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Focus On: Putting the Feminist in Biblical Criticism

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Putting the Feminist in Biblical Criticism

A Very Brief Survey of Feminist Approaches to the Bible

Ashley Tate
University of Virginia

On one hand, feminist biblical criticism looks much like any other form of biblical criticism: it shares in the enterprise of expanding our body of knowledge concerning biblical literature, history, and culture, and it does so by applying such well-established methods as literary analysis, historical criticism, and redaction criticism. One may well assume that the only thing distinguishing the subcategory of "feminist biblical criticism" from the broader category of "biblical criticism" is its focus on a particular constellation of questions concerning women and gender.

On the other hand, however, feminist biblical criticism cannot be reduced to its shared methods with more traditional types of biblical scholarship, because it is not—nor does it pretend to be—ideologically neutral. While it is possible for some historical or literary inquiries to settle comfortably within the grain of the text—offering, for example, an analysis of the gender norms a text constructs and leaving it at that—feminist critics enjoy no such luxury. Their approaches are animated by the recognition that women's interests are underrepresented by the biblical text, and they are vivified by the desire to find ways to recover and do justice to women's stories—not only for the sake of a fuller account of biblical history, but also for the sake of contemporary readers struggling to understand their relationships to biblical tradition while wrestling with the fact that their own identities may not be reflected in it.

In fact, the first prominent moves to address biblical literature in terms of women's issues were not initiated by biblical scholars within the academy, but by the feminist activists and public intellectuals of the 1960s Women's Liberation Movement. They did so not because of an objective interest in unearthing more knowledge, but because they felt that the Bible's patriarchalism must first be named, and then rejected, as one of the powerful cultural forces contributing to the real oppression of women in the contemporary moment. Simone de Beauvoir, whose pioneering book The Second Sex gave voice to the dawning Women's Liberation Movement, writes of the creation of Eve:

God did not spontaneously choose to create her as an end in herself and in order to be worshipped directly by her in turn for it. She was destined by Him for man?and therein lies the wondrous hope that man has often put in woman: he hopes to fulfill himself as a being by carnally possessing a being, but at the same time confirming his sense of freedom through the docility of a free person. (159‒60)

De Beauvoir approaches this text as a story told since time immemorial in which woman is construed as the depersonalized "other," the object born to serve the male subject's physical and psychological needs. Kate Millet, another seminal figure in the Women's Liberation Movement, reads the same text as an effort as pernicious as it is conscious about vilifying and keeping women under the thumb of male authority:

Patriarchy has God on its side. One of its most effective agents of control is the powerfully expeditious character of its doctrines as to the nature and origin of the female and the attribution to her alone of the dangers and evils it imputes to sexuality.
. . .
To blame the evils and sorrows of life—loss of Eden and the rest—on sexuality would all too logically implicate the male, and such implication is hardly the purpose of the story, designed as it is expressly in order to blame all this world's discomfort on the female. (51, 53)

Picking up the mantle of Women's Liberation thinkers, feminist biblical scholars have incorporated in their work a keen awareness of the normative influence of the Bible and its function as a source of authority which, throughout its history, has proven so damaging for women. Indeed, from its inception, feminist biblical criticism has been part of a live conversation about the real experiences of contemporary women and how their lives are affected by the specter of patriarchy.

And yet, biblical scholars understand keenly that, while this text has certainly been leveraged to the disadvantage of women, it also bears witness to a rich and complicated history of development: taking shape over the course of centuries, it speaks with many voices, and its treatments of women are imbricated within and conditioned by a complex matrix of different historical contexts, ideologies, and modes of theological inquiry. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible writes:

I face a terrible dilemma: Choose ye this day whom you will serve: The God of the fathers or the God of the sisterhood. If the God of the fathers, then the Bible supplies models for your slavery. If the God of the sisterhood, then you must reject patriarchal religion and go forth without models to claim your freedom. Yet I myself perceive neither war nor neutrality between biblical faith and Women's Liberation. The more I participate in the Movement, the more I discover my freedom through the appropriation of biblical symbols. . . . The Women's Movement errs when it dismisses the Bible as inconsequential or condemns it as enslaving. In rejecting Scripture women ironically accept male chauvinistic interpretations and thereby capitulate to the very view they are protesting. ("Depatriarchalizing," 31)

Unsatisfied with the Women's Liberation case for rejecting the Bible's authority on the grounds of its hegemonic patriarchalism, Trible maintains that to reject the elephant in the room will not make it any less present. The only way forward is to walk right up to it and inspect it closely, using the well-wrought tools of biblical criticism to seek therein a language that may allow women to claim the biblical tradition as their own. The long history of biblical appeals to women's oppression only makes excavating the literary, historical, and cultural contexts of the Bible that much more urgent, and the stakes of this enterprise are no less than the determination of how—or even if—women can truly claim a seat at the table of biblical tradition.

