Book review: Lady Midrash

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the voices and stories of women are not always told in the Bible, and even when they are, they reflect a male perspective, and, presumably, mostly male authorship. There are many women in the biblical text, from Eve, Sarah, and Rachel to Mary the mother, Mary Magdalene, and Elizabeth. But we do not always hear very much about them or learn their stories, thoughts, and experiences. In Lady Midrash: Poems Reclaiming the Voices of Biblical Women (Resource Publications, Wipf & Stock, 2016), Elisabeth Mehl Greene asks the question, “What if?” What if these women’s stories had been told in the text, or what if they had been the ones telling the stories? Who is missing or unnamed in the text, and what might they have had to say about the stories depicted in the Bible?

Elisabeth Mehl Greene

Greene is engaging in a form of midrash, a Jewish tradition of wrestling with the text: asking questions of the text, and letting the text question us. This not only occurs through logic, through questions that can be answered, but by writing in the form of poetry, Greene is able to express and open up in the reader “informed imagination” (xi). Her poems are well researched and she clearly understands the context of the Ancient Near East and Judea under Roman rule in first century Palestine, but she also engages in playful creativity, irony and critique, expansive and prophetic truth-seeking alongside the mundane tasks performed in the everyday lives of the depicted women.

Jewish scholars engaging in midrash.
Jewish scholars engaging in midrash.

Engaging in a “hermeneutic of remembrance” (a quote from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Greene, xviii), Greene invites us along on a journey of imagination, bringing to our awareness the stories of women who are “unnamed, unexplored, or even erased” (xii). She explores through poetry the stories and perspectives of 60 biblical personages, some named in the text (Eve, Ruth, Hannah), some unnamed (Jephthah’s daughter, the lover of Solomon, the sister of Jesus), and some presumably present but not mentioned (the women at Mt. Sinai, wise travelers from the East).

What if we heard their voices? What if their interactions with and understanding of God were also recorded? What more might we know of God, and of humanity’s relationship with God, if we were open to hearing from God through all present? This begs the question, who are the unheard ones in our midst today? Whose voices are we missing, and what might we hear and know of God if we listened more deeply to those around us today? How might we record and pass along such stories to those who come after us in such a way that a well-rounded perspective of the creative dance between God and humanity can be known?

Elisabeth Mehl Greene and co-presenter, Mitra Motlagh, give workshop on Lady Midrash at Christian Feminism Today conference, June 2016. Photo credit: Jann Aldredge Clanton.

I had the privilege of meeting Elisabeth Mehl Greene last summer at a Christian Feminism Today conference, where she led a workshop on this text. She invited us to sit with a text about a woman from scripture and ask questions of the text. What do we learn about the woman from the text? What do we not know of her story? What might she add to the story if we could hear her voice? Greene invited us to write some reflections, and even to try our hand at midrashic poetry, pursuing some of the questions and wisdom God might have to offer as we explore these stories using our informed imagination. I found this to be a challenging and fun way to engage with these texts that can often become sort of dry, and in some cases painful and sad, when seen again and again at face value.

Greene and Kendra Weddle Irons (who wrote the Foreword) acknowledge that some may worry about applying this poetic license to the scriptural text. Irons says, “It is much safer to believe God never changes and therefore the Bible reflects a similar inflexibility. But such intransigence fails to take seriously the teaching method Jesus used. His parables with their twists and turns never provided easy or tidy answers…. Similarly, midrash requires active listening so that questions rather than statements are cultivated and considered” (xi).

I enjoyed reading these poems slowly, letting these female characters come alive in my imagination. No longer two-dimensional figures offering a backdrop to (male) heroes, these poems offered a window into the human beings behind the biblical depictions. I wonder what it would be like to read Lady Midrash with a women’s Bible study group, reading the biblical texts from whence these poems arise, asking questions, and seeking after God through new entry points into ancient stories. I would also recommend assigning these poems in Bible classes, providing a different way of approaching biblical texts, and encouraging students to take note of the women in the text, as well as to recognize the humanity of biblical authors and other characters within the biblical narrative. This book might be especially apropos for courses such as Women in the Bible, or feminist explorations of the Bible.

In Lady Midrash, Greene simultaneously upholds the importance of the scriptural stories in continuing to offer meaning to spiritual seekers today, as well as a willingness to question, dig deep, seek after and find God, and grow in one’s faith through tenacity, hope, creativity, birth, prophecy, grace, wisdom, and friendship. By bringing these women’s stories to life, we are better able to see ourselves represented in the text, in all our failures and successes, loves and broken heartedness: in short, in all the glory and tragedy that makes us human.

Here is one poem that is speaking to me particularly today:

Nebiyah*
(The prophetess who bore Isaiah’s children)

Hear me, you heavens!
Listen to me, earth!
For God has spoken,
spoken through me.
God spoke to Isaiah also,
but I birthed God’s messages
in my body,
burning coal on my lips,
words in my mouth,
children in my arms.
Know this.

Therefore the Lord
will give you a sign:
a prophetess will conceive
and give birth
and will call the child Immanuel,
which means God With Us.
I did as I was told.

Take a great scroll
and write on it
with a woman’s hand:
Go to the prophet,
conceive and bear
“the remnant,” and “the plunder.”
They will answer to these names
and in the echo
you will hear deafening wing claps.
Here am I, send me.

Another mother went to a prophet
and now her precious ones answer to
“without mercy”
and “not my people.”
O Lord, how long?

And after all of this,
angels and infants,
visions and promises,
I was never his wife.

No eagles bore me up,
but I ran, ignoring weariness,
I walked and did not faint.
I carried the messages.
God was with me.
Perhaps one day
my strength will be renewed.

(*Nebiyah is the transliteration for the female version of the Hebrew word for prophet. There is some uncertainty among scholars regarding whether this woman who bore Isaiah’s sons was his wife, a prophetess, or both. What is clear is that, although she bore the children of the prophecy through her body, we know very little about her. What is her story? What else did God say through her? How does God speak to you through this scrap of a reclaimed story?)

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One Reply to “Book review: Lady Midrash”

  1. Very impressive, Cherice! Keep up the good work. Your voice needs to be heard by so many of us (perhaps especially males). Thank you so much!

    Like

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