Reading the Hebrew Bible through Marginal/ized Female Characters

Reading women’s stories in the Hebrew Bible using feminist and womanist questions and perspectives reveals a Bible so different from the one with which readers have previously been acquainted that it may seem like a new book.

See Also: Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).

By Wil Gafney
Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible
Brite Divinity School
January 2018

The study of women and other female characters, i.e., goddesses, in the Hebrew Scriptures expanded significantly with the advent of feminism and womanism and the ensuing increased number of women pursuing academic studies in Hebrew Biblical studies and theological education. Carol Meyers famously observed that of the 1,426 personal names that appear in the Hebrew text, 1,315 are or are presumed to be male (Meyers, 1992). Even with the explosion of feminist and womanist biblical scholarship, a significant number of under-explored female characters remain.

Womanist scholarship in any field is a particular black feminist scholarship that is rooted in the history and experience of black women, foundationally intersectional, that is addressing multiple identity issues, gender, race, and, class, at a minimum, often including dis/ability, immigration status, gender construction. and performance. (See Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 2017, for a recent example of womanist biblical scholarship and Scholz, 2017, for a retrospective look at feminist biblical interpretation in a variety of ethnic and global contexts over the past forty years.)

Womanist and feminist biblical interpretation focus on women and other marginalized characters, e.g., non-Israelite characters, and ask many similar questions about a character’s agency, power, authority, and voice in addition to questions shared by other biblical scholars on the text, its formation, transmission, and translation, comparable literature in the surrounding Afro-Asiatic world, and archaeological insights. Womanist and some feminist biblical interpretation have as their aim transformation of unjust structures and practices, including but not limited to sexism and misogyny, in the cultures and communities that read the biblical text, whether as scripture or as literature. Reading with womanist and feminist lenses makes characters like Adah and Zillah, Bilhah and Zilpah, Rizpah and Ahinoam, Nehushta and Hamutal the center of the passages in which they occur rather than the over familiar Adam and Cain, Jacob and Reuben, David and Saul, Josiah and Nebuchadnezzar.

According to the narrative in Genesis 4:19, Adah and Zillah are the first women to be married to the same man at the same time, Lamech, Cain’s son. Rather than focus on Lamech and his rationale for instituting this system, or perhaps just claiming a new patriarchal privilege for himself, a womanist reading centers upon the women Adah and Zillah. How did they come to be co-wives? Did they have any say in the matter? How did their families feel about the innovation? Given Lamech’s status as a self-confessed murderer in Gen 4:23-24, was force or the threat of force applied?

Adah and Zillah have no life in the Hebrew Bible apart from the mention of their union and subsequent childbearing. Adah gives birth to Jabal and Juval. Through Jabal, Adah becomes the mother of all tent-dwelling and shepherding women and men. Through Jubal, she becomes the mother of musicians. Zillah gives birth to Tubal-Cain, preserving the memory and name of the banished Cain. Through Tubal-Cain, Zillah becomes the mother of metalworking women and men. Zillah also has a daughter, Naamah, to whom no skills are imputed.

The text explicitly relegates the women to reproductive roles. Implicitly, the women, their mothering, and the children mothered by them produce archetypal markers of civilization. In a womanist reading from the perspective that Adah Zillah did not have a choice about entering into this arrangement, the reader reads this story in conversation with enslaved black women who had no part in selecting their partners or under what circumstances, but who did produce children with whom they built a rich culture.

Bilhah and Zilpah were enslaved women who gave birth to a third of the men who would come to be called the patriarchs of Israel. Their stories begin in Genesis 30. Bilhah is enslaved to Rebekah’s brother Laban and given to his daughter Rachel as a wedding present. There is a tendency to translate the terms that indicate slavery in both testaments as “servitude.” However, given the lack of control these women had over their bodies, reproduction, and the children bred on and in them, slavery and enslavement are the more appropriate terms. This reading distinguishes womanism from feminism clearly. Womanists draw on their ancestral legacy of enslavement as an interpretive tool, recognizing that not all womanists or black folk are descended from the enslaved. Reading as a womanist in the American continental context, the enslavement of Bilhah and Zilpah (addressed subsequently) has corollaries to the enslavement of African women, their sexual exploitation, and forced pregnancies.