Accordingly, Trible analyzes certain signal texts with the aim of discovering therein a biblical ideology of gender which permits a fundamental equality among the human sexes, concluding that the possibility of locating a sense of gender egalitarianism in the Bible hinges upon the divine identification with both genders in the creation account of Genesis 1. Given its pride of place in the canon and in the biblical telling of human history, Trible treats this account as the key to the lock of biblical gender ideology, with Gen 1:27 serving as her true "clue in the text":

So God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them.

On Trible's reading, the parallelism between "the image of God" and "humankind," and then between "humankind" and "male and female," suggests that God is not to be identified exclusively with the male, as so much divine imagery and masculine pronouns may lead one to assume. But nor is God neither male nor female—another possibility, but one which would bear very little interpretive fruit when attempting to understand human gender relations in light of their relationship to the divine image. Rather, as Trible argues in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, this verse indicates that God is both male and female: maleness and femaleness are both reflections of the divine and share equally in their possession of the image of God (17). As such, a socially determined hierarchy among the genders bucks against God's creative act in bringing forth humanity in its essential equality (21‒22). Having reached this conclusion, Trible can relativize those texts that do subordinate women, because that picture of gender relations, though certainly reflective of a cultural reality, is neither absolute nor grounded in biblical theology and creation. Trible's approach, however, has trouble reconciling what she posits as the Bible's essential gender egalitarianism with the social and historical reality of women's subordinate status as it is so often manifest in other biblical narratives and, indeed, divine law. One may wonder, for example, how Trible's argument for a God who intended nothing but harmony within human sexual difference would fare when that same God is said to command the stoning of a non-virgin bride while making no mention of the consequences for a non-virgin bridegroom (Deuteronomy 22:20‒21). As Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza aptly puts it, "[A] biblical theology that does not seriously confront 'the patriarchal stamp' of the Bible and its religious-political legitimization of the patriarchal oppression of women is in danger of using a feminist perspective to rehabilitate the authority of the Bible, rather than to rehabilitate women's biblical history and theological heritage" (21).

For that reason, Esther Fuchs is deeply skeptical of any attempt to find vestiges of female empowerment in the biblical text. For Fuchs, the Bible's patriarchalism is so ubiquitous that efforts to retrieve remnants of women's cultural agency or notions of gender equality do little more than paper over the harsh reality with which feminist interpreters are compelled reckon. In Fuchs' view, women's empowerment with respect to the biblical text must come from boldly critiquing the literary manifestations of its patriarchal ideology. To interpret as a feminist, for Fuchs, is to recognize the patriarchal grain of the text and self-consciously read against it, owning her place at the margins rather than attempting to chisel a space inside a literary world that is inhospitable to contemporary feminist concerns. According to Fuchs, any realistic reading will acknowledge that feminist ideologies of gender are at fundamental odds with biblical gender ideology, and this recognition necessitates a subversive posture on the part of feminist interpreters.

Fuchs herself enacts this subversive posture by focusing on the misogynistic over- and undertones invoked in biblical representations of women. For example, she argues that even characters whom other feminist interpreters have embraced as positive examples must be read according to the broader matrix of biblical representations of women. Specifically, she describes a "the biblical double standard" by which the deceptive acts of male and female characters are appraised through the narrative ("Who Is Hiding the Truth," 141). By Fuchs's calculations, almost every significant female character uses deceptive means to achieve her ends. As a result, even as Ruth's benign manipulation of Boaz is celebrated, Delilah's malign manipulation of Samson echoes in the background, serving as a reminder to the reader that all women are inherently deceptive and that they may just as easily ply their wiles to the detriment of Israel and its men.

Fuchs's approach arises from a commitment to continuing to engage the Bible as a feminist, but also to being as realistic as possible about biblical patriarchalism. The drawback, however, is that feminists necessarily stand on one side of an ideological chasm, which precludes another possibility: that the chorus of voices in the biblical canon may well yield a more complex picture of gender in the biblical imagination, and in that complexity feminist considerations may move and breathe. While Trible may too optimistically flatten the complexity of biblical gender ideology, Fuchs may too pessimistically flatten it.

If Trible and Fuchs struggle to reconcile the Bible's heterogeneity with respect to gender, then Ilana Pardes takes this heterogeneity as the starting point for her literary analysis of biblical texts. (Pardes herself positions her work as a corrective to Fuchs and Trible, among others; see Countertraditions in the Bible, 3). Pardes argues that, not only do the diversity of authorial voices, contexts, and historical perspectives represented in the canon mitigate against a monolithic biblical view of gender, but also that a single text can sound the voices of different classes, social contexts, and genders that are capable of speaking to readers in ways in which the author may not have anticipated and may not have even been aware. Taken as a canonical whole, these texts speak to one another and, in the process make one another more complex. For example, Pardes reads the book of Ruth as a window into a conversation about gender taking place throughout the canon. On one hand, this gynocentric story places women and their agency at the center of a pivotal moment in Israel's history: the establishment of David's lineage. As such, it may be read as a gentle rallying cry against the Bible's tendency to alienate women from the main lines of Israel's history and the sense of national identity that grows from this history.

