The Old Testament and Feminist Imagination

Alicia Ostriker | September 1988

Alicia Ostriker

What happens when women writers re-imagine culture? What happens when we re-imagine that profoundly masculine ur-text of Western culture, the Bible? A few years ago in my book on contemporary American women's poetry, Stealing the Language, I surveyed what I call "revisionist mythmaking" by contemporary women poets. Arguing that vital myths have at all times a potential for being reinterpreted, I saw women writers' revisionist versions of classical myths as " a vigorous and varied invasion of the sanctuaries of language where our meanings for 'male' and 'female' are stored." A brief example: Muriel Rukeyser's "Myth" recounts an unrecorded conversation between Oedipus and the Sphinx. Old and blind, Oedipus wants to know where he went wrong and the Sphinx explains that he answered her famous question incorrectly:

When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn't say anything about women.
"When you say Man," said Oedipus, "you include
women too. Everyone knows that." She said,
"That's what you think."

What I find myself doing now is an extension of that work. As a critic I am noticing that the present period is generating new, probing, often outrageous feminist readings and reimaginings of scriptural texts; and as a poet I am writing some myself, concentrating on what Christians call "The Old Testament" and Jews call "The Bible."

It is obvious that writing about the Bible is' a riskier matter than writing about Oedipus and the Sphinx. For "myth" signifies "stories that are sacred to some other group" while "scripture" signifies "stories that are sacred to our group." Yet as Adrienne Rich has asserted," Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for women more than a chapter in cultural history; it is an act of survival." Further, I want to suggest that what may seem outrageous, blasphemous and irreligious about feminist re-imaginings of the Bible is in fact an almost inevitable outcome of our spiritual history in general, and of Jewish tradition in particular.

William James in his masterly Varieties of Religious Experience distinguishes between religious experience-which transpires within the soul of an individual and is intensely personal, absolutely subjective, and hence resistant to reductive "rational" explanation-and the institutional religions which form as it were the house or shell designed to contain spiritual revelations, make them continuously operative and authoritative in a community, tribe or nation, and (incidentally) tame them. For James, religious experience is prior to institutional religion both ontologically and chronologically. That is, all churches and sects depend-for their birth on individuals who (believe they) have had direct contact with divinity, and are in part kept alive by individuals who continue to have personal religious experiences-real encounters with what they, subjectively and therefore unarguably, believe to be the divine, the sacred, the holy. As a rule of course the interpretation an individual gives such an experience will depend on and reflect his or her institutional religious training. So, for example-though it is not an example James gives St. Theresa's erotic visions of Christ would have been visions of Shiva or Krishna had she been born on the Indian subcontinent.

Parallel to the distinction between experiential religion and institutional religion are (at least) two kinds of writing. Mystical, devotional writing recounts personal encounters with divinity, on the one hand. On the other, theology and law are codifications of such experience in terms of principles supposedly derived from them but fixed and immutable instead of blowing where the spirit listeth. What kind of writing, then, is scripture? Clearly neither the one nor the other, it partakes of both. Scripture may of course and usually does contain genres of many sorts, including historical chronicles, proverbs, heroic, romantic and domestic legends and tales, etc. But I would guess that in order for a text or set of texts to qualify as scripture, as sacred writing, and be accepted as such over a span of centuries by a tribe or a community, it must contain accounts of human encounters with the gods or god, and it must also contain rules and laws for the community.

Because of their dual origins in unpredictable and uncontrollable human vision, which is always experienced as that which transcends mere earthly social and political power and often as that which trans, gresses against it, and on the other hand the equal but opposite need of societies for fixed normative authority over behavior, scriptural texts are, like myths, always available to reinforce both conservative , and subversive elements in a given society. Because they are so textually rich they can be interpreted almost ad libitum-and in fact remain viable perhaps precisely because they are constantly being reinterpreted.

