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