Review: The Hebrew Bible: Feminist and Intersectional Perspectives, edited by Gale A. Yee

[1] The Hebrew Bible: Feminist and Intersectional Perspectives offers a feminist introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The book consists of an introduction (written by editor Gale A. Yee) followed by four chapters, each addressing a different section of the biblical text and written by a different contributor or contributors. Thus Carolyn J. Sharp covers the Torah/Pentateuch, Vanessa Lovelace focuses on the Deuteronomistic History, Corinne L. Carvalho takes up the Latter Prophets and Lamentations, and Judy Fentress-Williams and Melody D. Knowles respond to the Writings (including several non-canonical texts of wisdom literature). All six scholars are well-established as feminist and intersectional biblical scholars, and they bring a wealth of expertise to the project.

[2] According to the preface, the volume “is intended to be a supplement to standard introductions to the Hebrew Bible/New Testament, highlighting key issues of interpretation from feminist and intersectional perspectives” (p. vii). This aim is perhaps too modest: The Hebrew Bible: Feminist and Intersectional Perspectives does not need the support of another textbook (especially one of the many traditional or even lightly patriarchal textbooks that continue to dominate in the field of Hebrew Bible). Instead, it stands on its own as a concise and highly readable introduction to both the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and many of the key interpretive issues raised by traditional interpretations. In the classroom, the volume would work well as a primary textbook, perhaps supplemented by additional articles or lectures amplifying the historical, archaeological, and comparative perspectives that are often a part of introductory courses on the Bible. As the subtitle suggests, the focus of the volume is on “feminist and intersectional” approaches; the amount of attention to intersectional concerns beyond gender varies across the chapters and contributors. Other contemporary approaches, including LGBTQ, postcolonial, critical race, and disability perspectives, appear briefly but are not the focus of this volume.

[3] The volume opens with a lengthy (nearly 40 pages) introduction by Gale A. Yee. Yee’s aim is not to introduce the specific content of the volume — this task is already covered in a brief preface — but rather to introduce the feminist movement and its relationship to feminist biblical criticism. In service of this end, she ably guides the reader through the “waves” of the feminist movement, from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women and the suffrage movement to the “second wave” of the 1960s, through radical feminism, Marxist feminism, standpoint epistemology, postmodern feminism, and the emergence of queer theory (pp. 3-7). This whirlwind overview is remarkably comprehensive without being overwhelming. Yee also pays special notice to questions of race and ethnicity and (white) feminism’s early struggles with race. In addition to Crenshaw and intersectionality, Yee highlights the work of other Black, Chicana, Latinx, Asian American, and postcolonial feminists, including the Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins, June Jordan, Lisa Lowe, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Audre Lorde. The second half of the Introduction, which turns from feminism as such to feminist biblical interpretation, is equally intersectional, lifting up work from a wide variety of feminist interpreters. Yee follows a familiar path from Hildegard of Bingen and Christine de Pizan through Elizabeth Cady Stanton and The Woman’s Bible to feminist biblical scholarship from the 1970s to today. Womanist, black feminist, Asian American, and Native American feminist perspectives are all discussed. While little that Yee describes will come as a surprise to readers already familiar with the contours of the field of feminist biblical interpretation, as an overview and synthesis, the chapter is highly effective.

[4] The remainder of the book proceeds in (Christian) canonical order, beginning with Carolyn J. Sharp on the Torah/Pentateuch. After some brief comments on storytelling and ancient scribal practices (pp. 40-43), Sharp sets forth three feminist principles that frame her reading: (1) honoring “the lived experience of all beings, including nonhuman creatures,” (2) acknowledging “that all relationships involve power…and that power should be used with the intention to promote justice,” and (3) asserting that “communities always stand in need of reform” (p. 44). Together, these three justice-oriented principles constitute “the feminist work for shalom,” a Hebrew word that means “peace” but also “wholeness,” “prosperity,” and “wellbeing.” The reference to “nonhuman creatures” is limited to Sharp’s analysis, and positions her reading closer to an eco-feminist vein. Conversely, her readings are generally less interested in questions of ethnicity and colonialism than the other chapters in the volume, though there are exceptions (including a discussion of the genocidal logic toward the Canaanites in the promise of land to Abraham, a theme also discussed by Lovelace [p. 53]). After these introductory remarks, Sharp proceeds through the Pentateuch largely chronologically, treating Genesis in somewhat greater detail than the following four books (this is fitting, given that many of the stories that foreground questions of gender are in Genesis).

