*** DEBUG END ***

The Female Ruse, by Rachel E. Adelman

07 September 2018

John Barton engages with biblical women post-critically

READERS of the Old Testament are familiar with “trickster” figures. Jacob is the supreme example, deceiving his father and his father-in-law alike, yet apparently favoured by God. Rabbis and church Fathers alike struggled to explain the paradox.

Rachel Adelman has noticed that many of the tricksters in the Bible are women, and she elucidates their stories, “drawing on the methods of feminist hermeneutics and rabbinic exegesis”. She studies the following: Lot’s daughters, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, Ruth, David’s wives (Michal, Abigail, and Bathsheba), Esther — and Joseph, who manifests similar traits to Esther. In every case, the question is not only how their story is told, but also what part it plays in divine providence, according to the biblical narrative.

Adelman’s study engages little with “critical” biblical interpretation, pursuing a more synchronic or literary course, in which parallels are seen between different characters and different stories in the Bible irrespective of their date of writing or immediate context. In this, it favours rabbinic methods, often depending on a very close reading of the text, which attends to verbal echoes and similarities, whether or not any author intended them.

Like other modern Jewish readings (for example, those of Robert Alter in his extensive translations, with commentary, of books in the Hebrew Bible), The Female Ruse thus both uses and imitates midrash — Jewish verse-by-verse commentary on scripture designed to interpret the Bible as a single, interlocking web of meanings.

Adelman’s skill in the technique can be seen attractively at work in her own imitation midrashim (originally written in Hebrew) that appear from time to time. These jump from place to place within the Hebrew Bible, as led by the occurrence of similar words, without regard to temporal progression. According to a famous rabbinic dictum, “there is no before and after in the Bible”: thus, for example, the story of Esther can illuminate the story of Joseph as much as vice versa.

This way of studying scripture will be strange to most Christian readers, but is likely to appeal to those preparing sermons on Old Testament texts, because it looks for religious value in each story — and, with regard to the trickster tales discussed here, evades the implication of immorality. Although the results are meant seriously, the method itself is often quite playful, with appeals to possible though unlikely puns, and what critical scholarship would regard as invalid inferences from apparent similarities between widely separated texts. But Adelman is well aware of what she is doing, consciously following a “post-critical” path, which turns out to be quite like a “pre-critical” one.

This is a learned, entertaining, and enticing study, full of interesting and novel insights into sometimes neglected texts.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.


The Female Ruse: Women’s deception and divine sanction in the Hebrew Bible
Rachel E. Adelman
Sheffield Phoenix Press £25

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)