What The Bible Really Says
New York: Twelve, 2010, 256 pp.
Reviewed by Phyllis Trible
God and Sex. Who would not be intrigued by so expansive and seductive a title coming from a secular and boutique press? But the subtitle narrows the scope: What the Bible Really Says. If that phrase suggests either a prudish or salacious bent, the identity of the author assures us differently. A scholar of ancient Near Eastern and Biblical studies, Michael Coogan writes from head and heart—and both are in the right place.
For him, the paradigm of male dominance and female subordination governs gender relationships in the Bible. “Your desire will be for your man,” says Yahweh to the woman in the story of Eden, “and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). “That decree,” says Coogan, “illustrates the bleakness of the overall Biblical picture for feminists who would claim the Bible as an authority.” Yes, the paradigm heralds bleakness. Whether that bleakness also harbors blessing, readers must decide.
In declaring Genesis 3:16 a divine “decree” and, later, a “curse,” Coogan misreads. (He is in good company, from the apostle Paul and his successors through millennia.) These words of Yahweh to the woman do not characterize her status in creation but rather her life after disobedience. They do not “decree” patriarchy; they describe it. They announce judgment; they do not prescribe punishment, which comes later in expulsion from Eden. Further, Yahweh never “curses” the woman. This word the deity reserves for the serpent and the earth (via the man). In numerous ways, literary analysis disqualifies Genesis 3:16 as the paradigmatic proof text for endorsing patriarchy.
Nonetheless, Coogan’s overall assessment is right. For some 40 years (a fitting Biblical time frame), second-wave feminists have wrestled with patriarchy and the Bible. They, too, have cautioned that the Bible belongs to the foreign country of antiquity. Despite its ubiquitous presence in the news and its canonical standing in communities of faith, it remains distant, even alien, in time, languages, mentality and geography. For diverse reasons—scant evidence, contradictory data, discrepancies among genres and historically locked views—what the Bible really says (or really does not say) about matters such as abortion, marriage, divorce, adultery, rape, prostitution and same-sex relationships does not readily transfer (for better or worse) to our world. Tensions between “original meanings” and contemporary applications persist—tensions that Coogan compares to interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
But what about competing evidence within the Bible? What about women characters, for example, who don’t seem to fit patriarchal strictures? In ancient Israel, the prophet Miriam was never linked to a husband. Leader in victory at the crossing of the sea and questioner of authority in the wilderness, she survived censure to endure in prophetic tradition as the equal of her brothers Aaron and Moses (Micah 6:4). The prophet Deborah, identified perhaps as “woman of fire,” exercised authority as judge and military leader in the settlement of the land (Judges 4 and 5). In the reign of King Josiah, the prophet Huldah (without her husband) authorized the beginnings of the Bible (2 Kings 22:14). And the prophet Noadiah, identified by neither father nor husband, opposed the policies of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 6:14). In the New Testament, the prophet Anna, a widow apparently living an independent life, blessed the child Jesus who had been brought to the Temple (Luke 2:36-38). Four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist also held the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9). To these prophets we add wise women (of Tekoa and Abel), queens (Jezebel and Vashti), widows (Naomi and Judith) and disciples (Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joanna).
Throughout the Bible various women, by their actions, words or status, challenge the patriarchal paradigm, at least indirectly. Although Coogan reports on these public figures, he fails to stress their potentially subversive presence. What did such women represent? Tokens? Exceptions? An alternative narrative? A lost history? A saving remnant within the bleakness of patriarchy?
Despite this book?s title, God takes center stage only in the last chapter. There Coogan argues that the Biblical deity is a male, indeed a sexual being who engages in reproductive activities in a polytheistic environment. The archaeological find at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud depicts two figures with the inscription “Yahweh and his Asherah” (eighth century B.C.E.). Within the Bible, more evidence surfaces: Ezekiel?s description of the divine loins (1:27); the pairing of Yahweh in the Temple with Asherah; metaphors of Yahweh as Israel?s husband and father; the goddess Wisdom alongside Yahweh; and the Christian formula for the parentage of Jesus: son of God, born of a virgin.
Believers cannot neglect these threatening descriptions, says Coogan. But to what extent have believers neglected them? Even though polytheism and a female consort may not be acceptable, the basic idea that God is male has endured for centuries, sometimes as unofficial dogma. After all, Jesus called God “Father.” Missing among many believers are sustained critiques of this idea.
Female images of God, in contrast to a female consort, call for attention. The metaphor connecting divine mercy (rahamim) to the vehicle of the womb (rehem) permeates the Bible. One small witness describes the God who “writhed in labor pains” giving birth to Israel (Deuteronomy 32:18). Sexual overtones in these portrayals are not male. Although early in his prophecy (chapter 3) Hosea depicts Yahweh as the abusive husband beating his wife Israel, later Yahweh repudiates both male identity and violence. “For I am God (‘el) and not male (‘is), the Holy One (qadosh) in your midst, and I do not come to destroy” (Hosea 11:9). Is this the pattern of the abusive husband—to feign goodness and mercy? Or does the declaration of holiness testify to God beyond (male) sex, gender and attendant consequences? In keeping with his passionate plea that we read “the entire Bible” and not “cherry-pick” for “preconceived conclusions,” Coogan might have explored these and other counter-texts.
On one occasion, God set before ancient Israel life and death and then commanded the people to decide the difference. “Choose life that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Likewise recognizing that authority derives from the community, Coogan admirably concludes that what the Bible really says (this time, its “underlying ideals”) moves “toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons.” That rhetorical flourish awaits development beyond the provocative subject of God and Sex.
Distinguished feminist Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible is professor of Biblical studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in North Carolina. From 1981 until her “retirement” in 1998, she taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1994, only the second woman to serve in that capacity since the organization was founded in 1880.
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