Phyllis Trible’s Miriam—An insightful discovery or a feminist demon?
My Heart Leaps Up
What sheer joy it was to read Phyllis Trible on Miriam (“Bringing Miriam out of the Shadows,” BR 05:01)! Although a male chauvinist, I felt my heart leap to the timbrel and lyre as Phyllis so beautifully disclosed the remarkable story of Old Testament women, whom we all must have known to have been there but on whom we need the light to be shown once again.
Silver Spring, Maryland
Regarding the article by Phyllis Trible, why do you keep printing this kind of garbage? Phyllis obviously doesn’t believe what the Bible says. She wants it to say what she believes.
Seal Beach, California
I found Phyllis Tribel’s study to be useful and perceptive. It is an excellent work of scholarship.
If your magazine continues to publish articles such as these you may count on my giving Bible Review a high priority on my reading list
Little Utica and Lysander United
Lysander, New York
God Gave Man (and Woman) a Questing Mind
Phyllis Trible’s article on Miriam (“Bringing Miriam out of the Shadows,” BR 05:01) did indeed bring her “out of the shadows” perspicuously. As a still slightly chauvinist male, I found it to be stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable
I enjoy Your magazine and encourage those disturbed by pieces that question favored doctrine to remember that God gave man a questing mind, that Opinions come and go and the marvelous text, “the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
It’s Erudite Nonsense
It is with disappointment that I view my first issue of Bible Review. While there is much that is attractive in the layout, art and illustration, the content of the articles themselves seems at odds with the visual message.
What was particularly distressing was the erudite nonsense in the lead article of February 1989, “Bringing Miriam out of the Shadows,” BR 05:01, by Phyllis Trible. Mixed with insights of value (particularly in analyzing the structure of literary units) were non sequiturs derived from the writer’s obvious commitment to Feminism. She declares that Miriam “initiates the plan that delivers her brother.” A good observation. But she goes too far in the next line, saying “Humanly speaking, the Exodus story owes its beginning not to Moses but to Miriam.” Without Moses, Miriam would have had no story to begin. To separate Miriam from Moses, as Trible attempts to do, is not to bring her “out of the shadow” of Moses, but out of his “light”—for her glory, like that of Aaron, is a glory reflected by her association with the Lawgiver of Sinai, an inconvenient fact, given Trible’s feminist commitments, and one that she is reluctant to acknowledge.
Throughout the article, hypothesis is mistaken for fact, and wishful conjecture for evidence. Trible observes that the people never attack Miriam as they did Moses and Aaron. She doesn’t consider the possibility that Miriam was not considered important enough to attack, but suggests that there is a suppressed story somewhere. Evidently Trible is more interested in imagining things that her Feminism suggests to her—however improbable from what we know of Hebrew culture—than in anything that can be documented. The notion that some redactors had it against Miriam, and that others had it against Moses and Aaron and that this is why all of them fail to reach the promised land is the ludicrous outcome.
Much of this comes from Trible’s reluctance to admit that women in ancient Israel, like many cultures, derive their status from their husbands, fathers, sons or, in 005Miriam’s case, her brother. Ms. Trible may wish it were not so; but evidence often proves inconvenient. I suggest she look elsewhere for a feminist heroine instead of in the unpromising pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps in the minds of feminists the “true Miriam” who begins to emerge from Trible’s article is credible; but from the standpoint of scholarship, the overall portrait of Miriam is about as authentic as Jesus Christ Superstar.
One final observation: Trible endeavors to cull from her texts materials to substantiate a “pro-Miriam” tradition that runs counter to the patriarchal traditions in the Scriptures. The obvious result is scraps taken but of context and used to further doctrines derived from extra-biblical sources (in this case, 20th-century Feminism). Such an approach to the Scriptures is similar to the old Gnostic approach. Only those initiates (with consciousness raised by gnosis or Feminism) can see the threads of truth buried in the documents.
