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Reimagined and Revised: A Review of Vindicating the Vixens

October 23, 2018
By Alastair Roberts

Over the course of history, layers of questionable interpretations have developed over certain biblical characters, preventing us from seeing clearly what lies beneath. As we have, over many centuries, become habituated to seeing certain characters in a particular way, we may never closely examine the text itself or assess the strength of apparently time-honoured readings. Other characters, clothed in the dust of their long neglect, attract the notice of only the rarest of readers.

The accumulation of later interpretations and traditions may be relatively benign in certain cases (e.g. the insertion of a donkey and inn-keeper into the Nativity story, and the assumption that there were three wise men following a moving star); in other cases they represent a more serious problem. The historic treatment of certain key female characters in Scripture provides various examples of such serious problems, as they have been ‘sexualized, vilified, and/or marginalized’ (16) by subsequent traditions of interpretation.

The contributors to Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible are committed to a task of restoration and recovery. They want to brush away dust and accretions, and peel away layers of often well-intentioned yet misguided traditional material, while resisting the temptation to disguise their warts and flaws. In so doing, they hope to reveal the portraits of wrongfully maligned and forgotten biblical women in all their biblical beauty and vibrancy. The goal of the book is to offer a gallery of restored portraits to Christians who may never before have seen the arresting likenesses of these foremothers in faith.

The book is divided into three sections of a few chapters, each devoted to a scholarly repristination of the portrait of a particular woman of Scripture, dismissing various charges that have falsely been levelled against them. The first treats the women of Jesus’ genealogy (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Mary); the second a selection of Old Testament women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Deborah, Huldah, Vashti); the third discusses three New Testament women (the woman of Samaria, Mary Magdalene, Junia).

With few exceptions, these characters have historically been approached chiefly as supporting characters for the leading men in the biblical drama. The mere act of moving the spotlight onto them can afford us illuminating perspectives upon familiar biblical narratives and characters we may never have previously explored.

Such benefits are perhaps especially evident in the treatments of Hagar and Sarah, who are more developed in Scripture than almost all the other characters, while not enjoying the direct attention of characters such as Ruth and Mary. As such characters become more sharply defined and offer us new narrative vantage points, familiar stories and characters can take on a new life and complexity.

At points, the re-evaluations of biblical women will be startling for many readers. For instance, we are told that Tamar is someone who righteously employed prostitution to overcome the unfaithful Judah, who represents the absolute dominance of the patriarchy (42). Bathsheba, Sarah Bowler argues, is an innocent rape victim (83).

The success of such a project will largely depend on the closely related matters of the accuracy of its portrayals and how its characters are integrated into a broader narrative. The very act of isolating characters for specific attention can make them vulnerable to being assumed into very different narrative frameworks.

Here Vindicating the Vixens is unfortunately quite uneven. As it seeks to argue cases for the revision of moral judgments on characters and events of biblical narrative, the questions of whether and how biblical narratives establish standpoints upon their characters and the sort of moral judgments that they make concerning them are exceedingly important.

There are two principal dangers here. The first is reading Scripture in a way that presumes it to be making simplistic moral judgments on events and characters, either approving or disapproving of them. The second is reading Scripture in isolated sections or using a zoom lens and failing to appreciate that the moral standpoint of scriptural narrative upon its events and characters is generally provided by deep intertextual relations. Where this is not adequately recognized, scriptural narratives can often be read as isolated tales and subjected to criteria of moral judgment that are alien to the text itself.

With respect to the first problem, while ‘vindicating vixens’ is an attractive alliteration, it invites an overly simplistic framework for moral judgment, pitting vindication against vixen-ation in an unhelpful binary. While some of the contributors present nuanced portrayals of their characters, others fail to do justice to the interplay of light and shadow in theirs. For instance, characters such as Bathsheba and Vashti, while clearly more victims than wrongdoers, all act in morally questionable ways. While it is very important that we recognize their victimhood, we should be careful not to do so to the denial of their agency or culpability.

On the second problem, challenging traditional understandings of key women in Scripture is often important. Yet it must be undertaken with care, with effort to establish the text’s own moral standpoint on the characters in question. Where this does not occur, it is all too easy to adopt deconstructive readings of the text, which set the Scriptures at unresolvable odds with itself, or to impose alien frameworks of value upon the text.

Carolyn Custis James’s treatment of Tamar, for instance, is dominated by the brutal spectre of ‘the patriarchy’, which unhelpfully oscillates between the motte of a more concrete and historical account of the structures of Ancient Near Eastern society and the bailey of a more abstract and ideological transhistorical, transcultural system of male domination (see the discussion of ‘motte-and-bailey doctrines’ here).

While James does make some important points along the way, she fails to trace out a great many of the intertextual relations that do give us a clearer narrative perspective on Tamar. For instance, she does not unpack the greater textual juxtaposition and interplay of the Judah and Joseph stories, the ways that the stories of Lot’s daughters and Tamar find a resolution in the narrative of Ruth, the continuing and complex biblical theme of women deceiving ‘serpents,’ the story of the rape of David’s daughter who shares Tamar’s name, along with several other connections (e.g. the presence of other recurring themes such as the presentation of tokens, a goat, disguised identity followed by revelation, and a reversal of primogeniture). All of these offer us a textual standpoint upon the character of Tamar that is much more elaborate than that which James presents. It also helps us to understand why the events of Genesis 38 are out of chronological order in the broader sweep of the Jacob-Joseph story (in ways that unsettle some of James’s argument about Tamar’s effect on the subsequent narrative).

At various points, contributors airbrush their character into something more like poster girls for mildly progressive visions of women’s vocations. For instance, Jesus is presented as the leader of a ‘traveling coed, female-supported seminary’ (264), with Luke 8:1-3 being presented as justification for women working outside of the home and extensive gender integration in the contemporary context. Whatever the merits of such positions, this is far more than the actual text can bear.

An especially frustrating chapter was that on Eve, whose argument rested considerable weight upon the claims that ‘Adam’ was a name that belonged to the man and woman alike and that the man’s naming of the woman was a wrongful attempt to assert dominion over her. The concern to argue for essential gender equality comes at the expense of inattentiveness to the broader framing of Genesis 1-3 and a narrow focus upon more detached details that are subjected to exceedingly tendentious readings. Once again, a widening of our attention will give us a much firmer textual standpoint upon such passages.

In the necessary work of restoring our portraits of key women in Scripture, our goal should be to move through the obscuring layers of misinterpretations, to rediscover what lies beneath. Such a task requires a deep commitment and attention to the fundamental biblical portraits. We are at risk of painting over the offending layers, rather than peeling them away. Opposition to error is always in danger of articulating ‘truth’ in a manner that remains trapped within the terms of and determined by reaction to that error, such as answering vixen-ations with vindications. At its best, this book offers stimulating and insightful treatments of neglected or misrepresented characters. Yet the frequent weakness of its grounding in the greater narrative of Scripture leaves several of its attempted restorations of biblical portraits no less marred than those they sought to rectify.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) works for the Theopolis, Davenant, and Greystone Institutes. He is an author of Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through Scripture (Crossway, 2018). He participates in the Mere Fidelity and Theopolis podcasts, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, posts regular videos on theology on his YouTube account, and tweets at @zugzwanged.

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