Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Jewish Feminist Scholar Runs Sex Program in the Bible Belt: On Testaments and Testosterone

Editor's Note: Professor A-J Levine has contributed to this month's RSN a reworked version of a talk she gave to SECSOR on the topic of biblical studies and popular perceptions, especially in the realm of public policy and sexual ethics. Her talk was given in March 2001.

Jewish Feminist Scholar Runs Sex Program in the Bible Belt:On Testaments and Testosterone

Amy-Jill Levine, Vanderbilt University

Several years ago at the AAR/SBL annual meeting in the pseudepigrapha session, I gave a paper on the Book of Tobit entitled "Sheherezhade meets

Simone de Beauvoir, and Neither Gets Much Sleep." The first question was posed by one of the leading figures in pseudepigraphical studies:

"Sheherezhade I'm familiar with, but who is Simone de Beauvoir?" Aha! I thought, a teachable moment. Not only did the session provide the opportunity of introducing a few feminist issues to scholars of the pseudepigrapha, it also turned out that several feminists were in attendance, and they learned about the Book of Tobit.

The broader point: a hook is needed to get outsiders interested in what we - the we here being those of us who spent years on the Ph.D., who read the literature both primary and secondary, the we who are the Society of Biblical Literature - have to say. If it took Sheherezhade - a sexy woman in gauzy dress - to introduce pseudepigraphical studies to feminism, so be it. How then do we incite the general public's interest in biblical studies and in what we scholars have to say, because indeed, we have a great deal to contribute to public discourse? Thus the title of this talk, which is basic tabloid.

We've not only done the history, we also know how dangerous and how liberating the text can be, and we are well aware of what happens when bad history leads to bad theology, for that will lead to both bad public policy and bad personal experiences. And if we disagree, good; that's what true public intellectual debate requires. And, to put First Things first, the time has come for those professionally trained in biblical interpretation to become, again, public intellectuals, and in so doing to move beyond the parameters of ideological venues, from which one simply preaches to the choir.

Perhaps our first step might be to insist on our discipline's value as a focus. The frequent problem of our perceived lack of relevance - in terms of both market share and public policy - is manifest in most secular colleges and universities and, I suspect, many a parochial one. For why, might any student ask, should one major in religion? What is its practical value? Worse, in divinity schools Biblical studies courses are often, to use my colleague Daniel Patte's term, propadeutic; they are hurdles to leap, and then leave behind prior to addressing the real concerns of ministry to rural and/or urban areas, ethics, and theology.

To respond in kind: The academic study of religion in general, and of the Bible in particular, already has market value and consumer base. The high ratings of "Mysteries of the Bible," inevitable Newsweek and Time cover stories on Jesus at Easter, the success of Harper SanFrancisco, and the ability of people like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and N.T. Wright to fill lecture halls prove the observation.

A recent USA Weekend had a cover story entitled "Treading Holy Ground" in which journalist Bruce Feiler noted that in seeking the locations of Noah's ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Red Sea, and the burning bush, he "traveled through five countries, on three continents," and "in each place, [he] gathered the latest archaeological research, read [Bible] stories in their natural surroundings and attempted to bring the Bible back to life" (March 9-11, 2001, p. 6). He worked on this "for over a year." Seems to me that we in the guild have spent a bit longer, if only to get through our qualifying examinations - why then are journalists presenting what we might ourselves do, and likely do better?

And, if there's one thing more appealing to the public than the popularization of Noah's ark and the Red Sea, it's the popularization of the Bible and Sex. It is because of the Bible and sex, for example, that Dr. Laura (she of Ph.D. in physiology) gained most of her fame and lost most of her sponsors. Her website (I've visited, but I felt the need to go to the mikveh afterwards) does evoke the Bible; my favorite comment she posts is not actually her own, but a quote from Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary. His polemic is against a statement sponsored by SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

The arrogance of this declaration is breathtaking. The self-appointed moral revolutionaries will reject the clear teachings of Scripture in order to justify sexual perversion and destructive behaviors and claim a religious mandate! In a cloak of distortions they seek to overthrow biblical morality and put the humanistic ethics of sexual liberation in its place. The result will be ruined lives, devastated marriages, lost innocence and broken hearts.

My concerns here are many, but the primary one, at least for now, is biblical morality (Mohler's degree is not in biblical studies, by the way). Which morality? The one insisting slaves obey masters? Or insisting women gain their salvation in childbirth? If Martin Sheen in the show "The West Wing" can take on Dr. Laura's highly selective biblical interpretation along these lines, then why can't credentialed biblical scholars? We may agree with Mohler and company that the Bible endorses and condemns certain sexual practices. However, we may differ on our interpretations of those passages: on why they appear and what embedded cultural values they express. We recognize that biblical texts are reinterpreted when read through different cultural lenses, and we have the knowledge to show how various religious traditions offer diverse and yet theologically faithful interpretations of such problematic passages.