Christ Lutheran Church
Maplewood, New Jersey
Giving the Devil Her Due
BR’s February issue is full of angry voices. Kugel and Alter are angry with each other (John Gammie, “Alter vs. Kugel—Taking the Heat in Struggle over Biblical Poetry,” BR 05:01), letter writers are angry with BR and the author of the article on the virgin birth (J. Edward Barrett, “Can Scholars Take the Virgin Birth Seriously?” BR 04:05). Phyllis Trible is angriest of all, for she wars not against flesh and blood but against a demon called patriarchy.
I would like to suggest that the real evil and the real disease is the projection of one’s own fears upon other human beings so that they become monsters or devils. In this state of mind we do not create our own songs, our own works of art; we deface the art of others. We paint a mustache on a Mona Lisa, we strike the genitalia from a pagan statue—or we obscure the language of pious songs, sacred for thousands of years, perhaps, under a layering of language invented yesterday. Much uninformed and malicious feminism busies itself this way in the churches, and it is disappointing to see Trible indulge herself in the same way by “adapting” the Song of Miriam. The adaptation here is so obviously self-serving one has to suspect Trible’s reasons for using her own translations or adaptations elsewhere in the article.
If we view the biblical redactors as human beings like ourselves we do not need to imagine venomous plots or demonic redactors in the biblical process. Even in Trible’s article the record of a long-continued human conversation, in which several competing traditions about tribal leadership confront one another, is very clear. The fact that Miriam and Moses and Aaron have their champions in the Bible is clear evidence of dialogue rather than hegemony.
If we do need to imagine a patriarchal plotter in the process, Trible’s own methods will provide him (or her) with a rationale. Pharaoh, after all, history’s first feminist, has commanded “if it be a son, then ye shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.” Faced with a plot of that magnitude, one is of course justified in “adapting” translation in order to bring Moses “out of the shadow,” to redeem him from “feminine death”! Or perhaps the redactor, having put a song from the monarchy into the mouth of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10), thought it well to take a song out of the mouth of Miriam for purposes of “gender balance” or inclusiveness. I do not believe in such a patriarchal plot; but if Trible does, it is clear that she has already used its methods and experienced its motives.
Feminism has for some time been concerned to recognize the feminine in God; but it has been content to use merely masculine pronouns for the devil. Perhaps it is now time for feminism to give the devil her due—or at least to cease from attributing all her activities to that once honored and now much abused human institution it loves to call the patriarchy.
I had very high hopes for the Miriam article, and began reading it with eager interest. It is always refreshing when obscure and neglected Bible characters, especially women, are highlighted so we can gain new appreciation for them. Well, almost always. There were a few insightful observations. Nevertheless, with all due respect to Trible’s education and academic position, I found her presentation pseudoscholarly. Magically, almost miraculously, she could extract volumes for non sequitur argumentation from infinitesimal pieces of data, and based most of her boldest assertions and elaborate explanations on the vaporous foundation of silence. If a conservative were to employ such methodology, the conclusions would (rightly) be scorned as unscholarly, fanciful interpolation; when 006Trible and others like her do so, it is “scholarly” and “brilliant” It was, in fact, speculative, eisegetical rubbish, and militantly feministic to the point of absurdity.
Taylors, South Carolina
Is the Text Salvageable as a Tool for Feminist Justice? Can a Feminist Hermeneutic Win a Clean, Fair Fight?
I have long suspected that there was something highly problematic concerning the biblical Miriam narratives. Thus, when I began Dr. Trible’s “Bringing Miriam out of the Shadows” it was in anticipation of reading a clear and cogent feminist treatment of this material. Unfortunately, I found, instead, a feminist polemic rather than the feminist hermeneutic I’d looked forward to; furthermore, one which is likely to muddy the debate within Christian feminist circles over the very role of biblical hermeneutics in the movement by confusing editorial bias with Divine bias and movement teaching with biblical teaching.
