FIERCE: Women of theBible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation. By Alice Connor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017. Xii + 182 pages.
Men figure prominently in the biblical story. Yes, there are women who appear in the story, but the figures who come to mind most often are Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Peter, and Paul. Women play supporting roles—important yes, just not A list important. More than likely, when women come to mind, it is because they play the role of temptress (like Eve or perhaps Rahab and Tamar). But even in the cases of Rahab and Tamar, do we stop to think about why these women are forced to take up these roles. Sometimes, as with Mary Magdalene, it is tradition that turns them into sinners. So, here’s the thing—does the word “fierce” come to mind when you think of biblical women? If not, then I have a surprise for you. There is a new book that emphasizes the fierceness of some of the very women I’ve already mentioned. What is needed is a person who can read outside the box and retell the biblical stories in ways that lift up often ignored qualities. The subtitle of Fierce, a book by Alice Connor, gives us insight into what such stories might involve: “Women of the Bible and their stories of violence, mercy, bravery, wisdom, sex, and salvation.”
The stories of biblical women come to life in the hands of Alice Walker, an Episcopal priest and campus minister. She retells stories we may have read or may have glossed over as we move through scripture, assuming that these figures are secondary, background characters, whose role it is to enhance the reputations of the men. What we find are women who are strong and vital and purposeful, even as they often face hardships. Alice Connor demonstrates an ability to bring characters to life. I thought of using the word "hip" to describe her portrayal of women who range from Mary Theotokos (her term for Mary the mother of Jesus, referencing the creedal confession of Mary’s status) to Hagar (the throwaway wife, whose cries are heard by God). While at times her style can be described as hip, I think a better way of describing her style is “edgy.” There is a sharpness to the portrayals that cuts through traditional wrappings. Connor reminds us that the women of the Bible are not two-dimensional. She reminds us that there are multiple ways of reading and encountering these stories. The way she chooses to approach the stories is “through the lenses of slavery, poverty, disaster, sexual minority, and disability, as well as discovery, connection, and joy” (p. 4). Just to be clear, this book is not written with just women in mind. These are stories men should encounter as well. She writes of the feminist voice, “in reality, it’s about recognizing our common humanity—men, women, transpeople, everyone—and not just allowing by delighting in stories where women do awesome things (I’m looking at you, Mad Max: Fury Road)” (p. 5).
Connor divides her book into there parts. Part One, which is titled “"The Only Four (plus Mary)” is a reference to the four women, whose stories are told in the Hebrew Bible, who appear in the genealogy of Jesus (plus his mother). Readers of the genealogies often wonder why these four appear. After all, they’re all outsiders with somewhat checked pasts, but all four play an instrumental role in the biblical story. So, we meet with Tamar, who slept with her father-in-law because he failed in his duty to provide her with a husband and heir. There are Rahab and Bathsheba, two foreign women, whose nakedness might give scandal but continued the story. Finally, there is Ruth, the Moabite woman whose loyalty transcended tribe, but who faced tremendous odds in immigrating to a strange land. Each story is told with verve, so we might learn a little more about them.
In part two Connor lifts up more stories of women in the Hebrew Bible (including one story from the deuterocanonical texts—Susanna). Connor tells us that she is a bit odd, in that she prefers to preach from the Hebrew Bible. While she does like Jesus, she finds the stories in the Hebrew Bible to have complexity that isn’t often dealt with, and so she has emphasized these stories. Among them is the role of Asherah, a Canaanite goddess, who is generally portrayed negatively in the Bible, but according to some archaeological evidence may have once been the consort or queen to Yahweh. While I struggled with her decision to include this goddess whom the likes of Elijah battled, she uses the story of Asherah, and her exclusion from Yahweh’s story to remind us of all who get excluded. Whether we are ready to embrace her as Yahweh’s consort, it is worth pondering. The other stories are more standard fare, but even they receive a very different treatment. I find intriguing that she offers a chapter focused on Hagar, but not on Sarah. There is an interpretation of the Song of Songs that is provocative, but worth time spent. Some of the chapters deal with feminized objects, such as city named Jerusalem. who might have been understood at some point to be Yahweh's consort/queen. I struggled with this inclusion, since in general the prophets fought against Asherah's influence, but Connor uses the elimination of Asherah from Yahweh's story to remind us of who else gets excluded. From there we move to Eve, Hagar, Deborah and Jael, Song of Songs, the widows, the city of Jerusalem (cities were often portrayed in feminine form), and in Ezekiel Jerusalem is understood as God’s wife, and Ezekiel’s portrayal is not positive. She notes that the way Ezekiel portrays the relationship, suggests something rather abusive: “The woman may or may not have done something wrong, the husband gets angry and hurts her, and then his anger is sated, and he apologizes, saying he’ll never do it again” (p. 111). These are disturbing stories, but she reminds us that we cannot ignore them. Finally, there is the story of Susanna. This story is an interesting addition since it’s not canonical. Still, the story has a poignancy that speaks to our own time, for it is the story of dealing with sexual assault and harassment. A woman is not believed because the accused are men of power and influence. Only the willingness of Daniel to step in gives credibility to her story.
Part Three focuses on Christian women from the woman at the well to Mary Magdalene. Connor retells the stories in helpful but imaginative ways. She helps us separate out fact from fiction (you might say). So, we meet with Mary and Martha, Herodias I and Herodias II (Salome), along with Paul's church ladies including Priscilla and Phoebe. Connor seeks here to enliven our understanding and take note of misrepresentations of their stories. I especially enjoyed her conversation about the woman at the well, in which Jesus talks theology with one who is his apparent equal. In the same chapter she retells the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. In both cases we have women willing to talk back to God.
I loved this book. Perhaps I expected something different, but I appreciate the way she is willing retell stories so that we hear them anew. Indeed, we’re able to hear these stories in ways that speak to our own experiences. As a preacher who is male, I was chastened by my lack of attention to many of these stories. I may have missed important clues that she brings out. I will attend better to these stories in the future (I hope). I do have a couple of concerns, however. This primarily concerns the chapter on Mary and Martha. Whereas she was in most cases Connor took great care in separating out characters, and yet she merges the stories of these women as told in John and the Synoptics with regard to Lazarus. Lazarus appears in John, but not in the synoptics. There was in that chapter some confusion that seemed unnecessary. This extends to the story of the anointing of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, the person who anoints Jesus is Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. In the Synoptics, it’s other women and the anointing takes place in different settings. This seems rather careless to me, but it doesn't take away from the entirety of the book, it’s just one of those miscues that distracts.
Ultimately, I’m in agreement with Walter Brueggemann's assessment (in his blurb), where he suggests that Connor "is a skillful artist who knows how to transpose old, old stories into new, new songs." She does this well. I will confess that I struggle with the use of language on the lips of clergy that I was taught as a child not to use in polite company. Thus, I winced on occasion, but that’s me (it’s where I am a bit old fashioned). Again, that doesn’t take away from the power of this act of retelling biblical stories so that they can speak to our time and place. There is an edge to the presentation, and that’s a good thing. Indeed, Connor writes with humor when appropriate and deep seriousness when appropriate. She also writes out of her own story, making his a most personal encounter with the biblical story. It's not a memoir, but it is deeply personal. I would especially recommend this book to those who, like me, spend time in the pulpit, for it might help enliven our own engagement with the text and the way we relate it to others. I highly recommend this to colleagues and lay folk alike. Again, this book may focus on women of the Bible, but it's not a women's study. It's for all of us!