Review of D. Ellens, Women and the Sex Texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Deborah L. Ellens, Women in the Sex Texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy: A Comparative Conceptual Analysis (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 458; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2008). Pp. xiv + 354. Hardcover, US$125.00. ISBN 978-0-567-02942-3.

Ellens has presented a detailed analysis of the sex texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy through a detailed exegesis of the relative passages and comparison between the two different corpuses with the goal of demonstrating that a different ultimate purpose accounts for minor differences in the writing of these laws. Her thesis is that the Leviticus sex texts (LST) have an ontological focus in contrast to the Deuteronomy sex texts (DST) that focus on property. She claims that “[t]hese differing interests influence subtle corresponding differences in the conceptualization of women in the two groups of texts” (p. 5). While her analysis is complete, her primary concern is on the role of women in each text and the impact that the various underlying perspectives have on the societal view of women. Ellens defines her study through the question: “What are the factors shaping the conceptualization of women in the two groups of sex texts and how do they compare?” (p. 32). She allows this question to determine her methodology, exegesis, and limitations.

The book is divided into five parts: Introduction; Exegesis 1 - Leviticus Texts; Exegesis 2 - Deuteronomy Texts; Comparative Analysis; and Conclusion. The exegetical parts comprise the majority of the book and are the only parts that contain multiple chapters. Added to these is an appendix of the study in six charts, which are helpful and could be used to facilitate the use of this material in a classroom. Her extensive bibliography has been updated since this work first appeared in dissertation form and it, in itself, is a good resource.

As defined by Ellens, the LSTs are Lev 15:18, 24, 33b; 18; 19:20-22, 29; 20:10-21; 21:9 and the DSTs are Deut 5:18; 21:10-14; 22:13-23:1; 24:1-4; 25:5-10; 27:20-23; 28:30. Her criteria for text selection are not always followed. She sets as one of her primary criterion for inclusion the presence of women, but she includes Deut 27:21, which is only about men and beasts. One could understand her inclusion of this verse on the grounds that it is surrounded by women-focused verses or because it is part of the series of curses. However, she does not appear concerned to include the entire series of curses starting in verse 1, nor does she have an issue with isolating particular verses as her treatment of Leviticus 15 demonstrates. Yet in both chapters she does relate her chosen verses to the larger context as is appropriate for her literary approach, especially since she limits her focus to the final form of the texts without discussion of the redactional history behind this text.

The two largest parts of the book are the exegetical sections, which contain chapters on each of the chapters that she has identified as containing sex texts. Her exegetical method follows the conceptual analysis developed by her director, Rolf Knierim. This method assumes that the surface elements are controlled by textual coherence (not cohesion), conceptualities are accessed through the surface elements, and the concept may or may not be limited to the immediate context (i.e. pericope).

The climax of Ellens' analysis is reached in the fourth part that contains her comparative analysis of the two bodies of literature. This chapter is divided into three parts, LST, DST, LST and DST, and she explores each part according to the same four topics: Nine Topics Occurring in the Sex Laws; Genre Features; Marginalization, Objectification and Focalization; and Synthesis. While the entire book has been about accumulating relevant data, ultimately, the actual comparison comes down to nine pages at the end of this chapter. Her conclusion here is that the LSTs are concerned with classification, whereas the DSTs are focused on property.

Ellens' conclusion is a short summary of her perspective throughout the text. She states that modern concepts of sexuality, particularly in the dimensions of violence and consent, are absent from the text and that its focus is on purity and property. She concludes that “[s]ince both purity and property components are present in both groups of texts, the differing classificatory and proprietary concerns within LST and DST are a result of different emphases on the purity and property components. These different emphases bring to the fore different conceptualizations of women” (p.320). The writer's interests and concerns are a leading factor in accounting for the differences.

This former dissertation is written in high academic style with large informative footnotes and detailed outline headers that provide great clarity, if not ease of reading. The writing follows the technical style of a dissertation and utilizes a lot of field jargon. However, for key terms with which the reader might be unfamiliar, there is usually an extensive footnote that lays the foundation for the term and its role in the larger discussion. In general, while representing a complex and deep analysis the author is able to provide a very clear and usable presentation of her data.

Ellens' synchronic study of these texts is thorough and detailed, but the reader is left to wonder if a diachronic analysis would support her conclusions. It seems that in order to do an accurate ideological study one needs to take into consideration the socio-political situation from which the text developed as well as the development history behind that text. In addition, because she focuses only on texts where women are present she leaves out any sex texts that omit women and this omission could add a new dimension to the study of women in relationship to the sex texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; this means that even synchronically this is an incomplete study. The end result is that despite her extensive approach, Ellens' study is not exhaustive.

Ellen White, University of St. Michael's College