[5] Vanessa Lovelace’s analysis of the Deuteronomistic History (focused on Joshua-Kings) foregrounds a more explicitly intersectional approach than Sharp’s. Lovelace stresses, in particular, the importance of ethnicity and nationalism, and their complex intersections with gender and sexuality. Drawing on feminist postcolonial theory and sociology, she emphasizes the ways in which gender is used to differentiate between nations and others: thus “all nationalisms are gendered,” (p. 77). Women thus often play the role of “symbolic borders” — as is the case with the Canaanite women in the book of Joshua and Judges (pp. 79, 86-87). Lovelace discusses the entanglements of gender and violence in stories such as Jael’s murder of Sisera (Judg. 4, 5; see pp. 88-89) and the story of Samson (Judg. 16; p. 92). She also engages the category of masculinity and how masculinity is performed across the Deuteronomistic History, connecting her reading here to the recent explosion of interest in biblical masculinities.

[6] The prophetic books (also known as the Latter Prophets) are the focus of Corrine L. Carvalho’s contribution. After a brief and helpful introduction to the prophetic material and its specific challenges (poetry, unfamiliar rhetorical forms, etc.), Carvalho treats the material largely thematically — a wise choice, given the uneven distribution of passages emphasizing gender and/or sexuality across the prophetic literature. The chapter offers a helpful discussion of the common prophetic motif of “women as metaphors” (109), including the notorious Marriage Metaphor, in which the nation of Israel is represented as the adulterous wife of Yhwh and subjected to intense violence and abuse (e.g. Hos. 2; Ezek. 16, 23). In addition to metaphor, Carvalho considers the lives of “real women” — elided but not wholly absent from the biblical text — and the historical reality of the Exile and Restoration, along with their consequences for gender. The treatment of intersectional concerns is largely confined to a section with that title (126-130), but within it, Carvalho includes womanist, mujerista, Chinese American, and Jewish feminist perspectives, along with discussions of trauma theory and disability approaches. She also goes furthest in discussing how the complex and often troubling representations of gender we find in the prophets intersect with “preaching and teaching” (pp. 130-132), speaking especially to the concerns of seminarians and people of faith.

[7] The final chapter, on the Wisdom Literature, is seamlessly co-authored by Judy Fentress-Williams and Melody D. Knowles. Confronted with the broadest and most varied selection of texts (including Ruth, Esther, the Song of Songs, Ben Sira, Proverbs, Job, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Psalms, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1-2 Maccabees), they offer an admirable overview, highlighting feminist concerns across this diversity of biblical texts. The readings of the books of Ruth, Esther, and Maccabees are especially rich, but it is equally impressive to see Fentress-Williams and Knowles draw out feminist wisdom from a text seemingly uninterested in gender or women, such as Psalms (pp. 151-157). Here the history of interpretation, including the use of the Psalms in convent contexts, offers a rich and engaging supplement to the biblical material. The discussion of intermarriage and foreign women and children in Ezra and Nehemiah is also sensitively and insightfully handled.

[8] All four chapters are filled with rich feminist insights and complement each other well; Yee’s capable and informative introduction also plays an important role in equipping the reader for the analyses that follow. There are, however, some differences across chapters that merit mention. Lovelace and Fentress-Williams and Knowles cite significantly more secondary scholarship than Sharp and Carvalho, including work by a new generation of feminist scholars. While all of the chapters include a bibliography, only Carvalho’s is annotated, providing a helpful supplementary resource for students and other readers. On the level of content, intersectionality is engaged somewhat variably across the chapters; Yee’s introduction and Lovelace’s chapter offer the most explicit intersectional work (in both framing and content).

[9] The Hebrew Bible: Feminist and Intersectional Perspectives is a valuable addition to feminist biblical scholarship, especially as an introductory level text. Scholars, students, seminarians, clergy, and lay people will all find much of value here.

Rhiannon Graybill

Rhiannon Graybill is W.J. Professor of Religion and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. She is the author of Are We Not Men?: Unstable Masculinity in the Hebrew Prophets (Oxford 2016).