Written by Hagith Sivan Reviewed By Robin Gallaher Branch

In Between Woman, Man and God: A New Interpretation of the Ten Commandments Hagith Sivan looks at the Decalogue (both the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions) from the viewpoint of how the Ten Commandments affected women in the biblical text.

Sivan, who teaches at the University of Kansas, is a fine writer who documents her views well. Her approach, nonetheless, is limited because of her focus. She consistently sees the biblical text as marginalizing women and as taking a pro-male approach. Consequently, her results are both disturbing and interesting, expanding and one sided. Her pattern is to look at a commandment, which, following Jewish tradition, she calls a word (Word One, Word Nine, for example), from the standpoint of a story or stories in the Hebrew Bible involving a woman or women. Her writing adds to scholarship on women but probably alienates women of more moderate viewpoints.

The assumptions guiding her reading are that the Ten Commandments contain intimate ties to narrative and legal sections of the Hebrew Bible. She views the Hebrew Bible’s lore and law as attempts to come to terms with a deep-seated conflict that marks Israelite manhood. Sivan writes that she has chosen to focus on the ideologies of biblical womanhood as a key because they provide a rich canvass of complicity and counterbalancing despite the text’s patriarchal agenda and andocentric biases (12).

Looking at the fifth commandment, ‘Honor your father and your mother’, Sivan examines the story of Samson, Judges 13–16. She writes that the life and death of Samson ‘provide a precise demonstration of the implied penalties of transgressing the Fifth Word’ (126). She believes Samson seeks a maternal embrace in all the wrong arms (127). Samson’s story suggests that honouring parents is tantamount to compliance with the social rules and traditions represented by the older generation and incorporated in communal memory (127).

In Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Commandments, wives are seen, Sivan writes, as the primary objects of covetousness (215). In a helpful analysis of Deuteronomy 5, Sivan points out that two verbs express coveting. One is applied specifically to women and the other ‘embraces the sentiments that kindle greed for other men’s houses, fields, slaves, and animals’ (215). She concludes that coveting links two aspects—one that leads to estrangement of a wife from her husband and the other that leads to unlawful appropriation of property (215–16).

Sivan looks at the commandment, ‘You shall not murder’ in relation to women in Judges. She notes the aspect of a woman killing a man—Jael killing Sisera in Judges 4–5—and of men killing a woman—the rape-murder of the Levite’s concubine/wife by the Benjamites and its consequences in Judges 19–21. In her view, the Bible puts a premium on men’s lives and marginalizes women (160). A counter view is that the amount of textual space devoted to an incident or person does not necessarily equal significance or endorsement of the view presented. Thinking canonically, I would counter that the Bible endorses honour wherever it is found and condemns sin wherever it is found; furthermore, the Bible is gender-neutral regarding sin.

Sivan writes that the views of adultery expressed in the Hebrew Bible relate to a drive to overcome human lusts which hinder full participation of males in Yahwistic rituals and in the covenant (186). She sees female fertility as an object that must come under the control of men and indeed has ever since Genesis 3:16 (187). Accessibility to the female body must be limited because the body could carry the seed of either legitimate or illegitimate paternity (187).

The book is a difficult one, especially for a Protestant. She sees the Ten Commandments on the whole as being negative. For example, regarding commandment four, ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy’, she uses the example of 2 Kings 11, the story of Athalia. Athalia slew members of her family, ascended Judah’s throne, reigned for six years, and was overthrown and slain in a coup on the Sabbath. Sivan sees the Sabbath as endeavouring to reaffirm males in power (106). She does not see Athalia’s actions of murdering her heirs as sin or as bringing idolatry into Judah as sin.

Robin Gallaher Branch

Sterling College, Sterling, Kansas