Phyllis Trible is surely one of the most distinguished feminist Biblical scholars in the world. In 1994, she served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature, only the second woman to serve in that capacity since the organization was founded in 1880. (And only two other women have subsequently received this annual honor.) She has received four honorary doctorates. From 1981 until her “retirement” in 1998, Trible taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Since then she has taught at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Her best-known books are God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978) and Texts of Terror (1984). Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children, co-edited with Letty M. Russell, will appear in 2006.
The following interview took place at her home in New York City on November 9, 2005.
Hershel Shanks: Was there a moment of crisis for you when the patriarchy of the Bible first hit you between the eyes?
Phyllis Trible: My life has unfolded in a somewhat gradual way—perhaps like a flower unfolding—rather than having moments of crisis. There are people who talk about their conversion experiences; they know the exact time and place. My story is not like that. I was always a feminist. It’s bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. I didn’t always know it, because there was not always a vocabulary for it. But once people started talking about it, it was a gradual unfolding for me.
HS: When did the vocabulary come up?
PT: With the second wave of feminism. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963. That started something that resonated in the secular world and in the religious world. It started us thinking about these issues. By the early 1970s, women in theology were beginning to speak up and to confront the patriarchy of theological education and the patriarchy of the Biblical text.
HS: In one of your most famous books, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, you say, “I realize that the theology which informed my life was inadequate for addressing the concerns of students. Nor was it still wholly satisfying to me. Ironically, the mighty acts of God in history proved wanting and the ensuing years have heightened that deficiency.” That sounds like a crisis of faith to me.
PT: No, it was not a crisis. I’m always struggling with the Bible. I’m still doing it—even more, perhaps, than when I wrote those words.
The Bible is a mixture of blessings and curses. It doesn’t speak with a single voice. It has competing voices, contradictions in it. As it moves through history, it encounters new settings and new occasions, and we’re ever called upon to do something with this text.
The story that I use as a model is Jacob wrestling in the night [Genesis 32:24–30] with what? The stranger? Was it a demon? Was it 048[his brother] Esau? Was it God? Are they one and the same? At the end, when the struggle is over, Jacob goes away limping. He gets a blessing, but he doesn’t get it on his terms—and he limps. I see this as my struggle with the Bible, my wrestling with Scripture.
HS: There are two kinds of struggling with the Biblical text. One is to struggle simply to understand and to plumb its depths. The other is to confront something that is offensive to you, something that you find difficult to accept. You spoke a moment ago about the Bible being a combination of blessings and curses. Well, that’s okay if the good guys are blessed and the bad guys are cursed. But sometimes a curse is undeserved, and you have to struggle with something you find unpleasant, even offensive.
PT: Absolutely. It’s not a matter of a Deuteronomic view in which good gets rewarded and bad gets punished. It’s far more mixed than that.
HS: What do you do when you hit something in the Bible that’s unfair to women, yet it seems to be what’s prescribed in the Bible.
PT: One obvious answer is you produce Texts of Terror [probably Trible’s best-known book].
HS: The plight of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine [Genesis 21:9–21], is one of the passages featured in Texts of Terror. She was treated badly.
HS: She gave this man his first son [Ishmael] and served his purpose and was then thrown out into the desert, supposedly to die.
PT: I’m still working on Hagar. The more deeply I get into that text, the more puzzling it becomes and the more stimulating and provocative. She’s one of the most amazing characters in all of the Bible. Her distinctiveness is there, but it doesn’t jump out. I now have a list of 12 firsts about Hagar. She is the first runaway slave. She’s the first divorced woman. She’s the first single mother. She’s the first person to weep. She’s the first woman to receive an annunciation.
The problem set up between Hagar and [Abraham’s wife] Sarah has never been resolved, and the Bible really portrays Sarah as less than benign. Her last words are “Cast out this slave woman and her son, for the son of this slave woman will not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” Then, shortly thereafter [Genesis 22] comes the near-sacrifice of Isaac. And before that the near-sacrifice of Ishmael [to starve in the desert]. Once Isaac is spared, the text kills Sarah; she dies, as though we’ve got the son now and we don’t need the mother anymore. Likewise the text abandons Hagar; it never says anything more about her. So the problem between those two women is never resolved.
