out to meet him dancing and with timbrels. It may have been customary for women to celebrate military success in such a manner. In Exod 15:20 the women acclaim the victory at the sea with timbrels and dancing. In I Sam 18:6, after Davidís victory over Goliath, the women of Israel come out singing and dancing, with timbrels and musical instruments. Possibly Jephthah anticipated being met by a woman ó more expendable than a man (?) ó though as his response indicates, he did not expect his daughter. The tragedy set in motion by Jephthahís vow is sealed when his daughter comes out to meet him. When David and all Israel bring the ark of YHWH to Jerusalem, Michal watches from the window. Earlier she had let David down through the window, out of her domain, where he was in danger,22 to meet his destiny in the manís world of power. Having secured his position as king, David now has no need of Michal. In 2 Samuel 6, Michal occupies the private sphere of the home, safe, but excluded. References to "all Israel," "all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women," and "all the people" underscore her isolation inside. When she goes outside to confront David in the public arena, she meets rebuke and greater exclusion ó losing any role she might have had in the future of Davidís house.

The men return to their houses, to the domestic order preserved by women. Without the house, there is no "outside"; the men need what the house represents and what it makes possible for them, the freedom from domestic responsibilities that allows them to concentrate on affairs of state. The house is both place and lineage, shelter and posterity. When the women go outside, houses are cut off. By sacrificing his daughter, Jephthah destroys his house (thus when the Ephraimites later threaten to burn Jephthahís house down over him, the remark is grimly ironic, since his house ó his lineage ó has already been destroyed by fire). Michalís childlessness brings to an end another branch of Saulís house; in the end only the crippled Mephibosheth and his son Mica will survive. Yet with Michalís removal, the future of Davidís house is secured. With Saulís house out of the way, David receives from YHWH the promise of an eternal dynasty.23

Virginity and Childlessness: The Politics of Female Sexuality

She had not known a man (Judg 11:39).

Michal Saulís daughter had no child to the day of her death (2 Sam 6:23).

What is particularly striking about these statements is that both occur at the end of the story, as a kind of closure sealing the womenís fates; both are stated categorically, as if they were entirely neutral observations; and both are necessary. As sacrificial victim, Jephthahís daughter must be a virgin for reasons of sacrificial purity;24 Michal, as we have seen, cannot have children for ideological reasons. Since one lived on through oneís progeny, having offspring ó many offspring, especially sons ó was important both to men and to women (witness, for example, Abrahamís concern over his childlessness). Understandably it mattered significantly to women, since women did not have other opportunities, open to men, to leave their mark on the world.25 That the fates of both Michal and Jephthahís daughter involve childlessness indicates the extent to which patriarchal texts identify women in terms of reproductive function. Without children, the women are somehow incomplete; they have not fulfilled their role as women. If to have no children means to die unfulfilled, it also means that the women have no one to stand up for them, no goíel to plead their cases. They can be eliminated without fear of reprisal.26

The categorical way in which Michal is denied offspring masks, as I indicated above, a narrative discomfort. Does David put Michal aside, so that she, like other of his wives later, will be shut up "until the day of [her] death [the same phrase as 6:23], living as if in widowhood" (2 Sam 20:3)? I suspect so. Regarding Jephthahís daughter, the text states, "she had not known a man." What is not an issue in patriarchal texts such as these is female sexual pleasure. Indeed, patriarchal literature, and thus the Bible in general, reflects the underlying attitude that womanís sexuality is to be feared and thus carefully regulated.27 Patriarchy severs the relationship between eroticism and procreation. As Julia Kristeva observes, it affirms motherhood but denies the motherís jouissance.28 Eroticism is not associated with the mother but rather with the whore, the woman whose sexuality is commensurate with her availability. To intensify our critique we need only to acknowledge the importance of sexual fulfillment for women. In our examples, the women are denied not just motherhood, the patriarchal mark of female fulfillment, but also the pleasure of sex, the right of passage into autonomous adulthood that opens the eyes with knowledge (cf. Genesis 2-3). Jephthahís daughter will know no sexual fulfillment; Michal will have only memory of it.

