Sunday, September 25, 2016

Book Review: Her Name Is Woman

Tepid Book Review: Her Name Is Woman

Title: Her Name Is Woman

Author: Gien Karssen

Date: 1975

Publisher: Nav Press

ISBN: 08910-94202

Length: 199 pages

Quote: “[Sarah] was Abraham’s half sister. but that wasn’t unusual since opportunities to marry in those days were so limited, one often had to look for a partner within the innermost family circle.”

Archaeologists tell us that the reason why “opportunities to marry were limited” in Sarah’s and Abraham’s time was not a lack of people; it was a widespread belief that property should be kept within the family. That was the usual reason why middle-class parents tried to contract marriages between cousins, but the Egyptian royal family routinely married full brothers to full sisters whenever possible. (Some believe that these ceremonial marriages were routinely ignored by the nominally married siblings, that any children they had must have come through unofficial extramarital relationships…which may explain Sarah’s bright idea of ordering her servant Hagar to “give birth on [Sarah’s] knees” to a child Sarah intended, until her own child came along, to adopt as her own.) If you’ve read this historical detail before, Gien Karssen’s exposition on the Bible story of Sarah seems inadequate.

And if it seems inadequate, it’s not the first time this book has seemed inadequate to you, nor will it be the last. I personally…I’m not saying that the story of Adam and Eve is not, or might not be, literally true, but I personally have yet to read an exposition on this story in which the writer tries to identify, or get readers to identify, with Adam and Eve as literal individuals like Sarah and Abraham, that didn’t seem to me to lack something. I’m not sure that it’s possible for ordinary people, who are not and have never been either the first humans or even the first humans in a certain area, to identify with Adam and Eve. It seems unfair to blame Karssen for the shortcomings of her first “Eve” chapter, but the second one, too…

On and on it goes. “Potiphar’s wife…was married to a man to whom work meant everything…Perhaps her feelings were hurt because her husband did not give her the attention she desired…She didn’t know that the sensation she craved would only produce passion, an emotional excitement that would consume her if the act was not grounded in love and the security of marriage.” Say whaaat? How many of us have experienced carnal passion long before we knew anything about “love and the security of marriage,” and how many of us have been “consumed” by it? What, exactly, is Karssen using “consume” to mean

Never mind the question of whether Potiphar’s wife had been subjected to “pharaonic circumcision,” which would have greatly limited her capacity for sexual “sensation,” or whether Potiphar had been neutered (as many palace officials were, especially those who came into contact with ancient kings’ wives and children), or whether they were a brother and sister who expected their children to come from other biological parents; we’re not told whether it was sensation, babies, or both, that Potiphar’s wife demanded. The story is about how, in the humiliation of rejection (even if Joseph were simply too young to respond to Potiphar’s wife’s demands), Potiphar’s wife gave way to the Evil Principle with her vicious lie about Joseph, and how God used Joseph’s good character to overcome that evil act with good. Karssen seems to miss the whole point because she’s so eager to repeat (to college students) what she may have been told, and may even have believed, herself, but what few if any college students in 1975 could take seriously, about sex.

(Karssen also tells us, unblushingly, on page 59, that Potiphar’s wife was Joseph’s “superior.” This, at least, I can understand as a simple language error. Joseph is described as the superior character in every way. Potiphar’s wife was his superordinate. Some languages have only one word for both concepts.)

“Miriam, an unmarried woman…had the privilege of being the first female prophet.” The Bible doesn’t tell us whether Miriam was married or not; since the Exodus occurred late in her life she might easily have outlived a husband, or husbands. If Moses’ life really divided into three periods of forty literal years, at the time of the Exodus Miriam must have been about ninety, and she led the women in the wilderness for a good long time after that. The Bible does, however, tell us that Sarah, Hagar, and Rebekah also received messages from God.

“[Job’s] wife turned against him. The woman God had intended to support Job for better or worse…[said] ‘Curse God and die!’…She missed the encouragement of the written Word of God and she had no circle of Christian friends to support her.” Interestingly, we are not told what God had to say, by word or by situation, about Job’s wife. We are not told that she, herself, cursed God—although it seems unlikely that any mother who had lost ten children in one day could think of anything to say that could possibly shock God. Much less are we told whether her example of raging against God, and not dying, encouraged Job during his long philosophical debate with his friends, or whether her greater determination to end her own suffering was yet another addition to Job’s miseries—would the text necessarily have mentioned it if she had died? We’re not told how either she or Job had learned whatever they knew about God; we’re not told how many fellow believers either of them called friends. We’re told that Job later had ten more children, but we’re not told whether one woman had to go through twenty births (or, for that matter, whether the wife mentioned had given birth to the first ten children) or whether Job was blessed with another wife. We’re not told whether the wife who said “Curse God and die” was, in fact, Job’s helpmeet for better or worse through all their lives, or was the one of half a dozen wives least likely to be missed. And we’re not told whether God took any account whatsoever of her reaction—though college students are old enough to know that, on the day when any parent hears of the death of any child, nothing that parent says needs to be taken very seriously. The trouble with Job’s wife, in my opinion, is that she has no story. All that’s left of her is one scream.