HS: When you interpret a text like this, as you are doing brilliantly, is there a difference between saying, “Okay, it is put there by the author,” or is it the case that it is something that your own insights bring to light, that may or may not have been intended by the author?
PT: The latter for sure. I would never claim that the comments I make about the text are necessarily the intention of the author.
Traditional Biblical scholarship has focused on authorial intentionality, but there has been a shift. And the place where I work is at the intersection of text and reader. The reader can be any number of readers: ancient readers, modern readers, myself.
Authorial intentionality is a problem, because often we don’t know the intentionality of the “authors.” So what do we do? We take the text and use it to try to discern the intentionality of the author. Then we use what we get from the text as a way of controlling the text. So it’s a circular pattern. Though that approach has sometimes been helpful, that’s not the only way to read a text.
HS: Why the Bible? What is special about a tale from the Bible? Why the story of Hagar? Why not some very deep novel?
PT: It could be some deep novel. Whatever one’s text is, we all live by myths in the broad sense of some kind of text by which or through which we read the world.
HS: Myth implies it isn’t true.
PT: No, no, no. That’s a popular meaning of myth.
HS: What do you mean?
PT: A worldview. A place where we stand. A story by which we live. That’s what I mean by myth. For me, the Bible is that major story.
HS: Is the Bible sacred?
PT: What does sacred mean?
HS: That was the next question I was going to ask you. What makes the Bible special—just simply the historical fact that it has shaped Western civilization?
PT: That’s a major reason why it’s special. We can’t get away from it, no matter how much we try.
HS: If we can’t say whether it’s sacred or not, what about a word like “holy”?
PT: Those words don’t really resonate with me, because I don’t know where you’re going with them, what you intend to do with them. I don’t even like using the phrase that the Bible is the word of the Lord. The Bible doesn’t use that phrase, except in particular genres. “The word of the Lord” is a prophetic genre, but that phrase does not appear at all in a book like Genesis, so I shy away from it.
HS: What differentiates the Bible, say, from Shakespeare?
PT: I ask myself that question, and if I had a clear answer, I’d give it to you.
HS: You can look at a text from many different perspectives. You can you look at it as a woman. Someone else might look at it as a person of color, or as another minority or a Jew who feels the weight of that tradition.
PT: That’s right. And you can have a mix of those things. I look at it not only as a woman but as a feminist and as a white woman. All those things. It’s a mix.
HS: What’s the difference between a feminist and a woman?
PT: Not all women are feminists.
HS: Can a man do feminist criticism?
PT: It is difficult, but not impossible.
HS: Why is it difficult?
PT: Well, to begin with, most men have grown up in a male culture, and they have absorbed the values of that culture. But there are some who can transcend that. That’s always a joy when it happens.
HS: Can I talk to you a little about Adam and Eve?
PT: “Eve and Adam” would be better.
PT: It got your attention for one thing. It shifts the whole discussion. It undercuts the concept of order, the man first and the woman second.
HS: Is there something implied in that, that God didn’t create man first?
PT: Yes, I would hope so.
HS: Is the text anti-feminist?
PT: Why would it be considered anti-feminist?
HS: Because God created man first.
PT: No, “he” didn’t.
HS: Do you question that in the Bible he created man first?
PT: I do, I do question it. I do.
HS: As I read the story, he created man, then he created woman.
PT: That’s the traditional way of reading the story. The text says that “Lord God formed adam [
Why don’t we translate it preserving the pun? “God created the human from the humus” or “God created the earthling from the earth”? Already we’ve made a tremendous difference in how we conceive the story, and we are more faithful to the Hebrew.
I find nothing in the story about human sexuality until God puts that creature to sleep and performs surgery on that creature and out of that creature come two creatures. There is not a word in the story about sexuality until the woman appears. It is when the woman (isha) appears that the man (ish) appears. Sexuality is simultaneous for male and female.
My purpose is not to promote my view over or against somebody else’s view of the text, but to look at the text and see how many ways it can be interpreted. If you want Genesis 2:7 to be an androcentric text, you can have it.
HS: What does androcentric mean?
PT: Male-centered. If you want it to be a male-centered text, if you want the traditional view that man was first and woman was second and she’s subordinate, you can read the text to fit that interpretation. But there’s also another reading—within the text, within its vocabulary, within its syntax, within its order—a counter-reading. No text is locked into a single reading. This raises a big question for us: How do you adjudicate readings? But I never think you have to come out with one reading and say that this is the absolute, the only, the sole reading of the text. Some readings may be better and more persuasive than others, however.
HS: What about the other story of the Creation (in Genesis 1)? There—and I’m reading your translation from God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality—“God created humankind in his image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” The last point in that is “male and female created he them.” But before that it says “in the image of God created he him,” according to your translation. What do you do with that?
PT: Yes, that’s what the Hebrew says grammatically. And as you know, in Hebrew there’s no neuter gender, so you must have either a masculine or feminine. That’s a grammatical problem that we can’t really solve. But you could say “God created that one,” and try to get around it, not using gender-specific language.
HS: Would the Hebrew bear
HS: What about the phrase ezer k’negdo in Genesis 2:18? That’s traditionally translated as saying that the woman is a “helpmate” or “fitting helper” to the man. What do you do with that?
PT: A lecture by a teacher of mine, Samuel Terrien, started my thinking about another way to read that garden [of Eden] story, quite different from the traditional reading.
For example, when the woman is having the conversation with the serpent, she is depicted as quite intelligent and informed. Before she eats the fruit, she considers all the possibilities. By contrast, look at the man. He’s certainly not depicted the way a patriarch would be. He is passive, bland and belly-oriented.
Another thing that Terrien said: In the Bible that word [ezer] most often refers to God. So there the helper is the superior one. Terrien told us that in no way does this word connote inferiority or subordination. So I took that as a clue and then I worked on it. Ezer k’negdo is “one who is equal to or like unto—mutuality.”
HS: There is a traditional Jewish interpretation that’s very similar to that. As described in the text, Adam is a shlemiel. He needs a strong woman to make a man of him.
HS: I know your field is not New Testament, but what do you do, for example, with Colossians 3:18: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”? Or Ephesians 5:22–23: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church”?
PT: Yes, pretty bad. Several things come to mind. You probably know the view of some New Testament feminists: that Jesus’ circle practiced egalitarianism and then Paul was divided on the subject, neither male nor female. Paul never made up his mind on it, and the post-Pauline church went with the inferior side of it. So you might chart that kind of scheme. What you quoted would be a text that works as curse, not as blessing. You bring texts into conversation, one with another; you can counter one text with another text. Now, the devil can do that as well as other people. In fact, that happens with the temptation of Jesus.
Another observation on those texts is that they are historically conditioned texts. To what extent do they impose upon us (if you think about the authority of the Bible in this connection)? For me, authority does not necessarily mean command or imperative. The Bible is not a “should” book from beginning to end. There is such a thing as the authority of a mirror. You look in the mirror in the morning, and it shows you something you don’t particularly like, so it gives you a choice to do something about it. The Bible is a reflection of the whole panorama of life, and therefore places upon us the responsibility to make choices. I find that theology in the Bible itself. I find it in Deuteronomy, not that I accept the whole theology of Deuteronomy, which is so stark; it’s either you obey God and are blessed or you disobey and are cursed. It’s much more difficult than that. But the concept of blessing and curse is a valuable concept. In the sermon that Moses preaches, God says, I set before you blessing and curse, good and evil, and you choose. So the responsibility is on us to choose. The Bible sets before us blessing and curse, good and evil, and it tells us to choose. It doesn’t make the choice for us. The text that in one setting can be a blessing, in another setting can be a curse.
I’ll give you an example: The Book of Ruth. I think of the Book of Ruth as a wonderful blessing. But you try telling that to Christian women in Asian cultures that are influenced by Confucianism. Some of the women go berserk because, in their culture, the Book of Ruth is used to control a daughter-in-law by her mother-in-law. In that culture, the whole story functions often as a curse for those women. I’m told that in some Korean marriage ceremonies a young woman has to pledge allegiance to her mother-in-law with the words of Ruth to Naomi. [“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16–17).] The Korean version stresses the vow of one woman to another, her mother-in-law. So how can you say the Book of Ruth is always a 052blessing? No! Setting makes a difference. Reader response makes a difference.
HS: Why do you think the book is a blessing then?
