Glahn, Sandra, ed. Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2017, 303 pp. Hb; $22.99. Link to Kregel
There are quite a few books series and Bible studies on the so-called “bad girls” of the Bible. These are usually written for the layperson and emphasize grace and forgiveness as the main application of these kinds of stories. In the preface to this new collection of essays from Kregel Academic, editor Sandra Glahn indicates the motivation for this book is “to handle faithfully the biblical text” (13). This is in contrast to fanciful novels or popular Bible studies on female characters in the Bible, but it also is a challenge to popular preaching about these women. Glahn cites as examples blaming Eve for the guilt of the human race, or blaming Sarah for the political tensions in the modern Middle East. Popular preachers can make a great sermon by “maligning” Bathsheba as a “vixen” or the Samaritan women as an adulterer, or Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Other women are marginalized. Glahn notes the omission of Deborah and Huldah from charts of the prophets in some study Bibles, or (I would add) the translation of “servant” in the ESV instead of “deacon” (NRSV) in Romans 16:1 as well as the always controversial status of Junia in Romans 16:7.
The essays in this collection hopes to correct popular misconceptions about some women in the Bible by paying careful attention to the cultural and social context as well as the literary form of the biblical text. Other than a generally conservative view of Scripture, there is nothing controversial about this method. What might be surprising to some readers is how often the portrayal of these women in popular preaching and teaching is skewed or just plain wrong. In his short methodology introduction to the book, Henry Rouse points out the essays in this collection seek to explain what the text actually says in order to understand the point the original author made. Yet there are “timeless truths” with are relevant to a contemporary discussion of gender (25-6). In each of the essays, the authors devote space to understanding the social and cultural factors which bear on their exegesis of the text and attempt understand the text as it might have been by an ancient audience.
These methodological values are found in each chapter, but I will focus on Sarah Bowler’s article on Bathsheba. She begins by listing several of the popular assumptions about the story: Bathsheba was bathing naked and caused the king to stumble, and she willingly entered into an affair with the king. In contrast, Bowler argues the text does not portray Bathsheba as enticing the king at all, rather, David abused his power as the king to bring her to into the palace where he raped Bathsheba. By describing the incident as an “affair” makes both David and Bathsheba responsible, but a close reading of the biblical text indicates Bathsheba is silent throughout the story and is a victim of rape by David. For some Bible readers, it is disturbing to describe the incident as a rape, but this is what the text says. Bowler supports this reading of the text with a series of exegetical observations from the text of the Hebrew Bible. She then draws several implications for ministry, especially for helping victims of sexual predators in the church (98-100).
The first section of this book treats the so-called “bad girls” in the Jesus’s genealogy (Luke 4). These women are involved in a sexually compromising story, or at least that is the common reading of these stories. . Yet, as the authors of each of the essays makes clear, the woman are far more moral than the men. For example, in Carolyn Custis James essay on Tamar, she describes her as “the righteous prostitute.” Few pastors would dare preach the story in Genesis 38, but James argues Tamar is a strong exemplary model who is vindicated by God (46) and is a startling example of a hero (48). Eva Bleeker argues Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, is a “paragon of otherness” (50) who becomes the hero of the story when she confesses her faith in the Lord, the God of Israel (53). Marnie Legaspi discusses the potentially scandalous behavior of Ruth, a Moabite woman who seems to throw herself at the feet of the Boaz, a wealthy Bethlehemite. Legaspi rejects the overtly sexual interpretation of Ruth’s actions, suggesting Ruth is a model of “virtuous obedience” (73) as she “demonstrates astonishing courage in her obedience on the threshing floor” (79). Timothy Ralston’s essay on the Virgin Mary at least seems out of place in the volume since rarely would anyone dare to describe Mary as a “vixen.” But Ralston is interested in the marginalization of the biblical Mary by the overwhelming history of theological speculation about Mary. He has in mind the Immaculate Conception and bodily assumption of Mary as well as her role as co-redemptrix in Roman Catholic theology.
