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Biblical Women in World and Hebrew Literature

by David Fishelov

In Brief

Women characters are presented in the Bible in various degrees of elaboration and complexity as life-like, historical figures. In modern Hebrew literature, as part of reconnecting to the Bible as a source of inspiration, writers were drawn to the triangle of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. Since the 1980s, feminist criticism has deeply influenced the reading of the Bible, redeeming outcast women characters and giving voice to certain deprecated biblical women. The portrayal of biblical women in contemporary world and Hebrew literature allows us access to the thoughts of biblical women, exposure to their world, and better understanding of their motivation and sensitivities.

In order to present a concise overview of biblical women in world and Hebrew literature throughout the ages, one has to resort to some crude generalizations. While such generalizations may simplify the extremely heterogeneous and multi-faceted phenomena under discussion, one hopes that they will not necessarily distort the subject. To approach this wide and varied field, I would like to propose certain distinctions and to focus on some representative cases. These distinctions may, with some modifications, apply to male and female biblical characters alike.

Evaluation of Biblical Women Characters

The first two distinctions refer to the biblical text itself. First, using E. M. Forster’s terms, there are “flat” and “round” characters: MaacahMichalAbigail, and Bath-Sheba are all King David’s wives, but the first is a much “flatter” character than the others. Saying that Maacah is a relatively “flat” character does not mean that she had no importance in the biblical world; in fact, she was probably a prominent political figure possessing noble titles and genealogy. She was the daughter of a king (Talmai, King of Geshur) and the mother of an extremely prominent son of David (Absalom). However, this does not make her ipso facto a leading or interesting literary personage. We know almost nothing of her actions and thoughts, and she is not involved in any significant interaction with other characters. On the other hand, Michal, Abigail, and Bath-Sheba stand out as “round” (or, to use Auerbach’s phrase, they are “fraught with background”). Michal had notable familial relations (she was the daughter of King Saul), whereas Abigail and Bath-Sheba came from more common backgrounds. All three, however, stand out not because of any titles they might have held. They demand notice first and foremost because we know something of their actions and thoughts and because they are deeply involved with other major characters in a way that evokes emotional and moral issues (e.g., love, hate, loyalty, betrayal, and contempt). It is natural to assume that such “round” women characters would attract more attention and would become the subject of relatively numerous interpretative and imaginative re-writings. Such generalization holds good provided we understand that the “roundness” of a character is a relative term (in comparison with other characters) and not a simple function of the length of portrayal. Sometimes, even a single verse may bring to life an interesting and relatively round character, such as Lot’s Wife (see Shacham: 82–101).

The second distinction has to do with the way the Bible evaluates its women characters (for the complex rhetorical strategies used by the biblical text to judge its characters, see Sternberg: 441–481). In other words, how are women characters judged by the biblical text? While the most important dimension here is moral judgement, one may also think of other dimensions (e.g., aesthetic). This dimension, the rhetoric of the biblical text vis-à-vis its women characters, seems to be an important distinction with regard to future re-writing. Women characters receiving significant rhetorical treatment in the Bible would most likely get more attention than those who do not evoke strong moral judgements. Hence, when Eve disobeys God’s decree, eats from the forbidden tree, and persuades Adam to join her, her character becomes the focus of a crucial moral dilemma and attracts the attention of readers, interpreters, and writers. The same argument holds true when we meet a character whose actions are commendable, such as Ruth the Moabite.

Another useful distinction does not stem from the biblical text but rather is related to cultural and literary history. For instance, the European Middle Ages, characterized by the strong hegemony of the Church, would foster specific attitudes towards biblical women as part of its religious and moral doctrine (e.g., using Eve as a bad exemplum). Romanticism, on the other hand, would portray biblical women in a way compatible with its own aesthetic and moral sensitivities (e.g., sometimes being attracted to an enchanting but dangerous femme fatal). Instead of applying detailed period labels (e.g., Early Middle Ages, Late Middle Ages, Early Renaissance, Renaissance, Baroque, Early Modern, Romanticism, etc.), one major distinction seems more important for the purpose of this brief overview. This is the distinction between the pre-modern and the modern period (roughly from the mid-eighteenth century onward). The modern era displays a significant, sometimes even radical shift of hierarchies, sensitivities, and evaluative attitudes with regard to the re-writing of biblical women characters.

This article focuses on the fate of biblical women in post-biblical times. (For a survey of factors operating in the re-writing of archetypal and mythical figures see Stanford: 1–7; for the multi-layered process of modern dialoguing with the biblical text, see Fisch 1998:3–22.) We should bear in mind, however, that the complex process of re-writing biblical female personages is not an isolated phenomenon but rather goes together with the re-writing of biblical men. In fact, it is difficult to think of a biblical story containing women alone. This is of course obvious, considering that the Bible represents, first and foremost, a male, patriarchal perspective in which women are shown playing a minor, often subjugated role (see Bird).

Finally there is the difference, already apparent in the heading of this article between world and Hebrew literature. The history of Hebrew literature is of course intertwined with the history of world literature, especially during two millennia of Lit. (Greek) "dispersion." The Jewish community, and its areas of residence, outside Erez Israel.Diaspora, when Jews were heavily influenced in their ways of writing by the literature of the hosting culture. Nevertheless, despite these close ties with the various hosting cultures, Hebrew literature has its own (relative) autonomy and dynamics.

