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OUT OF THE GARDEN ISBN 13 : 9780449910177

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9780449910177: OUT OF THE GARDEN
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INTRODUCTION  
 
The sentimental feelings we all have for those things we were educated to believe sacred, do not readily yield to pure reason. I distinctly remember the shudder that passed over me on seeing a mother take our family Bible to make a high seat for her child at table. It seemed such a desecration. I was tempted to protest against its use for such a purpose, and this, too, long after my reason had repudiated its divine authority.
—ELIZABETH CADY STANTON, The Woman’s Bible
 
Almost one hundred years ago, Elizabeth Cady Stanton compiled The Woman’s Bible, an irreverent and unabashedly earthy feminist commentary written by a group of educated women intent on exposing the Bible’s—and its traditional interpreters’—unfair treatment of women. Stanton and her contemporaries wrote against the religious and social authority the Bible had held over women for centuries, while at the same time fighting its influence in the political arena.
 
Much has changed in the past one hundred years. No longer is the Bible uncritically accepted as the word of God, nor Genesis upheld as the factual account of the beginning of the world and human society. Still, many of us today might be as shocked as Stanton at seeing a Bible put to use as a high chair. Rather than fighting the Bible’s power over women, however, many women today are attempting to reclaim the book that has helped to shape the ways they think and live.
 
How, then, do contemporary women read the Bible? For this collection, we approached women writers, both Christians and Jews, whose work had in some way been influenced by the Bible. We asked each of them to choose a story, figure, or theme from the Old Testament and interpret it with this question in mind. Out of the Garden contains twenty-eight imaginative responses that address what it means to read the Bible as a woman today.
 
Most of us first encountered the Bible as children at Sunday school, in church, or in synagogue. The matriarchs and patriarchs who peopled its pages loomed like the desert mountains they were always ascending, and they seemed just as distant. It is difficult to shake one’s initial impression of any book, especially a book that has had such staying power. Even if some of us have never read the Bible but are familiar with its stories (and who of us isn’t?), it has most likely influenced our thinking and our imaginations—even our identities as women. Yet as an adult woman—believer or nonbeliever—whose own life experience cannot but have been at odds with this ancient book, how does one read the Bible today?
 
It is only recently that many of us have come to find the Bible interesting, no longer experiencing its claims to authority as so overwhelming as to demand mere assent and respectful attention. It takes a strong identity, and perhaps life in a predominantly secular culture, to counterbalance the Bible’s weighty historical presence. In fact, one wonders whether it will ever be possible to read the Bible as one would any other book, simply for pleasure or to satisfy curiosity. Just thinking about the Bible makes many of us feel small or guilty. For women, especially, the Bible may be impossible to read independent of its authoritative claims, as its power over women has been twofold: religious and social.
 
For centuries, two short passages shaped almost every statement about women’s character and proper place: the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, and Eve’s transgression and God’s subsequent curse on her. The first of these passages presents Eve and womankind as an afterthought.
 
And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a help mate for him.... And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. (Gen. 2:18–23)
 
The second passage specifies Eve’s effect on the world: God made it a paradise, and woman made it the imperfect place we all know.
 
Unto woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. (Gen. 3:16)
 
War, pestilence, famine, and every sin were the price all humanity paid for Eve’s disobedience.
 
Ironically, while these passages were invoked by men to keep women subordinate, from the Middle Ages on the Bible provided most women with their only opportunity to engage in ideas. In her history of feminist thought, Gerda Lerner has pointed out that it was often the only book available to women,2 and therefore a natural focus not only for protest but for all kinds of self-expression: interpretation and elaboration, devotional works (some orthodox and some not), poetry, and fiction.
 
But however much women’s relations to the Bible have changed through the centuries, the experience of reading the Bible remains as varied and rich as ever. Some of its figures are easy to feel for, while others are sketched with so few lines that we have to fill in almost every detail—and yet a number of these are among the most vivid and memorable of all. Many of the women in the Bible are especially sketchy figures, surfacing for a moment or two to perform a significant action, then sinking back under the text, leaving us to guess at the larger story. In this collection, Rebecca Goldstein’s essay on Lot’s wife and Norma Rosen’s treatment of Rebecca and Hagar, for example, address such memorable women and their untold lives.
 
Sometimes the Bible reads like a novel, as in the story of Joseph, or the long, emotionally complex tale of David and the people in his court. Or it can be resigned and philosophical—our days are as grass, we are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. At times the Bible offers poetry of praise for God and his world, as in a number of the Psalms; at other times it is a call for justice. It is alternately down-to-earth, visionary, dated, and relevant as it cries out against corruption, hypocrisy, and empty religion.
 
Poetry, history, law—the Bible is certainly no single thing. Not in its style, not in its subject matter, and not in the time of its composition. But that only partly explains why it has looked so different, at different times, to its readers and listeners. The Bible has been used to defend, abolish, and endure slavery; it has been used to keep women subordinate even while it exhorts its readers to practice justice and equality. The Bible reflects the inconsistencies in the world, and its accounts of women are as various as its treatments of most subjects.
 
