I. The Challenge of Feminist Hermeneutics


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Tyndale Bulletin 53.1 (2002) 1-28.

Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Concerns:
The Rape of Dinah as a Case Study

Robin Parry

Summary

The article begins by outlining the challenge feminist hermeneutics poses for traditional notions of biblical authority. Genesis 34 is set out as a case study for displaying feminist interpretations that read with the narrator but against patriarchal interpreters and those which read against the narrator himself. I argue that a ‘high view’ of Scripture can accommodate many of the concerns raised by feminist critics of biblical narrative. It is, however, maintained that an evangelical hermeneutic will not easily be able to endorse an inter­pretation that stands over against the stance of a biblical narrator.1
It is traditionally assumed by evangelical readers of the Bible that the narratives in the OT are ethically beneficial and that a Christian hermeneutic will be primarily a hermeneutic of faith and trust. However, things are not quite as simple as that, and recent feminist critics have been amongst those who have approached the biblical text first and foremost with a hermeneutic of suspicion. They con­sider the text of the Bible to be both patriarchal and androcentric and thus potentially harmful to women. Many would say that rather than uncritically opening ourselves to be shaped by the stories we ought to expose some of them as oppressive and damaging even if they are, in other ways, liberating. This challenge cuts deeply and simply cannot be ignored. The present article is an attempt to maintain the centrality of the canon in Christian ethics whilst trying to take the problems posed by androcentrism and patriarchy within the Bible seriously. The

following reflections begin and proceed from within a fairly conservative Christian tradition. This interpretative community and its tradition forms the sedimentation upon which I hope that creative interpretative innovation can take place as that tradition comes into dialogue with feminist scholarship.

The focus will be on Genesis 34 but I shall have to set my reflections on that passage within a broader set of considerations. Section I gives a brief introduction to feminist interpretation whilst Section II outlines feminist concerns with Genesis 34 in particular. In Section III, I defend the continuing usefulness of Genesis 34 in Christian ethics whilst attempting to learn important lessons from feminist schools of thought. I believe that although initially feminist hermeneutics of suspicion seem to undermine the normative use of scripture in Christian ethics they can open up fruitful ways of ethically reading stories which the Christian can welcome.

I. The Challenge of Feminist Hermeneutics

Feminism is a broad family of related but different positions. Consequently, feminist readers of biblical texts are often at variance with each other both in terms of conclusions and methodology. However, according to Katherine Doob Sakenfeld ‘the beginning point, shared with all feminists studying the Bible, is appropriately a stance of radical suspicion’.2 This is because women’s experiences have been excluded (a) from the official interpretations of the Bible, and often (b) from the Bible itself making the Bible a powerful tool in the oppression of women. Letty Russell writes that, ‘it has become abundantly clear that the scriptures need liberation, not only from existing interpretations but also from the patriarchal bias of the texts themselves’.3 Similarly, Fiorenza thinks that the Bible is ‘authored by men, written in androcentric language,4 reflective of male experience, selected and transmitted by male religious leadership. Without question the Bible is a male book.’5

Feminist interpreters have been keenly aware of the uses to which the Bible has been put and the problem of biblical authority has never been far from the surface. Ruether says:

The Bible was shaped by males in a patriarchal culture, so many of its revelatory experiences were interpreted by men from a patriarchal per­spective. The ongoing interpretation of these revelatory experiences and their canonisation further this patriarchal bias by eliminating traces of female experience or interpreting them in an androcentric way. The Bible, in turn, becomes an authoritative source for the justification of patriarchy in Jewish and Christian society.6

How can a text like this be authoritative? Christian and Jewish feminists have had to struggle with this question since the Bible is the foundational text for both faiths and cannot simply be dismissed.

Sakenfeld7 presents a typology of the views of feminist biblical scholars on biblical authority. At one end of the spectrum she places Fiorenza who argues that the maleness of the Bible makes it impossible for it to form the basis for a transcontextual critical principle. That honour belongs to the experience of oppressed women according to which biblical texts are interpreted and evaluated. The Bible stands and falls as measured against this standard and cannot itself be considered authoritative.8 At the other end of the spectrum are the evangelical feminists who wish to maintain as much of a

traditional view of the Bible’s authoritative status as possible.

Between the poles one could place Letty Russell,9 Mary Ann Tolbert10 and Phyllis Bird11 who see scripture as authoritative in so far as it makes sense of their experience or mediates God’s liberating word for the oppressed. Farley similarly argues that the truth claims of the biblical witness simply cannot be believed unless they ‘ring true’ to the experience of women.12 The authority of scripture is redefined by Russell, as the ‘authority to evoke consent’ rather than as an extrinsic authority13 thus the locus of authority shifts from text to reader.14 David Clines has even suggested that the notion of authority should be abandoned by feminists altogether as he sees it as a male notion ill fitted to feminist perspectives.15 This would be a dramatic shift away from the Christian tradition and is going unnecessarily far for some Christian feminists.16

Perhaps the most useful typology of feminist responses to the Bible is that of Carolyn Osiek17 who discerns five basic stances:18

(a) The Rejectionist. The Bible is rejected as authoritative perhaps along with Christianity itself (if the Christian tradition is seen as irredeemable).19

(b) The Loyalist. The Bible cannot be rejected under any circumstances. Two possibilities open up for the loyalist: one can reinterpret ‘oppressive’ texts in non-oppressive ways, seeing the

problem not with the text but with its readers,20 or one could opt for the complementarian position which, strictly speaking, is not a feminist position.21

(c) The Revisionist. The Bible and the Christian tradition, it is argued, have been stamped by the patriarchal culture in which they arose but they are not essentially patriarchal and can be reformed. The ‘submerged female voices’ of women hidden behind text and tradition can be recovered from scraps of linguistic, rhetorical and narrative evidence. The intention is to reconstruct, as far as possible, the lives of ordinary Israelite women at different periods of the nation’s history.22 One may also try to bring to the surface often ignored texts which present women in a more positive light.23 The revisionist, along with the rejectionist and the liberationist, may also highlight the androcentric and patriarchal dimensions of biblical texts in order to show how women are often ignored or presented from men’s perspectives.24 Some put biblical texts under the critical eye of psychoanalytic theory to uncover subconscious themes.25 The aim of such studies is often, at least partially, to subvert such texts and undermine their authority. Such studies may then ‘playfully’ reimagine the story from the perspective of the women.26

(d) The Sublimationist. The ‘feminine principle’ of life-giving and nurturing are glorified and the tradition is scoured for feminine symbols of God and the church.27

(e) The Liberationist. To consider the Bible generally looking for theological perspectives which can be used to critique patriarchy (e.g. new creation, shalom, prophetic critique of oppression, koinonia). The central message of the Bible is seen to be that of human liberation motivated by eschatological hope. Letty Russell finds a biblical basis and motivation for her liberationist message ‘in God’s intention for the mending of all creation’28 and Ruether seeks strands of cultural critique from Israel’s prophets with which to attack patriarchy.29 Both, however, take the starting point of a feminist ideology which comes from beyond the text and is brought to it with the hope of correlating the feminist critical principle with one internal to scripture.30

Clearly these strategies, or at least (b)–(e), need not be seen as in conflict and one could embrace some combination of each. I shall make use of selected strategies from the loyalist, the revisionist and the liberationist, arguing that they not only contribute to reading the Bible ethically but that they are consistent with a ‘high’ view of scripture.

II. Feminist Readings of Genesis 34: Restoring Dinah’s Honour

Feminists can read with the biblical text and against androcentric interpreters and/or against the biblical text itself. Both strategies have been used to attempt to restore both Dinah and her honour in recent work.
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