It is difficult to enumerate the entire set of women biblical characters: around one hundred and thirty bear concrete names (the exact figure may vary depending on the criterion used for including women in the list; see Meyers and Zmora), and among the many more unnamed, some play an important role (e.g., Samson’s Mother and Jephthah’s Daughter). It is practically impossible to present the innumerable literary works in which they were re-interpreted or mentioned. It will therefore be more useful to focus on certain significant and representative personages, and to present some re-writings of them. The women characters chosen usually play an important role in the biblical narrative as well as in the consciousness of generations of readers, interpreters, and writers. Thus, I shall devote a section to the “founding mothers” of the human race and of the Jewish people. This will include the literary fate of Eve, the first archetypal woman, representing the potential of womanhood and outlining the scope of feminine modes of behavior. I will briefly survey the literary re-writings of the nation’s founding mothers, those who form the core of the initial stages of establishing the identity of the Jewish people. Then I will describe a few foreign women, representing sometimes a desired ideal (e.g., Ruth), sometimes a dangerous femme fatale (e.g., Delilah), and sometimes evoking an ambivalent attitude (e.g., Hagar). After considering the important and sad category of victimized women (e.g., Jephthah’s daughter), I will try to shed some light on the literary fate of minor biblical characters and conclude with a brief discussion of some borderline cases.

The Founding Mothers

This first group of women characters includes the mother of humankind and the four matriarchs of the Jewish people. These five deserve a separate section not only because of their role in the text but also because they seem to possess certain traits that are later manifested in many other biblical women characters. Thus, they function as archetypes, encapsulating a set of motives and potentials that will later be realized in their many (literal and metaphorical) daughters.

The Mother of Humankind

Eve attracts our interest for at least two reasons. First, she is the mother of humankind, the first woman on earth, and the archetypal biblical woman. Secondly, she has a decisive role to play in a highly charged situation, determining the destiny of the human race. Most pre-modern writers, under the impact of Church doctrine, tended to portray her as the embodiment of evil, the first human being to be aligned with Satan (the popular reading of the serpent), the great seducer, responsible for the Fall of mankind. While some Fathers of the Church had an ambivalent attitude towards her, drawing a number of parallels and contrasts between Eve and the Virgin Mary (Mary’s obedience reverses the disobedience of Eve), in general the treatment she received was not favorable. Other negative aspects of her character were suggested by Philo (in Legum allegoriaeDe opificio mundi). In his allegorical reading, Adam represents the mind, Eve sense perception, and the serpent pleasure. These notions, characterized by strong moral and didactic overtones, can be found in medieval and even Renaissance literary works (e.g., in Cursor Mundi). Sometimes one can find an ambivalent attitude towards Eve, on the one hand emphasizing her negative role as a temptress, and on the other seeing her as a helpmate to Adam (e.g., in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). The negative emphasis is still evident in Milton’s seventeenth-century epic, Paradise Lost. While Milton dwells on Eve’s beauty and the bliss of her pre-Fall relations with Adam, he develops her as a childish, irresponsible character, driven by egotistic impulses, and the Fall is blamed primarily on her.

During the Romantic period more sympathetic portrayals of Eve began to emerge. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (in her play Drama of Exile) emphasizes the role of Eve as the mother of all beings. Christ himself asks Adam to bless her in this capacity. A deep sense of empathy is also felt in Christina Rossetti’s treatment of Eve (in “Eve”). George Bernard Shaw made Eve reappear in future historical time (in Back to Methuselah), and there it is she who utters words that justify the ways of the world. Modern poets tend to be drawn to Eve’s beauty and life-giving gift (e.g., Robert Frost) or endow her with rebellious qualities (e.g., Archibald MacLeish). Sylvia Plath alludes to the story of Adam and Eve as a prototype of the relations between herself and her husband in “Ode to Ted,” and later evokes the Genesis story from a more ironic distance in “Zoo Keeper’s Wife” (see Brown: 88–89).

Eve received many poetic treatments in modern times, but very few narratives have re-told her story or at least not explicitly. The reason for this is probably the deep archetypal, mythological nature of the story. Modern writers of fiction seem to be more attracted to realistic biblical characters, involved in verisimilar situations. The mythological nature of the Garden of Eden story may allow for some realistic elaboration—but only, perhaps, on a more remote, metaphorical level. One can of course find many localized allusions to the Garden of Eden story (e.g., the concluding lines of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady), but not necessarily a comprehensive, consistent re-writing. Since poets are less committed to realistic representations and are often interested in the symbolic dimensions of a story, they can resort to Adam and Eve in their own kind of idiom.

Eve in modern Hebrew literature, as in Western literature, has influenced especially poets, notably women poets. Thus, Anda Amir (“Havvah”), for example, expresses much sympathy for the prototypical woman who does not regret her mortal sin, but rather blesses the fact that she becomes part of nature, identifying herself with other she-animals. Yokheved Bat-Miriam depicts Eve (“Havvah”) as a proud and free spirit, mysteriously embodying death, secrecy, and imagination. Her Adam and Eve present a paradigm of relations between men and women in which women are more intimately connected to the world (see Jacobson: 124–129). When it comes to writers of fiction, certain stories evoke the Garden of Eden myth as the background against which a modern narrative is set (see Fisch 1998). Eve thus becomes a metaphor, an analogy for the heroine of the story. Dinah in S. Y. Agnon’s “Agunot,” who performs an act of transgression, may be interpreted as a modern reincarnation of the biblical Eve, as is Zivah in A. B. Yehoshua’s The Evening Journey of Yatir (see Aschkenazy: 60–73). In both cases, with different emphases, the modern versions are more pessimistic than the biblical models.

