Women are central characters in book on Bible stories

After Abel and Other Stories, by Michal Lemberger (Prospect Park Books)
After Abel and Other Stories, by Michal Lemberger (Prospect Park Books)

Like it or not, the Bible is a male book.  The authors of the biblical books were most likely men. The expected audience is male, too.  For example, as Prof. Judith Plaskow once pointed out, when Moses turns to “the people” just before the giving of the Torah, and instructs them “Do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:15), obviously “the people” he is addressing are the men.

Michal Lemberger, who has taught the Bible as literature at several American universities, contributes to the growing number of women-friendly versions of biblical stories with her first book, After Abel and Other Stories.

Each story has a biblical woman at its centre, sometimes a famous woman like Eve or Miriam, at other times less well-known characters, such as Zeresh (Haman’s wife) or Peninah (more on her below). Sometimes the stories are written in the voice of a biblical woman, but even when they are not, they centre on a woman or women. In The Watery Season, Hagar is the central character, and our matriarch, Sarah, is referred to only as “her mistress.” Abraham is simply “the old man,” a bold twist on the Bible’s habit of omitting the names of women characters.

Some of the stories explore the marriage of a man to two wives, one who is beloved while the other produces babies. This type of ancient ménage à trois interested the classical rabbis, too; they portrayed it disparagingly as a sign of a corrupt society. (See for example Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 4:19.)  Lemberger’s chapter “Shiloh” rewrites the biblical story of the marriage of Elkanah to both Hannah and Peninah.

In the biblical account (I Samuel 1-2), Elkanah’s wife Peninah had many children while Hannah was barren.  Elkanah “loved” or preferred Hannah.  Hannah, however, was not satisfied with this role; she wanted to be a mother.  She prayed to God for a child and vowed that she would return the child to God if her prayer was fulfilled. Her prayer was answered with the birth of her son, Samuel. She took care of him until he weaned and then handed him over to the care of Eli, the head of the shrine in Shiloh. God rewarded Hannah and she subsequently gave birth to three more sons and two daughters. Meanwhile, Samuel grew up in Shiloh, took over from Eli, and became a venerated leader of Israel.

In Lemberger’s version, told in the voice of Peninah (who never speaks in the Bible), a very different story emerges.  Peninah had grown up in a polygamous home where the wives got along and worked happily together. When she was told that she was to become the second wife in the home of the childless Hannah and Elkanah, she was hopeful that she would also find sorority with her co-wife, but  she was roundly disappointed.  Beautiful Hannah and Elkanah had what appeared to be a deeply caring relationship, while plain Jane Peninah was the lonely “breeder,” who produced children for Elkanah but could establish no deep relationship with him and even less so with Hannah. In this story too, Hannah eventually gives birth to a son to whom she is, not surprisingly, extremely devoted. But Elkanah is unhappy about having to share Hannah’s affection with their son and the baby’s life appears in danger. Hannah hands her son over to the care of the authorities in Shiloh to ensure his safety and to save her marriage.

Lemberger’s Elkanah is a narcissistic, moody, inconsiderate male and, in fact, hardly any of the men in the book are positive characters. The exception is Palti ben Laish, to whom the Bible dedicates three verses (I Samuel 25:44 and II Samuel 3:15-16]. In the Bible, he never speaks, but Lemberger gives his story a 50-page chapter, much of it in his voice. In another telling contrast with the original, Lemberger omits Hannah’s devotion to God, and indeed removes the divine from most of the stories.

This book is not Bible commentary.  Reading it will not give readers new insights into the Bible stories. Can it be called midrash?  Dara Horn, a popular author who is quoted on the book’s website, thinks so: “This is a beautiful book of modern midrash – the ancient Jewish tradition of telling the stories between the Hebrew Bible’s lines.” A reviewer in Lilith magazine goes further: “Calling the biblically themed stories in the new collection by Michal Lemberger midrashim is like calling champagne a carbonated beverage.”  Actually, calling the stories in this book midrashim is like calling a bicycle a carbonated beverage.

While midrashim may considerably expand a biblical story, often surprising us by reading so much between the lines that we hardly recognize the story, they never erase central parts of biblical stories.  When Lemberger’s Sodom goes up in flames without divine involvement, the story cannot qualify as midrash.

Yet the book is riveting and well-written. It’s a collection of riffs on the Bible that will be enjoyable for those who know their Bible, who are sympathetic to women’s perspectives, and who are willing to look beyond the desacralizing liberties taken by the author in order to savour the unusual experience of seeing ancient women at the centre of the action.