Every year since the late 1980’s, I have assigned Phyllis Trible’s “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread” in introductory Bible courses. From 1989-1997, my students were undergraduates at Meredith College, the women’s college from which Trible herself graduated in 1954. Since 1997, the students to whom I’ve assigned Trible have been those preparing for theological vocations at Lancaster Theological Seminary.
If you haven’t read Trible’s article or need a refresher, here’s a link. Begun as a paper read to her colleagues at Andover New Theological School in the 1970’s, this iconic article claims that Gen. 2-3 is not a misogynist manifesto but instead affirms the equality of women and men.
My reasons for assigning the article have varied over time. Early on, I used the article in the way that many biblical scholars use the results of our work: to challenge (dare I say bash) particular pillars of religious tradition. What better way to show that the Bible doesn’t say what many preachers claim it says than to have students read a methodical, careful dismantling of the claim that Gen. 3 subordinates women? Trible employs source criticism, concordance work, and literary analysis. She even finds an inclusio! Who could argue? I believed (and still do) that the content of the article is important for women (and men) from traditional religious backgrounds, especially those whose churches wield Gen. 3 as an argument against women’s ordination.
In my early years of seminary teaching, I probably used Trible in the same way, pitting biblical studies against the Tradition. More recently, however, I’ve pointed to Trible as a model for using the skills of biblical studies in the service of one’s own passions. Assigned early in the term, the article becomes a way to demonstrate how the tools of biblical studies can be used for causes of liberation. Trible acknowledges her agenda but she argues for it based on textual evidence that can be evaluated as textual evidence; she never expects readers to agree with her because of personal experience or a vague sense of justice. Some semesters, we’ve walked through the article, naming the skills she’s using and identifying how the conclusions she draws could be tested.
This year, I did underscore how Trible’s approach might work within some religious traditions: when the Bible is used against something you profoundly believe in, study the text carefully to see if it really can stand up to that interpretation. If someone’s going to throw the (good) book at you, pick it up and read it better.
But this year we talked more about how this approach encourages (even tempts) interpreters to find in the text support only for what they believe. Craig Martin calls using the Bible this way “ventriloquism”–treating the text as a puppet for one’s own perspective. Rather than claiming, “here’s what I believe and here’s why it’s important,” readers can say instead, “The Bible says it. (So shut up).”
I‘m not accusing Trible herself of ventriloquism. In this article, she doesn’t hide behind the text, and she invites scrutiny of her evidence. Rather, my concern is that the approach itself invites ventriloquism of the left as well as of the right. If the only argument for liberation is “The Bible says you have to support liberation,” then I don’t think we’ve gotten very far.
That’s why I will follow Trible’s article with ideological approaches to biblical texts, voices that do not find the text so liberative and who are willing to contest its worldview. In previous semesters, I’ve found that ideological approaches are far more challenging to students of all theological persuasions than Trible’s is. She’s able to reread the text in ways that mesh with her own convictions. What happens when readers acknowledge that the biblical text works against the interests of liberation?