The Four Matriarchs

Sarah, the first patriarch’s wife, is characterized by beauty (evidenced in the intriguing episodes with Pharaoh and Abimelech, Genesis 12 and 20 where Abraham acts in a morally questionable way) and longevity (she bore Isaac at the age of 90 and died at 127). But the incidents that interests most readers, interpreters, and writers seem to be her laughter when she heard the promise made to Abraham about an offspring (Genesis 18), her complex relations with Hagar (Genesis 16 and 21), and her conspicuous absence from the Akedah (binding of Isaac) scene. Sarah’s laughter, understood as expressing doubt and disbelief in God’s promise, made early Christian interpreters uncomfortable. They sometimes tried to overcome this problematic aspect of her behavior by associating her with the Virgin Mary, on the ground of the miraculous conception (e.g., Ambrose, Commentarius in epistolam ad Romanos, 9). Philo allegorizes Sarah as Virtue giving birth to Happiness (Legum allegoriae, 2.82). Medieval treatments of Sarah try to exonerate her and to interpret her laughter as a momentary lapse in belief that was later remedied, so that she became a symbol of faith (e.g., Prudentus, Psychomachia, 45–49). Sometimes the elevated Sarah is contrasted with Hagar. Sarah, despite her laughter, eventually represents faith, whereas the Egyptian concubine represents disobedience. The two women are also accorded an allegorical reading in which Hagar stands for the Old Testament or the Jews and Sarah for the New Testament and the Christians (e.g., Glossa Ordinaria on Genesis). The tendency to endow Sarah with pious qualities is also evident in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where she is placed in Paradiso (32.10), in the amphitheater of the celestial rose.

From the Renaissance onward, however, this tendency to smooth the tensions in Sarah’s life changes. In Theodore Beza’s Tragedie of Abraham’s Sacrifice (1577), she argues with Abraham about the sacrifice of Isaac and in a late eighteenth-century play (Farrer’s The Trial of Abraham) she strongly objects to his journey. In perhaps the most profound treatment of the Akedah story in modern literature and philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813–1855) Fear and Trembling, the author presents Sarah, in the four imaginary opening episodes, as present in the original scene. These four scenes also include, on a metaphorical level, a motherly figure weaning her child. This move is part of an emphasis on feminine characters that pervades the work, part of Kierkegaard’s own deliberations concerning the role of women in his life. Whereas the biblical text pushes Sarah into the background at this crucial moment, when her husband is about to sacrifice her long-awaited son, Kierkegaard returns her, with her maternal care and anxiety, to the foreground.

Among modern Yiddish writers, one should mention the humorous and popular portrayal of Sarah by the poet Itzik Manger (1901–1969). In his A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).Midrash Itzik he tailors the biblical story to a (Yiddish) Small-town Jewish community in Eastern Europe.shtetl-like situation, making Sarah a jealous, nagging wife, complaining about Hagar. At the same time, however, the poet also sympathizes with her distress. Manger’s most important move seems to lie in giving Sarah a voice—something she almost lacks in the Bible—both when she complains before bearing Isaac, and later when Abraham goes on his mission.

Sarah is mentioned in many modern Hebrew poems, usually in the context of re-writings of the Akedah story. The tragic situation in which young people get killed in the name of national ideals is at the root of modern Hebrew writers’ attraction for this archetypal scene (see Kartun-Blum: 15–65). Perhaps the most moving poem of the type that highlights Sarah is by the poet Benjamin Galay. In his Hayyei Sarah (Sarah’s Life) he focuses on her reaction to the story of the sacrifice, after she learns what had almost happened to her son. In a move very similar to the Midrash (e.g., Leviticus Rabba, 20:2) and to Rashi’s reading, he strengthens the connection between the story of the sacrifice (Genesis 22) and the dry, factual statement that opens the following chapter, recounting Sarah’s death.

If a latent rebellious element is evident in Sarah’s laughter, with Rebekah other prototypical female characteristics are developed: woman as a manipulative wife and a dominating mother. She orchestrates the theft of the paternal blessing of primogeniture in Jacob’s favor. She is also the one who suggests the escape route to Jacob (Genesis 27:43–44). Note that in initiating and carrying out her plan this “pushy” mother not only promotes Jacob’s status, but also puts his life in danger. Notwithstanding her morally dubious actions, involving deception and beguilement, early Christian commentators (e.g., Ambrose, John Cassian) tended to sanction her deeds. The end—to promote God’s plans—can justify the unsavory means. At other times exegetes present Rebekah’s deeds as not involving a lie, but rather as “figurative” (e.g., Augustine, Thomas Aquinas). The tendency to justify her conduct combined with a critical attitude towards the figure of Esau, sometimes even associating him with the Devil. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (in The Clerk’s Tale), Rebekah is evoked with reference to the scene of giving water to Eliezer and his camels at the well (Genesis 24:16–22), an episode that has attracted many pictorial representations throughout the ages. The figure re-emerges in nineteenth century English literature, usually with negative connotations. A few heroines who carry the name connote eroticism, shrewdness, and the alien (sometimes associated with the stereotype of a Jew). Some of these traits are evident in Thackeray’s portrayal of Becky (Rebecca) Sharp in Vanity Fair. Hitchcock’s film Rebecca, based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, evokes some of the dark associations that the name acquired in the Gothic novel. At the beginning of the twentieth century, we meet Rebekah in a play, Jaakobs Traum (Jacob’s Dream) by the German Jewish writer Richard Beer-Hofmann (1866–1945) as a decisive and strong-willed character. These traits also characterize her portrayal in Thomas Mann’s monumental Joseph and His Brothers. Her independence of mind is developed in the novel Jacob by the American writer Irving Fineman (1906–1981), where her meeting with Isaac is a disappointment: she expected a magnanimous character like his father Abraham, and instead she encountered an ordinary man.

