Eve’s Bible

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.

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19 Responses

  1. victoria
    victoria August 18, 2009 at 5:20 pm |

    As a theology student at a predominantly Christian school, this is an issue I continue to grapple with. I’m glad to see a book that’s accessible to non-academics for looking at scripture from a non-fundamentalist point of view.

    Another approach I’ve learned in reading the Bible is from biblical scholar Gina Hens-Piazza, who recommends reading biblical text with an eye for the minor characters, the ones that often don’t have a formal name, or who have little or no dialogue in the story. Taking a look at the story from their point of view can turn a story on its head, or give a possible insight into the stories that didn’t get told in the final version.

  2. shah8
    shah8 August 18, 2009 at 6:15 pm |

    I suspect one would get more satisfaction from Aisha’s Quran. At least it’s more credible to claim that Mohammad was anti-misogyny.

    I can’t for the life of me remember the title of a book about the history of the bible, but it was something that really opened my eyes about how incredibly flimsy Christianity is at its core–even when compared to other religions. The history part of this review did sound intriguing.

  3. Lia
    Lia August 18, 2009 at 6:46 pm |

    This is WHY I became a minister! I’m going to get this book. Thanks.

  4. chava
    chava August 18, 2009 at 8:46 pm |

    Also in the same vein, the “Five Books of Miriam” are a retelling of the Torah from the myths and legends of women.

  5. Torri
    Torri August 18, 2009 at 8:58 pm |

    As someone who, despite going to a Christian Private school, grew up in a very secular family and am now a full blown atheist, I’ve always been somewhat mystified when I’ve seen religious feminists bend over backwards in an attempt to reconcile ancient misogynist beliefs with current feminism in order to keep a relationship with god or spirituality.
    I do find the history and books like this fascinating, to see how ‘holy books’ were constructed by the people of the time.
    I suppose the best way to do it would be to create a new feminist christian denomination and re-write what ever you needed to. But I guess I understand how religion in places like the USA can be more about fitting in with family and community and keeping the connection and belonging one gets at weekend church services.
    But it’s still rather frustrating on my end as an atheist.

  6. debbie
    debbie August 18, 2009 at 9:26 pm |

    I LOVED the Five Books of Miriam

  7. Roxie
    Roxie August 18, 2009 at 9:48 pm |

    This sounds incredibly interesting.
    Loved that you mentions Mists of Avalon!
    Also, just wanted to say Theckla.

  8. peanutbutter
    peanutbutter August 18, 2009 at 11:51 pm |

    I actually have read the bible and more than once. It’s not like I could hear what was being said in church, after all. It’s not a very interesting or even overall readable book, but I’ve been amused to see how useful it’s been over the years (the fact that i’ve read it), especially since I no longer consider myself christian.

    This book sounds like it has some interesting background info that might have interested me more at one time, but right now I’m *so* exasperated with the, ah, “noisier” contingent of “christians” I just want to smack them all upside the head and then hear *nothing*, not a peep from any of the lot for a couple of years.

    Ah well. :-)

  9. sotonohito
    sotonohito August 19, 2009 at 11:47 am |

    I suppose its an example of white privilege, but I do ask honestly: why would one *want* to connect to a culture that is largely about keeping them down?

    Given that Judaism, like Christianity, is largely about giving women the short end of the stick, why the effort to connect with it?

    To me “feminist [insert any religion here]” sounds almost oxymoronical, though obviously that isn’t the case for many people. I’ll concede that as one of the awful New Atheists I’m fairly hostile towards religion in general, but I’m especially baffled by those who seek out a religion, or a religious based culture, that seems designed with the intent of demeaning and harming them.

    Obviously I’m missing something.

  10. The Non-Student
    The Non-Student August 19, 2009 at 12:20 pm |

    Excellent review. I would recommend Mary Farrel Bednarwoski’s book “Religious Imagination of American Women” as she discusses in great detail the situation of “creative ambivalence” in which women disagree with dynamics of their faith community yet find ways to resist and participate in new creative ways.

