A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…


Micah (Wisdom Commentary, 2015)

This volume brings gender studies to bear on Micah’s powerful rhetoric, interpreting the book within its ancient and modern contexts. Julia M. O’Brien traces resonances of Micah’s language within the Persian Period community in which the book was composed, evaluating recent study of the period and the dynamics of power reflected in ancient sources. Also sampling the book’s reception by diverse readers in various time periods, she considers the real-life implications of Micah’s gender constructs.

micah cover

By bringing the ancient and modern contexts of Micah into view, the volume encourages readers to reflect on the significance of Micah’s construction of the world. Micah’s perspective on sin, salvation, the human condition, and the nature of YHWH affects the way people live—in part by shaping their own thought and in part by shaping the power structures in which they live. O’Brien’s engagement with Micah invites readers to discern in community their own hopes and dreams: What is justice? What should the future look like? What should we hope for?
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Why a New Bible Encyclopedia? Gender Matters

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender StudiesWhy Gender Studies? In the contemporary climate, debates rage about the Bible’s relevance for the design and maintenance of modern social structures. For examples, does same-sex marriage violate the biblical “creation order”? Does the Bible dictate particular styles of child discipline or the gender requirements for religious leaders? What does it say about abortion? Did early Christianity promote women’s equality or subvert it? What about Mary Magdalene? Does the Bible consistently portray the deity as masculine? In Romans 1, did Paul condemn same-gender loving persons or those in pederastic relationships? Are only men’s interests reflected in the Bible?

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies
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Scary Gender Roles

Over at the Lingamish blog, David Ker has been talking about marriage and about gender roles within it.

He describes his own position as complementarian, though to read his description of complementarianism you wouldn’t know he’s talking about the same thing as many other folks.  Traditionally, complementarianism has argued that women and men have natural, God-given roles that complement one another:  women are designed by God to bear and raise children and to accept the authority of their husbands, while men are designed by God to lead–in home, church, and society.  Men and women may be equal in God’s eyes, say complementarians, but their roles are determined by God and are not the same.  Complementarianism offers a way to claim that scripture treats women and men equally while still denying to women roles of authority over men. The Visionary Daughters, for example, espouse this understanding of gender roles.  (see my blog post)

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Phyllis Trible and Sojourner Truth on Eve

How to respond to the Christian tradition’s blaming Eve for The Fall of Humanity?

Phyllis Trible systematically shows how the tradition has misread the text.

Sojourner Truth picks up on how much power the tradition implicitly grants Eve and runs with it.  If a woman has the power to do that much damage, she argues, then certainly women working together can turn the world around.  Here’s a reading of Sojourner’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.


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Rereading Trible's Rereading of Eve and Adam

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?

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100 million Missing Women

The August 23, 2009, issue of The New York Times Magazine was devoted to how women are faring around the world—their political status, economic standing, and health.

The statistics are sobering.  Across the globe, women are not getting the same health care and access to food as men.  They are less likely to be vaccinated and are selectively aborted. They are more likely than men to be sold into slavery and killed by beating.

Experts estimate that there are 100 million missing women: 100 million fewer women in the world than birthrates would project. That’s more women dead than all the men killed on battlefields in the 20th century, more than all persons killed in the genocides of the 20th c.

Contrary to popular assumption, “developed” societies don’t necessarily treat women any better than developing nations. The education level and economic success of a society do not guarantee high status for women.  According to an article by Tina Rosenberg, the sole determinant for  women’s low social status is patriarchy.  No matter how wealthy or educated a society is, if men are privileged women will suffer.

The issue offers some good news.  There is something that helps:  microlending to women.  Women who are loaned small amounts of money (sometimes the equivalent of $20) not only dramatically improve their own lives but also those of their families and their communities.  From a sheer economic standpoint, lending to women is more effective than lending to men:  women feed and educate their children and employ others. Several profiles of women put flesh on those statistics, telling moving stories of how women who are financially empowered are able to radically change their health and the power dynamics within their families. (Want to offer a microloan to a woman?  Go to kiva.org.)

As I read this issue, I was struck by several things.  One is how familiar the statistics sound tto those who know about the status of women in the periods described in the Bible.  As I described in my earlier post Eat Like an Israelite?,  Israelite women received less nutrition than men: skeletal remains from ancient Israel indicate that the average height of an ancient woman was 152 cm (close to 5 ft), while the height of an ancient man was 171 cm (5 ft 7 in).  Reading about high rates of maternal death and early pregnancies in Africa and Asia reminded me of reading Carol Meyers’ description of early Israel in Discovering Eve.

But, mainly, I was struck by how these articles were able to document in detail the detrimental effects of patriarchy—not just the psychological but also the physical, economic, and social. Too often in current political and religious debates, the role of women is treated as a matter of taste, a lifestyle choice.  This issue underscores the old maxim that the personal is the political.  Patriarchy starves people.  Aborts people.  Batters and rapes people.  And 100 million human beings are missing because of it.

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Choosing the Conversation

There’s an argument/debate going on among those who blog on the Bible (bibliobloggers) about why women haven’t been making it into the top 50 list.  April DeConick has taken on the quest of promoting the work of female bloggers and is encouraging others to do the same.

I appreciate April’s zeal and encourage support of all blogs that have something interesting to say.

But the popularity of my blog doesn’t motivate me to write. Of course I want readers, but what I really want is to find out if anyone cares about the questions I’m asking and wants to join me in conversation.  What I’m talking about matters to me.  And I want to spend my time here talking with other people for whom it matters rather than having debates with other bloggers about the justice of our rankings.

While I teach and speak on diverse aspects of biblical texts, what I’m interested in right now is the literary/ideological dimensions of texts and how paying attention to those dimensions can help people talk about their own experiences.  I respect people who talk about historical dimensions of the Bible, and I carry out historical work myself.  But, in my blog, I’m interested in how the Bible is playing out in the public square and hoping (maybe naively) that I can get some public discussion started about the Bible as meaningful literature.



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On Being an Adult (Woman)

My daughter turns 21 today. In contemporary American culture, that’s a significant milestone. As of today, she can drink alcohol legally and the cost of her car insurance decreases significantly. She’s very excited about the former and I about the latter, but I’m sure there are other legal dimensions of turning 21 that neither of us has thought about yet.


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Eat Like an Israelite?

This summer has not been kind to my backyard garden.  After a few weeks of prolific production, my squash and cucumber plants succumbed to powdery mildew.  Now, just as they are supposed to ripen in full glory, my tomatoes (the bread and butter of my garden) are waging war with late blight.  It’s been too wet here in south central Pennsylvania.  Not hot enough.

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