In his “Rebecca,” the modern Yiddish poet Itzik Manger emphasizes her tragedy, for after the deception she in fact loses both sons, who leave the household, one in anger (Esau), the other in fear (Jacob). Rebekah’s resolute conduct near the well attracted the attention of a few modern Hebrew poets (e.g., Jacob Cohen [1881–1960] and Dov Chomsky [1913–1976]), but no major work was dedicated to the character.

Of the two sisters Leah and Rachel, there is no doubt that Rachel won not only the love of Jacob, but also that of the majority of readers and authors through the ages. Leah, the elder daughter of Laban and Jacob’s first wife, is portrayed as a passive pawn in the hands of her calculating, greedy father. Her main asset lies in her womb and in bearing Jacob’s children. Thus, as far as the national narrative is concerned, Leah fulfils a prime function. As a literary character, however, Rachel overshadows her. When Leah emerges in post-biblical writings, it is usually only in juxtaposition to Rachel, and in most cases references to her are local and marginal or are part of an abstract literary pattern of deception and rejection (see Jagendorf). In early Christian writings Leah represents the laborious, active life while her sister stands for hope and contemplative life. We find this distinction elaborated in Augustine’s Contra Faustum (22.52), and later reiterated by Gregory the Great and Thomas Aquinas (in Summa Theologia, “On the Division of Life into Active and Contemplative”).

Echoes of the figure of Rachel, with a special emphasis on her status as a barren woman lamenting her lack of children (following Genesis 30:1 and Jeremiah 31:14), can be found in various modern novels such as Melville’s Moby Dick, Dickens’ Hard Times, Trollope’s Rachel Ray, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Thackeray’s Henry Esmond. All these literary allusions do not re-write the biblical story systematically but use it more as a source for enriching and deepening the significance of modern stories and characters, exploiting the basically romantic aura of Rachel. The opposition between the two sisters, with a clear bias towards the elder with her “soft eyes,” can be found in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, which is an explicit elaboration on the biblical story.

In modern Hebrew literature, as part of reconnecting to the Bible as a source of inspiration, writers were drawn to the triangle of Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Rahel (Bluwstein), an early twentieth-century poet, expressed her deep psychological identification with the biblical figure of her namesake. Note how sometimes a half-arbitrary choice of biblical names, evident in Jewish culture, especially in modern Israel, may affect literary sensitivities and identifications (sometimes a poet would change her original name to a biblical one as a conscious, symbolic move—as in the case of Yokheved Bat-Miriam, “daughter of Miriam”). Rahel (Bluwstein) alludes to her biblical “predecessor,” emphasizing their shared state of barrenness and praising her love of freedom. For many writers Leah and Rachel became symbols—the everyday, real woman as opposed to the beloved, desired one. In a concise quatrain Yehuda Amichai (1914–2000) uses these stereotypical associations, with a twist. According to Amichai, in the morning the woman beside him is perceived as “Leah” (the word can be understood as an adjective, meaning tired), while yesterday night this same woman was “Rachel.” The poet concludes that it was not Laban who deceived the male speaker; rather, this rotating perception of women is part of “the way of the world.” Dalia Ravikovitch, in “Like Rachel,” focuses on the dramatic scene where Rachel gives birth to Benjamin and dies, emphasizing a death wish on the part of Rachel. Lea Goldberg, in “Jacob and Rachel,” portrays Rachel as a modern woman, sitting in a cafe, smoking, waiting for her beloved—thus shifting the emphasis to the female’s love and frustration. (For more details on re-writing of Rachel by modern Israeli women poets, see Shacham: 130–150.) In Meir Shalev’s novel Esau, the two sisters are conflated into one character. Contrary to our expectations, the name of the beloved woman is Leah, who is a mixture of the traits of both sisters. The incongruous mixture of traits, the use of the biblical narrative as an analogy to a modern story, rather than simply writing a “biblical novel,” is characteristic of many contemporary treatments of biblical themes in Israeli literature. Meir Shalev’s novel may also raise questions regarding the accepted derogatory attitude towards Leah (the novel also questions the accepted division between the favored Jacob and the rejected Esau). The conventional attitude to the sisters has sometimes been challenged. Anda Amir in her poem “Leah” identifies with the sorrows of this rejected woman, portraying her as a sensual, tragic figure. Shulamith Hareven, a contemporary novelist and essayist, published a stimulating and perceptive article, “In Praise of Leah,” claiming that Jacob’s adoration of Rachel in fact expresses idolatry. To idealize Rachel is to embrace the barren goddess of the moon. Leah, with her deep love for her husband and her fertile life-giving power is the true heroine of the story. Note that Rachel herself wants to become a “Leah” (i.e., to participate in the procreative cycle rather than remain the adored, but detached from real life, woman). Thus an interesting shift of hierarchy seems to begin to occur in contemporary Israeli literature regarding the two sisters.

