THIS is a survey of all the texts involving women characters in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. It includes the named and the unnamed. The stories are both retold and re-evaluated in the light of modern Christian concerns, the American context predominantly coming through. Each section ends with questions for reflection and discussion, and the intended audience is clearly a Bible discussion group. This is reinforced by the “Group Discussion Guide” by Mark Price at the end of the book.
Japinga points out that stories about women are often simply not told within the Church and within the confines of sermons and lectionaries. That this is still the case after decades of feminist criticism is surely a failing of our academic discussions to reach church circles. Much of what Japinga writes about biblical women is well-known within the scholarly community, and this emphasis on drawing out what has been previously ignored reminds me of the early stages of feminist biblical scholarship, when drawing out the stories and reinterpreting them was a key concern.
While feminist biblical criticism has moved on to less of an interest in what the emphasis of more patriarchal interpretations has been towards a fresh multicultural approach to reading texts, this book feels like a throwback to those earlier days, when the emphasis was more, as here, on retelling the stories and getting away from key misperceptions. This included the idea that they were moralistic tales, or that they contained nothing but sex and violence, or, indeed, that the central character needing justification in all cases was God.
Japinga notes these as previous shortcomings in interpretation and highlights her own “lenses”: first, people have mixed motives, and so characters are complex and do not necessarily have to be justified over other characters; second, rather than moralise about sexual impropriety, we need to look for the injustice in many of these tales; and, finally, third, we need to look again at the strength and courage of many of these women, wrestling with difficult texts.
While their cultural world was very different, we share a common humanity, which Japinga seeks to tease out. Her chapters cover the matriarchs, the women of Exodus, and then of “the promised land” (essentially those in Judges); the women of Israel and Judah (those of the period of the kings); and those associated with prophets or with prophetic roles themselves. The final chapter introduces others, such as Vashti and Esther, Job’s wife and Proverbs 31, the capable woman who is read by Japinga as a metaphor for God: “She is an example, not of how we can do more if we try, but of the way God creates a household where grace abounds.”
This is a helpful book to get Bible study started, but I found it a bit basic at the end of the day. The “application to today” sections are useful, particularly for those preparing sermons or leading Bible groups, but Japinga doesn’t really draw out some of the exciting readings that are possible, and that already exist in the scholarship. This is partly because depth is sacrificed to breadth in the full, and so necessarily brief, coverage of so many biblical women.
Dr Katharine Dell is Reader in Old Testament Literature and Theology in the Divinity Faculty in the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of St Catharine’s College.
From Widows to Warriors: Women’s stories from the Old Testament
Church Times Bookshop £16