Selective readings of biblical texts are used to enforce not only public morality, but also public policy. To take a very recent example:

Nashville's newspaper reported on a Franklin, Tennessee Circuit court judge who denied child-visitation rights to a father who had left his wife for another woman. The judge's rationale: the seventh commandment. His decision was overturned by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. What if the judge noted, inter alia, that another commandment requires honoring both father and mother (something his ruling would have prevented) let alone Jesus' injunctions against judging, or Paul's comments about secular courts?

Today the intersection of the Bible and public morality is increasingly prominent, from the Bible's presence in the well of the U.S. Senate during the debates on the Defense of Marriage Act (i.e., defending marriage from same sex couples) to one of my favorite examples, now a bit outdated: the discussions over Mr. Clinton: should he be pardoned his transgressions with Ms. Lewinsky? Even King David was forgiven for far worse crimes (although, strangely, in both David's case and Clinton', the heir apparent did not inherit the throne) and Jesus himself forgave the woman taken in adultery. In fact, one Jewish internet source suggested that Monica Lewinsky should be hailed as the new Queen Esther for keeping her king happy during delicate arms negotiations to Israel. Thus, this plea for a greater public voice, for what we study has social repercussions, and we might as well weigh in on them.

On the matter of the Bible and sex, in 1996, Vanderbilt Divinity School received a grant of 2.5 million dollars to establish a program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality. The goal was to sponsor workshops, provide information and resources, and to bring into conversation people on opposite sides of various issues in order to demonstrate that those on the other side of the table from "us" whoever the "us" is, are not demons or reactionaries, but people of good will and sincere conviction.

This is a far cry from my initial graduate training, where there was precious little biblical focus on gender and sexuality. We learned the ABCs of J, E, D, and P; M and L, Q was coming on strong, and I really liked the LXX. Then new approaches entered: I learned how to be a resisting reader, practice the hermeneutics of suspicion, develop a theology of the Sophia-Christ, unpack a sexist metaphor, and find kyriarchal comments as easily as Solomon could find wives. I became the "very model of an academic feminist,"

For I could

Discourse on oppression of both Canaanite and heretic,

I could teach Sophia's history and celibacy eremitic;

I could use Lacan and Freud to recover Ms. Potiphar,

And cite the proper texts to show what Mrs. Onan's motives are.

Oh I could chant the birthing texts from Akkadian cuneiform,

And tell you there's no place on Earth where women's roles are uniform.

In short, in matters sexual or textual or wymynist,

I was the very MODEL of an academic feminist.1;

This critical-theoretical awareness was all to the good. But it was not enough. Theory and textuality are not necessarily ideal prerequisites to address matters of public policy. When it comes the Bible, or even morality, and public policy, very little movement occurs because of critical theory.

The move must be from the theoretical to the practical: The Carpenter program receives numerous communications on matters such as abortion, images of Gd, women in the ministry, pastoral and theological responses to sexual abuse, overcoming sexual shame, covenanting ceremonies and ordinations of gay and lesbian people, etc. And now, given the latest voice from the Bush, we are getting inquiries concerning the federal funding of religious institutions that work preventing teen pregnancy and in AIDS education.

To put a personal face to the public discourse: Of the calls, the following are typical:

1. My husband abused me, so I left him. Now I want to marry a man I met in church, but my pastor tells me that I should not divorce my husband, because Jesus forbids divorce, and if I remarry, I'll be committing adultery. Is he right?

2. My son is gay, and my church says that he's going to hell. What do I do?

3. I feel so alienated: Fathers and Sons, Lords, Kingdoms, bridegrooms, brothers; even the Holy Spirit is an "It." Where's my place as a woman in the church?

4. I feel so alienated: women in the pulpit, Gd as mother, the Son of Man is now the human one; references to patriarchy right and left. Have men no place in the church any more except as the enemy?

No question has a one-size-fits-all response; hence the need for this program and others like it.