As a related point of interest, it is ironic that a womenís ritual (Judg 11:3940) serves to honor a virgin. It has been frequently suggested that the story of Jephthahís daughter is aetiological, aimed at explaining the womenís ritual. There is, however, no evidence of such a ritual apart from this story. We shall explore below the androcentric interest served by the womenís commemoration of Jephthahís daughter. Is this really the kind of ritual women would hold, or simply a male version of a womenís ritual? We do not know. We can only speculate about what form a genuinely female ritual might take were free expression of female sexuality possible. Might it be celebration of female eroticism, of uniquely female power, the power to give birth? (Already in Genesis 2-3, in a classic illustration of womb envy, the creative power of women is appropriated by the prototypical Man who, like Zeus birthing Athena from his head, symbolically gives birth to woman with the help of the creator god [no creator goddess is involved].) Is, then, the commemoration of the death of a virgin an androcentric inversion of female expression?

Opportunity and Motive, Or Whose Interests Are Being Served?

The women occupy narratives that, like father or husband, seek to subordinate, and finally control, them. Jephthahís daughter accepts her fate with alarming composure. The vow is carried out, but the unnamed young woman who leaves behind no children as a legacy is not forgotten. Her memory is kept alive by the ritual remembrance of women. Because she does not protest her fate, she offers no threat to patriarchal authority. And because she voluntarily performs a daughterís duty, her memory may be preserved.

It became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to commemorate Jephthah the Gileaditeís daughter, four days each year (Judg 11:39-40).

Patriarchal ideology here coopts a womenís ceremony in order to glorify the victim. The phallocentric message of the story of Jephthahís daughter is, I suggest, submit to paternal authority. You may have to sacrifice your autonomy; you may lose your life, and even your name, but your sacrifice will be remembered, indeed celebrated, for generations to come. Herein lies, I believe, the reason Jephthahís daughterís name is not preserved: because she is commemorated not for herself but as a daughter. If we translate the difficult wattehi hoq beyisraíe1e at the end of v 39 as "she became an example in Israel"29 rather than "it became a custom in Israel," her value to the patriarchal system as a model is underscored.

Michal, in contrast, opposes the system that would have her remain inside, in her place, doubly subordinated as subject to her king and as woman to her husband. Here the message is: refusal to submit leads to rebuke and humiliation. Michal speaks out against the figure of authority ó the husband/king ó and is silenced. Unlike Jephthahís daughter, who participates in the patriarchal system, Michal cannot be honored because she speaks against male authority. I referred earlier to womenís identification in terms of their relation to men, as daughters or wives or both. Jephthahís daughter performs her function as a daughter, and is rewarded with commemoration as a daughter by the "daughters of Israel." Michal, on the other hand, is punished by being denied her function as a mother. (She also loses her status as "Davidís wife"; the narrator calls her "Saulís daughter," and thus she, too, is reduced to being a daughter.) Submission is rewarded; opposition, punished. The women are sacrificed to patriarchal interests that the system remain intact and function properly.

The Speaking Subject: Deconstructing the Dominant Narrative Voice

To expose the phallogocentric interests served by these stories is not to accuse the biblical narrators of blatant misogyny but rather of reflecting a culturally inherited and deep-rooted gender bias. Thus the present inquiry seeks to read these stories without censoring them but without being confined to them.30 The muted female voice provides the means for deconstructing the dominant, male narrative voice. What is repressed resurfaces in another form. In her speech, Jephthahís daughter submits to the authority of the father; in hers, Michal opposes the authority of the husband. If speech confers autonomy, we shall need to look closely at how, and to what extent, these women (re)claim their stories through speech. But first, let us consider the other women in these stories, women who do not speak but who play a key role.