PT: I think that it’s a powerful story of two women working out their own salvation in an alien and hostile environment. Naomi has nothing. She’s bereft of husband and children. And then Ruth makes this radical choice to break with the past and to follow this woman. You see these two women struggling throughout the first three chapters of the book. Then, in the fourth chapter, all their struggles are with men who come in and take over. For a while it’s disappointing. But at the very end of the story, the women of Bethlehem come back in, and they claim the story and conclude the story by speaking to Naomi. So I see it as two women struggling for survival in a world that would defeat them or oppress them in some way. I see them as working out their own salvation.
HS: And Ruth the Moabite becomes the great-grandmother of King David.
PT: That traditionally has been given a positive interpretation—that Israel is inhabited by strangers and foreigners, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and that Israel welcomes the stranger and foreigner. Then, you can go to other texts where Israel is not so welcoming of the stranger and the foreigner. In that case you set up a dialogue—a tension between and among texts.
I’d like to go to a second example of a text that can work both as a blessing and a curse. I was lecturing on that horrible story of the unnamed woman in Judges 19, gang-raped through the night, murdered and finally dismembered. Reading a story like that, how could anyone see it as a blessing? After my lecture, a woman came up to me weeping. She said to me, “I didn’t know the Bible had a story like that.” I expected her to recoil in horror. But she did quite the opposite. She said, “Physically I have not been dismembered, but I have been raped, and I have been psychologically murdered. To know that the Bible is telling my story makes all the difference to me.” Right before me, she claimed that story as a blessing for herself, because it was a mirror of what she had experienced. I was just startled by that. It helped me to see that you never throw away any part of the Bible. You never know when and in what situation it will relate to a reader.
HS: (softly) Wow.
HS: But aren’t you still left with the male language of faith and the dominance of male language in Scripture? Isn’t there a bottom line that you have to reject?
PT: The Bible is too full of its own contradictions and diversities for me to want to do that. One uses the small things to confound the large things, or uses the foolish things to confound the wise things. You live by faith in the remnant. You do acts of subversion. The prophets 076were subversive figures. There are models like that in the Bible that I cling to. I’m not going to let the Bible go, and I’m not going to let anyone reduce it to one thing; I’m not going to turn it into a feminist document either. It is through and through androcentric, male-centered and patriarchal. Nevertheless, it does not speak with one voice. Readers interacting with it can do things to the text that bring out countervoices within it.
HS: There’s no residue of bitterness in your feelings toward the Bible, is there?
HS: Are you Christian?
HS: What does that mean?
PT: It means taking the major symbols of Christian faith and using them, appropriating them. But I am so much embedded in Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] that I see the so-called New Testament as a midrash [an expansion of the text in Jewish tradition] on Tanakh, even as the Talmud is a midrash. I think that the major categories of faith in the Second Testament [New Testament] are derived from the First Testament [Hebrew Bible].
As a Christian, I’m not centered in the Second Testament. If that sounds like a contradiction, so be it. I see Scripture moving from one testament to the other, but I don’t see the Second Testament being dumped back onto the First as the controlling voice.
HS: We haven’t spoken about faith.
PT: Faith is a constant in my thinking, whether I’ve said it or not. I see this wrestling with the Bible as a wrestling with faith.
HS: And God?
PT: Yes… if you want to say faith in God, yes.
HS: You hesitated.
PT: Yes, because that’s a cliché , faith in God.
HS: How would you phrase it?
PT: God… it’s hard. Who is that stranger in the night? Is it God? Is it a demon? Are they the same? So yes, I struggle with the divine world, with who we are as creatures. “Creatures” presupposes a creator. All of those things are involved in faith in God. Faith does not come easily or simply, so I worry about it. I do say to whoever that stranger is, I will not let you go unless you bless me. But I don’t think that blessing, to follow the story, will come on my terms. So there is an agony in the struggle for faith. I am not with those people who want to rush to the Resurrection to solve everything, because I’m still at the Crucifixion. A theology of the cross—that’s where we are, in a world of deep suffering and many unknowns. We somehow have to wrestle to come to some kind of healing and redemption within that world. I think the Bible is a major resource for that wrestling. But the answer is “Not yet.”
Phyllis Trible is surely one of the most distinguished feminist Biblical scholars in the world. In 1994, she served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature, only the second woman to serve in that capacity since the organization was founded in 1880. (And only two other women have subsequently received this annual honor.) She has received four honorary doctorates. From 1981 until her “retirement” in 1998, Trible taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Since then she has taught at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Her best-known books are God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978) […]