Aug. 15, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 19

current issue
archive / search

    Divinity School Professor Frymer-Kensky looks at roles of women in religion throughout history

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Professor in the Divinity School, brings a profound personal understanding of almost 5,000 years of religious texts to contemporary religious and legal questions––but can she write a feminist bestseller about the Bible?

    Frymer-Kensky’s project began with graduate work in Assyriology at Yale University. Her dissertation was the first definitive work on that troubling institution, the river ordeal. The ordeal by water is perhaps best known from an episode in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where demented village yokels throw a “witch” in the water. But throughout history, women accused of adultery were actually subjected to similar treatment.

    Frymer-Kensky found out how this seemingly alien practice worked in the Ancient Near East and is finally preparing to publish The Judicial Ordeal in the Ancient Near East in 2003. Following her dissertation, she published Motherprayer, on the religious meaning of pregnancy, and In the Wake of the Goddesses, on the decline of goddess worship and the meaning of monotheism. More recently, she has served as the translator of Ari Elon’s Hebrew work From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven. She also has completed the biblical section of the new Handbook of Ancient Law and a commentary on the book of Ruth, both due out in 2003.

    Though her work has spoken to scholars’ vital concerns about women and religion, Frymer-Kensky wants it to speak to a broader audience. To address these audiences, she has two new books: Reading the Women of the Bible, which came out Thursday, August 8, from Shocken books, and Wisdom from the Witch: Lessons for Succeeding in Hard Times from the Biblical Witch of Endor, which she is shopping around to publishers.

    Reading the Women of the Bible, a study of the many stories about biblical women, moves beyond the reading of individual stories and figures (“the great women of the Bible”) to look at what purpose those stories served. It uses them to get at the image of women in the mind of Israel and the significance of these stories today.

    “Most of the stories,” she explained, “cluster around four different themes: women as victors, victims, virgins and woman as voice. I found out that the stories about women as victors and saviors came from before the rise of the Israelite monarchy and after the monarchy’s fall. That’s the time when there is no central power and the locus of authority is closer to home so that women can arrive in positions of power or step into the breach with saving actions.

    “Interestingly, the victim stories have the same distribution. They, too, come from before and after the centralization of the monarchy. The state seems to interpose between women and male heads of households. So on the one hand, the horror stories don’t seem to happen as much, but does the same potential for female leadership exist? But the stories are all paradigmatic because Israel used them to understand its own plight among the nations.”

    She also has just completed her shortest and most “pop” volume yet, Wisdom from the Witch: Lessons for Succeeding in Hard Times from the Biblical Witch of Endor, a response to Bruce Wilkinson’s runaway bestseller The Prayer of Jabez, which also derives messages for today from a biblical passage.

    The book will be based on the dense and powerful episode in I Samuel 28:7-25, where Saul, king of Israel, is terrified of the enemy Philistines’ might and seeks out a medium, since it seems God will no longer speak to him. The witch, knowing her occupation is officially punishable by death, is cautious at first, but consents to help the king. Her power to raise dead spirits works, but Saul gets more than he bargained for––an angry vision of his dead mentor, the prophet Samuel––and collapses.

    The witch insists on nursing the stricken king back to health, and he departs. From this story, Frymer-Kensky takes four morals: Know your power, strive to excel, make sure it is safe to come out and be benevolent in your moment of triumph. She explained what we could learn from this story about an unusual woman whose work is illegal.

    “We tell people who feel oppressed two things: revenge is OK, and living well is the best revenge. Neither of these is particularly ennobling. The Prayer of Jabez tells you it’s OK to be selfish and to pray for whatever material rewards you might want. But being benevolent in triumph is what elevates the witch.”

    Frymer-Kensky also is currently planning two major academic projects. The first is a book on the primeval history of Genesis, chapters 1 to 11. While there are many specialist studies and commentaries, coherent overall interpretations of the Bible’s beginning are harder to find.

    “My first and only article on this was in 1977. Finally, after 25 years, I’m ready to write a book about it. You need to have figured out what it’s about in order to do a real book, not just the set of disconnected observations that you find in a commentary,” she explained.

    But Frymer-Kensky is deeply interested in commentaries as well. Her second major project is a collective Divinity School endeavor to make available the first great Christian commentary, by Hrabanus Maurus, and compare it with Rashi, the great Jewish commentary.

    She also is considering a collection of prayers and religious ideas about the meaning and value of adoption, along the lines of Motherprayer. She said, “There exists a real polemic against adoption––storylines about women consumed by guilt over abandoning kids, angry kids finding their birth parents––a whole discourse against single mothers, abortion and adoption.”

    The way an arcane dissertation led to a spiritual guide for pregnant women explains something about how Frymer-Kensky works, and perhaps about who she is. Having spent years on the difficult task of explaining what it meant in ancient Mesopotamia for people to be tried by “the river,” Frymer-Kensky suddenly found herself with a different set of urgent questions, ones with a subterranean connection to her earlier work.

    The story begins when she was preparing to have her first child. Taken to the hospital for a Caesarean section, Frymer-Kensky took with her, “by an act of divine Providence or sheer lunacy,” a file folder full of Sumerian and Akkadian birth incantations. “I didn’t have these texts for any birth-related reason. I had just finished a massive study of the judicial ordeal in the ancient world, which included an analysis of the significance of water in Mesopotamian religion. And for various reasons, birth incantations have a lot of water references.

    “That evening, I wanted to focus my thoughts on what was going to happen, to direct my attention to childbirth and the experience of it. So I spent the evening studying these ancient texts.” She said that as she read, “my fears and anxieties about childbirth ceased to be the private emotions of an isolated woman and became, instead, a part of the grand challenge of human endeavors.”

    Later, the awareness and tranquility she gained led to questions and anger. “Why was it, I wanted to know, that I, well educated in Judaism and Christianity, had to go all the way back to ancient Babylon in order to find something to read before childbirth? And what could most women do, women who do not read Sumerian?”

    This led her to readings in feminist literature, thinking about women and religion, and eventually some answers, reflected in her book In the Wake of the Goddesses. The questions raised by her own pregnancy were then more directly addressed in Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion.

    “Judaism and Christianity are markedly pronatal, desiring and encouraging procreation. They celebrate childbirth with infant namings, baptisms and circumcisions. But the focus of these religious celebrations is on the child; these religions have paid little attention to the mother.”

    This further realization lead her from anger to a sense of mission. “I realized,” Frymer-Kensky writes, “that my years of academic study of the ancient world could have practical applications and my knowledge of ancient cultures, religions and languages could be of use in my own modern world. This sense of vocation sustained me in working on the book.” Obviously, it’s still very much with her today.