The second section of the book (ch. 6-11) surveys six women in the Old Testament. Glenn Kreider’s essay on Eve deals with non-biblical readings of Genesis 2-3 which paint Eve as the “mother of all seducers” and make Eve responsible for sin entering the human race. Although there are many examples of this in both Jewish and Christian history, Kreider cites popular preacher John Piper who described the “power of a sinful woman to control a sinful man” (133). Kreider rightly points out Eve is not blamed for sin in the New Testament, although he only touches on the very difficult problem text in 1 Tim 2:12-14. Eugene Merrill places the story of Sarah and Hagar in the proper ancient near eastern context in order to show her actions fit into that patriarchal culture. Tony Maalouf examines the other female character in Genesis 12-16, Hagar. Hagar is both a slave and a concubine, yet unlike Sarah she encounters God, receives a promise God that her son would also be a father of a great nation. Ron Pierce discusses the only female judge, Deborah. As with most of the women discussed in this collection Deborah is a strong female character in contrast to weak male. Christa L. McKirland contributes an essay on the most obscure character in the book, Huldah the prophet. She is significant since she serves as a court prophet for King Josiah at a critical point in Judah’s history. Despite being one of the few female prophets in the Old Testament, she is rarely recognized as such by later church theologians. McKirland surveys a few major commentators in both Christian and Rabbinic history. Finally, Sharifa Stevens examines a minor character in Esther, Vashti. Vashti is a silent queen in the book of Esther who refuses the king’s command to “display her beauty” to the men at the royal banquet. Stevens surveys the suggestion Vashti is Amesteris in Herodotus and the rabbinic tradition she is Nebuchadnezzar’s granddaughter (although she does not clearly reject either view). Stevens sees Vashti as a courageous woman whose defiance of her husband is essential for God’s plan to save his people later in the book.
The final section of the book corrects some misconceptions about a few New Testament women. Lynn Cohick re-examines the evidence that the Samaritan woman in John 4 was an adulteress. This chapter appeared in Christianity Today and is quite brief compared to other chapters in the book. She observes the text does not tell us why she was at the well at noon, despite the well-worn claim that “proper women” went to the well in the morning rather than at noon, there is little evidence this was the case in the first century. It is also unlikely she was a serial divorcee, only a prominent and wealthy person could afford that many divorces! It is also unlikely she was sexually promiscuous since she has enough respect in her village to get them all to come out to hear Jesus. Cohick therefore suggests she is the victim of a series of unfortunate events: her husbands had died (although perhaps one of the marriages ended in divorce). There is less in the text implying she was a well-known adulterous woman in the Samaritan village. Similarly, Karla Zazueta deals with the popular portrayal of Mary Magdalene (some of the wildest suggests come from the Da Vinci Code and other conspiracy-laden fiction). Mary is introduced in Luke 8:2 as a woman healed of seven demons. Zazueta points out demon possession does not mean she was a prostitute. The distortion of Mary’s character seems to stem from Gregory the Great, the first to associate the woman in Luke 7:36-50 with Mary mentioned a few verses later. Zazueta argues there is nothing in the text of Luke which requires the unnamed woman in Luke 7 to be Mary. Rather than a former prostitute, Mary can be fairly described as a female follower of Jesus who is chosen to be the first witness of the resurrection. Finally in the New Testament section, Amy Peeler deals with the suggestion the Junia mentioned in Romans 16:7 is in fact a woman. Historically the name has been understood as a male since the verse implies Andronicus and Junia are apostles. If Junia was an apostle, many scholars assumed the name referred to a man (since only men could be apostles). Peeler also interacts with Richard Bauckham’s argument Junia refers to Joanna, one of the first witnesses of the resurrection (Luke 23:55-24:7.
Conclusion. This collection of essays aims to dispel popular misunderstandings of these “sexualized, vilified, and marginalized women of the Bible.” Each essay succeeds in dispelling bad but popular versions of these stories. This book is not driven by any feminist theological or political agenda nor is there any sustained argument for or against women in ministry in the modern church.
As is often the case, not every essay in this collection is of equal value. In every case, the authors attend to the details of the text and demonstrate the woman is not a “vixen.” However, I am not always convinced every character in the book is a misunderstood or marginalized woman. Is there really a sermon out there which marginalized Vashti? Are there that many popular preachers who sexualize Ruth’s actions? One other minor quibble: There is far more room in this volume for other New Testament women, Sapphira, Priscilla, and Lydia would have been worthy of a chapter and adding Phoebe to the chapter on Junia would have been welcome.
NB: Lynn Cohick’s chapter is excerpted on Kregel’s website and volume editor Sandra Glahn interviewed Carolyn James in December 2017 on the function of Tamar in the Joseph narrative.
Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.