Sunday, August 16, 2015

Kristin Bundesen: “Deborah's Daughters”

Kristin Bundesen

Book Review

Joy A. Schroeder, Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation. Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2014), xiii + 359. ISBN: 978-0-19-999104-4

1> Deborah’s Daughters is a thoroughly researched survey and analysis of how the story of Deborah from the book of Judges has been appropriated throughout history. Her story has been interpreted and re-visioned as a model of female behavior, both good and bad. The widely divergent interpretations collected and contextualized by Schroeder is staggering in breadth and she leads the reader through the morass of information with rigor and impartiality.

2> Deborah’s story is limited to Judges 4 and 5, approximately 1550 words in the King James Version and 1400 in the New Revised Standard Edition of the text, but the influence of her story is in no way reflective of the brevity of the source. The scriptural account of Deborah reports that she was a judge, prophet, a military leader and a songwriter. Yet, throughout Judaic and Christian history, details have been added, or subtracted and then reimagined to suit the agendas of spiritual, political and cultural leaders including whether or not she was a mother – or just a mother of Israel; married to Barak or to Lappidoth – or that these are two names for one husband; that she was a woman of light because she made wicks for the lamps in the temple – or that she made wicks for her husband who made the lamps in the temple; that she was one of many female prophets – or that she was elevated to prophet solely because there were no qualified men available; that she was a worthy woman because she encouraged men from the relative safety of the domestic sphere – or that she was worthy woman because she held public office, leading by example. There is not even agreement about the meaning of her name, commonly translated as ‘bee’. Should ‘bee’ be interpreted as publicly industrious, or a woman who stays close to her home, her hive?

3> Regardless of the interpretation or the time period, if viewing the entire text of the source story, two challenges remain regarding Deborah. First, the New Testament authors, particularly Timothy and Paul, admonish against female leadership within and without the church – not a problem for Judaic scholars who do not recognize the New Testament. Second, Deborah praises the female Jael for driving a tent peg through the head of the enemy leader Sisela, thereby murdering him. Praising an assassination seems un-womanly, even possibly un-manly, in most interpretations and consequently this detail is frequently overlooked or conveniently forgotten by commentators. A political Machiavellian would have no problem with praising the expediency of assassination regardless of the assassin’s gender but they would be unlikely to look to the Old Testament for justification.

4> Schroeder takes a chronological approach working through broad periods of time from the early church, to the middle ages, the early-modern period into the Victorian period with the rise in female evangelical and spiritualist preaching and ending with the early 21st century.

5> The first chapter leaps right in comparing two first-century Jewish accounts and their nearly opposite interpretations of Deborah’s story setting the stage for the subsequent centuries. Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities acknowledges Deborah as a prophet but neglects to mention that she ‘judged’ Israel for forty years, while Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities exalts her leadership and likens her to Moses.

6> With the rise of the Christian church in the fourth and fifth centuries, Deborah becomes domesticated mirroring the newly-forged emphasis on female subservience, and instead of her prophetic leadership, her wifely role is emphasized. Schroeder deftly leads the reader through the taming of disruptive biblical texts via allegory starting with the epistle of Jerome (c.345-420) and addressed in each subsequent chapter as appropriate.

7> By the Middle Ages, biblical commentary had recast Deborah as a co-judge with her husband further downgrading her independent status only to be offset by Christine de Pisan’s elevation of Joan of Arc as standing in the mold of Deborah the prophetess. Students of Aquinas will find Schroeder’s deconstruction of his position on the difference between ordination, which he deemed requires male-ness, and prophecy which is not sacramental, fascinating in teasing out theological stances from straight misogyny.

8> The gender debates of the early-modern period gained heat as the century of queens, highlighted by the reign of Elizabeth I of England, required some explanation for the deviation from what was considered the natural order of a femme-couvert subject to her father, husband or male relatives. Chapters 3 and 4 are especially informative as Schroeder does an excellent job of opening up the discussion beyond John Knox’s polemic The Monstrous Regiment of Women presenting information on multiple viewpoints through out the Reformation. Oft-overlooked, Argula Von Grumbach and Marie Dentière, two female Christian reformation activists, are included as well as the usual suspects of Luther, Calvin and Bucer. The discussion of literary ladies who invoked Deborah as a role model for publishing their own works, especially poems and songs in the manner of Amelia Bassano, demonstrates how desperately female voices have looked for precedence, while at the same time male theologians emphasized Deborah as an exception, not a role model.

9> Unsurprisingly, the debate over Deborah shifted from defense against male attacks on female agency to arguing for political equality entering the nineteenth century. By transforming the maternal ideal as exemplified, oddly, by Queen Victoria, into a call for suffrage in preaching as well as political suffrage, Schroeder’s research highlights the constant malleability of Deborah’s story.

10> If the debate over Deborah has been active from the times of the early church, it should come as no surprise that the debate continues today. Deborah a as point of reference for the candidacy of Sarah Palin in 2008 is addressed in the chapter aptly titled “A Fiery Woman” which also includes feminist debates, both Judaic and Christian, European, Asian, and North and South American. The increased call for the presence of women in the military again looked to Deborah as precedent. If Deborah’s Barak truly would not go to war without her by his side, whether she was on the front line or commanding from the rear, then why should women not serve fully in the military?

11> The conclusion pulls together the debates by theme – and there are several. Schroeder deftly summarizes the historical debates of Deborah as prophet, religious leader, military combatant, mother, author, and political leader.

12> This text would be helpful to undergraduate and graduate students working with history, politics and women’s studies. It would also be invaluable to those working on theological topics. A fascinating course could be designed using this book as an example of how very little text, in this case two chapters of the Old Testament, can be used to enforce and challenge social, political, cultural, and theological norms across centuries. As a central case study, students could be challenged to find additional sources that have been widely manipulated to promote or challenge agendas across time. If nothing else, Deborah’s Daughters is an invaluable reference for academics who value thoroughness and above all fairness.

Kristin Bundesen is Senior Faculty at Walden University. Her research includes Elizabethan social and political culture, and popular culture treatment of the early modern period. She has contributed articles to the Encyclopedia of Early Modern English Women and to The Ritual and Rhetoric of Queenship 1250-1650 (2009) and is serving as scholar for the New Mexico Museum of Art First Folio Exhibition.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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