I take Dr. Trible’s two main texts to be Exodus 15:1–21 (which I’ll call the “Song of Moses narrative”) and Numbers 12:2–14, 20:1–2 (the “Cabinet Revolt narrative”), and I take it that she draws from her study of them the following general conclusions: 1. In the Song of Moses narrative, male redactors act unjustly against Miriam, and thus against all women since their bias is gender conditioned, by distorting the authentic words of God to emphasize Moses’ role at the expense of Miriam’s role, originally at least equal to Moses’. 2. In the Cabinet Revolt narrative, God (and many unnamed co-conspiring male Israelite religious leaders) acts unjustly against Miriam and thus against all women out of gender bias, by punishing her assertion of leadership rights—accepting the text as received.
First, assuming for the moment that both texts represent injustice against Miriam herself and against Miriam as she stands for womankind, what is the effect of Dr. Trible’s indiscriminate yoking of the two to make her feminist point? I’d say the answer was confusion—and possibly even despair—for the feminist hermeneutic movement, since these two texts point in two irreconcilable directions.
Trible’s critique of the Song of Moses narrative, which incidently I find persuasive, is a fine example of a biblical feminism that employs hermeneutics to remove male-supplied distortions of Holy Scripture, to free God’s authentic word so that women can draw hope and spiritual 007empowerment in their struggle against unjust masculine domination.
But how different is Trible’s critique of the Cabinet Revolt narrative. There, the text is received as is and stands as God’s authentic word—at least she allows it, unchallenged, to be taken as such. Thus, if the text unfairly condemns women (through a representative woman) it must be because the Lord “Himself” does so! The Bible’s message is hopelessly “patriarchal” because the authoring God of the Bible is patriarchal. So Trible, in her critique of the Cabinet Revolt narrative, confronts us with a good example of the sort of anti-biblical feminism that employs hermeneutics only insofar as it proves a useful tool to hammer home the fact of the fundamental distortion of the biblical perspective on women, part of the overall masculine strategy for female enslavement.
In failing to distinguish these two very different kinds of “injustice against women” embodied in the two texts, Trible leaves us in the dark on the “salvageability” of the Bible as a tool for feminist justice. Can Scripture be part of the solution, or is it doomed to remain a large part of the problem? This question seems to me far more important than the isolated issue of Miriam’s fair treatment in Exodus and Numbers.
Second, does Trible make a persuasive case for the male chauvinist character of the Miriam texts? At best, it seems to me, she manages to argue well for an anti-Miriam bias only in the Song of Moses narrative, but not for the Cabinet Revolt, and flounders entirely in substantiating (as opposed to insinuating) an anti-female bias in either text.
As Dr. Trible Indicates, the literary critical method makes a very good case for redactorial distortion of the Song of Moses narrative, which diminishes unjustly, one could fairly say, Miriam’s role in the Exodus event. After all, 95 percent of her great words (which are also God’s words, establishing her prophetic status) are snatched from her mouth and put into Moses’ mouth. But is the motive here necessarily male chauvinism? Only if, by definition, injustice to a person who happens to be a woman is male chauvinism. Of course, given the indisputable fact of patriarchalism in ancient Hebrew culture, a leap to the conclusion that Moses’ glorification at Miriam’s expense was an expression of sexism is understandable, possibly even correct, but hardly substantiated by textual evidence. Just as much a leap, but to my mind just as plausible, is the alternative hypothesis that the redactors of the Song of Moses narrative were revising at the behest of the Israelite nation-building elite who were actively attempting to fuse twelve disparate, quarrelsome Semitic tribes into an ethnopolitical and religious unity during the period that the Pentateuchal books were being forged into their familiar forms. Political sociology teaches that such an elite characteristically develops nation founding myths centering on a semi legendary hero-founder, and to the extent that legend provides alternative or rival heroes, these must be made to wane as the chosen hero waxes in the mythologizing process. In this view, had the Song of Moses been on the lips of Aaron, let’s say, rather than Miriam, in the pre-revised text, he would have suffered the same fate at the redactors’ hands; that Miriam was a woman was an accident, an irrelevancy. What was pertinent was the obstacle she posed to the development of Mosaic hagiography.
