Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review
Jeroboam's Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament's Least-Known Women is a detailed study of the characterisations of two girls and five women in several Old Testament narratives. The seven least-known women are the young Miriam, Rizpah, The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah, Jeroboam's Wife, The Widow of Zarephath, The Israelite Slave Girl, and Queen Athaliah.
Branch begins by sharing her enthusiasm for the Old Testament due to its narratives. Particularly, the author's interest has been in the portrayal of women in the Old Testament. However, in years of pursuing this research interest the author has encountered a consistent problem in various contexts, the problem being that many female readers of Old Testament narratives are discouraged because of the view that women are not as significant in the story-world and by theological extension in the estimation of God. This fear has been fed not only by individual interpretations but also traditional interpretations of women in the Bible. Jeroboam's Wife seeks to address such a concern. Branch's refrain is that although given less textual space and some being unnamed, passive, and silent, women are not necessarily less important within their respective narratives and certainly not in the eyes of God. In writing this book, the author hopes to allay such a fear by demonstrating that although some women are considered minor characters in biblical narratives, they are still essential to narrative progression and in various cases surpass their male counterparts' abilities and actions.
The intended audience of this work is anyone who enjoys biblical narrative. More specifically, Jeroboam's Wife is for women who wish to understand that their historical sisters are as valuable as their male counterparts in the biblical narrative. Branch's study is able to stimulate the layperson and the biblical scholar alike.
In order to understand the portrayal of the female characters within biblical narratives, Branch employs narrative criticism. An Alterian approach to narratives is predominantly employed. Although not explicitly stated as being a part of her methodology, Branch uses social-psychology in order to further uncover the lives and personalities of these women, especially Jeroboam's wife. Social-psychology is also used to excavate the women's speeches and thus demonstrate that they are in no way simplistic or unimportant; several of the women are described by Branch as being expert communicators and persuaders. Further, a canonical approach is assumed and this informs Branch's final-form reading of the text. Rabbinic tradition contributes to Branch's methodology. She demonstrates how several of these women were highly esteemed or rejected in the rabbinic tradition. For example with the aid of rabbinic tradition she identifies The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah as Serah, Asher's daughter.
At the start of each chapter the author renders an original translation of the narrative which is very helpful to refresh the reader's memory but also to bring to surface the nuances of the Hebrew text. Questions for further reflection are included in each chapter and are helpful not only in summarising the chapter but also allowing the reader to pause for key theological applications for any individual. This work then may also be helpful for study in a small group setting.
Branch has extensive endnotes that are dedicated to explaining the scholarly terms and research used in narrative studies. These aid the reader in identifying intertextual elements in the narratives as well as counter viewpoints held by other scholars. A detailed and helpful bibliography is included. Jeroboam's Wife is well-written with an easy-to-read and consistent layout throughout.
Chapter one is called Hearing the Story: Appreciating Biblical Narratives. Branch endeavours to orient readers to some of the principles of narrative study. Narrative style and tools such as setting, point of view, conflict and characterisation are also generally discussed. This is helpful to introduce or remind the reader of what one must be looking for when reading about the seven women.
Miriam the Sister of Moses: Obscure Yet Audacious is the title of chapter two. This chapter is unique in that it studies Miriam only as a child (Exod 2:110). As the older sister of Moses she is responsible for not only watching over him but later ensuring that Moses gets a Hebrew nurse (his mother) so that he grows up to be a godly leader. Miriam is portrayed as a young girl who has already honed her skills of persuasion. Branch demonstrates that the text relates that, although small, Miriam works in partnership with God's plan to save Moses who will in turn save the Hebrew slaves.
Chapter three and four are dedicated to Rizpah, King Saul's concubine (2 Sam 3:611; 21:114). In chapter three Rizpah is a quiet woman whose sexual obligations make her a pawn to Ish-Bosheth and Abner. However, Branch's main point is that Rizpah here serves as a light that shines and reveals the true state of the male characters in the story. Ish-Bosheth is the coward who confronts but cannot stand his ground against Abner and Abner is a bully who is likely to have bedded Rizpah in order to show that he is more powerful than the cowardly king Ish-Bosheth. Chapter four presents Rizpah years later and Branch shows how Rizpah has grown into a more mature and confident woman. She is no longer passive and merely a sexual servant but now is instrumental to the progress of the Davidic dynasty. Rizpah defiantly mourns Saul's sons who are killed and stands watch over their bodies to ensure that no animals desecrate their corpses. This is a far-cry from the passive woman of earlier years and the growth of Rizpah is evident.
