Review: 'Missing Persons & Mistaken Identities' - Phyllis Bird

I realize blog format is far from ideal for any lengthy papers, but from time to time I've included assignments from seminary that I have thought you might appreciate.  I just finished reading Phyllis Bird's Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities, a feminist analysis and critique of the Hebrew Bible.  I really enjoyed it, and thought I'd share.  Don't feel bad for skimming or not finishing!

BTW, this comes under the "stuff I like" category!

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Phyllis Bird's Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities opens with a list of diverse images depicting female character and action, contrasting with traditional “default” imagery of Eve in Genesis. While recognizing that these women "appear for the most part simply as adjuncts of men, significant only in the context of men's activities," Bird makes a point to note their exceptionality and, in some cases, their prominence. Women’s roles are more diverse and prevalent in the Hebrew Bible text than conventional wisdom commonly acknowledges. (13) With this recognition, Missing Persons seems to carry with it an ideological pragmatism from the start: fearlessly identifying gendered sins and sins of omission in the Hebrew Bible, while choosing to celebrate those occurrences that atypically observe or affirm feminine players.

In the first chapter Bird provides a list of verses demonstrating "the variety of viewpoints and expression represented" in the Old Testament, regarding women. (14) In Micah 6:4, Miriam is named alongside Moses and Aaron, with what appears to be a horizontal or equalized stature: "I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam." In 1 Kings 2:9 King Solomon rises to meet Bathsheba, bows down to her, and seats her at his right hand. Such deference to femininity is worth noting for Bird, not because it is normative, or indicative of the broader arch of Biblical testimony toward women, but because of its divergence from the general tone of the canon.
The picture of woman obtained from the Old Testament laws can be summarized in the first instance as that of a legal nonperson; where she does become visible it is as a dependent, and usually an inferior, in a male-centered and male-dominated society. The laws, by and large, do not address her; most do not even acknowledge her existence. (30)

More after the jump below!
Bird begins with an exploration into the gendered language of Proverbs, identifying three key stereotypes of women: mother, wife, and foreign/other. The mother may be the most positive role of the three, not limited to the reproductive role of wife, instead paralleling the wisdom and instructive role of the father: integral "in the nurture and education of the child." (31) By contrast, the wife is valuable as an asset to the household and its effective management. Her listed virtues are entirely nonsexual. In contrast, "a 'bad' wife is also described in Proverbs, but not as a general type. She is identified primarily in terms of a single trait – contentiousness." (31) The third classification, the foreign/other, is a seductress and a corruptor, "luring men to their destruction." (32) In all three categories, economic and status concerns inform an underlying priority toward class maintenance. "The wisdom sayings and instruction literature of Proverbs… is a literature of the upper class predominantly; and it addresses men exclusively. A man's success depends upon heeding his parents' instruction and obtaining a good wife." (33)

Such limited caricatures of femininity lead Bird to her thesis:

Women are adjuncts to the men: they are the minor (occasionally, major) characters necessary to a plot that revolves about males. They are the mothers and nurses and saviors of men; temptresses, seducers, and destroyers of men; objects or recipients of miracles performed by and for men; confessors of the power, wisdom, and divine designation of men. (34)
Despite this dire appraisal of the text, Bird does not feign ignorance of the minority view, subtly present in some of the scriptures. She writes with a note of optimism, "Some among the prophets saw beyond the present day… They looked to a new act of God in creation, to a new order with new possibilities for human existence." (50-51) These prophetic vantages visualized an end to the marginalization and exploitation based on species, age, gender and status.

The second chapter begins with a word study on feminine designations in Hebrew. Bird demonstrates how there is no word for woman that does not either derive from a word for men, or indicate some superficial descriptor of a type of woman. There is no objective female without comparison, classification or judgment. This is hardly surprising, as Bird observes: "the Old Testament gives no unmediated access to the lives and thought of Israelite women." (53) Rather than self-sustaining characters with their own internal motivations, women are props for male action, or chattel to accompany male characters. Not only that, but the biblical narrative keeps women at a distance, portrayed as "other," even when not specifically defined as such. "One consequence of patrilineal organization is that women are to some extent either aliens or transients within their family of residence." (55) When they are truly aliens according to the narrative, the text is far harsher. Alien wives are perpetually viewed as usurpers and instigators of foreign influence and pagan spirituality. Despite the prevalence of foreign wives, they remain a perpetual scapegoat for the ills and suffering of Israelite society. This demonization, however, reveals some level of female influence in society for the rhetoric to carry credence. "The Old Testament attack on foreign wives is indirect testimony to the independence and power of women within the family sphere despite the formal structures and symbols of patriarchal power." (56) If women were as powerless as instructive verses suggest, foreign corruption would be a non-issue.

Part Two of Missing Persons engages women in relation to the Israelite religion. There are a number of theories as to why women were excluded from ritual. Since society was martial, masculine and militaristic, it was natural for women to be relegated to second-class status. Some scholars argued that "women were disqualified from cultic service by reference to an original ancestral cult of the dead which could be maintained only by a male heir." Another argument suggested that women were perceived with an inherent "disability or disinterest" in the Yahwistic religion, with chronic proclivities toward foreign, pagan cults. (81) The canon demonstrates that there are clearly movements within the Israelite religion, some which gave more or less inclusion and empowerment to females. When they did participate, it was not identical to the practices of the men, which further fueled allegations of paganism during particularly puritanical movements. "Women's religion cannot be equated with goddess worship, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that women's religion did represent a significantly differentiated form of religious expression within Yahwism…" (120)