By incorporating women into this national story, the book of Ruth challenges patriarchal assumptions about what Israel is and spurs the reader to redefine the concept in light of the role that female protagonists can and do play (98‒99). On the other hand, the book of Ruth may also be read as part of a conversation with the sad story of Rachel and Leah. Pardes suggests that we read Ruth and Naomi's relationship of mutual support as a rewriting of the jealousy and tension that marked Rachel and Leah's experiences within a society that places a woman's entire worth on her ability to produce offspring. If the sisterly relationship between Rachel and Leah was an unfortunate casualty of the social imperative to compete for the role of primary child bearer, then Ruth and Naomi are examples of women who can bear that burden together, finding solidarity in shared experience rather than being pitted against one another as adversaries (100‒117). For Pardes, the ability of texts like Ruth to foster a productive dialogue with other, more obviously patriarchal texts is an inherent possibility that the reader can activate by synthesizing the various textual voices she encounters. The text itself need not be conscious of this possibility, and it cannot control how the reader will hear the latent voices in the conversation. As a result, Pardes's approach offers both a realistic account of biblical androcentrism as well as a generative discussion of the possibility that this androcentric picture can be destabilized by the reader's interpretive agency. The question remains, however, as to whether Pardes's reader is "sneaking up on" the text, catching it unawares in a moment in which one of its latent voices unwittingly impeaches the text's own patriarchal ideological agenda—in which case the feminist reader is still on the outside looking in at the regnant biblical picture of gender.

In The Israelite Woman, Athalya Brenner squarely acknowledges the patriarchal biases in biblical literature, but she interprets them as the secondary consequences of literary motivations which influence the redactors' decisions to prioritize certain details and characters in their renderings of Israel's history. Women may be all too frequently subordinated to these aims, and they are often flattened or stereotyped; however, as Brenner claims, if we can discern these literary motivations, then we are on our way to discerning the roads not taken—roads dusted with clues about the actual roles of women in Israelite society and, hence, in biblical tradition.

One of Brenner's flagship examples is her treatment of the two parts of the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15: the longer portion sung by Moses and the male Israelites (vv. 1‒18), and the shorter portion sung by Miriam and the women (vv. 20‒21). Because the longer portion reads as a full song unto itself, made no more complete by the inclusion of a separate women's verse, Brenner takes the truncated women's song as a hushed clue about the vocational roles of women in Israelite society—namely, that women were frequently the composers and singers of songs. That the biblical compiler felt compelled to include another performance, this time sung by women, suggests to Brenner that there was a strong tradition of attributing the Song of the Sea to Miriam and of songwriting in general to women. The redactor, then, was torn between his accountability to the popular knowledge of his readers, which prevented him from getting away with erasing the attribution of the song to Miriam, and his accountability to the literary project of building up the Moses mythos and centralizing Moses's role in the Exodus. This latter motivation took precedence, and it is an essentially patriarchal motivation in that it endeavors to shore up a male figure's cultural capital at the expense of a competing history according to which this hymn owes to women. Nevertheless, the nod to popular tradition by including Miriam's vestigial verse may provide an historical clue about Israelite women's occupations as songwriters, especially when taken together with the marked gynocentrism of the Song of Songs and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 (50‒56). In Brenner's view, if we can reclaim these spaces for women in biblical history and tradition, we can rewrite women into the story and thus afford contemporary feminist readers the opportunity to carve places for women in largely untold—but nevertheless present—historical perspectives.

A consequence of this approach, however, is that the Bible's patriarchal tendencies are reified. At best, women's stories are dismissed unconsciously, deemed less-than-necessary in achieving the goal of narrating Israel's male-dominated history. At worst, as is the case with the example of Miriam in Exodus 15, women's stories are consciously subdued. Their roles in the cultural production of songs are ripped from their hands and given to more prominent male figures. The best a feminist reader can do is look through the text and into what it does not say—to accept that women have been largely cast out of the historical narrative and to attempt to cobble together a separate, alternative history from the scraps. Brenner does well to locate women in biblical history, but in doing so she must also concede that they have been stripped of their place in biblical tradition from the start. If Israelite women are relegated to the margins of history, then Brenner's readers, too, must join them there.

As is apparent from this very brief survey of feminist approaches to the Bible, the fact of biblical patriarchalism—and the Bible's natural failure to anticipate the conversations that contemporary feminists would like to have—is unavoidable. And yet, each of these approaches performs an invaluable service: to biblical scholarship in that they pose new questions and find new answers about biblical history and literature, and to women today for insisting upon their right to a dialogue with the cultural Goliath that is the Bible.


Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Brenner, Athalya. The Israelite Woman. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985.

Fuchs, Esther. Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

Fuchs, Esther. "Who Is Hiding the Truth?: Deceptive Women and Biblical Androcentrism," in Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, ed. Adela Yarbro Collins. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985, pp. 137‒144.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Pardes, Ilana. Countertraditions in the Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1983.

Trible, Phyllis. "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation." JAAR 41 (1973) 30‒48.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

Homepage image: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Ruth im Feld des Boaz (1828), courtesy of the National Gallery via Wikimedia Commons.

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