Women of the Bible emerge from the background

This hefty tome, the size of which belies the relative paucity of female characters in the Bible, will sell, if for no other reason than curiosity. Who are these women who slipped through the centuries-old phalanx of mostly male writers and editors? Are they all milkmaids and drawers of water? What stories do they have to tell? What contributions do they make?

The introduction to "Women in Scripture" is careful to point out that of the 205 named women, several share the same name, and often the same woman is referred to in different sections of the Bible. This brings the total down to 162 distinct women.

More sobering is that women's names in Scripture represent between 5.5 and 8 percent of all the names, a stunning reflection of the male-centered focus of the Bible.

Not since Edith Deen's groundbreaking anthology of Biblical women in 1955 has there been such a monumental undertaking as "Women in Scripture," a collaborative work of more than 70 Bible scholars representing the best and most up-to-date feminist biblical scholarship.

Like the woman in Luke searching diligently for her lost coin, these scholars have painstakingly combed every inch of Scripture - both Old and New Testaments as well as the deuterocanonical books (better known as the Apocrypha) - to find and present as near exhaustive a list as can be of female personages in a user-friendly book. For those women seeking assurance that the Bible does indeed speak for them, and for everyone who might want a refreshingly different look at Scripture through the eyes of women, this book is cause enough for rejoicing.

"Women in Scripture" is divided into three sections. The first operates like a dictionary, listing all the named women in Scripture with detailed descriptions of their roles, and in many cases, offering some pleasantly surprising information.

We learn, for example, that Huldah was a female prophet, a contemporary of Jeremiah, who authenticated Moses' law code in Deuteronomy as God's word, destined to became the authoritative core of the Bible. Eve, long relegated to the role of original sinner for eating the forbidden fruit, may actually have been an intelligent human being with a flair for wise conversation.

Part II, the largest section, is unique from any other source in that it includes entries for all the unnamed biblical women in the order in which they appear in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament.

It's fascinating to read the stories of some of these women who have no name. Unnamed women lead in songs of grateful deliverance from Egypt. An unknown "sinful woman" who anoints Jesus' feet at a party teaches lessons in repentance.

In addition to nameless women, this section covers groups, such as Women Keeping the Festivals, Women (and Men) Who Break the Covenant, and also women in categories such as Virgins, Widows, and Wet Nurses. One may wonder how many look-ups such categories will inspire, but their comprehensiveness is impressive.

Whereas the previous sections cover named and unnamed women in the Bible as human beings, the third section lists references to female imagery found in non-human form, such as flora and fauna, abstract qualities personified as female (wisdom, righteousness, even wickedness), and female imagery for God.

There may be special interest here for readers concerned with God's gender. As Alice Bellis notes in one of the introductory articles, "Male imagery may predominate, but it only takes one female image to indicate that God is neither male nor female."

"Women in Scripture" is a remarkable reference book here to stay, an indispensable tool for discovering women we never knew were in the Bible, bringing them out from dark shadows into the light of day.

Gail Haslam is a professor of religion at Principia College, in Elsah, Ill.

Women in Scripture

By Carol Meyers, General Editor Houghton Mifflin 592 pp., $40

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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