Here’s another media stereotype with real results on people's lives: the view remains, especially on the popular front, that Judaism is a repressive, oppressive, suppressive, and depressive system. In the effort to create solidarity with the poor, mobilize resistance, and claim one's own voice, anti-Jewish biblical rhetoric is a powerful weapon. But, it redounds on contemporary Jews as much as on (neo)colonial or dictatorial power. More distressing still, this rhetoric now generally dismissed in the academy retains a special appeal for women who seek a usable Jesus. This construct showed up glaringly in, of all places, the Sept. 14h 1998 issue "New Yorker," and it sprang from the pen of no less a theologian than John Updike (a Barthian, I believe, although I much prefer Roland to Karl, and to both John Barth, the author of Giles Goat-Boy, but that's another story). Updike asserts: "In the Judaic culture of Jesus' time, women were not permitted to study Torah, did not join men for meals, had few legal rights, and were stigmatized as unclean after childbirth and during menstruation." Their status, he states, was one of "severe inferiority," because their "Judaic culture" manifested an "intense misogynism" surpassing the male bias of other contemporary cultures." He concludes, "Again and again, [Jesus'] preaching and actions dismiss the taboos of a sexist and xenophobic Judaism; these liberating dismissals became one of the appeals emphasized by the Gospel writers and St. Paul" (p. 95-96). This is, pardon the non-kosher allusion, hogwash: it's a selective interpretation of select rabbinic statements; it is also an uninformed reading of both Jesus and Paul. And if people in the SBL don't know this, there's something wrong with their educational program.

To Updike, I responded in a letter to the editor, published in the October 12th issue. To quote from the letter's end: "Modern scholars' knowledge of early Judaism is incomplete, but what we do know corrects Updike's reductive portrait.... critical awareness of Jesus the Jew within his own vibrant, complex setting [offers] a view of Christian origins that doesn't need to make itself look good by making Judaism look bad."

Most distressing to me about this article was the lack of response. I asked the editor how many people wrote in. The answer: eleven. I was one; Ross Kraemer and Lyn Osiek were two others. So, aside from three professors, only eight of the New Yorker's numerous readers thought to comment when the magazine described Judaism as the world's most misogynistic and xenophobic culture.

Then again, how would they have formed another opinion? Until about five years ago, where would anyone look for information on the Bible and sexuality. Most pastoral care works on sexuality have little biblical material, and Dr. Laura is not, at least in my book, an expert on the Bible.

Compared with the numerous works on Jesus' parables, healings, view of

Halachah, and crucifixion, there is little written by "questers" on his view of women or sex. Even the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on sex and sexuality only considers the Hebrew material.

In turn, the tendency to misconstrue Judaism and so skew the question of Jesus and gender is primarily the fault of the academy. Most scholars of Christian origins lack expertise in Jewish sources. Many survived Divinity School, or New Testament Ph.D. programs, but not all that many read Mishnah let alone Gemarah or the Midrashim. Not all took a course on, or even had the opportunity to take a course on second temple and early rabbinic Judaism (and I suspect some of the courses that were available were taught by local congregational rabbis rather than those whose career is focused specifically in the study of these sources). At Vanderbilt one can earn an M.Div. without any formal work in Judaism at all.

Now, there are those in the guild who think that history is a blighted Western construct designed to create an imperialist hegemony and so silence the subaltern; there are even those who would claim that historical-critical approaches—those very approaches that broke the ecclesial stranglehold on biblical interpretation—are only, only (!), problems to be overcome. But often attention to history, attention not only to what the text says but also to why a pronouncement may have been made and what effect that pronouncement had on its original and earlier hearers, is what the academy can deliver and the public needs to know.

Without attention to context, difficult as it is to determine, and without attention to the various ways the same text has been interpreted, biblical statements on sexuality remain at the mercy of those who would wield the text as a cudgel to sponsor a particularistic view of contemporary morality. And, attendant to this crass popularization, anti-Jewish readings continue. If there are to be public pronouncements about biblical teaching, it's time for the members of the Society of Biblical Literature to have our voices heard alongside of, if not louder than, the voices of such as that Tennessee judge, Dr. Laura, and John Updike.

Write editorials, write to government officials, challenge sloppy biblical citation (tenure helps, of course), check religious education curricula, hold conferences with public involvement (if the Jesus seminar can do it, the SBL can too), do articles for popular journals (they may not count in the tenure process, but then again you don't need footnotes). Let it be our job to raise the public awareness of what rigorous scholarship can contribute to the relationships between testaments and testosterone, exegesis and estrogen, hormones and hermeneutics.

1; Lyrics composed by Dr. Scott Gilbert ofSwarthmore College Biology Department; an erstwhile religion major

Amy-Jill Levine is Professor the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professorof New Testament Studies and Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion,Gender, and Sexuality at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, TN. Hercurrent projects include editing the Feminist Companion to the New Testamentand Early Christian Writings series for Sheffield University Press.

Citation: Amy-Jill Levine, " Jewish Feminist Scholar Runs Sex Program in the Bible Belt: On Testaments and Testosterone," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2004]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.