Danna Nolan Fewell’s spunky, creative book is tricky to categorize. It is a scholarly work, certainly, containing a collection of well-annotated essays and other material addressing the condition of children in the Hebrew Bible. But it incorporates other genres: dialogues between modern mothers and daughters; Fewell’s poetry; even a skit. Disparate as the collection may seem, it hangs together—cemented by Fewell’s passionate advocacy for the rights of children, past, present, and future.
As Fewell notes, she writes as a biblical scholar (she is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Drew Theological School), but also “...as a mother, a teacher of ministers, and a citizen who is both astonished by and implicated in the plight of the world’s children” (p. 38). Her book incorporates all these roles.
Part I, “Reading the Bible for the Sake of Our Children,” opens with unsettling statistics on modern children’s death, starvation, illness, and abuse; then homes in on the author’s query: “What difference does reading the Bible make?”—obviously, she says, “a vocationally driven question.” She rejects theodicy as senseless, even dangerous, as it variously tries to justify children’s agonies in biblical texts, or treats such suffering as insignificant. Instead she presents us with a different approach to these texts: “interrupting” the passages to discuss the suffering they describe, and thus “to encounter and to contemplate the experiences and needs of children and of the adults who try to care for them” (p. 24).
Part I includes essays on maltreated children in the Bible and associated characters: Ishmael and Hagar; the children of the “foreign women” expelled by Ezra; Jephthah and his daughter; and the Shulammite woman, her son, and Elisha. Between the essays, “interruptions” of the author’s serve as counterpoints to the texts—-dialogues between an unnamed mother (presumably Fewell) and a respected and listened-to little girl.
Part II, “Heroes of their Own Lives, Redeemers of their Own Worlds,” focuses on biblical children equally endangered, yet who responded by acting to improve their society: young Daniel, Esther, and Samuel. Here Fewell becomes more experimental, sometimes matching the genre of her chapter to her text—writing the chapter on Samuel and Hannah in poetry, and the chapter on Esther as a Purimspiel. Themes from Part I are elaborated: maltreatment of children and other innocents, a critique of complacency, the association between dehumanizing attitudes and violence—but besides these, she dwells more on positives: learning, humor, and imagination.
Fewell presents her work in the spirit of midrash, reinterpreting biblical texts in light of today’s issues, and allowing for multiple simultaneous viewpoints. She is at her best when attempting to show us the interior life of the characters, particularly females: her intimate renderings of Hagar, Hannah, and the Shulammite woman are evocative and at times startling. Her chapter on Ezra is the driest, mainly a dialogue presenting possible political motives for Ezra’s expulsion of foreigners.
Fewell is a master at showing as well as telling, particularly in the Purimspiel. Here Fewell’s multiple roles are most evident. Her script retells the book of Esther in the context of a theater piece being developed by teenage girls and two young religious leaders: a minister and rabbi. As the girls discuss the story, they relate it to their own experiences. The leaders model the approach Fewell would have us take toward the Bible in general: revealing painful “secrets” in the biblical text (such as the creation of eunuchs), and from these, launching discussions of modern issues: anti-semitism, racism, female circumcision. Fewell’s religious views are evident in the line the rabbi speaks: “...what other hands does God have besides ours?” (p. 193). The chapter is worthwhile as a piece of young-adult religious literature: the characters are believably rendered, and the script has a bit of plot. The skit also serves as a scaffold for a series of scholarly notes. When the girls tell off-color jokes about painful subjects, for instance, the notes describe the carnival-like nature of the book of Esther. Fewell thus acts as critic to her own piece.
The author puts her all into this book, including her relationship with her child. After naming some of her sources—scholars and students—Fewell says, “Quite honestly, I think it’s time Derrida met my daughter!” (p. 39). She also makes her political views plain. She chastises leaders, including the president, who allow children’s welfare to be superceded by other issues, for example by refusing to sign a document protecting children’s lives because (among other reasons) it interdicted capital punishment of children (p. 21).
Fewell’s book is a passionate call, not only to understand children’s plight, but to act to improve it. Like the prophetic books, hers is meant to unsettle—and her ending prayer, “in the spirit of Isaiah 11,” seems an appropriate acknowledgment of this intent (p. 227). In the chapter on Hannah and Samuel, she has young Samuel tell his master that Eli should have listened to Hannah’s song (p. 223).
‘ “ ‘Can you...sing it for me now?’“ asks Eli. “ ‘Yes I can,’“ says Samuel. “ ‘But it will make your ears tingle.’“
And so may Fewell’s book.