“Subversive Sequels in the Bible” by Judy Klitsner— Sex, Gender and Universalism

Klitsner, Judy. “Subversive Sequels in the Bible”, Koren, 2011.

Self, Gender and Universalism

Amos Lassen

In “Subversive Sequels in the Bible”, Hebrew Bible teacher Judy Klitsner invites us on a voyage of discovery through familiar biblical narratives. She remains deeply faithful to the texts but dares to interpret and draw parallels between biblical passages to reveal previously overlooked layers of meaning. Through scholarship, creativity and passion, Klitsner illustrates the dynamic nature of biblical attitudes toward timeless issues of self, gender and universalism resulting in a collection of provocative and original readings. The book is the winner of The National Jewish Book Award and rightfully so.

We see that even the most familiar stories of the Jewish Bible have so many odditiess and historical commentaries that there is always something new to learn. In the first three chapters, we have a kind of warm-up to establish the author’s method, after which she shows the evolution of woman’s roles and rights after the early low point in which Eve is condemned to pain and subservience. Throughout the book, Klitsner focuses readers on a more involved, more just engagement with the world, using the stories of the Bible as broad guides and as inspiration.

Klitsner reads the stories as one reads good literature, showing that different biblical tales frequently and purposely use similar language, often the same word, to draw readers’ attention to the connection between the tales. The basic part of this technique is well-known and used by many people to help them understand and appreciate the depths of biblical narratives. However, Klitsner makes a profound contribution to the understanding of the Bible. She proves, with dozens of demonstrations, that the subsequent stories subvert – radically reexamine, develop, and change – the idea or ideas that appear in the prior tale.

Three of the six chapters in the book examine the changes in the Bible’s portrayal of women. The first narrative, in Genesis (chapter one) shows the first humans as “full and equal partners in their capacity to create and subdue.” However, in chapter two, that equality is lost. The man patronizingly sees woman as a unique and irreplaceable gift, “and as one who gives him as sense of completion as a human being.” Thus, chapter one’s equality of the sexes is lost. The woman becomes subservient to man, a source of pleasure.

The woman is frustrated with this secondary status and at the end of chapter two, we see another subversion in that  she seeks independence, meaning, and satisfaction. She speaks with the serpent in the Garden of Eden and expresses her feelings by violating the man’s command by eating the forbidden fruit.

In chapter three, her status deteriorates further when she is named by man which  expresses his mastery over her, just as when he named the animals he showed mastery over them. God further accentuates this when He declares “he will rule over you.”

Klitsner, however, does not see this as a biblical pronouncement that women must be unequal. It is rather “a description of sociological realities that play out through much of human history.” This becomes clear when we read that the pair are driven from the garden, and its entrance is guarded by “cherubim,” two angelic figures, which by Talmudic tradition are “symbols of male-female equality.” “Seen in this way, the Cherubim symbolize male-female equality as a prerequisite to entering God’s holy places.”

By this we better understand why the Torah composes its tales in this extraordinary way. Each narrative is an event or parable written to express a particular message and is not intended to reveal the entire truth. The truth can only be grasped by reading the entire Torah, all of the narratives, not by reading one in isolation.

Klitsner builds upon these subversive sequels to analyze the relationship between the Abraham and his wife Sarah causing us to see Abraham unfavorably. We note that God speaks to the male, but not to the female, just as in the Adam and Eve narratives, except once, when God criticizes Sarah for laughing that she would have a son. Klitsner also examines the stories of Sarah’s daughter-in-law Rebecca, Isaac’s wife. She highlights that all of the biblical women, beginning with Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, are frustrated over their subsidiary roles. She also shows that in the subversive sequels about Deborah, Jael and Hannah, the Bible considers their frustration justified and their mistreatment by society and their spouses as wrong.

One does not have to agree with what Klitsner says but she does help us see the text in new ways. Occasionally her exposition is strained but for every non-sequitur there are dozens of insightful connections in inner Biblical interpretation.

For example: let’s look at the connections between the Jonah story and the Noah story: Noah sent a dove (Hebrew, yonah) to see if the flood was ended; Jonah is, of course Yonah. God flooded the world because of hamas (violence, injustice); in Jonah, the Ninevites repented of their hamas and turned away from it.  Noah and Jonah’s stories both involve boats, sea journeys, and water-induced catastrophe (even though Nineveh is nowhere near the sea). The Noah story is about judgment without mercy; the Jonah story is about mercy over judgment. Noah ends his career in self-induced slumber and drunken self-destruction; Jonah begins his quest sleeping in the hold of the ship, then asking to be drowned in the sea, and at the end praying for God to take his life. Noah is ambivalent about the destruction of the world while God is unrelenting; in Jonah, God wants to save the wicked, but Jonah is unwilling.

Klitsner questions God’s motives in the story, as she apparently views the Biblical narratives as human writings about God. Therefore, in the way she sees the story, it is possible  that the Noah story represents an earlier and inferior view of Divine judgment and mercy. Klitsner’s insight into the verbal parallels, puns, and interconnections has forever changed the way of reading both stories. Her analyses rely on close readings of the Hebrew text and this approach allows for many delightful connections that are not obvious and make the book interesting and fun to read.

However, Klitsner’s larger thesis, that the bible has a series of interconnected stories where the conclusions of one are challenged are reversed by a second, does not hold up. Often the conclusions of both stories are ambiguous and tentative and do not seem to be in conflict. Klitsner has a definite agenda to show that the status of women in the Bible and their relationship with God changes from a patriarchal model to a much more inclusive model. I wish that this held through the five books but it does not.

What is convincing is the degree to which these narratives interact with common theme and language. What is surprising is that the results of such an examination yield a subversive yet stubbornly reverent approach to Bible study.

Anyone who reads this book will find their appreciation of the beautiful tapestry of Biblical narrative enriched and their understanding enhanced. And those interested in bridging the gulf between Bible texts and contemporary readers will find this approach to be helpful, illuminating and exciting.

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