Foreign Women

Foreign women interested the biblical authors for more than one reason. At different times, they represented a source of attraction but also of danger—a threat to the formation of a coherent and homogeneous nation. When the tribes of Israel were trying to occupy Canaan, the question of intermarriage was very pertinent one for the patriarchal society. Later, in exilic conditions, it became an acute issue with regard to the hosting society (for the way erotic relationship in the Bible sometimes indirectly represents ambigious national conflicts and attitudes, see Keshet). This basically ambivalent attitude towards foreign women is evident in that some of the most pious and ideally portrayed women in the Bible are of alien origin, but at the same time, some of the most negative and dangerous also come from foreign lands. The following section examines these two extremes, as well as some interesting mixtures.

The Pious Ones

Ruth the Moabite attracted the attention of post-biblical writers not only because a book (or a scroll) was named after her. She seems to interest many writers and artists because of the realistic and touching, almost sentimental, qualities of her story—which also raises some complex moral issues (loyalty, grace) as well as some questions regarding the status of women in society (dependency, financial power). Ruth also stands out as the cultured, refined variation of stories focusing on men’s obligation to fulfil their duty towards women and family procreation: the story of Lot’s daughters represents the brutal variation, that of Tamar and Judah the semi-cultured (see Fisch 1998:14–17).

To begin with, it is significant to note that the Bible bestowed on Ruth, the foreign woman, the honor of being the foremother of the most important dynasty of the Jewish people—the house of David, from which the Messiah is to come. In Christian tradition (following Matthew 1:5), which gives her a place in the genealogy of Jesus, she was praised as a symbol of pious love. Dante sets her next to two other mothers of Israel (Sarah and Rebekah), seated on a petal of the white rose, representing modest faith and those who believe in Christ yet to come (Paradiso, 32.10–24). Allusions to Ruth as a representative of ideal yet erotic love can be found in many poems (e.g., Milton’s Sonnet 9, Blake’s Jerusalem 62.11). Numerous painters (e.g., Rembrandt, Delacroix) have focused on her encounter with Boaz, highlighting the erotic dimension of the character. Ruth’s solitude engaged Keats, who alludes to her in “Ode to a Nightingale.” George Eliot in Silas Marner evokes the relationship between Ruth and Naomi (see Fisch 1998:65–69). The erotically charged scene between Ruth and Boaz is used by Victor Hugo in “Boaz endormi” (1859) as an evocation of an old man’s experience of love on a summer night. Hugo not only changes emphasis but makes the story of Boaz’s generosity into that of Ruth’s generosity (see Bal: 69–73). During the twentieth century, Ruth received an interesting and moving portrayal from Beer-Hofmann, in a play titled Der junge David (1933) which presents her as a legendary figure. In the third act, the young David, fleeing from Saul, addresses her for advice. When Ruth encourages David, suggesting that the supreme blessing can be found in being a blessing to others, she may be echoing Beer-Hofmann’s own attempt to console himself and the Jewish people of his time, in the face of the beginning of their nightmare.

Modern Hebrew literature, especially poetry, has been drawn to Ruth, partly because the major characters return home from exile to the land of Israel, partly because of the pastoral setting, highlighting the working of the land and the cycle of agricultural life—both characteristics that go well with Zionist sensibilities. If we put together the private romance and the celebration of national redemption, we can understand why poets like Yitzhak Shalev (b. 1919) and Eliahu Meitus (1892–1977) have dedicated poems to Ruth. Jacob Fichman (1881–1958) wrote a long poem on the relationship between Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, emphasizing an inner monologue by Ruth.

Foreigners: The Evil Ones

When a foreign woman betrays a man who is an enemy of the children of Israel, she turns into a legend. Her name is commemorated; she enters into a song of victory and praise such as the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), and this is how the name of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, is remembered. When such a foreign woman destroys a Hebrew judge, her name becomes a curse, like Delilah, synonymous with female treachery. Delilah in fact belongs to a group of evil women characters, using their feminine attractiveness or political power to seduce and betray men and ultimately to bring them down, or try to (e.g., Potiphar’s Wifefor a feminist reading of her story, see Bach 1997:34–81; for her role as a representative of an alluring foreign entity vis-à-vis Joseph, see Keshet: 61–77).

The story of Samson and Delilah has attracted many readers, writers and artists. It deals with perennial issues such as loyalty and betrayal, eroticism and death. Since medieval art and literature presented Samson as a precursor of Christ, Delilah’s role was closely associated with that of the Devil. This misogynous attitude caused Delilah to be used as a bad exemplum for women, as the epitome of female power and treachery. These didactic implications figure in late medieval and early Renaissance works (e.g., by Chaucer, Boccaccio, Lydgate). The highly critical Christian position reaches a high point in Milton’s Samson Agonistes, where Delilah is portrayed as a charming creature when she comes to visit Samson in his prison cell, pretending to show compassion, only to harshly reveal a treacherous inner self later on. During the nineteenth century, with the rising forces of nationalism, the French Camille Sait-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila connected Delilah with the Philistine forces of oppression and paganism, as opposed to Samson who became a leader of popular revolt and monotheistic belief. The romantic poet Alfred de Vigny suggests in his “La Colère de Samson” an interesting psychological observation, associating Delilah with the mother figure for which Samson longed all his life. In the twentieth century, the story gained enormous popularity thanks to a Hollywood production by Cecil B. DeMille. In his Samson and Delilah (1949), Delilah’s actions are motivated by her genuine attraction to Samson and by her jealousy of her elder sister, with whom Samson is in love. A surprising shift in the line of action occurs after she succeeds in avenging herself, when Samson is in a Gazan prison cell. It seems that she truly loves Samson and even accepts his God. Thus, when she dies with him in the temple of Dagon, they die in the unison of true love. Some contemporary representations of Delilah may try to subvert her negative image; thus, a feminist perspective may re-interpret her actions as standing for female independence (e.g., Elizabeth Wurtzel, Bitch), but the traditionally suspicious attitude may still be found in modern popular culture (e.g., Tom Jones’s song “Delilah”).

Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood production is partly based on the novel Samson, by the Jewish writer, ideologue and political leader Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1927). Jabotinsky’s vision of Delilah and of her relations with Samson is far less sentimental than the Hollywood version. In the novel, the national and ethnic conflict cannot be resolved through a personal love story. The animosity between the Hebrew leader and the gentile femme fatale continues till the very end, where Delilah presents their child to Samson, swearing to bring him up hating his father’s people. This oath incites Samson to topple Dagon’s temple. Alluring gentile women, no matter how loving they are, may stand in the way of building independent Jewish strength. The story of Samson and Delilah has interested many writers of modern Hebrew literature, first and foremost because Samson represents for them a desirable model of Jewish prowess. Some poems, however, go beyond this national emphasis, to pay special attention to Delilah, portraying her relations with Samson as representing universal patterns in the relationships between men and women (e.g., Leah Goldberg’s “Samson’s Love”, Yehuda Amichai’s “Samson”). One poem, Anda Amir’s “Delilah,” even re-tells the story from Delilah’s point of view, as her own tragedy (for a detailed discussion, see Fishelov: 111–142).

Foreigners: Ambivalent Cases

The ambivalent attitude towards foreign women may sometimes be manifested in a rhetorically complex portrayal of certain characters. Hagar may illustrate such a contradictory and ambiguous treatment. On the one hand, she is merely a surrogate for Sarah, a womb for use. On the other, she is an independent human being with emotions and a will. She is an insolent, rebellious maid whose heart becomes haughty vis-à-vis her mistress (Genesis 16:4–5), but she is also an anguished mother, protecting her (and Abraham’s) son from the vindictive wrath of Sarah, who urges Abraham to expel her and Ishmael to the desert (Genesis 21).

In Early Christian writings (e.g., Augustine), the figure of Hagar receives an allegorical reading. In contrast to the free Sarah, Hagar, the slave woman, represents the Old Testament (as opposed to the New Testament), the principle of law (as opposed to that of mercy and grace), and literal meaning (as opposed to spiritual). The Hellenistic philosopher Philo suggests an allegorical reading of Hagar’s story, according to which she represents the liberal arts, Sarah stands for Wisdom and Virtue and Abraham, the Mind. One can find many local allusions in English literature. The story serves as a background for novels focusing on the plight of outcast women (e.g., Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders). The tensions evident in Hagar’s story, as well as the oriental associations of her character and of her descendants, attracted poets during the nineteenth century (e.g., Hartley Coleridge [1796–1849], Edwin Arnold [1832–1904]). Some of these blamed Sarah for her treatment of her maid or expressed sympathy for Hagar’s plight (e.g., the American Edward Everett Hale, the German lyricist Irene Forbes-Mosse).

Early and medieval Hebrew readings of Hagar, influenced by her independent mind and determined character, attributed Egyptian royal descent to her, describing her as the daughter of Pharaoh (e.g., in Genesis Rabbah, in Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer and also in Rashi’s commentary). With the rise of Islam, many legends arose about the mother of the founder of the Arab people. Hagar is idealized in these legends and Sarah’s attitude towards her is presented in a critical manner.

In the popular collection Ze’enah U-Re’enah, the Yiddish biblical commentary read mainly by women from the seventeenth century on, didactic lessons are attached to the story: the maid’s disrespect for her mistress explains her hardships. In modern Yiddish literature, Itzik Manger, in his cycle A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).Midrash Itzik, devotes several poems to Hagar. He portrays her with great sympathy, assuming she had a close relationship with Abraham, and adds a legendary, optimistic ending to her story, in which the Turkish sultan honors her when he meets her at a crossroads after she has been banished. The Yiddish lyricist Rikudah Potash, after escaping from Germany when the Nazis came to power, describes in her “Hagar” the situation of an exile deprived of rights, recalling the contemporary Jewish situation.

Hagar has also attracted many modern Hebrew poets. Most of them express deep empathy for the sufferings of the woman exile (e.g., a long poem by Anda Amir as well as some short ones by Yokheved Bat-Miriam and K. Aharon Bertini [1903–1996], among others). Some were drawn by her eastern qualities, associated with the land of Israel (e.g., Aharon Amir). Some identified with her situation as against the “dominant” culture exemplified by Abraham, implicitly criticizing Jewish political attitudes to contemporary Arabs (e.g., “Hagar” by the communist poet Alexander Penn [1906–1972] and even a popular song by Shalom Hanoch and Arik Einstein). In the poetry of some contemporary Israeli women poets (e.g., in poems by Leah Snir, Shin Shifra [b. 1931]), Hagar is used to express subversive, feminist sensitivities. She is no longer a passive, rejected woman; instead, her story is presented as an initiating experience, as a source of female independence (see Shacham: 104–128). Thus, the Hagar story still has some attraction for contemporary Israeli writers as a source for incidental allusions, or as a narrative structure in the background of a story (e.g., the novel Hagar by Yochi Brandeis, which tells a story of modern Israelis).

