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By Israel Drazin
Dr. Naomi Harris Rosenblatt examines the biblical report of the lives and activities of seventeen biblical women in her well-researched, insight-filled, and frequently innovative reading of biblical tales in her 2005 book After the Apple. The women lived as second-class citizens under the authority and control of men: fathers, husbands, and male-dominated culture. Yet, she sees women playing decisive roles during the two-thousand year history chronicled in the Hebrew Bible. The women are intelligent, brave, assertive, unwilling to be passive in the face of overwhelming circumstances. “What I find particularly intriguing about the women is that most of them circumvent male authority in a patriarchal society, and some even subvert it,” and none, other than Jezebel, is punished for her unconventional conduct.
Unlike generations of male commentators, Rosenblatt understands the initial tale of Eve leading Adam to eat the forbidden fruit as God teaching “us about the exercise of free will, the need to be responsible for the consequences of our actions.” Eve is not the “disobedient seductress who led innocent Adam astray, thus bringing pain and suffering – and death – to all mankind…. Eve’s sole motivation is curiosity, the starting point that leads to the pursuit of knowledge and, eventually to wisdom.” She was a hero. She was “a risk-taker, a woman who dares to question the limitations imposed on her and her helpmate. She is driven by the need to create new life. She is the one who determines the future of humankind.” While Adam is passive, she takes action. She is an example for everyone.
Rosenblatt sees Sara as a hero. When a famine struck Canaan, the patriarch Abraham decided to travel to Egypt for food. He knew his wife was beautiful and feared that Egyptians would kill him if they knew Sara was his wife when they would kidnap and have their way with her. He told her to say she is his sister so that when they take her, as he expected they would, they wouldn’t kill him. Rosenblatt believes that the decision for Sarah to submit to the expected sexual encounter was considered by husband and wife and was “mutual: a deliberate, wrenching sacrifice (be Sarah) to which they both agreed…. The key to (Sarah’s) character is her personal strength,” her willingness to sacrifice herself for her husband. Since Scripture does not deny it, Rosenblatt feels certain that Pharaoh had sex with her.
Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, is also heroic. After being banished from her home with Abraham and Sarah, “God recognizes the strength of Hagar’s bond to her son and sends an angel who” tells her “I will make a great nation of him.” So, too, Rebecca, who realizes that despite her husband’s love of Esau, his brother Jacob deserved the blessing, not Esau, and found a way to secure the blessing for him. Rosenblatt also describes the courage, fearlessness, and daring of Rachel, Jacob’s first wife, Tamar and Ruth who seduced men to gain what belonged to them, Delilah who understood the psychology of Samson and developed a strategy to overcome him, Bathsheba who cajoled King David her husband to make her son Solomon king, and even Jezebel who devised an evil plan to secure a field for her husband, although it was against the law, as well as other women with pluck.
Rosenblatt finds the Hebrew bible showing women respect. In the unhappy conflicts involving Abraham’s wife and concubine, and his grandson Jacob’s two wives and two concubines “the Bible demonstrates a preference for monogamy by detailing the miseries of polygamy. Polygamy reduces the humanity of women and “is shown to dilute the intensity of feeling that is possible only between one man and one woman.”
“Michal, King Saul’s youngest daughter, achieves a rare distinction. The Bible says, ‘Now Michal daughter of Saul had fallen in love with David.’ This is the only time the Bible notes that a woman has fallen in love.” The Bible depicts her favorably, with the possible exception when she criticizes her husband David for dancing almost naked in front of crowds of people. But David is never pictured as treating her well. “David and Michal are locked into the Bible’s most unhappy marriage, and the biblical narrator does not shrink from exposing the raw edges of their private life.” Rosenblatt sees this as a biblical message, “we must not take a spouse’s feelings for granted, however just we feel our cause to be.”
“The stories of the women in the Hebrew Bible,” she concludes, “offer us a prism through which to consider our own lives” and encourages us to act.