The history of Christianity is a history of periodic schisms which are ultimately reinterpretations of the meaning of the New Testament. To say "The kingdom of God is within you" makes reinterpretation inevitable. If we look at Judaism, too, we behold a tradition which at its very core demands perpetual revision.

The questioning of authority, including divine authority, has been built into Judaism in several different ways. From the moment God turns to Abraham (Genesis 18) and confides that he is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham is appalled and replies" Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"-making clear that he, Abraham, thinks God has no right to harm innocent people-the right and even the duty of God's children to interrogate their father is a recurrent Biblical motif. In Abraham's bargaining session with the Lord, the patriarch begins by asking whether God will save Sodom if fifty righteous people are found in it. God somewhat grudgingly agrees; Abraham, protesting all the while that he is but dust and ashes, unworthy to speak to the Almighty, gradually haggles him down to ten. Here doubtless we see the origin of Jewish chutzpah, and it is significant that the scene is a highly comic one. Jacob's wrestling with the angel and Job's challenge to God are similar episodes in different tones-one heroic, one lyric or rhapsodic. But these are not unique episodes within Judaism. "Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?" asks Jeremiah, inaugurating the tradition of interrogating God's goodness which is still reverberating in contemporary Jewish writers. In Elie Wiesel's The Gates of the Forest, a rabbi in a concentration camp announces to his fellows, "I intend to convict God of murder, for he is destroying his people and the Law he gave them from Mount Sinai. I have irrefutable proof in my hands." In I.B. Singer's autobiographical In My Father's Court, the boy Isaac asks himself, "What did the Emperor of everything, the Creator of Heaven and Earth require? That he could go on watching soldiers fall on battlefields?" In Malamud's The Fixer occurs this dialogue: "'Yakov,' said Shmuel passionately, 'Don't forget your God!' 'Who forgets who?' the fixer said angrily. 'What do I get from him but a bang on the head and a stream of piss in my face.''' I think it is clear how such challenges to divine authority might implicitly coincide with a feminist vision.

As to earthly authority, historical Judaism originates in a slave rebellion and an advocacy of freedom which continue to resound in the aspirations and rhetoric of oppressed people throughout the world, as Michael Walser's Exodus and Revolution points out. Not by accident has the Exodus story powerfully inspired American Blacks, from spirituals such as "Let My People Go" to Martin Luther King's "I've been to the mountain," in which King identifies himself with the aged Moses. Nor by accident did Zora Neale Hurston write her tragicomic novel Moses, the Man of the Mountain, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Historically, again, the role of the Israelite prophets includes a steady attack on the Israelite ruling classes-kings and priests alike. Notwithstanding the centrality of ritual in the Israelite community, the prophets represent a God who says "I hate, I despise your feast days," and demands that his people feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and help the oppressed. Social justice as opposed to whatever authority resists it is a core motivation throughout Jewish history, and here too is an obvious confluence with feminist motivations.

Following the destruction of the second Temple and throughout the history of the Diaspora, Jewish questioning has taken at least two different forms. As a marginal population Jewish writers have been social critics; and as a people whose survival depended on a Book and not a territory they developed intellectual institutions whereby continual study and constant reinterpretation of that Book was the highest vocation to which a man (though not of course a woman) could aspire. Talmud is a form of reinterpretation which, though ostensibly seeking consistency, is in fact full of imaginative inconsistencies. Kabbalah is a form of reinterpretation which does not even seek consistency-only ecstasy.

