Kenneth Brighenti and John Trigilio
Category: Bibles and Bible Guides
This is an unusual book because, although it is about women in the Bible, it is written by two men. It is labelled 'a reference' for those wanting to get to grips with the significance of the Bible's stories about women. Through its interpretations of women's stories, it tackles and dispenses with the idea that women are naturally evil or of less worth than men. Instead it shows that women, like men, can be good, bad or mixed in their moral character. It organises material according to categories like women's role, relationships, character, power and influence, etc. Although designated a reference, its organisation makes research somewhat cumbersome as data about any particular woman can be spread across various categories which creates a fragmented picture of, or repetition about, them.
This reference provides helpful technical background like socio-cultural details, matters of language and translation, and an explanation about the interpretative tool of 'typology' which the authors present to assist readers in understanding women within their historical contexts. The authors also provide a canonical outline of the Bible — that is, books which make up the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish Bibles — to help readers differentiate the Bible's authoritative books from pseudepigraphal sources (i.e., 'false writings'). This is helpful for equipping readers to discern the quality of claims made in contemporary novels about biblical women, like the myths about Mary Magdelene in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.
As the authors address the character and roles of different women in the Bible, they specifically highlight how women serve as spiritual examples by showing wisdom and courage in putting their faith into practice in difficult circumstances. A problem however arises in the meaning which the authors ascribe to certain stories about exemplary women. These examples tend to reveal their theology about women's standing as 'spiritually equal, but subordinate [in] role' to men in the church.
Where the authors uphold women in traditional roles, some of whom suffer oppression or neglect from men, they sometimes overlook the meaning incorporated in stories where exemplary women serve in radically, non-traditional roles too. Women like Marion, Deborah, the Queen of Sheba, Huldah, Esther, Mary the sister of Martha, Priscilla, Phoebe, etc. all demonstrate godly character by actively seeking after God's wisdom, working as agents of change in influential circles, teaching men, and leading God's community.
These examples clearly have significance for women in the church today where women in public life is an accepted facet of contemporary culture. Thus for a reference about women in the Bible, the authors' relative focus on traditional role models over radical ones creates an incomplete picture about their subject. Because of the patriarchal culture in which the Bible is set, stories about women in leadership roles were all the more radical and significant for their time and therefore are important for women in the church today. Instead the authors seem to end up making a general commendation of women in traditional roles who suffer oppression. What kind of message does this give to single or married women then? Are traditional roles the only legitimate ones for women in the church? And must women endure oppressive circumstances to demonstrate their moral character? Although some women of faith and courage in the past had few available options open to them, faith for women today should take the form of accessing help, protecting self and children, and seeking justice that God provides through the church's and society's channels to fight oppression.
This book contains some helpful material for those who want to understand more about the likely meaning of stories about women in the Bible, especially about women in traditional roles. What is missing from this book, however, relates to the title's 'strapline' — 'explor[ing] the…significance of women in' the Bible. Significance means translating a text's historical meaning to today's contemporary context. So despite the authors' intentions of exploring significance, they stop with historical meaning and limit their deep exploration to only certain types of stories about women.
But such exploration of significance is a risky venture, because it challenges the roles in which women are allowed to serve in parts of God's church today. There is no doubt that these Roman Catholic priests affirm the value and dignity of women as made in the image of God, however, they are self-confessed hierarchicalists with regard to women's roles in the church.
Claudette Fisher-Johnson, July 2006
Claudette Fisher-Johnson is a mother, housewife, graduate of London School of Theology and a former management consultant.Order from www.christianbookshops.org | Order from St Andrew's Bookshops
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