by Jacqueline Lapsley. Louisville: WJKP, 2005. ISBN 0-664-22435-0. Pb., 154 pp. $19.95.
This exploration of four Old Testament narratives about women begins by recounting two different experiences that reflect well the difficult relationship between feminist scholarship and the church.
The first story is of Lapsley’s conversation with a clergyperson who bemoans yet another book on women in the Bible! This experience speaks of a certain tiredness with respect to the topic, its redundancy given the many treatments that already exist. But it also might hint at impatience with the task of feminist scholarship and its hermeneutics of suspicion, an interpretive position that often denies the Bible’s ability to speak a word of God for women’s lives.
The second experience is a story about a student who admitted to throwing her Bible across the room in disgust and outrage over the sexist worldview that inhabits the Scriptures. This story reveals the importance of the feminist task but asks how God’s word can be heard when the dominant voices in Scripture undermine and often harm the well being of women?
Lapsley, an associate professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, responds to these two poles by offering a guide on how to read faithfully Old Testament texts. This guide recommends a hermeneutic of informed trust, that is, it takes feminist concerns seriously while refusing to give up the conviction that the Holy Spirit whispers throughout the Scriptures words of deliverance for women as well as men.
All of the narratives under discussion have received treatment elsewhere. What makes them fresh and new in Lapsley’s book is the way they illuminate three particular narrative strategies of whispering that undermine voices of injustice, violence, and bondage.
The story of Rachel and her conflict with Laban over the household gods (Gen 31) whispers the word through the words of Rachel. Lapsley identifies multiple levels of meaning in Rachel’s words to her father, I cannot rise before you for I have the way of women. On one level, they are an act of deception. On another level, they are an attempt to resist a process of justice from which women were excluded. Finally, these words testify that God cares about women everywhere who are denied justice … (p. 34).
In discussing the story of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19- 21, Lapsley focuses on how the narrator’s perspective subverts the horrifically violent work of the characters he narrates. This subversion is not always obvious. It is rather more of a nudge that tells the story in such a way … the reader not only senses the narrator’s judgment on the events (and in this case divine judgment is implied), but also so that she will be gently prodded into some serious reflection about the human condition and its propensity for violence (p. 67).
In the next chapter, Lapsley turns from a story in which women are victims of violence to one in which women deliver others from violence. The midwives, Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 1-4 all demonstrate transgressive values that undermine the Pharaoh’s ethnocentric, sexist, and classist convictions. By highlighting their cooperative work and implicit values, the text whispers divine deliverance to us as a people caught up in identity politics.
The final chapter demonstrates how the Book of Ruth makes use of all three of these narrative strategies: women’s speech, the narrator’s perspective, and narrative values. The focus of these narrative strategies, however, is on Naomi rather than Ruth. Lapsley attends to the real turmoil and brokenness to which Naomi gives voice in her opening speech; she notes the ethic of loyalty exhibited by the narrator himself in telling Naomi’s story; and lastly, she notes the restoration of community that is the implicit value at work in text.
This book is a valuable contribution to the work of feminist interpretation and to the church’s reading of Scripture. It is characterized by clear and lively writing and a commitment to theological interpretation. For those among the church’s theological educators, clergy, and lay people who wish to hear the whisperings of the Spirit, this volume has much to offer.
Amy C. Merrill Willis is instructor of religious studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.