It is important to keep in mind that what we call the Old Testament was compiled over a thousand year period, comparable to the period from Beowulf to T.S. Eliot, and was composed over an even vaster time span. Some of the written sources of the Old Testament go back to 2250 B.C., while the wisdom literature such as Proverbs and Job comes very late and is strongly Hellenistic. As one biblical scholar observes in Moshe Greenberg's collection Midrash and Literature, 'The Hebrew bible does not lend itself easily to the formulation of dogma, because of the obscurities which haunt almost every biblical verse...Every verse (in the Bible) can be and was interpreted in fully legitimate ways to support conflicting arguments." "The really significant elements in biblical narrative are the contradictions," according to Leach and Aycock in Structuralist Interpretations of Biblical Myth. David Rosenberg's recent collection Generations: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, containing thirty-seven essays on the Biblical -text from Genesis to Chronicles, is ample evidence that the spirit of impassioned, controversial interpretation and reinterpretation is alive and well in America today; the essayists include Philip Lopate, Lore Segal, Herbert Gold, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, John Hollander, Grace Schulman, Cynthia Ozick, Stephen Mitchell, Anne Roiphe, Gordon Ush-to name a few of this variegated congregation.

This brings me finally to the question: what is the feminist imagination doing with the Old Testament at this moment?

The answers are highly various, since some feminist readings are theological, some take the form of literary criticism, some are fictional, some are poetry. The tones can be scholarly, polemical, satiric, comic, or visionary-or a combination thereof. The agendas of the writers are also various. Sometimes the idea is to critique the misogyny of the Bible, foregrounding the pain, suffering and oppression of its women characters, or showing how systematically rooted in gender polarization and hierarchy biblical language and imagery is. Like Sylvia Plath, whose "Lady Lazarus" attacks "Herr God, Herr Lucifer" as the ultimate enemy, or Anne Sexton in her extraordinary sequence "The Jesus Papers" defining an egocentric and gynophobic God who "eats beautiful women," women poets commonly see the God of our fathers as an ultimate patriarch whose demand for worship is the model for all structures of domination, oppression and tyranny, including the tyranny of mind over body, reason over feeling, which seems to rule our public discourse. Here the ancestress is Emily Dickinson, who veers between a propitiatory timid girlishness and a scarcely concealed rage in her depictions of God as ruthless cosmic strongman. Sometimes women writers make an end-run around this problem by foregrounding those women who are treated positively in the Bible-Ruth, Judith, Deborah, Hannah, Esther, etc. Thus Cynthia Ozick claims the story of Ruth as that of a visionary "second Abraham"; when Ruth declares to her mother-in-law Naomi "Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God," says Ozick, "She knows-she knows directly, prophetically-that the Creator of the Universe is One." Thus in Miriam's Well, a volume of female-oriented rituals, Deborah the future judge of Israel becomes the prototype of the questing heroine. Taught by a mysterious older woman to develop spiritual power by meditating on the text "How good it is for people to live in peace," Deborah is both seer and leader. Thus in Grace Schulman's reading of the Song of Songs we are brought to see that "an active woman is the chief suitor of this ancient love song," a woman of "beauty and mastery" in comparison to her more passive lover. All such readings alter the emphasis if not the substance of biblical narrative and poetry, in ways which encourage women's dignity. And finally, sometimes the idea is to pursue-in these very texts which exist in part to erase the memory of polytheism-traces of the Goddess who existed in Canaan before the advent of monotheism.

According to several scholars the figure of Lilith-Adam's first wife, who refused to lie beneath him and flew off to make her home by the Red Seamay be one such vestige of a Mother-goddess religion. Throughout the middle ages Lilith was a feared and hated succubus; she has now given her name to a journal of Jewish feminism, and her story when rewritten by contemporary women tends to celebrate her rebellion against Adam and God, her sexual autonomy, her pride. Both Pamela White Hadas and Enid Dame have written book-length sequences of Lilith poems. In Dame's ludic sequence Lilith and Her Demons, this early rebel "kicked myself out of paradise" but doesn't bear a grudge against Adam:

he carried a god
around in his pocket
consulted it like
a watch or an almanac

it always proved
I was wrong

two against one
isn't fair! I cried
and stormed out of Eden
into history...