Bilhah is first enslaved to Laban in a narrative in which there is no mention of his wife, Leah’s and Rachel’s mother, not even later at their weddings, nor during the time they all lived with Laban. It would have been well within Laban’s asserted rights as a slaveholder to use Bilhah sexually, a likelihood that increases with the absence of a conjugal partner for him in the text. Bilhah, like Zilpah, was young enough to be presumed fertile, pubescent, but not likely much older. In anticipation of her fertility, she was given to the infertile Rachel to conceive children with Jacob, unlike the context of American chattel slavery, the slaveholding woman would claim the children as her own.

In Genesis 35:22, Bilhah’s body is violated by yet another man. Reuben, Leah’s son, rapes her. If indeed she had been used sexually by Laban before being used sexually by Rachel and Jacob—Rachel like Leah and Sarah before them initiated the sexual exploitation of their slaves—then Bilhah has more sexual partners that any other woman in the Hebrew Scriptures, none of whom had her consent. It should be noted that contemporary notions of consent do not apply to the ancient world, and yet the enslaved of every era know as human beings they have the right to freedom and bodily autonomy.

Zilpah’s story follows the same pattern as Bilhah’s without the latter rape. Zilpah is Leah’s slave. Leah is fertile but is desperate for her husband’s love and has decided that she will win him by having children for him. When her fertility ends, she gives Jacob the body of her slave Zilpah to impregnate. She gives birth to Gad and Asher. The text does not speak of Zilpah’s origins. While Rachel and Leah are reckoned as matriarchs, Bilhah and Zilpah are often excluded from the roster in scholarship and in liturgy.

Rizpah and Ahinoam were both married to Saul. Ahinoam was primary wife and Rizpah was a low-status wife sometimes called a secondary wife. Older translations (King James, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc.) use the word “concubine,” but scholarship has demonstrated that the marriages and children produced were legitimate; however, those children were not entitled to an inheritance. Recent translations like the Common English Bible and Hebrew lexicons like the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew no longer refer to concubinage.

Ahinoam is Saul’s primary wife and mother of his children, Merab, Jonathan, Ishvi, Malchi-shua, Ishbaal/Ishboshet, and Michal. Her story weaves through the Samuel material with the stories of Saul and David and her children Merab, Michal, and Jonathan, though she is only mentioned by name in 1 Sam 14:50. Reading her underneath the larger narrative portrays her as a royal wife whose security is threatened by what she likely experienced as betrayal and rebellion by David. Her husband’s throne and therefore her security and wellbeing were under siege and threatened by a young man who had been welcomed into her home and was hopelessly entangled in the lives of her children: One daughter had a broken engagement to him. The other had a broken marriage to him. Her son had an intimate relationship with him that many understand to be homoerotic. And then there is her husband who seemingly goes mad.

Absent from the text is any interaction with her daughters through their trials and travails with the man who would be king. Also lacking is any interaction with David, affianced to both of her daughters and married and then separated from one. A midrash, a form of biblical interpretation rooted in classical Jewish scholarship, offers a reimagined view of her relationship with her daughters, consoling them in the aftermath of the wreckage David has left behind (Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 2017, 197-198). Included in that wreckage is the murder of all of Merab’s children facilitated by David in 2 Samuel 21:8, the minor textual tradition crediting Michal with those children is considered to be a scribal error.

In the same narrative in which David hands over Merab’s children to pay a blood debt with their lives, he also hands over Rizpah’s two sons with Saul, Armoni, and Mephibaal/Mephibosheth to the same fate. Rizpah is a well-known character in African American women’s preaching among those who identify as womanist and those who do not. She is a mother whose sons were unjustly killed, a figure with whom black mothers bereft of their children through acts of violence identified long before the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

After the death of Saul, Rizpah was vulnerable. Abner, a kinsman of Saul, put one of Saul’s sons on the throne but ultimately betrayed him to David. At some point during that period, that son, Ishbaal called Ishboshet, gets word that Abner has raped Rizpah and confronts him in 2 Sam 3:6-11. Abner does not deny it; instead he rebukes him for bringing the matter up and threatens to hand the throne over to David.