The women of Israel commemorate Jephthahís daughter for four days each year. Exactly what their ritual involves is not clear. The Septuagint and the Vulgate understood the verb to mean "to lament" or "to mourn"; however, the only other occurrence of the word, in Judg 5:11, refers to recounting the victories of YHWH. This usage suggests that the women recite Jephthahís daughterís story. These women, however, do not actually speak in the narrative. They remember, and their yearly ceremony is used by the narrator to keep alive the memory of the victim (only the narrative bears witness to their witness). Jephthah and the women of Israel represent two poles: he blames his daughter, 11:35; they praise her through memorializing her. Praising the victim can, however, be as dangerous as blaming the victim. The problem lies in the victim-victimizer dichotomy, a way of structuring experience that ignores the complicity of the victim in the crime.31 If we make Jephthah the callous victimizer and his daughter the innocent victim, we fall into a patriarchal pattern of thinking. If we allow the womenís ceremonial remembrance to encourage glorification of the victim, we perpetuate the crime.32 How do we reject the concept of honoring the victim without also sacrificing the woman? We must recognize that guilt and innocence are not clear-cut. As I indicated above, Jephthah, like his daughter, is a victim of forces beyond his control; a vow made in ambiguous circumstances and in ignorance of its outcome forces his hand. Nor is the daughter innocent; she did not resist. She speaks on behalf of the sacrificial system and patriarchal authority, absolving it of responsibility. And the women of Israel cooperate in this elevation of the willing victim to honored status.

The role of other women in the account of Michalís rejection is not to immortalize, but to isolate through contrast. Who are the "(male) servantsí women servants" (amhot abadav), who, according to Michal, have relished Davidís sexual display, and by whom David avows he will be held in honor? These women are doubly subordinated ó by sex, to all of Davidís male subjects or servants, and by class, to the royal couple, whose mutual rebukes derive their sting from the imputation of inferior status to these women. Whether or not Michal means to include the "(primary) wives of the free Israelites" in her reproach,33 by implying that these women are below her dignity, she aims to disgrace the king, who turns her words around ultimately to shame the queen. A class issue intrudes to set the women over against each other and to obscure the gender issue. It has been argued that using class to divide women is one of the strategies of patriarchal ideology.

The division of women into "respectable women," who are protected by their men, and "disreputable women," who are out in the street unprotected by men and free to sell their services, has been the basic class division for women. It has marked off the limited privileges of upper-class women against the economic and sexual oppression of lower-class women and has divided women one from the other. Historically, it has impeded cross-class alliances among women and obstructed the formation of feminist consciousness.34

Despite its possible anachronism, this citation is relevant to our text. Michalís privilege as a kingís daughter and a kingís wife isolates her from the other women in her story. By having her oppose herself to these women, the narrator leaves her to stand alone against the authority of her husband the king. Moreover, the sexually charged language Michal and David use in connection with these women and Davidís "disreputable" behavior implies, perhaps, that Michal means to represent the "(male) servantsí women servants" as not respectable. That is, the narrator has Michal introduce the distinction between women in a way that makes her appear haughty and elitist, thereby sharpening the unflattering picture of her. The "(male) servantsí women servants" have been "outside" and gotten an eyeful of the king. Yet the "respectable" woman will not receive societyís reward, motherhood.

Michalís going out to confront David is an act of self-assertion. Such boldness on her part cannot be tolerated; the narrator lets her protest but robs her of voice at the critical moment, allowing her no reply to David and no further speech. Whereas the narrator uses Michalís protest to eliminate her, her protest can be used against the narrator to bring to light the crime, to expose the gender bias of the story. By speaking out, Michal lays claim to her own story. She cannot avoid her fate, but she can protest it. She goes to her literary death screaming, as it were. Her protest thus serves as an indictment of the phallogocentric world view represented in and reflected by the narrative.

