Judith and her story: popular, threatening, co-opted
JUDITH, SEXUAL WARRIOR: WOMEN AND POWER IN WESTERN CULTURE
By Margaret Stocker
Yale University Press, 278 pages, $30 hardcover
THE WORD ACCORDING TO EVE: WOMEN AND THE BIBLE IN ANCIENT TIMES AND OUR OWN
By Cullen Murphy
Houghton Mifflin, 302 pages, $24 hardcover
To order: 1-800-225-3362
WARRIOR, DANCER, SEDUCTRESS, QUEEN: WOMEN IN JUDGES AND BIBLICAL ISRAEL
By Susan Ackerman
Doubleday, 352 pages, $36.95 hardcover
By PAMELA SCHAEFFER
It is one of the Bibles most fascinating and puzzling tales. Judith, a beautiful wartime widow, is divinely inspired to commit a spectacular murder. Observing that the men of her mythical village of Bethulia are immobilized by fear, Judith conceives and carries out a plot to decapitate Holofernes, leader of Nebuchadnezzars Assyrian army. With seduction, deceit and savagery, a woman of prayer delivers the Israelites from death.
Many, I find, do not know the apocryphal story, perhaps because, with the exception of two optional readings stressing Judiths piety, it is notably absent from the churchs lectionary. Though disappointing, the omission is unsurprising. What pastor -- indeed, what theologian -- would relish the task of explaining this radical departure from expected gender and religious roles.
Beyond the church, though, the Book of Judith (regarded by biblical scholars as folktale rather than history) has long fascinated the Western world. As Margaret Stocker points out in Judith, Sexual Warrior, the theme has remained for centuries more consistently popular and influential than anyone now imagines. The catalog of representations would fill many pages.
Representations of Judith have been ubiquitous in the arts: There are literally thousands of them, Stocker writes. In literature there are epics, plays, novels and poems. The storys sensational aspects have been almost obsessively reproduced by numerous artists in the visual and plastic media. It has also been filmed, set to music, illustrated and lampooned. Unnervingly, it has even been consciously re-enacted in real life. The Book of Judith has had a profound and lasting impact upon Western culture.
Stockers book is one of three recent and noteworthy books on women and the Bible. Published last fall, Cullen Murphys sympathetic account of the work of contemporary women in biblical studies came first. Journalism rather than scholarship, it serves as a readable introduction to the field. Murphy, managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly who often writes about religion, interweaves a report on nearly four decades of evolving scholarship with profiles of the people who do it. As John Updike put it in a New Yorker review, this is a book with forked topic: the ancient women in the Bible and the modern women who are trying to study them.
Stockers work on Judith and Ackermans sometimes repetitious account of a larger female cast, though clearly written, make more demands on the reader.
Ackerman, using what she calls a history of religions approach to biblical scholarship, compares tales of biblical women who break out of stereotypical roles with similar accounts in other works of ancient literature. She deals mostly with women in the Book of Judges but draws in related accounts from other biblical books, including Judith.
As Stockers subtitle, Women and Power in Western Culture, suggests, her aim is intellectual history rather than biblical interpretation. She examines the multiple ways the image of Judith has been portrayed, co-opted and suppressed, from the art of the Middle Ages through contemporary Hollywood films, to serve a variety of social and religious ends. Its a thoroughgoing account, long-awaited and much appreciated by this reader. But, like a lot of academic books, it might have been packaged with a warning sign: Difficult, winding road ahead, fraught with twists and turns, requiring slow speed and painstaking attention.
Just as Judiths story does not lend itself to facile interpretation, neither do the expressions of Judith in art. Historically, Stocker notes, Judiths equivocal image has led a double life. Invoked by Shakespeare (in, for instance, The Reign of King Edward the Third), by Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Marble Faun), and by a host of authors in between, Judith has personified both the physical beauty that provoked vice and the virtue that defeated it.
Symbol of vengeance
She has been painted by numerous great artists: Cranach, Botticelli, Goya, Caravaggio, de Bray and Klimt among them. She has appeared throughout the ages in operas, plays, books and films. For the Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, reportedly a victim of rape, Judith served to symbolize female vengeance against male power.
In the Middle Ages, though, her image often served to invoke piety. She was most often an icon of virtue, a model of submission to God.
Later, for 200 years of the Reformation and Renaissance, Judith served a variety of ends. She was the good bad woman, according to Stocker, a symbol for both sides in an ongoing debate over the nature and value of women. She might be portrayed as a model of chastity, as in the medieval accounts, or as avatar of Eve, an erotic temptress luridly warning of the dangers lurking in bedchambers.
As Europe struggled through the rapid change that would produce our modern ideas and our modern sense of individualism, contradictory images of Judith became reflections of its trauma, Stocker writes. One of the morals to be drawn from Judiths head-taking was that you do not make an omelet without breaking eggs. And that, it seemed, was what the great chef in the sky had in mind for Reformation Europe.
