THE DISSENTING READER: FEMINIST APPROACHES TO THE HEBREW BIBLEWritten by ERYL W. DAVIES Reviewed By Robin Gallaher Branch
Because this volume provides a summary of feminist scholarship, it is a fine reference tool for a significant avenue of modern biblical scholarship. Written by a self-described non-feminist, The Dissenting Reader strongly argues that feminist biblical critics have offered challenges and insights to traditional readings of the biblical text for the last one hundred-plus years.
Because these traditional readings are approached and labeled as patriarchal, the counter-material Davies chronicles may be disturbing, irritating, and anger-producing to some readers. Nevertheless, academic honesty and intellectual integrity require not only a hearing of these non-traditional views and readings but also an examination of them, for these views and scholars will not go away nor be silenced.
Davies offers numerous examples. As a segue into a chapter for instance, he writes that his aims are first to examine the ways in which the biblical authors have contrived to manipulate the reader to accept their own patriarchal agenda and second to suggest how such a manipulation should be resisted (32). One method he suggests is to adopt an adversarial reading of the Hebrew Bible and to apply a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to its content, thereby exploring, challenging, questioning, and if necessary rejecting its patriarchal assumptions (53).
Davies, a fine writer and member of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Bangor, argues that “feminist biblical critics have provided a critique of the way in which the discipline of biblical studies is currently being pursued” (112).
Perhaps the most helpful part of Davies’ book is his bibliography (113–27) which lists the major, pioneering feminist works; his own research concentrates on materials produced in the 1990s.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book for me, as a woman engaged in biblical studies, is Davies’ tendency to generalize. He opens by stating that the Bible establishes a woman’s inferiority early in Genesis 2–3 and keeps returning to this theme from the legal texts to the narratives to the prophetic texts (1). To me, Davies and feminist scholars as a whole do not consider other major biblical themes like the universality of sin for both genders and the goodness of God to both genders.
In the same chapter, in a section on wisdom literature and Proverbs in particular, he concentrates on derogatory statements about the adulteress and querulous, noisy, foolish women (7), but he does not show that various kinds of men also receive textual condemnation and scrutiny. Perhaps his concentration on negative references reflects what I consider the super-sensitivity of feminist scholars toward negative textual references to women. Wisdom literature and Proverbs in particular should be read broadly, for exaggeration and hyperbole are teaching tools. When I read Proverbs, I find that it is an equal opportunity mudslinger and praise giver, so to speak. In other words, it treats the genders fairly. Granted, present are the adulteress, gossip, and foolish woman, but the drunkard, foolish youth, and sluggard likewise cross its pages.
To me, Davies stands on firmer ground when he explores the potentiality toward male gender bias in commentaries. For example, when many women read that Lot offered to send his daughters out to be gang raped by the neighborhood men of Sodom in exchange for the sexual safety of his male houseguests, they are aghast with dread, loathing, and disbelief. They personalize Genesis 19 very quickly. When these same women read Genesis commentaries written by men, they also are appalled by how Lot is commended for his hospitality, how his action must not be judged by Western standards, and how he was basically a good man and not a bad man (104). Davies notes that feminist scholars treat Lot’s offer negatively, view him as weak, and see his hospitality as an untenable excuse for inappropriate and outlandish behavior (105). An honorable, truthful reading of Genesis 19 probably lies between the views of such male and female commentators, for the narrator simply presents the event without editorial comment.
Davies wisely visits and keeps on visiting the work of Phyllis Trible. I believe this tendency will carry on for decades to come for scholars on all sides. Her work reflects reasoned, thoughtful, scholarly, text-oriented, and confessional insights on the texts she covers. Davies argues that within the biblical text itself, there is an ideology opposed to patriarchal domination. Consequently, “feminist critics can therefore legitimately claim the authority of biblical faith itself to oppose its patriarchal agenda” (105).
The Dissenting Reader continues a healthy trend in biblical scholarship, namely, that those who work with the text both affirm their own gender and acknowledge the subsequent possible biases of their interpretations.
Robin Gallaher Branch
Sterling College, Sterling, Kansas