I have said that in 2 Samuel 6, Michal is eliminated from the narrative, but this is not quite the case. She reappears in an unexpected context in 2 Sam 21:8, to contradict the narratorís earlier claim that she had no child.

The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal, the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; and he gave them into the hand of the Gibeonites, and they dismembered them on the mountain before YHWH (2 Sam 21:8-9).

The usual solution is to read "Merab" instead of "Michal," with a number of ancient manuscripts, since Michalís sister Merab was the wife of Adriel the Meholathite. But this avoids pressing the embarrassing question of how Michalís name got here in the first place. Is this a simple case of confusion of women (who are notoriously hard to tell apart): Saulís descendants are killed off, so what difference does the motherís identity make? Or is it a Freudian slip that convicts the biblical narrator, an aporia we can read as Michalís refusal to be written out of the narrative? If so, the narrative still has the last, cruel word: it gives her children only to take them away again.

In contrast to Michal, Jephthahís daughter remains within the confines of the patriarchal word. Though she does not lay claim to her story, she makes some motions toward self-assertion. The two parts of her speech pull in different directions. In the first part, she surrenders volition. In the second, within the boundaries set by her fatherís vow, boundaries she accepts, she attempts to define herself, to lay some claim to her own voice: she asks for a period of two months in which to grieve, accompanied by her female companions.

She said to him,
"My father, you have opened your mouth to YHWH, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that YHWH has vindicated you against your enemies the Ammonites."
And she said to her father,
"Let this thing be done for me, let me alone two months
that I may go and wander upon the hills
and bewail my virginity, I and my companions."

Mieke Bal wants to posit a connection between the phrase which she translates, "to lament in confrontation with my nubility," and a rite of passage, "a phase of transition that prepared her for marriage."35 She finds here the womanís own point of view in contrast to the narratorís androcentric perspective, "she had not known a man," and she then proceeds to deconstruct the male concept of virginity via a detour into Freudian theory. Her resultant (re)reading of the entire story, a counter-reading, challenges the more traditional interpretations found within biblical scholarship and illustrates one way to reinscribe a female perspective. Another possibility of reading a different meaning into the phrase, "bewail my virginity," presents itself if we suppose the young womanís familiarity with the sacrificial system (i.e., her better knowledge than ours about human sacrifice in the ancient Near East).36 She laments not just unfulfillment but the clear and brutal fact of imminent death, recognizing that if she were not a virgin daughter, her father could not sacrifice her.37 Such an argument, informed by anthropology and Girardian theory, involves the same kind of retrospective reasoning as the rabbinic objection ó what if the "one coming forth" had been a camel, a donkey, or a dog (Bereshit Rabbah 60:3; Wayyiqra Rabbah 37:4) ó based on purity laws. I have already suggested that narrative necessity determines the outcome. The daughterís tragedy is that she ó not another ó is the one to come forth to meet Jephthah, and that she is an (I would even say, the) acceptable sacrificial victim. This takes us back to my earlier remarks about the coincidence between the terms of the vow and the daughterís appearance, a conjunction of events apparently beyond human control.

The most interesting feature of the daughterís ceremonial lamentation is her inclusion of other women in the event. Only at the conclusion of her speech does she reveal that, unlike her father, she has companions with whom to share her distress. Ra yotay "my companions," is her last spoken word in the narrative; abi, "my father," was her first. Symbolically, through speech, she journeys from the domain of the father who will quench her life to that of the female companions who will preserve her memory.

Ultimately the text denies autonomy to Jephthahís daughter and confines her voice within patriarchal limits, using it to affirm patriarchal authority. Yet her voice transports her to a point of solidarity with her female friends and with other daughters, the "daughters of Israel," who refuse to forget (compare Michalís isolation). The resultant image is too powerful to be fully controlled by androcentric interests. The (androcentric) text segregates women: the daughter spends two months with female companions, away from her father and the company of men; the ritual of remembrance is conducted by women alone.38 But as Gerda Lerner points out, when women are segregated ("which always has subordination as its purpose"), they transform such patriarchal restraint into complementarity and redefine it.39 We can choose to read this story differently, to expose its valorization of submission and glorification of the victim as serving phallocentric interests, and to redefine its images of female solidarity in an act of feminist symbol-making.