Chapter five explores the story of the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah (2 Sam 20:1422). This woman is characterised as the only person in the whole city who can diffuse the situation, and so the fate of her people lies in her hands and in the use of her wisdom. Using communication theory as a tool, Branch shows how the Wise Woman's dialogue with Joab shows her powers of persuasion.
Jeroboam's wife, who is portrayed as an abused woman, is the focus of chapter six (1 Kgs 14:118). Using social psychology and research on domestic violence, Branch shows how Jeroboam's wife, although a silent character, shows signs of being abused by her husband. Branch notes that Jeroboam's wife returns to the cycle of abuse. Why is Jeroboam's wife significant to the narrative? Because of her bland personality she is almost a mirror within which we see the other characters more clearly. Additionally, her importance is seen in the fact that she is the first person to receive God's prophecy about her son's death and Israel's subsequent downfall.
Chapter seven centres on the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:124). The widow, although anonymous, validates Elijah as a prophet of God. The widow of Zarephath is feisty yet hospitable. This chapter is perhaps the most significant in the book because, as Branch notes, this narrative in 1 Kings 17 is where God is the most active character. Branch shows that God had a missiological intention in sending Elijah to the widow. This is further confirmed by the fact that God has already spoken to the widow even before Elijah meets her at the town gate of Zarephath.
The Israelite slave girl in Naaman's household is the focus of chapter eight (2 Kgs 5:114). She serves in her captivity so well that when she makes a suggestion about the healing available in Israel her mistress and master take her word for it. The קְטַנָּה heroine is contrasted with her master who is not only named but a mighty warrior whom the text treats with respect. In fact it is even stated that God is the one responsible for giving him the honour that he holds. The little heroine serves to show God's character as being a God who is sovereign and whose grace goes beyond national boundaries. The little Israelite slave girl's faith takes her from obscurity to prominence.
Chapter nine concerns Queen Athaliah, the only woman to reign in Israelite history (2 Kgs 11:121). Athaliah is the woman who forces herself into the spotlight, an act which will later be called treachery. Athaliah is the only character among the seven women who is portrayed as completely negative. She murders her immediate family and seizes the throne by bloodshed. Athaliah is compared with Jezebel who may be her mother or her sister-in-law. What the characterisation of Athaliah shows is that Athaliah is not portrayed negatively because she is a woman but because she is one who is violently relentless in her pursuit of power.
In the concluding chapter, Branch reiterates the point that women who at first seem obscure and insignificant in the text are actually significant to the progression of the narrative. Additionally, as characters they compare or contrast in significant ways with their male counterparts. Branch also argues that God, although not seemingly active in the narratives, is also a significant character in each narrative.
The author does not explicitly note psychology as one of the main methodological tools in uncovering the lives and significance of the seven female characters. It appears at times, therefore, that there is an over-psychologising of the narrative. This is because the reader is not made aware in the beginning that social-psychology is being employed. Though Branch does not use the term social-psychology she does marshal social psychologists' research on domestic abuse and communication techniques, and dialogue is seen as the medium through which one can examine the psyche and emotions of the characters since the narrator does not often reveal such things explicitly.
Apart from referring to the narrator as omnipresent but not omniscient (p. 87), Branch avoids the murky waters of defining the narrator and prefers to speak of the text. The text honours and silences, endorses and muzzles. The text is the stage on which the female character takes a textual bow (p. 65).
Branch posits that the narrator uses contrast and comparison between characters as the main tool in developing the message of the narrative. In essence, then, characters are not only personalities in their own rights but lenses through which we see other characters and their traits more clearly. That the characters undergo growth and change is an important element which Branch emphasizes. In a canonical reading by those familiar with the biblical narratives there may be a tendency to see the characters only in their final shape and impose this final shape on a given character's earlier experiences. Branch argues that characters become more or less positive, righteous, wicked, active, or passive with the progress of time and life experiences. When we trace the growth, whether positive or negative, of a character then we are truly experiencing the world of the narrative. The significant contribution of this study is its finding that these least-known women are vital to the narrator in advancing and underlining the theology of a particular narrative. [Even] the challenges of brevity, namelessness, foreign birth, lowly circumstances, silence, and/or horrific actions that accompany these seven characters mark them surprisingly and significantly as important in each text (p. 184).
Branch's enthusiasm for biblical narrative permeates this work. She ably critiques the injustices done to or by these seven women. As a result what is conveyed is a balanced picture of women within the patriarchal society where they each play an important rolewhether passively, like Jeroboam's wife, or actively like the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah.