Book Review: Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible

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No sooner had I discovered that I’d won a review copy of Vindicating the Vixens than I began to worry. What if it’s too scholarly and I’ve lost IQ points since school and I don’t understand the theological arguments? I haven’t read scholarly work since graduate school! What if it’s a slog to get through and I’m bored and it takes hours and hours and hours to read and process? Why, oh why, did I claim I’d looooove to read the book? I don’t even like non-fiction! (Not much. There are exceptions. My mind has a flair for the melodramatic.)

I shouldn’t have worried.

This book was a delight to read. It was scholarly, yes, but not anything like the stuffy-and-snooty scholarship in the literary criticism of my graduate school days.

First of all, let me say that this is not a book aimed only at women. Men, particularly men in church leadership, should read this book. You don’t have to agree with everything; the authors themselves don’t agree all the time. (More on that later.) But the ideas and information are worth considering.

The premise is simple: many of the women in the Bible have a bad girl reputation (“vixens”) and in many cases, those reputations are undeserved. We all read the Bible through a particular lens, one that combines traditional, often skewed, interpretations and our own contemporary sensibilities regarding these ancient events. But reading the text and considering it within the context of its times, both of the events and of the actual writing, shows that our views are often far from Biblical.

For example, there’s no textual evidence that Mary Magdalene was a former prostitute and Jesus’ lover (or wife), but many people believe this. Even many churchgoers and devout, Bible-loving Christians believe certain incorrect ideas because they’ve failed to consider the context and text. (For example, the belief that Deborah was a judge only because “a good man was hard to find.”) Some Biblical women are vilified because of their sexual activities. Others are ignored.

This anthology serves as a correction to this. But it also serves as a catalyst for personal change and re-examination of our theological assumptions about gender, the gospel, and the nature of God.

The authors are diverse: female and male, white and minority, various denominational backgrounds, all well-educated. (All the authors have a MA, PhD, or ThM degrees from respected seminaries.)

They are united by this:

  • a common desire to take the text seriously
  • a desire to portray the cultural context as accurately as possible
  • a passion for God and his word, which they strive to interpret the way he intends us to interpret it, as a revelation of his character.

They differ on the issue of women preaching yet always show respect for those who disagree with their conclusions.

They are also united in this conclusion: God is concerned for the outsider. The powerless. The marginalized, feared, stereotyped. These women’s stories vividly show how deeply God cares for those whom the world has deemed unimportant. To miss this aspect of the stories is to misunderstand God’s nature.

In the excellent introduction, Henry Rouse discusses hermeneutics and how to responsibly interpret Scripture. Each subsequent chapter discusses a particular woman.

Section 1: the women in Christ’s genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.

Section 2: women from Israel’s history: Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Deborah, Huldah, and Vashti.

Section 3: New Testament women: the woman at the well (the one with five husbands), Mary Magdalene, and a woman named Junia/Joanna, who may have been an apostle.

Some of the subject matter overlaps. (For example, the Sarah and Hagar chapters.) Because of the authors’ differing emphases, the assertions contrast and sometimes contradict. This might be disconcerting to some readers. One of the benefits, though, is that the different interpretations drive the reader back to the Bible. Rather than reading the book and passively accepting the conclusions without considering the logic and implications, I had to think harder. This is a book that demands interaction with the contents. (Much like the Bible does.) Time and again, I found myself discussing the ideas and interpretations with my husband and then in my own mind (when my husband wasn’t around).

All the authors stress the importance of the context. I was particularly touched and impressed by Carolyn Custis James’ handling of the patriarchal context in her chapter on Tamar. And Sarah Bowler’s discussion of Bathsheba was timely, considering how many women have become vocal about being sexually victimized. But it was also helpful in two ways.

  1. One, she points out that ancient understanding of rape emphasized physical force and violence, while moderns understand rape as also involving coercion and non-consent; thus, while the Bible does not explicitly call David’s sexual encounter with Bathsheba “rape” (given the writer’s cultural understanding of it), there’s textual evidence that his treatment of her would fit our modern ideas about rape. (See that chapter for details.)
  2. Two, she helps us to consider how we, as Christians–individually and corporately–treat the powerless and victimized, and how we can and must do better.

I’ve highlighted two chapters as helpful, but all of the chapters could be described this way.

The only times I felt confused were when the authors were discussing traditional views I was unfamiliar with. For example, I felt a little confused in the chapter about Mary as Timothy Ralston wrote about certain traditional ideas, such as her perpetual virginity or her bodily assumption. But I grew up in Reformed/Calvinistic circles and though I’d heard some references to these theological ideas, it was always given a disdainful treatment, almost a “can you believe these people are so stupid?!” attitude, and never treated with respect or with a desire to truly understand the origins of these concepts or the people who believe them. Hence my confusion. I slowed down and re-read those sections multiple times. (Is that a bad thing?) But my ignorance isn’t the author’s fault, nor is it a fault of the book.

This brings up something, though. I don’t think those who are Biblically illiterate would find the book helpful. The text assumes a baseline knowledge of Scripture, that the reader will know the gist of Israel’s history and Jesus’ ministry, and can find her/his way around the Bible. That’s the target demographic.

Note: The Christian reader who doesn’t know anything about the Bible (a new convert from an unchurched background, for example) could benefit from the book, though, if given guidance from mature Christian(s) and the tools to study the Bible, coupled with a fervent desire to spend time learning and praying.

There’s plenty of material for discussion in this book. Each chapter has a few questions at the end to serve as a springboard, but there’s much, much more that could be discussed in a group. It would be best if the group included women and men, as gender dynamics is discussed so much, and the group would benefit from having both male and female listening to God and each other.

Highly recommended.

I received a review copy from Kregel (through the editor, Sandra Glahn, whom I follow on Twitter) in exchange for an honest review.

Here’s my honest, Twitter-sized take: read this book. Seriously, I mean it. It’s available on Amazon. Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn, Kregel Academic, December 2017. Contributing authors include Henry Rouse, Carolyn Custis James, Eva Bleeker, Marnie Legaspi, Sarah Bowler, Timothy Ralston, Glenn Kreider, Eugene Merrill, Tony Maalouf, Ron Pierce, Christa L. McKirland, Sharifa Stevens,  Lynn Cohick, Karla Zazueta, Amy Peeler. Great work, y’all.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible

  1. This sounds excellent, Laura: thanks so much for your detailed review. I would like to read more about the OT women in particular because I’m less familiar with them.

    I think we do get stuck in stereotypes and assumptions that aren’t actually based in fact or in the text. Just recently I read an article that referenced the Samaritan woman “trying to find fulfillment in romantic relationships.” But the Bible’s rendering of that story doesn’t give any evidence that the woman had that mindset. Maybe she was a victim: she could have been widowed and/or rejected for whatever reasons (barrenness? disability?) by the men who should have cared for her. So hopefully a book like this one will shatter some misconceptions and give us a lot of new insights.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The chapter on the Samaritan woman is excellent. One thing I thought about as I read it was that Jesus wasn’t scolding her for sexual sin but reaching out to her with empathy. The loss of important relationships would be grieving to anyone. There are many different reasons for a woman to have five husbands, as you’ve mentioned; the notion that she was trying to find fulfillment in romantic relationships doesn’t square with the cultural context that saw marriage as practical, often arranged, and not fundamentally romantic in nature. That’s a modern Western construct, one that probably would’ve bewildered those in Jesus’ day. Thanks for reading.

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