To the category of ambivalent cases of foreign women one can add characters like Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who helped the Israelites to conquer the city by hiding the two spies, and the Queen of Sheba, who appears in the story about her encounter with King Solomon. It is no accident that ambivalent personages like these, presenting unresolved moral dilemmas and interesting narratives, attracted many post-biblical writers. (See Liptzin: 93–101, 187–203.)

Victimized Women

Jephthah’s Daughter may be regarded as the female Isaac, but in this version no angel of God intervenes, and she is sacrificed (Judges 11:39). The silent, obedient, dutiful daughter, victim of her father’s will, interested many writers and artists. In the Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmud, Jephthah’s conduct is criticized, and a few Jewish medieval interpreters tried to take the bitter (and pagan) edge from the story by suggesting that the daughter’s sacrifice did not consist of actual death but rather of a life of seclusion. Early Christian reactions were divided regarding this story. Some offered an allegorical and didactic reading justifying Jephthah’s conduct (e.g., Isidore, Jerome). Others thought Jephthah should not have fulfilled his promise (e.g., Ambrose). Popular art produced several ballads. An echo of one such ballad occurs in Hamlet (II, 2), where Polonius is compared to Jephthah. In his Latin drama Jephthes (published in 1554), the Scottish humanist George Buchanan emphasized the tragic elements of the story; the play was translated and became influential in England and Europe. The Dutch dramatist Joost van den Vondel, who wrote several works on biblical themes, composed Jephta (1659), a drama with a typically tragic plot, where Jephthah repents too late for his hard-headedness in deciding to carry out his vow. Following Buchanan’s play, the Jephthah story represented a tragedy for many writers and it was associated with Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis. This is evident also in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling where he compares Abraham’s conduct in the akedah scene with a number of tragic stories, including Jephthah’s and Agamemnon’s treatment of their daughters. These two cases represent a tragic dilemma: a conflict within the ethical realm between duties and obligations as leaders and as fathers (Abraham’s situation, on the other hand, transcends the boundaries of the ethical and thus Abraham becomes for Kierkegaard the Knight of Faith rather than a tragic hero). In the eighteenth century the topic was treated in oratorios, including Handel’s version in which the daughter is saved from death and becomes God’s priestess. Many English and American poets of the nineteenth century (e.g., Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, Mark Van Doren) referred to the Jephthah story, usually expressing their admiration and compassion for the daughter. Some modern writers, like the German dramatist Ludwig Freytag (in his play Jephthah from 1871), did not feel comfortable with the daughter’s acceptance of fate. He introduced a version with an altered ending in which a prophet saves the young woman.

Modern Jewish authors have also been attracted to the story. In his drama Das Weib des Jephta the German Jewish writer Ernst Lissauer (1882–1937) shifts the emphasis from the dutiful daughter to her mother, who rebels against her husband’s decision to sacrifice their child and ultimately commits suicide. The German Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958) wrote a Jefta und seine Tochter (1957), using the tragic biblical story to express his disillusionment with monolithic ideologies and the idolizing of power through the figure of Jephtha, who loses not only his daughter but also his heart and faith. Yiddish writers have also addressed the story; examples are poems by S. S. Frug (1860–1916), Yehoash (1872–1958), I. I. Schwartz (1885–1971), and a play by Sholem Asch (1880–1957), enacting and elaborating a conflict between two deities—Moloch, primordial and blood-thirsty, and the Hebrew God. The story of Jephthah’s daughter also received attention from modern Hebrew writers, especially poets. In some of these works (e.g., Jacob Cohen’s “Bat Yiftah”), the nationalistic spirit justifying the need for personal sacrifice is echoed, whereas others expressed revulsion at the murderous act (e.g., Saul Tchernichovsky’s [1875–1943] “Bat Yiftah Ha-Gileadi”). Contemporary Israeli writers are still interested in the story. Naomi Ragen’s novel Jephte’s Daughter (1989) won some popularity among readers in the United States and in Israel. It tells the story of a contemporary young American Jewish woman, who is to be “sacrificed” in an arranged marriage in the ultra-Orthodox community of Jerusalem and of her struggle to escape the fate of her biblical “predecessor.”

Other victimized women are characters such as Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, who was raped by Shechem (Genesis 34), the Concubine who was raped and brutalized (Judges 19) and Tamar, David’s daughter, victimized by her half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13). Dina’s story has been re-told in her own voice, reviving ancient womanhood and presenting certain events of her life in a new light in Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent (2001).

