Biblical characters of 'questionable virtue' afford real-world parallels

Biblical characters of 'questionable virtue' afford real-world parallels

Book Review: More Bad Girls of the Bible

Barbara J. Essex's fascination with the very human side of biblical characters has found its voice in her latest work, "More Bad Girls of the Bible." This book is the most recent expression in her series of books, including the best-selling "Bad Girls of the Bible," that explore the "questionable virtue" of biblical personalities.

As in her other volumes, Essex attempts to give a fuller treatment of both the positive and negative aspects of these characters. She is well aware of traditional interpretations given to these stories. In some cases, the lack of theological attention given to lesser-known women is also telling for her.

Against this backdrop of dogma and exclusion, Essex coaxes out the important social and historic details that open up a deeper understanding of these characters. This is no attempt on Essex's part at rewriting the biblical narrative; she allows each story to retain its original context.

Essex admits in her introduction that this approach may be challenging for some: "We might be reluctant to analyze closely the biblical women for fear that we will offend God . . . Critical study should deepen, broaden and expand our faith as we learn more about who these characters were and what they can teach us."

Though clearly looking to "liberate" the included characters from the history of interpretation that is skewed by centuries of patriarchy, it would be unfair to characterize Essex's work as simply feminist or womanist. True, a liberation-based methodology has informed this work, but it would be unfair to label "More Bad Girls of the Bible" as merely a product of this school of thought.

Yet, it would be a grave oversight not to see that the perspective presented by the (presumably all male) writers of the Bible have biases towards telling the stories of men, especially those who were deemed the "winners." What is amazing about the biblical narrative is that the failings of many of its dearest characters are equally exposed for us to see as well. But the history of theology has largely ignored these flaws, leading to an incomplete picture of biblical personalities.

Essex's other books, including "Bad Boys of the Bible" and "Misbehavin' Monarchs," have filled this void by demonstrating a consistent commitment to expanding readers' viewpoints beyond long-entrenched opinions — freeing them to see the parallels in their spiritual pursuits and real-life struggles.

And so when Essex delves into the story of Bathsheba and David, she is not afraid to ask hard questions. Was Bathsheba the victim of rape? Was she powerless to resist the king? Did David's request for her come to him contain an implicit threat against her family if she refused? (As the rest of the story tells, he was certainly capable of killing someone to get his way.)

In opening up the narrative to these possibilities, Essex allows readers to place themselves and their experiences into the story. Rather than seeing Bathsheba as an unrelenting temptress or David as a sex-crazed seducer, these characters are placed into a real-world context where abuses of power are used to gain sexual, political and personal favors.

Her reading of the remaining stories in "More Bad Girls of the Bible" affords similar opportunities for personal and corporate reflection. In addition to Bathsheba, Essex focuses on Hagar; Shiphrah and Puah; Miriam; Zipporah; Rizpah; Huldah; a "crippled" woman; the Syrophoenician woman; Mary and Martha; the Samaritan woman at the well; and Mary Magdalene.

Each chapter concludes with a series of individual or group study questions, some scriptural and theological, others more personal. When discussing Miriam's jealousy regarding her brother Moses' power, Essex asks, "Do you ever feel that your gifts and contributions to church and society are undervalued and unrecognized? How do you handle those feelings?" Certainly a struggle we've all encountered.

A list of reference works closes "Bad Girls of the Bible." One quibble: I found myself wishing these references were cited within the text or at least at the end of each chapter. That said, Essex has done her homework and does provide the reader with opportunities for further exploration.

Essex concludes in her introduction, "We are blessed to have sacred texts that give us pictures of real people who were not one-dimensional . . . We see the good, the bad, and the ugly — the Bible does not present perfect people."

The biblical record is filled with the faithful acts of imperfect people. Maybe that is why Essex's books are so popular. They give us hope that something great will be made out of our imperfection. 

More Bad Girls of the Bible
By Barbara J. Essex
The Pilgrim Press, 2009
Hardcover, $16.00
ISBN: 978-0-8298-1824-6
thepilgrimpress.com

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