    Re: Torri, there was/is a movement of post-Vatican II Catholic women called WomenChurch in which they did just that. I can understand your confusion about feminists “bending over backwards, ” espeically as you see it through the lens of an atheist, but for many of us who consider ourselves people of faith, it is a necessity to reconcile faith and feminism as they are equally valuable to us.

    Not to whine, but is hard to be a feminist and claim a faith tradition because neither group seems to understand the dual identity. But there are lots of us!

  11. Napalm Nacey
    Napalm Nacey August 19, 2009 at 3:18 pm |

    Wow. I love being told I’m a crappy feminist because I believe in a certain spirituality. Thanks! :I

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  13. sotonohito
    sotonohito August 20, 2009 at 6:30 am |

    I don’t think that’s what I said. It certainly isn’t what I meant to say.

    I said that *to me* it seemed almost oxymoronical, and then observed that obviously that wasn’t the case for many people. My intent was to try to understand why some feminists are involved in, and attracted to, religions that to me as an outsider seem almost wholly antithetical to the very concept of feminism.

    I was hoping for some insight, not trying to attack.

  14. hannah
    hannah August 20, 2009 at 8:26 am |

    “but it was something that really opened my eyes about how incredibly flimsy Christianity is at its core”

    wow, Shah8, honestly, how are you able to say that? First of all, if you were attacking any other religion in a thread like this, there would be outrage. but naturally, christianity is an easy and safe target, I suppose.

    And really, you think the concept of love and forgiveness is flimsy? how interesting…

  15. hannah
    hannah August 20, 2009 at 8:29 am |

    I also think people kind of miss the point when they try to define Christianity by the old testament. The Old Testament isn’t what Christianity is about. it’s like the setup for what comes in the new testament, which is supposed to also be the New Covenant. The Gospels are much more important, in my opinion, to the heart of Christianity than anything in the Old Testament is.

  16. Rored5
    Rored5 August 20, 2009 at 7:53 pm |

    As someone who was raised fairly non-religious I often attended different churches in my area to try to understand the whole “Christian” thing. By the time I attended college I was “sprititual; but not religious.” I would tell anyone who would listen that “Christianity” (the version I had been exposed to) was something I couldn’t reconcile as a feminist.
    I ended up at an ELCA Lutheran college (random event) and one of my first classes was taught by a wonderful, feminist Quaker who opened my eyes to so much of what is believed to be true or interpreted as true from the Old Testament – isn’t.
    Then, I got into it; and I took some wonderful New Testament courses (taught by yet another wonderful, feminist Lutheran Pastor) who helped me see what I consider to be the true message of Jesus. He was a political radical whose prevailing message was that every human being was equal. He chose to worship with those women who weren’t allowed to worship; so he did it in their homes. He associated with the “unpure” of his time (in modern day parlance that’s anyone who’se not a rich, healthy white male in the U.S.) and he stood up against the prevailing governmental power to his own detriment. As a feminist I can definately get behind those ideals.
    Paul took it farther by entering Gentiles into the group in which he believed Jesus included. Are there some truly anti-feminist sentiments in the NT? Yes, but many, if not most or all, are believed by a predominant percentage of scholars to not be attributable to Paul (or whichever author the individual book is attributed to).
    So, I actually became more religious. I realized that yes, I could support this God as my own, because the patriarchal BS I was previously taught as “God’s Law” was just that; patriarchal BS. I now attend a church whose pastor is a woman and whose main message and motivator is to include all members of the community (the mission speaks specifically to the LBGT community) in worship. It’s hard for me to find as much inclusion anywhere as I do at worship Sunday mornings.

  17. Napalm Nacey
    Napalm Nacey August 23, 2009 at 6:04 am |

    It’s cool, sotonohito. I’m sorry if I sounded snippy. I was probably a bit sensitive as I’ve had a bit of a shit end of the week. (Things are improving now, thanks be to my God). And everything that Hannah and Rored said in their comments, I echo. I believe in love and forgiveness, and I don’t really require other people to believe in a God that goes with that. Just as long as they believe in the love and forgiveness part, which is central to Jesus’ message. Which, strangely, most fundies and right-wing nuts tend to forget.

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