One of the most common ways of reading as a woman is to focus on women characters. Out of the Garden offers essays on Eve, Rachel, the Queen of Sheba, Delilah, Jezebel, and Esther, on “good” women and “bad”; and it takes up the question of how one decides who is good and who is bad—as in Anne Dailey’s piece on the good and bad mothers in the story of Solomon’s judgment, or Rachel Brownstein’s piece on Vashti and Esther. Phyllis Trible and Fay Weldon, using quite different methods, write defenses for proverbially wicked women, Jezebel and Delilah respectively. Other essays, like Alicia Ostriker’s poetic interpretation of Moses as the “nursing father” of his people, enlarge our traditional understanding of male figures by reading them from a feminist perspective, while Ilana Pardes explores the limits for a heroine in a patriarchal narrative.
 
Other contributors see themselves in the Bible’s male heroes. Margaret Anne Doody, for example, identifies with the energetic, busybody child Samuel, and June Jordan writes of how she formulated her ideal of friendship by admiring the heroic loyalty between David and Jonathan.
 
The extraordinary sustaining power that identification with Biblical figures and events can have is also attested to in the rich relation African-American culture has had to the Bible, using it “to find meaning in the most despotic circumstances.”4 The experiences of Israelite slavery and liberation, and the Psalms, with their voicings of despair and hope, have always held out a promise of a better life to those whose lives may appear to be beyond comfort. Kathleen Norris’s essay on Benedictine women’s relations to the Psalms emphasizes how the very act of reciting the Psalms has uplifting power—and the power to draw one immediately into an older world, collapsing ancient time with the present.
 
Some writers use contemporary life to lend new dimensions to a biblical tale, as in Patricia Williams’s discussion of the political abandonment of the children of single black mothers, Elizabeth Swados’s recreation of Job as a clown, or Louise Erdrich’s unexpected encounter with Ecclesiastes on the walls of a Midwestern house. Amy Clampitt, Marina Warner, and Patricia Hampl, among others, blend their own experiences as girls and young women with literary interpretation, allowing them, as adults, to understand what they could not understand in their youth, while Daphne Merkin and Naomi Seidman, both raised in religious households, have reexamined the texts of their youth to find them more unsettling than they had previously realized. But the women who responded to our invitation to write for this collection and who chose to ignore questions of gender, such as Lore Segal, Deirdre Levinson, and Allegra Goodman, are also expressing what it can mean to read as a woman.
 
Perhaps it is no coincidence that three essays in this collection—those by Marcia Falk, Cynthia Ozick, and Margaret Anne Doody—center on the story of Hannah, a woman whose pursuit of her private desire, a child, brings her into public conflict with the authorities of her day. This story may have particularly compelling resonance for contemporary women, as it perhaps best embodies the tension between women’s lives and social expectations. Hannah’s story also brings us back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s anecdote of the woman who sat her child upon the Bible. While Stanton describes her own reaction as a sign of the Bible’s lasting authority, the same scene shows another relation to the Bible as well, namely, the mother’s unself-conscious certainty that the book was hers to use. Like Hannah, this unnamed woman acted spontaneously, only to find that she unintentionally took a controversial stance with large social implications, an experience that runs throughout the long history of women’s reading and responding to the Bible.
 
Présentation de l'éditeur :
"Essays of considerable literary erudition and sophistication that... dislodge dull stereotypes to enable both women and men readers to see the Bible with fresh eyes."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review
As the one work that has held moral and religious sway over the Judeo-Christian tradition for thousands of years, the Bible is unsurpassed in world literature. For women, its meaning is particularly complex; traditionally, the Bible has been used to keep women in their place, but it has also been a book of enduring inspiration. Out of the Garden marks a new stage in women's relations to the Bible: this is the first collection of essays in which women read and respond to the Bible out of pleasure and curiosity--free to explore what is really relevant to women's lives.
Drawing on their own experiences and interests, Louise Erdrich, Cynthia Ozick, Fay Weldon, Phyllis Trible, Rebecca Goldstein, June Jordan, Ursula K. Le Guin, and twenty-one other writers boldly, imaginatively--and sometimes reproachfully--address the Old Testament stories, characters, and poetry that mean the most to them. Thoughtful, challenging, and playful, these beautifully written essays explore the Bible in fresh new ways. Out of the Garden reclaims the Bible for women and shows readers that the Bible is a source we can return to again and again.
"A many-splendored achievement...This grand collection is a bold revitalization of our relation to our tradition. It offers the reader the gorgeously varied company of strongly delineated temperaments as they take on the compelling, threatening figures of our imaginative forebears."
--Harold Bloom
Author of The Book of J and The Western Canon

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