After their murder, the bodies of Rizpah’s sons were desecrated by being left to decompose above ground. Though she never says a word in the text, her actions eloquently speak volumes. Rizpah spends months defending the decaying bodies of the children of her womb and breasts from predators. She is forbidden from burying them. It takes six months for David to feel remorse and order the burial of her sons, Merab’s sons, and the bones of Saul and his beloved Jonathan whom he also left to rot. Reading the story of David through the eyes of devastated women like Ahinoam and her daughters Michal and Merab and Rizpah, Bathsheba, and others makes it difficult to romanticize David and his status as God’s favored.

Nehushta and Hamutal are the last two queen mothers of Judah. “Queen” mother is a bit of a misnomer because Israelite and Judean royal women did not use the title “queen.” For examples, Esther is “queen” in a foreign land. Very few Israelite queens are named or remembered in the Hebrew Scriptures; when they are, they are named without titles. In Judah, the title “Great Lady” is used occasionally for the king’s mother who functioned in an official capacity as advisor and as regent for a minor monarch when necessary. (See Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 2017, 183-275 for an exploration of the four Israelite and sixteen Judean named queens in the Hebrew Bible.)

Hamutal and Nehushta were the last queen mothers of Judah to witness—if they survived it—the fall of Judah to Babylon and its subsequent occupation. Due to Nebuchadnezzar’s manipulations, Hamutal became queen mother twice, once before and once after Nehusta, after one more queen mother and son-king. Hamutal’s sons were sons of the revered king, Josiah. After Josiah’s death at the hands of Pharaoh Neco, the people crowned a young son of Hamutal’s who might not have ascended the throne any other way, Jehoahaz, in 2 Kgs 23:31. The Pharaoh took him hostage and chose another of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiakim/Eliakim, born of another queen mother, Zebidah, to rule under his thumb in 2 Kgs 23:36.

Nehushta married Zebidah’s son Jehoiakim and gave birth to Jehoiachin, who ruled Judah until the first Babylonian invasion. When he capitulated, he surrendered all of his servants, military officers, and household officials to Nebuchadnezzar; at the head of the list in 2 Kgs 24:12 is his mother, Nehushta.

Needing a new puppet to rule his client-state, Nebuchadnezzar enthroned another of Hamutal’s and Josiah’s sons, Mattaniah/Zedekiah in 2 Kgs 24:17. Zedekiah eventually rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar prompting the razing of Jerusalem and its temple in 2 Kgs 25:1-5. Zedekiah tried but failed to escape, was forced to watch the execution of his sons, blinded, and then taken into captivity. The text does not reveal Hamutal’s fate specifically. She may have been among the royal women taken in to captivity in 2 Kgs 24:15. Her granddaughters, the “daughters of the king” in Jer 43:6 were left behind, taken into custody by one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officers, handed over to a Judean collaborator, kidnapped, rescued and kidnapped again, and ultimately taken to Egypt with Jeremiah. (See Jer 40:1-8; 41:10-13; 43:5-7).

Reading the stories of the monarchies of Israel and Judah from the stitched together fragments of the royal women reveals very different nations than when read from the perspective of the male characters. Reading women’s stories in the Hebrew Bible using feminist and womanist questions and perspectives reveals a Bible so different from the one with which readers have previously been acquainted that it may seem like a new book. Womanist and some feminist biblical scholarship move beyond observations on and questions about the text to explore contemporary social and other structures indebted to the biblical text. By deromanticizing and demythologizing the biblical text and its vaunted heroes and wrestling with the ethical issues in the text and its history of interpretation, these womanist and feminist interpreters hope to create a more just world by identifying and rejecting hierarchal, sexist, and misogynistic practices, such as those who would seek to deny women full human autonomy and control of their bodies and destinies.


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Scholz, Susanne. Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013-2016).

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Westbrook, April D. ‘And He Will Take Your Daughters…’: Woman Story and the Ethical Evaluation of Monarchy in the David Narrative. London: Bloomsbury T and T Clark, 2015.

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Comments (1)

Hi Wil, I really enjoyed this essay. I haven't read much womanist interpretation. One missing mother that has intrigued me is Rebecca's. She's silent and in the background. What conversations might she and Rebecca have had? this is unrelated to Womanist perspective, but still interesting.

#1 - Helen Leneman - 01/11/2018 - 15:57

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