Monday, April 6, 2009

"Against the patriarchal backdrop": the Bible's "Private, Complex Subjectivity"

This is a post of two long but important observations of Carolyn Custis James and Tod Linafelt, respectively, about the literary play in the Bible. By "play," I mean both interpretive "wiggle room" and hermeneutic "playfulness." It's the kind of "reading" against which Aristotle taught. It's the kind of perspective that feminists tend to find useful in overcoming profound misogyny and gynophobia in texts that would perpetuate sexist or racist inequalities.

James is a speaker, researcher, and writer who is the founder and president of the Synergy Women’s Network, Inc. Linafelt is an associate professor of biblical literature at Georgetown University and a humanities professor in the English department at Loyola College in Baltimore.

James writes in The Gospel of Ruth (pp 30-33):
I once asked a seminary professor if he saw a pattern in the biblical text where men interacting with strong women become stronger themselves. I'll never forget the blank look I got in return. In Christian circles, there is sometimes an assumption that when women step into the spotlight, the men will pay a price. The spotlight of recent research may train its sights on Naomi and Ruth, but until now this beam of light belonged to Boaz, the Kinsman-Redeemer Christ figure, traditionally identified as the hero of the story. . . .

[A] Western, American, middle-class point of view can actually interfere with our understanding of God's Word.

The story of Naomi and Ruth takes place against the backdrop of an ancient patriarchal culture. If we want to grasp the message, we must enter Naomi's world. We can do this better with the help of our sisters in the Third World whose cultures more closely resemble the ancient biblical culture. The payoff is well worth the effort, especially in biblical passages that focus explicitly on women, as we are about to see. Against the ancient patriarchal backdrop, the Bible's strong message for women packs a punch that we completely miss when we ignore the [male-dominant] cultural context. . . .

In five short verses, death wipes the men off the scene, leaving three grieving widows behind. In a male-centered culture that ascribed value to women based on their relationships to men, these husbandless, sonless women hold no interest to anyone. In many minds, especially in the minds of the three women themselves, the story is over. Nothing is left to tell. Yet ironically, this is where the narrative heats up as the biblical spotlight settles on Naomi and an all-female case. Now the real story begins.

And so we begin our journey by entering a downward spiral of suffering with Naomi, the female Job, who from ground zero of her own life wants to know, "Is God good for women?"
Linafelt writes in "The Bible's Literary Merits":
David's sexual taking of Bathsheba . . . is indeed reported [in the Bible] as [his] seeing Bathsheba bathing and then [his] acting to bring her into his bed. David's thinking isn't reported, but the reader is nonetheless encouraged [by the silence in the text] to imagine what David is thinking. After seeing Bathsheba, David pauses and considers his next action: He sends to "inquire about the woman" and learns that she is "the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite." Only after learning those things does David carry out his act of adultery.

Why? Well, he learns that the woman's husband is a Hittite, and so perhaps we are to understand David as having fewer scruples about taking the wife of a non-Israelite. (There is irony in the fact that, as the story unfolds, Uriah in fact proves a much better keeper than David of Israelite law.) David learns too that Bathsheba is the daughter of Eliam, who in turn, the attentive reader will notice, is the son of Ahithophel, one of the court counselors who will soon betray David by siding with David's son Absalom in his attempted coup.

What, then, motivates David's taking of Bathsheba? [One easily] assumes that David is "instantly struck with lust" upon seeing her. Perhaps, but in fact the narrator never reveals whether David lusts after Bathsheba or not. And it is possible to imagine his taking of Bathsheba as a calculated political act against a rival faction within the court. Besides, lust and political ambition are far from being mutually exclusive. The point, in any case, is that though we are not told David's motivations, he clearly has some.

In biblical narrative, such examples of unstated but important character motivation abound. What are Eve and Adam thinking when they reach for the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? What is God thinking in forbidding that fruit? (Despite Christianity's long tradition of original sin, the answer to neither of those questions is immediately clear, and both prove quite interestingly complex if taken seriously.) Why does Moses kill the Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew slave in Exodus 2? (It is not clear whether Moses, raised an Egyptian, knows that he was born a Hebrew; and so his motivation might range from an elemental sense of justice, unrelated to ethnicity, to a specifically ethnic identification with the victim.) What is going through Aaron's mind when his two sons are burned alive with fire from God in Leviticus 10? (The narrator reports only that "Aaron was silent." Does that indicate mute acceptance? Crippling grief? A barely controlled anger? Pure shock?) Why does Naomi try to send Ruth back to her Moabite family in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth? (Is she genuinely concerned for Ruth's welfare, or does she simply want to be rid of the burden of a non-Israelite woman as she returns from Moab to Bethlehem?)

As those examples show — and there are many, many more that could be adduced — biblical narrative counts on and exploits . . . a genuine inner life and a private, complex subjectivity.


John Radcliffe said...

I must say that I'm far from convinced that David's motivation might have been political.

Note that (1) 1 Sam 11:2 tells us that "The woman was very beautiful"; and (2) when David found Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to cover his tracks. In contrast, when Absalom did make such a power play, he did it openly (see 2 Sam 16:21-22), and apparently wasn't interested in whether he found his father's "concubines" attractive or not.

On the other hand, I think there is something to be said for the suggestion that David's conscience might have been less troubled about sleeping with someone married to a non-Israelite.

Of course, when it comes to Ruth, we shouldn't overlook the fact that she's the only woman to have a Biblical book named after her and to be named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matt 1. (By coincidence, Bathsheba is one of the other four women mentioned there, although Matthew seems more interested in showing how "human" David was than in naming her!)

J. K. Gayle said...

Your comments are always astute and appreciated, John! Yes, "far from convinced" still leaves the possibilities, doesn't it? You bring up good indicators from other places that David was motivated in one way or another. But the text doesn't rob us from the human motivators he might have had. As for Ruth, she's like Rahab and Bathesheba in not being exactly a Jewess for the pedigree--and she gets the attention you point out!