More important, however, is the lack of substantiation for Trible’s male chauvinism thesis in reinterpreting the Cabinet Revolt narrative (more important, at least to me, since here the Trible critique accuses God’s Word itself rather than the redactors of God’s Word), The textual “facts” are that Miriam strongly objects to the marriage of Moses to a “Cushite woman,” for reasons not supplied, even by implication, Aaron comes to agree with her (implied), and they confront Moses about the matter. (implied). We are told nothing about the kind of challenge Miriam and Aaron made to Moses, but the fact that it “kindled the Lord’s anger” does strongly indicate that it was rather drastic, on the order of a demand that he set the Cushite wife aside, positing their prophetic “weight” (two against one) over against his. This guess is made fairly likely given Miriam’s words supplied in Numbers 12:2—“Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” Immediately thereafter, God, angered, rebukes both Miriam and Aaron for having the temerity of challenging one so close to the Lord and His counsels (something, by implication, they ought to have known was a wrongful rebellion against His will). He upolds Moses’ special status, and metes out a terrible punishment—but not to both rebels, only to Miriam.
Now, I Searched high and low in the Cabinet Revolt narrative and could find not a single overt connection being made between Miriam’s femininity and the actions of any of the factors in the story. Even oblique or symbolic connections seem absent, though perhaps I just lack the eyes to see and the ears to hear, But Dr. Trible seems able to detect all sorts of sexist aspects in the narrative. For example, 008concerning God’s speech of rebuke and judgment (Numbers 12:6–8), she writes that the Lord “answers the issue of leadership and authority by declaring a hierarchy of prophecy. Moses stands peerless at the top. While not denying a prophetic role to Miriam, [this] undercuts her in gender and point of view.” What’s this about undercutting Miriam’s gender and point of view (presumably meaning feminine perspective)? Apparently, Dr. Trible believes this is God’s chief objective in this episode. And how does He accomplish this? Why, just by setting up “a hierarchy of authority with a male at the top.” This, according to Trible, is, in itself, an affront to her feminine dignity, and a calculated one. Trible seems to be saying that God was in the wrong to set up a ranked system of prophetic leadership (she notes Moses’ own earlier prayer that “all the Lord’s people”—including women—would be prophets), particularly one with a male head; that any such setup is innately offensive and injurious to women; and that God deliberately took such an anti-woman course to put the “uppity” female Miriam in her place, and, through her, all womankind symbolically.
Trible asserts that God’s gender bias is further indicated by the fact that Aaron, who shares Miriam’s “guilt” in rebellion, nevertheless is treated with clemency, and that only Miriam receives the punishment for the sin of challenging Moses. Trible’s explanation is simple: “The male is spared; the female sacrificed.” Surely, this is a supposition only, and there may be many other equally plausible explanations in the absence of any text-supplied explanation—e.g., Miriam appears throughout the narrative as the active and assertive member of the rebellious duo—in other words, the ringleader—to whom naturally falls the greatest blame for the occurrence. Be that as it may, Trible is certain Miriam suffers the full weight of God’s judgment just because she is a woman, for women are “supposed” to be victims—here “scapegoats” (“the woman is sacrificed”). In fact, Trible in the last third of her article greatly develops the theme Miriam-as-victim and goes so far as to use at least thrice the word “vendetta” to describe God’s sentence of leprosy and ostracism as if he were some Corsican don and Miriam a persecuted peasant heroine in a melodrama!
