Should We Do Feminist Historiography?
I am a textual and historical scholar. I work on the Hebrew Bible. I often joke when anyone talks about things medieval and beyond, they are “current events.” My work rarely has a contemporary connection.
I was invited to give a paper at the San Antonio SBL in November on the topic of “Feminist Historiography”– What is it? How do you do it? My paper was entitled, “Was Dinah Raped? Isn’t the Right Question.” My plan was to use the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, in Genesis 34 as a case study. In this narrative, Dinah has sex with Shechem, a local prince who then approaches her father to negotiate marriage. In response, her brothers deceitfully agree on the grounds that the prince and his village are circumcised. They then massacre the entire town when they are at their weakest, claiming that to marry their sister to this man would be “an insult in Israel” (Gen 34:14). I am currently working on many issues in this story, including the historical context and compositional and redactional influences, but my task was to use the story to discuss feminist historiography.
The narrative in Genesis 34 is most often called “The Rape of Dinah.” This title is regularly included as a heading in printed Bibles. But the interpretation of what happens between Dinah and Shechem runs the gamut of rape, statutory rape, consensual encounter, to teenage love affair, as popularized by the New York Times bestseller The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1997). Part of the discrepancy in describing the sex act in this story not only stems from the patriarchal nature of much of the Bible and its subsequent early (and unfortunately, modern) interpretation, but there is no word that means “rape” in the Hebrew Bible. This is in part because women in ancient Israel have no power of sexual consent. Their sexuality belongs to their fathers or brothers and after marriage, husbands. Women did not choose their husbands, and their virginity was fiercely protected before marriage. The word innah in Genesis 34:2 is most commonly translated as rape, but does not mean rape in our modern understanding. Clearer instances of sexual assault usually have an accompanying verb of “force” or this word is absent altogether (2 Sam 13:14; Deut 22:25).
But these are different times to deny an act named sexual assault. Anecdotally, I have long been adamant—on linguistic, contextual, and historical grounds—that innah does not mean rape, and that we shouldn’t read the Dinah story as rape. I recently published a short article in which I expound on the semantic range of innah, insisting that instead of rape it connotes some kind of social debasement, although it is often associated with sex. I wrote this piece in June 2015. It was published in October 2016, the same week as the Trump-Billy Bush tapes, in which our 45th president bragged about sexual assaulting women. And the Bible is patriarchal?
I had written an article denying sexual assault in a situation in which it is mostly willingly accepted, while the republican nominee for president bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia without consent. Trump described this as “locker room talk,” the kinds of things that men say among men, behind closed doors, rather than those that they act on in public. It is the existence of “locker room talk” that contributes to the existence of rape culture, in which sexual assault is normalized and even ignored. The outrage (or lack thereof by others) against recent cases of the sexual assault of women by college athletes that have resulted in nominal sanction by their universities have brought the conversation of rape culture into the public discourse. My colleague, Rhiannon Graybill, has discussed the ways the Bible contributes to pervasive rape culture and the difficulty of teaching stories of sexual violence in the Bible.
In writing the SBL paper I came to the conclusion that, Yes, we can do feminist historiography—we can use the critical tools of the historical approach—linguistics, archaeology, contextual readings—but should we? The linguistic understandings of innah technically eliminate rape from the narrative. But just because we don’t have word for it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen! There is a limit to how feminist historiography can approach the text. Unlike other feminist approaches, we can’t conjure historical details where there are none. Dinah has no voice, we cannot invent one for her. We cannot rehabilitate her role in this awful situation. But we have a social responsibility to empower women’s voices regarding sexual violence that even from the lens of historical-critical scholarship we cannot get around. We can critique the hierarchical and androcentric perspective of the text. The sexual violence in the Bible, as well as in Greco-Roman literature, has contributed to the normalizing of rape and the development of rape culture. How do we, not only as scholars, but as responsible teachers of college students consider this material? What is the pedagogical impact if we remove the rape-y elements, and does this contribute to rape culture? Is it socially responsible to promote these historically supported readings without regard for their contemporary impact?
I’m sorry to say that I don’t have good answers to these questions, only a few suggestions:
- In the classroom – recognize the problematic and patriarchal nature of the biblical text and the civilization of ancient Israel, while also acknowledging that just because that’s what they did “back then” doesn’t make it right.
- In the classroom – acknowledge that the patriarchal nature of the biblical text may be disturbing to students, especially if they come from religious traditions that view the Bible as sacred, authoritative, divine, infallible, and/or inviolable.
- In scholarship — the Dinah story is not about her, but a national issue of identity. While the way Dinah is treated still is reflective of the androcentric societal view, Dinah is only literary collateral damage.
- In scholarship – further contextualize the history of interpretation. For example, Susanne Scholz, in Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34, offers a contextualized overview of Christian commentaries on Genesis 34 in 19th century Germany, highlighting the range of interpretations and the potential contemporary values that have contributed to their development.
- In scholarship – work to create a better theoretical framework for feminist historiography. In biblical studies there is a serious lack of theoretical method in feminist approaches. We see the beginnings of it, but it needs to be further developed.
 Anita Diamant, The Red Tent: A Novel (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
 Ken Stone, “‘You Seduced Me, You Overpowered Me, and You Prevailed’: Religious Experience and Homoerotic Sadomasochism in Jeremiah,” in Patriarchs, Prophets and Other Villains (London: Equinox, 2007), 104.
 Alison L. Joseph, “Understanding Genesis 34:2: ‘Innâ,” Vetus Testamentum 66, no. 4 (2016): 663–68.
 “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Taped Comments About Women,” The New York Times, October 8, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html.
 Susanne Scholz, Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34, Studies in Biblical Literature (New York: Peter Lang, 2000).
Alison L. Joseph is a visiting assistant professor of Religion at Swarthmore College. She is a recipient of the 2016 Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise, for her first book Portrait of the Kings: The Davidic Prototype in Deuteronomistic Poetics. She received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in Near Eastern Studies. Her work explores the contextual factors – historical and anthropological – that contribute to the composition of the Hebrew Bible.