The third section of Missing Persons deals with meaning and roles behind the creation narrative. Here, Bird tries to maintain some connection and continuity between historical-exegetical interpretation, and constructive theological interpretation, while maintaining critical methodology and a priority for the integrity of the scriptural testimony. (125) This is a perilous task, to be sure, as Bird lists pitfalls so many theologians have fallen to, particularly isolating and atomizing texts, and redacting contemporary vantages into premodern works. She argues that one of the keys to understanding the gendered language and delineation of Genesis 1 is exploring Priestly tradition and priorities that would have worked to construct and shape the narrative. (130) "The primary concerns of the Priestly creation account are two: (1) to emphasize the dependence of all of creation on God… and (2) to describe the order established within creation – as an order determined by God, from the beginning." (131)

Part Four of Missing Persons explores the identity of harlots and temple prostitutes. Bird highlights three texts featuring a harlot as the key player: Genesis 38:1-26, Joshua 2:1-24, and 1 Kings 3:16-27. Through the texts, she explores the assumed meaning of the harlot imagery, and how that meaning impacts the narrative development. (197) One of the surprising benefits of the harlot's role in society is that she is not (necessarily) obligated to men, owned by anyone, or otherwise encumbered. With this status, she uniquely carries rights as a citizen that other women may not, which allows the writers to utilize her in scenarios not otherwise imaginable for women. It also keeps her marginalized – an "other" – which prevents her story from becoming instructive to other women. In Joshua's story of Rahab, "the entire account depends on Rahab's marginal status… And it is only because she is an outcast that the men of Israel have access to her (an "honorable" woman would not meet alone with strange men)." (213)

The fifth and final section of Missing Persons assesses the hermeneutics and authority of the biblical text, particularly in regard to its masculine language and characterization. "The overwhelming androcentrism of biblical language presents contemporary communities of faith with a serious and unavoidable theological problem… because it misrepresents to the modern hearer both the nature of God and the nature of humanity by its preponderant use of male reference." (239-240) Bird argues that simply retranslating the text to avoid androcentric language misses the underlying problems with the attitudes and worldviews inherent in the text. Instead, she advocates for a wholly "transcultural" approach, an understandably hazardous effort given the Bible's complicated and existential status as sacred revelation. (240) In her final chapter Bird discusses feminist critique and laments the way that feminism has relegated too much of practical religion to the church. She observes that by dismissing responsibility, "the dilemma for feminists within the church is intensified," and she advocates for a feminism that engages scripture with applications for Christianity itself. (249) The inevitable result of abdicating this responsibility has been loss of community for women who reject patriarchy. (250)

I enjoyed and appreciated Bird's work in this book, and feel more comfortable than ever with a feminist (and more broadly, postcolonial) approach to scripture and theology. In a recent post at Emergent Village, Brittany Ouchida-Walsh discussed the silence of God. That silence, she argued, is largely present by our own devices. I commented that the idea of God’s silence seems ironic, given the ubiquitous clamor of religious rhetoric in the public sphere. But maybe God has indeed been silent. Maybe that’s the point: that until the voices of the marginalized – the “other” – are given breathing room and airtime and affirmation, God’s voice literally cannot be heard. There is little “still and small” in the testimony of contemporary Christianity. Sadly, that too-often includes the voices from behind the pulpit. Bird's final chapter deals specifically with these practical problems in the church.

I admit I expected to find Missing Persons more vitriolic, which reveals how my own perceptions have been sadly shaped by the mistrust and demonization of the feminist movement. Stephen Prothero recently wrote an article at CNN's Belief Blog, lamenting the death of feminism (and liberalism) as a result of the Reagan Revolution and the 20th Century culture wars.

When I asked my students why they don’t want to call themselves feminists, they spoke of bra-burners man-haters and Femi-Nazis, which is to say that in the war of the words which was the feminist movement, feminists seem to have lost perhaps the most important battle: the battle over the meaning of the word feminism itself.
Contrary to virulent stereotypes, Bird is constructive, patient and committed. She identifies herself as a "liberal evangelical," which is the language I use for myself. Clearly there is much that feminist criticism threatens in mainstream Christianity. That is an unfortunate environmental reality, not an inevitability of orthodoxy. As Bird eloquently argues: "The authority of the Bible does not rest in the infallibility of its statements, but in the truth of its witness to a creating and redeeming power, which can and must be known as a present reality." (264) A Christianity that is threatened by such a statement is not a Christianity worth preserving. Christianity sells itself short when it posits certainty as its redeeming message or trait. It's peddling a product it isn't equipped to produce.

As Erhard Gerstenberger argues in Yahweh: The Patriarch, "The Bible cannot provide us with a timeless and universally binding image of God… Theology dare not hide behind our ancestors; it must relate to the situation of the present world and the contemporary search for God." We must not be slaves to past contexts and interpretations, just as we must not ignore or forget those testimonials of the past. Moving forward, spiritually and theologically, is a process of maintaining humility and dynamic tension. Bird's Missing Persons skillfully accomplishes this.


Peter J Walker said...

Just to excuse myself from serious academic rigors: this was not a formal paper. Just a 5-6 page book report. Forgive the shoddy citations, extreme brevity, and casual conclusion, etc...

Ted said...

Okay, but dude -- italicize the book title!

Peter J Walker said...

Oh yeah, I forgot that formatting never ports from word. My bad.

Ted said...

I figured that was probably it. The English instructor in me thanks you. :)

Lutestring said...

Loved this whole review, but especially appreciated this and the ensuing paragraphs:

I admit I expected to find Missing Persons more vitriolic, which reveals how my own perceptions have been sadly shaped by the mistrust and demonization of the feminist movement.

Peter J Walker said...

Thanks Lute!

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