I work in New Jersey
take art lessons
live with a cabdriver

he says: baby
what I like about you
is your sense of humor

Humor is among the key signals of feminist revisionism-but of course some stories are not so funny. The story of Abraham's interrupted sacrifice of Isaac, for example, has occupied a central place in Hebrew poetry from the middle ages to present-day Israeli and diaspora poetry, where it carries a weight of ambivalence and disturbance comparable to that of the Oedipus story in classical tradition. In the writing of contemporary women telling the tale from Sarah's perspective, this becomes a tale about gender politics: the akedah or "binding" of Isaac is a rejection of the mother-bond, and "binds" the son to the theocentric world of the fathers. Thus in Diana George's stunning sequence called "A Genesis," which includes dramatic monologues by Eve, Noah's Wife, Hagar, Lot's Daughter, Tamar and Potophar's Wife, we hear the voice of "Sarah's Wrath":

Miserable toad!
Pious old jackass!
You would have done it!
I've stuck it out for ninety arid years,
strangled the doubting rat in my heart,
submitted me to you and your God,
that same God who closed my womb,
withheld life from me when I was ripe
and gave it to me when I was rotten...

That "wrath" is conventionally an attribute of a righteously indignant God makes Sarah's anger the more shocking; her poem ends with her threat to kill Abraham "if ever again/you raise your bloody bones against my son." Nor is Sarah simply more sinned against than sinning, for we hear Hagar's wrath as well-she, Sarah's handmaid and rival, who was cast out into the desert with her son, is a betrayed woman who speaks prophetically in George's "Hagar:"

When he was placed at my breast,
I sang to him in my own tongue
as he sucked the bitter from me:
Sweet son, born of the quarrel of my heart,
and the submission of my soul,
and the violation of my body,
I call you Ishmael.
Avenge me.

In Shirley Kaufman's "Deja Vu ," Sarah and Hagar meet in today's Jerusalem at the same rock "where Isaac was cut free/at the last minute." Sarah is a tour guide at the Dome of the Rock while Hagar "is on her knees/in the women's section praying," and though they do not speak they know each other:

They bump into each other at the door,
the dark still heavy on their backs
like the future always coming after them.
Sarah wants to find out what happened
to Ishmael but is afraid to ask.
Hagar's lips make a crooked seam
over her accusations...
Jet planes fly over their heads
as they walk out of each other's lives
like the last time, silent, not mentioning
the angels of god and the bright
miracles of birth and water. Not telling
that the boys are gone.

The mother of the Jews, the mother of the Arabs: "the boys" who are their sons are, as we know, locked into mutual hatred, yet Kaufman's poem lets us wonder whether, next time they meet, Sarah and Hagar might begin to talk together.

The political dimensions of scriptural texts continue to have uncanny relevance. Lot's wife, in a poem by Celia Gilbert, chooses not to survive the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of her horror at God's destruction of these cities, and because of her husband's willingness to offer up his virgin daughters to the mob outside his door:

"Take my daughters, but not
the strangers within my gates-,"
...we were chattels and goods.
We women were his animals to breed.
Why didn't he offer himself to the men?
The strangers smiled.
They had their orders, and their secret
knowledge: God was created in the image of man,
him only.
The rape of women and children
is sanctioned.

Gilbert splices the monologue of Lot's wife with quotations from victims and witnesses of another utterly destroyed city, Hiroshima, and has her recognize "Those who died are my children now," as she defies the "behemoth in love with death":

Seared and defiled, scorched
and silenced, I turn back,
refusing to live God's lies,
and will my body, transfixed by grief,
to rise in vigil
over the ashen cities.

