A Review of
Women in the Bible: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church
If you have ever sat at a soundboard, you will know firsthand the importance of correctly balancing and mixing different audio channels. If certain instrument tracks, or vocals, are either too loud or two soft, the final audio mix will be seriously impaired. The experience of reading Jaime Clark-Soles’s new study, Women in the Bible, is like having someone point out that a vital “channel” in our reading of scripture has been unfortunately low, or in some cases, maybe completely muted. Clark-Soles draws deft portraits of the myriad female characters in scripture, the important parts they play throughout the biblical story, what it may have been like for them to interact with the men around them, feminine scriptural themes that frequently get overlooked, and what this all means for our reading and interpretation of scripture today. The end result is a richer portrait than the overly-male-centered or patriarchal interpretations that many of us have inherited.
Clark-Soles’s study, while accessible, clearly-written, and well-organized throughout, is also quite provocative and bold. For example, following the introduction, the book immediately begins with a chapter-length discussion of a story that I’ve frequently seen other commentators and teachers either minimize or outright ignore because of its interpretive difficulties: Jesus’s interaction with the Canaanite woman found in Matthew 15.
As it becomes quickly obvious, Clark-Soles is not interested in softening anything contained in the scriptures, but rather in allowing them to confront and unsettle us. This is felt most clearly in the most troubling chapter, and the one that Clark-Soles admits was the most difficult to write, entitled “Women and Violence in the Bible: Truth Telling, Solidarity and Hope,” a survey of biblical texts that contain war-based and sexual violence committed against women. To continue my audio-soundboard analogy, these chapters, in particular, offer a certain textured dissonance that ‘ears’ like mine may not be accustomed to, and while recovering this tension is uncomfortable, it is also deeply valuable. As in music, tension seeks resolution, and Clark-Soles exhorts those of us who occupy the pulpit not to ignore these texts, but to bring them “out into broad daylight for communal study and discernment” and, ultimately, to find the good news contained within, even for those who have suffered gender-based violence (104). This radical commitment to finding hope in even the darkest texts is inspiring.
Women in the Bible is not simply about recovering the dark and disturbing texts, however, as more pages are devoted to elevating the positive portrayals of female biblical figures, particularly in the New Testament. One of my favorite chapters is devoted to Mary, and explores the intriguing ways in which her motherly influence emerges through the narrative of John’s gospel, from the wedding at Cana to her loving presence at Jesus’s death. In a separate chapter, Clark-Soles surveys the ways in which women did a “remarkable variety of things” in the life and ministry of Jesus, including serving as “ministers” (Gk. diakaneo), “prophets”, “partners and patrons”, and “provocateurs” (189).
Furthermore, “Jesus was no stranger to engaging women in lively theological dialogue in a period of history when women were generally not regarded as serious thinkers.” (209) The Samaritan woman, Mary and Martha are prime examples of this dynamic, preserved for us in the gospel accounts. Many biblical scholars, of course, have pointed to the surprising and dramatic ways Jesus interacted with women (Kenneth Bailey comes to mind), but reading about these interactions in the context of the dark and unsettling texts surveyed previously in the book produces a more-nuanced and compelling portrait.
Finally, no book on the subject would be complete without an account of Paul and Paul’s writings. In line with the themes of the entire book, Clark-Soles does a commendable job at elevating the oft-overlooked female companions and co-laborers throughout Paul’s ministry work, and even the ways that Paul occasionally uses feminine imagery to describe himself and his work. The so-called ‘Deutero-Pauline Epistles,’ and particularly the directives contained within them for male-led eldership and church structure are also addressed. Clark-Soles follows the interpretive stream that sets these against Paul’s earlier writings, which contain such liberative ideas for women, and therefore must have been written pseudonymously and falsely attributed to Paul. While one may not follow Clark-Soles’s interpretive judgements here regarding authorship—and I’m not sure that I do—it is helpful to once again be confronted with the tension that is contained within the New Testament canon. For this tension is the stuff of day-in and day-out discipleship, as we wrestle with the scriptures God has given us.
“On the one hand, we have flashes of insight and we take up the call to make it on earth as it is in heaven . . . on the other hand, we allow the flashes of insight to fade away, we find it easy to abandon the work of making heaven a reality on earth . . . As often as we immerse ourselves in Scripture, in the believing community, in relationship with God in Christ, we are met moment by moment with the offer of real power that empowers real relationships that are truly mutual and have real meaning for our precious lives . . . Indeed, we have absolutely everything we need ‘to proclaim the gospel of peace” (301).
In sum, I found Jaime Clark-Soles’s exploration of overlooked biblical characters and themes compelling and intriguing, if occasionally unsettling. She has provided the church with a thoughtful and provocative study, one that draws on various streams of scholarship and pays careful attention to frequently-overlooked aspects of our holy scriptures, and one that is worth reading and pondering, even if you find yourself at odds with some of her interpretive judgements. The tension is an undeniable part of the journey in this life of faith.