Monday, November 25, 2019

Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible

One of the dangers of growing up reading the Bible is that it's easy to miss the experiential horror of much of what happens because of encountering it before reaching emotional maturity and because of familiarity. Returning to them years later as an agnostic the horror can still be vague. Often a separate work will make me think of something that escaped me in all my reading as a child and into adulthood. Most of the sermons I heard growing  Noah's Ark wisely focused on the animals and not the genocide. Most mentions of Noah’s post-ark drunkenness focus on the reaction of his sons and whether they honored him or not. Aronofsky’s movie Noah, whatever its faults, does remind you that if you had just seen everyone in the world die, you might want to get drunk yourself. Similarly, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling actually gave Abraham’s choice to sacrifice Isaac weight in a way that hadn’t considered before I read it (though admittedly I read that before I admitted to myself I wasn’t a Christian any more). Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror* nearly did the same thing with the stories of Hagar, Tamar, the unnamed concubine from Judges 19, and the daughter of Jephthah. I often joke (though there’s an underlying truth) that I’m surprised that my very strict parents let me read the Old Testament given all the sex and violence.

These are stories that I’ve already considered before in a more critical way than when I was a believer, so the effect was not as strong as that of the Kierkegaard and the Aronofsky, but sitting with the stories was a very uncomfortable experience. I picked up a copy of this years ago when it was on reserve for a class at the library where I used to work and finally got around to it. While Trible is clearly a believer trying to reckon with these passages and use them to challenge the church on the way it treats women, I’m glad I read them after I drifted from the faith. Like many who have left Christianity some of the more shocking content of the Old Testament forms one of the signposts on the road out.* Judges 19 has been especially troubling to me for a long time. Trible says that the narrator disapproves and is setting up the reader to prefer the era of Kings over that of the Judges. That is not a bad argument, but it doesn’t really answer everything. One of Trible’s recurring arguments is based on De Beauvoir’s Subject/Object binary. Even as she uses the passages under study as an argument to the church to fight against misogyny, she never quite escapes the fact that the text approves of putting women in the Object category. This didn’t ruin the book for me; it is very much worth reading.

I am generally against academic prose. It is usually stultifying and often just bad. Despite some tendencies in that direction, Trible mainly sticks to a heavily annotated close reading of the text from a feminist perspective. I don’t know enough about academic textual criticism to say whether the book succeeds on that level (though the fact that it is taught in classes speaks in its favor). I found the prose dense, but worth wading through. These stories are disturbing, and sitting with them in this way and in this much detail was at the very least thought-provoking.

Recommended if you have a stomach for academic prose and with a content warning for brutal rape.

*It’s the inverse of something Chesterton said of Catholicism. There is often not one cause for losing the faith. Rather a series of smaller things that eventually add up to unbelief.

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