Phyllis Trible

Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Reading of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible consists a series of lectures Professor Trible delivered at Yale in which she deconstructs passages from the Bible that focus on four women in ancient Israel: Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed woman, and the daughter of Jephthah. Professor Trible refers to these passages as “texts of terror” since they reflect a cruel misogyny that goes unchallenged by the narrator(s) and/or by Yahweh as portrayed by the narrator(s).

Professor Trible quotes liberally from the Hebrew text, translates specific words, and documents her extensive research in detailed notes at the end of each chapter. She performs a close textual analysis of the text using a feminist lens. In each case, she addresses the following issues: How is the sentence structured? What can we glean from its syntax? What happens in the story and why does it happen? Who has voice and who is denied voice? Who is named and who remains unnamed? What is the narrator(s) stance in telling the story? According to the narrator(s), what is Yahweh’s stance on the events and outcome? When does the narrator(s) give Yahweh a voice? When does Yahweh remain silent and why? Professor Trible addresses the significance of each of these points by interpreting the text to expose its attitude toward gender. Her conclusions are illuminating.

According to Professor Trible, the Egyptian maid, Hagar, represents the outcast, the ostracized, the exploited, and the powerless under the mercy of the ruling class. She is the black female exploited by Sarah when it suits her purpose and sent into exile with her son, Ishmael, when her presence is perceived as a threat to the hegemony of Sarah’s son, Isaac. Tamar is raped by her brother, Amnon, and is cautioned to remain silent about her violation even though her life has been ruined. The Unnamed Woman in Judges 19:1-30 suffers betrayal, rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment. She crawls to the doorway after a night of terror, at which time her master, the Levite, nonchalantly places her on his ass and heads home. It is unclear whether she is dead or alive at this point. And, finally, there is the story of the unnamed daughter of Jephthah who is sacrificed because of her father’s promise to Yahweh.

By highlighting the plight of these four women, Professor Trible relocates them from the margin to the center. She gives them a voice and, in doing so, memorializes them. She acknowledges their trauma and honors their sacrifice. She gives them a vehicle to describe the unmitigated terror and cruelty they experienced in the hands of powerful men while she simultaneously exposes the misogyny infecting these passages of the Bible. And, as she poignantly reminds us, violence against women is not a thing of the long ago past but continues to plague us well into the present.

This book makes a significant contribution to feminist critiques of religious texts. It is highly recommended, especially for anyone interested in the representation of women in religious texts.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review