I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. Trible’s kind of feminist reading of the Cabinet Revolt narrative is impossible. Certainly it is possible, but only if what is being read is what lies entirely between the lines of the text. But if one simply reads the actual lines of the text themselves, one will find none of what she has found. Now, my point is not that one should never read between the lines of a biblical text. Hardly!—I’ve argued long and hard against biblical literalism myself. But shouldn’t one at least start with the lines, give their message a fair chance to be heard and considered, before one starts to go beneath them? And when one does venture below, shouldn’t a responsible scholar very carefully note his or her biases, presuppositions, assumptions and contextualizations, and never leave the impression with the reader that one’s conclusions, so derived, are any more than personal and speculative?
But this is just what Dr. Trible fails to do. She states at one point that “There are more interpretations than are dreamed of in their hermeneutics,” presumably contrasting “patriarchal” with her own feminist hermeneutics. I believe with this one quip Trible inadvertently sums ups the basic problem with her own hermeneutics. She does biblical feminism no service by attempting to nurture it on a “dreamy” hermeneutics of wishful between-the-lines readings and hazy symbolic renderings. I believe feminist hermeneutics can and should take on patriarchal hermeneutics head on. It might even win in a clean, fair fight.
Book Reviewing as a Blood Sport
Professor James Kugel accused Professor Robert Alter of plagiarism. Professor John Gammie has given his judgment. It is that Kugel’s charge is false (John Gammie, “Alter vs. Kugel—Taking the Heat in Struggle over Biblical Poetry,” BR 05:01). That judgment is unambiguous and it is final, an objective and a complete vindication of Professor Alter. “Alter brings fresh insights and does not simply repeat Kugel’s insights,” concludes Professor Gammie. After three readings of “Alter vs. Kugel,” I cannot find a single line in Professor Gammie’s article that seriously entertains the plausibility of Kugel’s charge of plagiarism. Rarely in academic life do we witness so magisterial and so one-sided a decision in favor of one scholar and against another as Professor Gammie has given in this judicious statement of his.
Nothing whatsoever is left of Kugel’s charge; his case lies in ruins, a monument to an inflated judgment of one’s own work joined to a malicious opinion of another scholar’s integrity and honesty. You have printed what seems to me so one-sided a judgment against Kugel in every detail that I wonder whether Kugel will now wish publicly, in the Journal of Religion and Bible Review, to withdraw his charge and apologize for having made it. In the meantime, I understand, many reputable scholars refuse to join in projects in which Professor Kugel is involved. Only Professor Kugel has the power to recover for himself a respectable position in the scholarly world.
This judgment of Professor Gammie also proves rich in lessons for the editors of the Journal of Religion. For Kugel’s review is typical of what they print. Their book review columns in general are malicious and ugly. Their sustained labor of character-assassination costs them heavily in repute, while scholarship gains nothing. To them book reviewing is a blood sport. Consequently, the University of Chicago Divinity School fades from the circle of respected and respectable centers for the study of religion. The director of the University of Chicago Press, Mr. Morris Phillipson, emerges as a hero, for having insisted on publishing Professor Alter’s students’ response as well as the editors’ statement repudiating Kugel’s malice.
Readers of this journal may not realize how remarkable a contribution to learning has been made by Bible Review’s publicizing the issue and dealing with it in a serious and responsible way. When Kugel’s scurrilous attack originally was printed by the Journal of Religion, to my knowledge only two newspapers made mention of it, the Baltimore Jewish Times and the National Jewish Post and Opinion. The preeminence of Alter, the seriousness of Kugel’s charges—these seemed to me important. At that time, I was a member of the editorial advisory council of the Boston Jewish Advocate (I have since resigned), and so I suggested that they cover the story, since it was a local item, involving a Harvard professor in Jewish studies. They refused to do so. I had the impression that they were afraid to treat so “dangerous” a story. And no other paper or magazine anywhere had the courage to face the scandal and investigate it. But you did: all honor to you!
In a thorough, informed and responsible way you have allowed the intellectual community to consider the matter and with Professor Gammie’s help to make up its own mind. You deserve a prize for this kind of constructive and illuminating reporting, and I hope you get it.