The Changing Fates of Minor Characters

Abishag the Shunammite is mentioned only briefly at the beginning of Kings I. She functions as a bed-warmer for the aging King David and plays a minor role in the downfall of David’s son Adonijah, who desires her, thus arousing the wrath of Solomon. For many centuries, this character did not arouse any significant literary interest; however, in the modern era the contrast between the youthful beauty and the aging and impotent but politically powerful male attracted many writers. These include the Austrian novelist Theodor Heinrich Mayer (1884–1949) in David findet Abisag, the American Joseph Heller (1923–1999) in God Knows, the German playwright Ernst Hardt (1872–1959) in König Salomo, the Yiddish writer David Pinski (1872–1959) in Abishag (both the latter appeared in 1915) and Gladys Schmitt (1909–1972) in David the King. They also include many poets: among them Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) in his Neue Gedichte of 1907, the Yiddish poets Itzik Manger, who devoted four poems to her, and Jacob Glatstein (1896–1971) in a long strophic poem. Manger focuses on Abishag with great empathy, portraying her as a country girl and David as a benevolent, gentle king. In Manger’s poem, Abishag becomes a symbol for the predicament of the modern Jew who has left home for the urban possibilities of the modern city, aware of the spiritual cost of that journey (see Baumgarten). The Hebrew poet Jacob Fichman also wrote a lyric monologue for her. In many of these modern re-writings of the beautiful young maiden, David’s last bed companion, we see her point of view and her subjectivity. She is no longer an object for keeping the aging king warm, nor simply a means for gaining power and prestige, but a human being, with memories, longings and desires of her own.

Another interesting case of the “revival” of a minor woman character can be found in Haim Gouri’s “His Mother.” In this poem, the contemporary Hebrew poet re-tells Jael’s victory over Sisera from the point of view of the enemy, focusing on Sisera’s Mother (Judges 4:28–30) with great empathy, even though this bereaved mother belongs to the enemies of Israel. There are also certain characters whose modern re-writing enhances their role and significance in the life of major male characters. Bathsheba’s individual will and determination are stressed in novels such as God Knows by Joseph Heller, King David Report by the Jewish German writer Stefan Heym (1913–2001) and in the Hebrew novelist Moshe Shamir’s (b. 1921) The Hittite Must Go. In both, the role assigned to Bath Sheba in the life of King David and of her husband, Uriah, is far greater than that presented in the Bible.

Concluding Remarks

The major body of women characters are depicted in the Bible, by and large, according to mimetic norms, i.e., they are presented in various degrees of elaboration and complexity as life-like, historical figures. However, a few women characters cannot be easily fitted into this mimetic scheme, and there are also other borderline cases pertinent to our topic.

Some women in the Bible are presented not as life-like characters but rather as allegorical figures. Examples would include characters like Oholah and Oholibah, the two harlots named by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 23:1–45). The allegorical issue has of course a complementary aspect: some life-like biblical characters later acquired an allegorical reading (the Shulamith from the Song of Songs is perhaps the most famous case). The question of allegorical reading is related to a larger hermeneutic issue, especially in Christian tradition, where the Hebrew Bible is viewed as “signifying” the stories of the New Testament. We shall not go here into this complex issue. Suffice it to say that most cases of re-writing presented in this article treat the biblical women as representations of real, life-like women and re-invent them in accordance with this basically mimetic assumption.

Another interesting borderline case would be that of Lilith: this character emerges in many post-biblical traditions as an attractive and often destructive female figure. Her name is drawn from the Bible (Isaiah 34:14), where it probably designates a night bird. Lilith’s case differs, however, from most of those discussed in this article, because when the name Lilith appears in the Bible it does not designate a woman. Post-biblical writers in their construction of this legendary figure needed to anchor her in the Bible, implying that she belonged to the canonical text and was not merely a figment of the imagination.

This brief survey would be incomplete without a reference to an important wave of feminist critical writing in biblical studies, from 1980s onward (e.g., Bal, Exum 1993, Pardes, Bach 1997, 1999; Brenner and Fontaine). This influential movement has focused its attention on biblical women and sometimes also on their post-biblical representation in literature, paintings and films (e.g., Exum 1996). This critique is pertinent to the present survey: first, because it called attention to and sharpened perception of various aspects of the portrayal of women characters in the Bible, and to certain male and patriarchal presuppositions underlying the text. The feminist wave of criticism has deeply influenced the reading of characters and texts, redeeming outcast women characters and giving voice to certain deprecated biblical women. Secondly, some of these authors infuse personal and evaluative terms into their critical argument, as part of a conscious move to re-shape the male, phallocentric mode of discourse that has dominated biblical scholarship. In that respect, and to a certain extent, this wave of criticism intermingles scholarly and what one may term original, personal discussion of biblical women characters (see the mixture of scholarly and literary writings in Ravitzky, and the combination of interpretations and modern A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).midrash in the collection edited by Zion).

The most interesting phenomenon in the dynamics of the re-writing of biblical women characters, especially in modern literature and culture, seems to be the problematization of certain underlying assumptions of the biblical text. This may be manifested in the questioning of a certain simple, one-dimensional evaluative attitude vis-à-vis some characters. Modern writers will tend to de-stabilize some of these apparently clear-cut moral divisions, especially by suggesting a re-evaluation of characters deemed “wicked” in the Bible (e.g., seeing Delilah or Sisera’s mother from a more sympathetic perspective). Another way to problematize some underlying assumptions is the tendency to upset hierarchies. This may be done by modifying some suppositions assumed by the biblical text, leading to the “rehabilitation” of certain figures presented as disfavored by the Bible (e.g., Leah) or by giving marginal women characters more presence and subjectivity (e.g., Abishag). As a result, we shall not only know of them, but will also gain access to their thoughts, be exposed to their world and word and better understand their motivation and sensitivities.


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*Jeffrey, David Lyle. A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1992.

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*Works of major importance.

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How to cite this page

Fishelov, David. "Biblical Women in World and Hebrew Literature." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 5, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/biblical-women-in-world-and-hebrew-literature>.