Eve’s Bible: A Woman’s Guide to the Old Testament by Sarah S. Forth
(St. Martin’s Griffin)
Eve’s Bible is written for “every woman who has ever said, ‘I’ve always wanted to read the Bible, but…’” Billing itself as a guide to reading the Old Testament “with Eve’s eyes instead of Adam’s,” the book begins with the refreshingly frank assertion that the Bible was “written by men for men, [and] has been used for thousands of years to keep women in their place.” However, Sarah Forth simultaneously maintains that the Bible’s calls to justice and compassion make it a valuable spiritual guide for women. This contradiction can be reconciled, she claims, if women are empowered to take what we need from the Bible and “let go of the rest.” To do so, we must approach it not as an all-or-nothing sacred text, but as a collection of stories, laws, and poems that were edited together. To present a broader understanding of the Bible than most mainstream religious institutions allow, Forth explores the historical circumstances surrounding the Bible, including Israelite culture and the polytheistic religions that influenced it, and aspects of the Bible most pertinent for women, such as the women in its stories and female manifestations of the divine.
I’m happy to report, as a reviewer, that this book was basically written especially for me. I identify as Jewish, but I’m not religious; I come from a partly Christian background and still live within a heavily Christian culture. I’ve always felt a vague curiosity about the myths that, for better or worse, have shaped my worldview in spiritual and secular ways – but in terms of meaning and fulfillment, I’ve never found anything even remotely useful in the Bible. So it was with a pleasant sense of hope that I started reading Forth’s book.
I’ll admit that I opened it half expecting a kind of Biblical Mists of Avalon, but actually, most of the book is devoted to the history – a history that, it turns out, is utterly fascinating. The documents that would eventually make up the Old Testament, archaeologists believe, originated from four writers or groups of writers – the Yahwist, the Priestly Writers, the Elohist, and the Deuteronomist, all of whose work was eventually woven together by an editor scholars call the Redactor. These four writers worked within two distinct kingdoms, Judah and Israel, and each had their own agendas and quirks, which explains the many contradictions and shifts in tone in the Bible’s books. One particularly cool example was the means God uses to communicate with humans. The Yahwist is so named because in his version of events, God goes by YHWH and speaks to people directly. In the Elohist’s version, however, God uses the name Elohim and only speaks through intermediaries. It’s also interesting to note how Biblical history tends to match recorded history more closely as its writers approached the Common Era. Moses, the Exodus, and King David would have existed between 1250 and 965 BC, but there’s no evidence of them whatsoever. The story of the Exile, on the other hand, is loosely based on actual events that occurred in 598, 597, and 587. Forth notes, though, that the Exile only consisted of the Priesthood and upper classes. While the ruling elite wept by the waters of Babylon, 75% of the population remained in Judah. In fact, when you take into account the fact that all four authors of the Old Testament were probably male members of that ruling elite, it becomes evident that the Bible is not the story of an entire people.
By far the most interesting aspect of Eve’s Bible is its recounting of the forces in ancient Israelite society that paralleled – and in some cases, formed the basis of – Western social structures. Take, for example, women’s place in the religious hierarchy. Barred from participation in official Temple activities, many women privately worshiped female deities like Asherah and Ishtar and performed their own divination. However, the accepted – that is, male – Biblical prophets “railed against women ‘who prophesy out of their own imagination’ (Ezek. 13:17).” It’s a smart move if you want to keep a class of people subservient: bar them from or give them second-class status in accepted institutions, and then punish them for creating institutions of their own. Furthermore, Forth demonstrates how forces like proto-capitalist economies, militarization, and colonialism gradually eroded women’s status. In passages that could have been taken right out of Women, Race & Class, Forth explains how the important (though by no means ideal) place of women on rural homesteads degraded as cities grew and trade, fueled by mass production of goods, gained prominence. Quoting Biblical scholar and archaeologist Carol Meyers, Forth suggests that “without the mutual interdependence of village life, gender differences became more sharply defined,” forcing women into less and less influential roles. Finally, as wars and colonial projects mutated the region’s cultures again and again, the practice of goddess-worship gradually declined. Sexuality originally played a large part in pre-Yahwist religions such as that of Sumer: “by imitating the cooperation required to sustain life – the combined efforts of humans and the divine – the sacred marriage [of the goddess Inanna to Sumerian kings] sanctified the mundane daily tasks of plowing, planting, irrigating, harvesting, and storing.” Although goddesses were by no means elevated above gods, Sumerians believed that “goddesses brought them the skills that sustained civilization, from writing, accounting, and surveying, to pottery-making, healing and dream interpretation.” By the time the composition of the Bible was underway, however, men viewed female power and sexuality as something to be stamped out or controlled.
So the history and sociology in the book is indeed valuable. But does Eve’s Bible fulfill its purpose? Does it make the Bible a useful spiritual guide for skeptical modern women?
Not for this reader. In fact, the revelation of the viciously misogynous circumstances surrounding the creation of the Old Testament made me even less likely to check out the Bible than before. Forth is herself religious, a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, but it’s hard to see what excites her about this book. She does spend some time discussing female prophets like Deborah and Miriam; she also mentions Psalms Anew by Nancy Schreck and Maureen Leach, which retranslates the psalms without using the male pronoun for God (although I noticed, in the excerpt, that they kept the masculine term “God” itself). I was struck by the beauty of the psalms, lamentations, and other poems – but overall, I was left feeling like even the best stuff was kind of skimpy compared to the worst stuff. I would have have liked to see more of why Forth considers the Bible worth salvaging.
But then, Eve’s Bible isn’t supposed to be Sarah Forth’s treatise on why she digs a good Bible story. Rather, it’s meant to function as a toolbox for women who want to come to their own conclusions about how much the Bible can offer them. I suppose that if I were serious about exploring it, my job would be just beginning. I appreciated her encouragements to add my own midrash to stories, or to rewrite stories completely (after all, by the time they got to the Bible, they’d been rewritten numerous times anyway).
All in all, I do think this book is a valuable resource. How does one identify as Jewish or Christian, whether religiously or culturally, while rejecting patriarchy? How does you connect with your culture’s traditions when the half of your culture that you belong to has been erased? They’re hard questions, but they’re worth asking – and perhaps they can steer archeological and theological research in the future.