By exposing the phallogocentric bias in the stories of Jephthahís daughter and of Michal, I have sought to hear the womenís voices differently, and by doing so to give the victims of literary murder a voice that identifies and protests the crimes against them and that claims for them a measure of that autonomy denied them by the larger story.

 

NOTES:

1. For a helpful discussion, see Phyllis Bird, "Images of Women in the Old Testament," in Religion and Sexism ed. R. R. Ruether (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974) 41-88.

2. "The Story of Michal, Wife of David, in Its Sequential Unfolding," paper read at the 1988 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

3. Mieke Bal, "How Does an Author Become the Author of a Crime," paper read at the 1988 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

4. See Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 5-6, 199-211, 231-233 et passim. The challenge for feminist analysis is to find womenís (sub)texts within these phallocentric texts; cf. the important work of Mieke Bal, Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

5. Pace Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 24-26, I am not willing to forgo the use of the term "patriarchal" to describe the male gender bias of narrative; this usage is widespread in feminist literature.

6. This is not to say that we are to condone Jephthahís sacrifice of his daughter, but only that human sacrifice was practiced. No outright condemnation of Jepthahís sacrifice appears in the text, but I think hints of disapproval appear in the disastrous episode with the Ephraimites that follows the sacrifice; see my "The Tragic Vision and Biblical Narrative: The Case of Jephthah," in Signs and Wonders: Biblical Texts in Literary Focus, ed. J. C. Exum (Decatur, GA: Scholars Press, 1989) 71-72.

7. See Exum 67-69.

8. On the debate whether Jephthah intended a human or animal sacrifice, see David Marcus, Jephthah and His Vow (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1986) 13-18; cf. Exum 67.

9. His death is reported in Judg 12:7.

10. There are many parallels where a parent promises to a supernatural figure what turns out to be his or her own child; see Marcus 40-43; Exum 68 n. 5.

11. For a detailed discussion of Michalís fate, see my forthcoming study, Arrows of the Almighty: Tragic Dimensions of Biblical Narrative.

12. I prefer to follow the Hebrew here; instead of becoming a snare to David, Michalís love becomes a snare to Saul.

13. Reading the verb tense as past perfect.

14. See the perceptive analysis of Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981) 123-125.

15. That Michalís life might have been in danger had Saul discovered her role in Davidís escape (1 Samuel 19) is suggested by Saulís response of throwing a javelin at his son Jonathan, when Jonathan takes Davidís part (1 Sam 20:33).

16. Jonathan plays a major role in effecting the transition; see David Jobling, The Sense of Biblical Narrative, vol. 1 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1978) 4-25.

17. The so-called "History of Davidís Rise" has been seen as an apology for David; see P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., "The Apology of David," JBL 99 (1980) 489-504; 1 Samuel, AB 8 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980) 27-30.

18. The present story assumes the inviolability of Jephthahís vow, whereas Lev 27:1-8 stipulates monetary payment by which a person vowed to God could be released. In the midrashic literature, one finds various attempts to explain Jephthahís ignorance of the law in this case; see Marcus 46-47.

19. For fuller discussion of this theme, see Arrows of the Almighty, chap. 3.

20. See Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

21. Proverbs 31 offers a good example. The woman has considerable power over the household, while her husband "sits among the elders of the land" (v. 23). The distinction between power and authority is helpful; authority is legitimate power, power recognized by society. See Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, "Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview," 21-22; and Louise Lamphere, "Strategies, Cooperation, and Conflict among Women in Domestic Groups," 99; both in M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds., Women, Culture, and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974). See also Jo Ann Hackett, "In the Days of Jael: Reclaiming the History of Women in Ancient Israel," in Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, eds. C. W. Atkinson, C. H. Buchanan, M. R. Miles (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) 17-22; Meyers 40-44.