But still more, I hope that Professor Kugel will now do the right and proper thing and reenter the realm of respectable scholarly discourse, from which, through his defamatory charges against Professor Alter, he has removed himself. He has 009much of value to contribute, but only in an ethical way. No friend of Professor Alter will bear a grudge, once this matter is cleaned up.
University Professor, Ungerleider Distinguished Scholar of Judaic Studies
Program in Judaic Studies
Providence, Rhode Island
The Universality of Chiasm
I enjoyed John Gammie’s overview of the elements of biblical poetry and his illustrations from 2 Samuel 22 (“Alter vs. Kugel—Taking the Heat in Struggle over Biblical Poetry,” BR 05:01). One question: in verse 43, does the inversion of the second phrase occur in the Hebrew source? It is reminiscent of chiasmic (i.e., “X-shaped”) constructions in, for example, Virgil’s epic Poetry. It would be interesting if this same element is found in Hebrew, Greek and Latin works alike.
Professor John Gammie replies:
The Hebrew of 2 Samuel 22:43 is indeed a chiasmus such as is found in poetry throughout the world. This verse, in a more literal translation, reads:
On the back cover of your February issue you solicit questions for your new game “Exodus—Getting to the Promised Land.” I was surprised to see an error in the answer to question No. 2 in the category “Hard” questions. You say that Samuel had two sons named Hophni and Phineas!!! Well, perhaps you had better check more carefully, because 1 Samuel 8:2 states that Samuel had two sons, the first one named Joel and the second named Abijah. They were both Judges in Beer-Sheva. Furthermore, 1 Samuel 1:3 clearly states that Eli had two sons named Hophni and Phineas.
It would be terribly embarrassing for you to publish a Bible Quiz game with incorrect answers.
Shame, shame, shame on you! Three lashes with a wet papyrus reed! Question No. 2 states that Samuel had two sons. Four possible choices are provided and there is nary a Samuelite in the bunch! Speaking of “How the mighty have fallen” (question No. 4)! “Tell it not in Gath! Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon!”
Pardon me for having some fun at your expense. I truly enjoy both BR and BAR, and I read them faithfully.
I hate to nag but let’s get accuracy in this, especially where the kiddies are concerned. Question No. 24 under “Children’s Questions” states “… three wise men came to Jerusalem.” Nowhere does the Scripture Stipulate how many wise men made the journey. The convention that there were three stems from the enumeration of the three gifts they brought. There could have been two or any number more as plural modifiers are used in the Scripture.
Lots of luck on your new Bible game.
You’ve probably received a hundred letters about this by now …
Just trying to help.
St. Mark’s Church
Yes, we have … and we’re properly embarrassed. Thanks for helping.—Ed.
Is KJV the Only Accurate Bible?
I was intrigued by the letter of Gary Weage in the April issue (see Readers Reply, BR 05:02)in which he states that the King James Version is “the only accurate Bible.” Several interesting conclusions follow from that assertion. If the KJV, a 17th-century English translation, is the only accurate Bible, then 1. Bibles in any other language are not accurate, a notion French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc., speaking Christians would find very odd; 2. Bibles published before 1600 are not accurate, a notion St. Jerome and other Church fathers would find very odd; 3. The original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible are not accurate, a notion God himself would probably find odd.
Mr. Weage’s letter once again proves that while faith may be able to move mountains, it cannot budge stupidity.
Department of Ophthalmology
If Mr. Weage believes that the King James Version is the original Bible, he must also believe that the “lost years” of Jesus were spent in Britain with Joseph of Arimathaea studying under Merlin on Avalon (see the Anglican hymn: “Jerusalem”).
Dover, New Jersey
In the glossary contained in Bible Lands, BR 05:01, the wrong date appeared for the compilation of the Mishnah by Rabbi Judah the Prince. The correct date is 200 C.E. (A.D.).
The photograph of the pomegranate in “Amos’s Four Visions”, BR 05:02, should have been credited to Shai Ginott of the Israel Nature Reserves Authority.
My Heart Leaps Up