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Reviewed by Timothy Larsen


Eve's Exegetes

Victorian women on Genesis.

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Who are your favorite women biblical commentators? Given that women have probably comprised more than half of all Christians throughout the history of the church it would seem strange if you were not able to name any. If you did recall one or more, then, admit it: you thought of writers who are still alive, or at least who did their work since 1950. Did women really have nothing to say about Scripture for 1900 years of Christian history? Or have we just failed to remember?

In a groundbreaking contribution to the history of biblical interpretation, Marion Taylor and Heather Weir have tracked down more than a thousand books on the Bible from the minds of 19th–century women. Having concentrated on one century, they then focused on the female characters in the first book of the Bible. Although it contains much useful information and analysis provided by the editors, at its heart, Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth–Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis is an anthology of excerpts from the works of fifty Victorian women.

These commentators represent much variety. They are from different nations. A handful of Jewish authors keep the collection from reflecting merely an in–house, Christian conversation. Still, that family discussion would have been lively enough.

There are theologically liberal voices. Julia Wedgwood, a cousin of Charles Darwin, wrote as a champion of the latest fashions in German biblical criticism. Her comments begin unflinchingly, "The work of the Hebrew Creator appears as a series of blunders." Likewise there is a range of selections—including Clara Bewick Colby on Sarah—from a landmark volume in the history of American feminism, The Women's Bible. The editors mischievously suggest that Wedgwood and Colby were "Wellhausen's helpmates." On the other hand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous for Uncle Tom's Cabin, also wrote a book combating liberal biblical criticism.

Meanwhile, traditionalist Victorian women say things about gender roles that many a male, conservative evangelical pastor today would be ashamed to utter. Sarah's life prompted Etty Woosnam to remark: "God does not in His holy Word anywhere encourage women to seek distinction or eminence for themselves, but shows how good women make it easier for men to rise." Ouch.

On the whole, however, these commentators, whether evangelical or liberal, explore the lives of biblical women in a more sympathetic way than male commentators typically have done. Again and again, it strikes them that Eve is less culpable than Adam. Hannah Mather Crocker, a granddaughter of the leading Puritan divine, Cotton Mather, averred: "It does not appear, from his own account, that Adam withstood the temptation with more fortitude than Eve did; for she presented the fruit, and he received it without hesitation; but it is plain she did not yield immediately, though the most subtle agent of the devil told her that her eyes should be opened."

It is arresting how often women commentators identified with Hagar. Many read her story with an awareness of contemporary slavery in America. Therefore, it is not surprising that the African American poet Eloise Alberta Bibb wrote poignantly about "The Expulsion of Hagar." Less predictably, even Jewish authors tended to identify with Hagar more than Sarah, gravitating to her as a type of the experiences of contemporary Jews as exiles and wanderers.

For this reader, the most powerful and engaging selection is the account of Hagar by the evangelical social reformer, Josephine Butler. Butler dedicated her life to helping so–called "fallen" women. She saw Hagar as one of myriads of women with whom some man had sex only to cast her away. Butler criticized male biblical scholars: "I am perplexed, in reading certain commentators, in noting a degree of—shall I call it complacency?—in their judgment of this story of Hagar." She would not pull the punch: "I prefer to express frankly my disgust."

Butler declared her intention to offer "a motherly, a womanly reading" of this biblical narrative. Exemplary evangelical though she was, she insisted that God's perspective on this passage was not limited to apostolic allegorizing: "St. Paul was not a father, nor was the human heart of the man stirring in him at the moment when he wrote to the Galatians in the direction of pity for the outcast woman."

She then proceeds to an illuminating close reading. For example, Genesis 21:11–12 says: "And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son. And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman." Butler comments that Abraham is concerned about only his child, not Hagar: "But God, more just, more tender, more 'mindful of his own' than the best and holiest of men can be, supplies the omission."

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