In an era of dizzying change, Judith could represent simultaneously, both its terrors and its hopes, Stocker writes. A prototype of female activism, Judith represented female favor in the eyes of God. As femme fatale, she represented a serious threat to men and masculine hegemony.
Judiths image proliferated on pottery in Reformation-era Germany. Her divinely ordained overthrow of male power ratified the Protestant assault on Catholic patriarchy. Then, in the Counter-Reformation, Jesuits turned the tables and produced Judith ballets.
An icon of complex polemical freight, Judiths image was harnessed to opposing political ends in France and England, too. For Protestants, she was a negative symbol of Catholic resurgence under devoutly Catholic Queen Mary I, insinuating the unnaturalness and cruelty of female rule. Then when Marys successor Queen Elizabeth re-established the Church of England and defeated King Philip IIs Spanish Armada, she was hailed in a popular ballad as the Judith to Philips Holofernes.
Amid the endemic religious and political tyranny of the early modern age, Judith continued to serve conflicting ends as a symbol of morally justifiable homicide. Later, in the conformist Victorian era, Romantics evoked her as a model of authenticity, a person capable of moving beyond socially determined roles.
Freud, though, cast Judith as the deviant woman obsessed with penis envy, providing fodder for the 20th-century battle against the suffragists. Suffragists might well have harnessed Judith for their own political ends had their leaders not been deeply suspicious of religions patriarchal roots.
As Cullen Murphy points out in The Word According to Eve, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1895, in the introduction to her Womans Bible, The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that ... she was to play the role of a dependent on mans bounty ... Stantons interpretation was not, of course, informed by challenges of late 20th-century biblical scholars, nor as product of a largely Protestant world was she likely to have been introduced to figures from the Apocrypha.
Ironically, the work of Freud, a Jew, and others of his era served to undercut the power of Judith -- whose name means Jewess -- as a potential model for Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. As a result, her iconic significance was secularized and tamed.
In our value-neutral contemporary world, in Hollywood imagery and the popular imagination, Judith, the Bibles heroic deliverer, becomes Judith the Ripper, the female gunslinger of such films as Fatal Attraction, Thelma and Louise, and Shattered, the 1991 film whose psychotic female killer is named Judith. Stocker argues that Judiths brutal beheading is also evoked by Lorena Bobbitts assault on the genitals of the husband who raped her.
If Judiths image has often been exploited for the wrong ends, Stocker would like to see it reclaimed as an archetype for Christian feminism, inspiring feminists to exercise their god-given right as political activists and social revolutionaries (presumably rather than as perpetrators of violence). The difficulties are obvious. First, like the suffragists, many feminists have a problem with God, rendering the image less functional than it might be, Stocker notes. Second, the stereotype of feminism that repulses men and women alike is that of the angry, man-hating woman. While Judith was neither, Stockers history shows that prospects for misinterpretation abound.
Stocker thinks thats too bad. In a final analysis of the symbol, she posits Judiths as the countercultural myth, putting the lie to the dualistic assertion that women are nurturers by nature. Judith is the clearest biblical sign for women of a new liberty, rooted in authentic personality, Stocker asserts.
In contrast to Stockers book, The Word According to Eve makes minimal intellectual demands. It serves as introduction to the field of biblical scholarship by women, or a review for the spottily informed.
Profiled here is the work of such scholars as Phyllis Trible of Union Theological Seminary in New York, whose literary analyses of biblical accounts of women often makes for delightful reading; of Carol Meyers whose multidisciplinary research and archaeological expeditions, undertaken with her husband, Eric Meyers, earned the couple a profile in People magazine; of Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Assyriologist and Sumerologist whose study of ancient goddesses undercuts what Murphy calls the wish-fulfilling popularizations that proliferate in bookstores. Judith types come up for analysis in a book titled Lethal Love by Mieke Bal, feminist literary critic with a reputation that Murphy describes as formidable.
Murphy corrects the myth that female biblical scholars unanimously assert that Jesus was a feminist. Figuring prominently on the yes side of that debate is Leonard Swidler of Temple University. Among the skeptics is Kathleen Corley. Swidler is the only male to get significant play in Murphys book because of his direct influence on a number of female biblical scholars. Corley is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of New Testament scholars who vote at meetings on which words attributed to Jesus in the gospels he is likely to have said.
Corley regards the presence of women in the Jesus movement as less than revolutionary, though interesting and notable in the context of his times. Many people are deeply disturbed by that claim, she said.