Given the bitterness of such poems, it is not surprising that the women's spirituality movement has proposed a range of goddesses whom women may love, worship, and identify with. Raphael Patai in The Hebrew Goddess argues that Judaism has never been without some form of divine female principle, although only in the "shekhina" of Kabbala is she explicitly named; Merlin Stone in When God Was a Woman describes the defeat of the goddesses once worshiped throughout the Near East and Middle East by a conquering monotheism; Savina Teubal in Sarah the Priestess claims that the female as divine principle and earthly power is repressed yet still traceable in the Bible. When women today imagine a goddess they typically make her a figure of unity, at once spiritual and sensual. Thus the heroine of Rhoda Lerman's Call Me Ishtar is both a bread-baking Jewish wife and a lawgiving goddess who mocks the dualisms of our world: "If your philosophers insist that the world is a dichotomy, tell them that two plus two don't make four unless something brings them back together. The connection has been lost. But I'm back. Don't worry." In E.M. Broner's A Weave of Women a communal set of heroines invents a new set of rituals responding to the births, deaths, struggles, despairs and rebirths of their lives; finally the women are able to say "How goodly are thy tents, thy reclaimed ruins, 0 Sarah, 0 our mothers of the desert." Rachel Adler's "Second Hymn to the Shekhina," ironically recognizing that the "Daddygod" defines the female principle as "nothing," addresses her nonetheless:

Nothing is my own mama and
I am nothing myself...
hollow in the pot nothing
hole in the flute nothing
rest in the music nothing
shabbat in the week nothing

Anne Sexton, whose late poetry is increasingly preoccupied with the attempt to imagine divine power without divine destructiveness, invents a new Eve who escapes Adam's rib "like a bird that got loose/ suddenly from its cage...She was clothed in her skin like the sun/ and her ankles were not for sale." Both sinner and savior, this Eve gives birth to an evil creature "with its bellyful of dirt" but places it protectively on a star which is neither heaven or hell; now " all us cursed ones falling out after" may go there too. In a posthumously published poem written shortly before her death, "The Death King," Sexton envisions herself released by and from death, dancing "in my fire clothes":

wounding God with his blue face,
his tyranny, his absolute kingdom,
with my aphrodisiac.

Aphrodisiac, love-potion, is from Aphrodite, love-goddess. The visionary ecstasy in women's poetry is material, erotic, free-but inevitably confronts a male deity seen as hostile to female power, female divinity. Historically of course this is accurate. The goddesses prior to the advent of monotheism are conceived 'of as autonomously erotic beings, and it is precisely because of this quality that women in patriarchal religions are divided into good virgins and bad whores. Theologically the question may be more open. In a now-classic essay by Judith Plaskow, "The Right Question is Theological" (reprinted in Susannah Heschel's On Being a Jewish Feminist), we are reminded of a contradiction that most of us might prefer to forget. To believe in One God who is the Creator and source of the entire universe, of this sun and earth, its flora and fauna, its male and female, is to believe in a God who transcends gender. Theologically, neither Judaism nor Christianity supposes that the Supreme Being is literally a man. Why then use the male pronoun, the male title Father, and a rich array of masculine figures of speech, and not also speak-with equal figurative beauty and splendor-of God the Mother? "For the God who does not include her is an idol made in man's image," Plaskow remarks. I suspect that the further back we go in the Bible, as we move from history to legend to myth, we reapproach the moment of transition from a world in which women were humanly and socially powerful because divinity was in part female, to a world in which that divinity and power were repressed. If this is so, we can begin to imagine and thereby bring about a return of the repressed, a recovery of what has been lost. In this task poets, among others, will contribute their wildest dreams.


The above is adapted from a talk which I gave for the first time at the University of Pittsburgh October '87. Because this is work-in-progress, I invited the audience to add to my bibliography (they did so). I would like to extend the same invitation to readers of the AWP Newsletter: If you have written, or know of, feminist revisionist versions of Biblical stories, I would appreciate having copies, or the publication references. Let me add here my conviction that the spiritual life of humanity is too important to be left to the churches and temples, the priests, ministers and rabbis who are its official guardians. Particularly in a time of growing fundamentalisms and orthodoxies, I believe it is the business of poets to look into their own souls, perceive what visions and hear what voices they find there, and inscribe them for all of us.


Alicia Ostriker is Professor of English at Rutgers University. She is the author of six volumes of poems, most recently A Woman Under the Surface (Princeton University Press) and The Imaginary Lover (University of Pittsburgh Press).

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