22. In Arrows of the Almighty, I explore the sexual symbolism in 1 Samuel 19, where Michal figuratively births David into freedom.

23. For very different, but fascinating analyses of the complexity of the symbolism of the house in this material, see Bal 169-196; Joel Rosenberg, King and Kin: Political Allegory in the Hebrew Bible (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986) 113-123.

24. The situation of the sacrificial victim is somewhat more complex, but need not detain us. Married women are not good candidates for sacrifice because a married woman has ties both to her parentsí and her husbandís families, either of which might consider her sacrifice an act of murder and thus take vengeance; see Girard 12-13. On the opposition between sacrificial purity and the pollution of childbirth, see Nancy Jay, "Sacrifice as Remedy for Having Been Born of Woman," in Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, eds. C. W. Atkinson, C. H. Buchanan, and M. R. Miles (Boston: Beacon Press) 283-309. Girard argues that anyone who does not have a champion makes an appropriate sacrifice.

25. Deborah is an important exception who proves the rule.

26. This is crucial according to Girard 13.

27. In The Creation of Patriarchy, Lerner traces male control of female sexuality from its locus within the patriarchal family to regulation by the state. On womanís sexuality "not so much as part of her feminine being but, rather, as an exclusive form of male experience," see Nehama Aschkenasy, Eveís Journey (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986) esp. 123-124. Within the Bible, the Song of Songs is the great exception.

28. About Chinese Women, tr. Anita Barrows (New York: Marion Boyars, 1986) 26. On patriarchyís division of eroticism and procreativity, see Lerner, esp. chap. 7.

29. Marcus 34.

30. I adopt this concept from Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. L. S. Roudiez, tr. T. Gora, A. Jardine, and L. S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980) xi.

31. Cf. Lernerís remarks on the complicity of women in patriarchy 5-6; 233-235.

32. Thus a reading such as Phyllis Tribleís, that makes Jephthah all-bad, irredeemably guilty, and wholly responsible for the crime of murder, and his daughter helpless and totally innocent, simply reinforces the victim-victimizer dichotomy; see Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 93-109. Bal, in contrast, completely reinterprets the daughterís death and the meaning of the womenís remembrance; see 45-68, 96-113, 119-122, 161-168 et passim.

33. The phrase, "Hauptfrauen der freien Israeliten," is Frank Crusemannís ("Zwei alttestamentliche Witze: I Sam 21:11-15 und II Sam 6:16. 20-23 als Beispiele einer biblischen Gattung," ZAW 92 11980] 226), who thinks the remark refers only to lower class women. Cf. McCarter, 11 Samuel 187, who believes Michal refers to "all the young women of Israel, whether slave or free."

34. Lerner 139. See esp. chap. 6 for a fuller argument.

35. Bal 49. Her argument appears mainly in chaps. 2, 4, and 5.

36. For discussion of this topic, see Alberto R. W. Green, The Role of Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975) 199. Green observes, "During the formative period of the Federation of Israel, there is the strong implication that human sacrifice was practiced by the people as an acceptable aspect of their Yahwistic belief."

37. I thank my colleague Ellen Ross for suggesting this idea. As my discussion above indicates, if Jephthahís daughter were married, her husband, not her father, would have power over her. If she had borne children, she would not be sacrificially pure; see Jay.

38. The Israelite women engage in ritual whereas the men are busy fighting, in the war with Ammon (10:17-11:33) and among themselves (12:1-6).


 

Trinity College of Biblical Studies

This course offers a theological examination of the representation of women and gender in Christianity. Attention is given to the historical and cultural contexts of the first century and contemporary period. Theological, historical, literary, exegetical, and feminist methods are variously employed

Feminist Theology Unit One