Other sections in Murphys book are devoted to the likes of Bernadette Brooten of Brandeis, Ross S. Kraemer, whose book Her Share of the Blessings, explores the role of woman across Greco-Roman religions; Elaine Pagels of Princeton, best known for her 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels; Jane Schaberg, whose 1987 book The Illegitimacy of Jesus prompted some major donors at her Catholic school, the University of Detroit-Mercy, to cancel gifts; and two -- Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School and Karen Jo Torjesen of Claremont, author of When Women Were Priests -- whose work, as Murphy puts it in his section on Torjesen, unfurls a banner under which the committed can march.
The churchs resistance
Insight into the Catholic churchs resistance to the womens movement, personified for some by the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, comes through accounts of the way German scholars have reacted to some of the womens work. For instance, Murphy reports that Karen King, professor at Harvard Divinity School, proudly sent her book Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism to her German mentor, Hans-Martin Schenke, only to learn years later that he had utterly no interest in the subject and had passed the book, unread, to his wife.
Even Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Küng, who teaches at the University of Tübingen in Germany and has generally supported issues of Catholic feminists, doesnt get completely off the hook. Brooten told Murphy that Küng, an early target of the Vaticans attacks on theologians under Pope John Paul II, had forbidden her to pursue work on same-sex love among women in Christian antiquity while she was doing research at his Institute for Ecumenical Research.
Among those critiquing Murphys work is Susan Ackerman, who complained in the October 1998 issue of Bible Review that Murphys report last August in U.S. News and World Report had been weighted in favor of New Testament scholars and failed to reflect the diversity of Hebrew Bible scholarship. The report summarized his book.
Murphy, though, passes quickly over critiques of feminist work. Agendas of one sort or another almost always drive scholarship, he writes in The Word According to Eve. But agendas can also get out of hand. He takes issue, though, with the notion that the work is a passing phase.
The influence of women will only grow, both in conventional channels and in unconventional ones, he writes. Something similar to the impetus that produced the house-church in early Christianity is operating once again in gatherings of Christian and Jewish women.
Ackermans book is a useful companion to the other two for two reasons: It is a work of biblical scholarship by a woman, and it explores the relationship of women and power in the Bible. Its publication by mainstream Doubleday, rather than by an academic house, is worth noting for a trend it signals. Publishers Weekly has noted that mainstream publishing houses, spurred by strong sales of religion titles, are seeking books by scholars in the field.
The biblical book Judges at first glance seems to be a book about men, Ackerman writes, about mens cunning strategies that confounded their enemies. But powerful women get their turn. Among them are Deborah, a military commander; Jael, her cohort, that most blessed of women, who kills the Canaanite commander, Sisera, by driving a tent peg through his temple; the woman of Thebez who kills the royal pretender Abimelech by dropping a stone on his head from the tower where he has imprisoned her; and Delilah, Samsons mistress who robs him of his strength by cutting his hair.
What Ackerman sets out to explore is how such stories in Judges and other parts of the Bible square with the religious imagination of ancient Israel and the religious practices of the Israelites. What are the religious beliefs, she asks, that motivated the biblical writers to craft their portraits of Judges women in the ways that they did?
Among her findings are strong parallels between some images of powerful women in the Hebrew Bible and the mythology surrounding the Canaanite warrior goddess Anat, about which the Bible is silent. Anat was an erotic assassin, a female military hero like Jael and Judith, who befriended, then attacked a military commander as he ate and drank in his tent.
Close to sources
By sticking closely to the original sources of her images, Ackerman reveals their ambivalence. She concludes that there is no easy categorizing of Judges: It is neither a handbook of patriarchy nor a celebration of matriarchy; it can neither be condemned as a remorseless portrait of unrelenting misogyny nor be heralded as an archaic precursor of 20th century feminism.
The collected wisdom of the three books discussed here suggests that counsels against fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible must apply not only to those who reject biblical criticism but to those who rely on it. The Bible fails as proof-text in the gender battles, whether summoned by misogynists or conservatives (of either gender) hoping to keep women in their place or by angry feminists impatient to right the historic wrongs. Rather, the Bible reflects the complexity of the lives we lead, of the lives humans have always led.
Within its pages multiple roles apply, even in androcentric worlds. Yet, Stockers work and Ackermans imply that it is those countercultural women who learn to use power within the systems they hope to change -- rather than those who rail against it -- who are most likely to achieve the equality they seek.
More analysis is needed. Undoubtedly feminist biblical work will continue to shed new light on the tales of these nonconforming women. But the moral ambiguity inherent in the stories suggests a need for extending, in theological context, the themes psychotherapist Rollo May took up in his 1972 book, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. How, for instance, do the actions of the heroic women of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha square with the New Testaments instruction to turn the other cheek, with the churchs tradition of just war, with the psychology of men and women? The stage is set for wider discussion, informed by biblical studies, theology and social sciences, of the relationships among gender and power, violence and liberation.
Pamela Schaeffer is NCR special projects editor.
National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999