“Without [Mary] mentioning a word about her own pregnancy Elizabeth had welcomedher as blessed among women…Mary…could not have known that even after many centuries people would still be moved and stimulated by her love for God.” “Stimulated” is not the word English-speaking people normally use for the effect on us of reading the Magnificat, but I’ll let that pass as another simple translation error. On to the main issue raised here. Why did either Mary or Elizabeth use the phrase “blessed among women”? In the Old Testament the phrase referred to terrorist-slaying Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. Later it had come to refer to the mother of the Messiah—although “Messiah” was not actually understood to be a unique title, at this period; it means “the Lord’s anointed” and had referred to all the priests and kings of ancient Israel, and even to some foreign kings. (Cyrus of Persia was called mashiach too.) 

Mary knew that “all generations shall call me blessed” because God’s messenger, Gabriel, had told her so. Mary would also have known that doubting neighbors were likely to call her other things. Some historians think there may have been something of a custom of young men going on journeys to prepare for their marriages; there was no such custom for women. Instead people in Mary’s home town might have been encouraged to focus on Elizabeth’s great age and need for care and comfort as Mary was packed off to visit her relative, while Mary was encouraged to stay out of town. Instead of going home, she apparently met Joseph on the way to that special, punitive census and tax ordeal; she gave birth in the manger because there was no room in the inn, and, as soon as she was fit to travel, she and Joseph were led to spend some time in Egypt, out of range of King Herod (one of a dynasty of bad kings who shared that name). When they came home, people would have lost track of exactly how old Jesus was.

But Mary knew her calling, and Elizabeth welcomed her with an affirmation of faith that the most unlikely story a young lady ever had to tell her family was, in this one particular case, true…very likely because Elizabeth had read all about it in a letter. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, after all, because they were of royal blood. They were young, dispossessed of any hereditary privileges and obliged to earn their living, but they were hardly illiterate paupers. Carpenters, even if not of royal blood or special religious devotion, had to be able to read and write and draw and calculate. The question was asked how Jesus “knows letters, having never learned” in an official rabbinical school; the answer would have been that His parents had been able to teach Him, such that, when He did meet the rabbis, even at age twelve, His understanding of the Bible astonished them. 

Those are just the first half-dozen points on which Gien Karssen’s discussions of women in the Bible seem weaker to me than, e.g., Edith Deen’s, Eugenia Price’s, or Liz Curtis Higgs’. A determined reader could find more. Part of the problem is of course that Her Name Is Woman was translated by a committee. Karssen wrote in Dutch. Another part is that Price's books about women in the Bible were equally new, and Higgs wasn't yet writing. But a larger part of the problem seems to be that, for whatever reasons, Karssen just hadn’t read a lot of material that North American college students are likely to have read—about the history of ancient Israel, about translating the Bible into English or any other modern language, or even about sexuality, and if college students had read anything they would have read what was currently available about sexuality. To American students if not to European students, I think this book must always have come across as a work very inferior to Deen’s All of the Women in the Bible (and even that contained one oversight of a point that occurs to any first-year student of New Testament Greek). I suspect Karssen's books have been kept alive (excerpts are still up at some Christian web sites) by people who knew her personally.

Her Name Is Woman was meant for devotional study in small groups. It will do for that purpose because, in spite of what look like glaring deficiencies in scholarship, it does refer readers back to the Bible as the work they really need to study. Karssen’s contribution only really needs to be to steer readers to some of the additional Bible texts, outside of a story, that shed additional light on what can be learned from the story. If that was enough for a group, perhaps a small, underfunded or unfunded group of Christians or even curious non-Christians at a secular school, then there were reasons to choose Karssen’s Her Name Is Woman over Price’s God Speaks to Women Today; Karssen does skim briefly over more stories and steer students to more Bible texts. Deen’s book, though more authoritative, was less, well, devotional.

In my opinion Liz Curtis Higgs’ series, which began with Bad Girls of the Bible, leaves Her Name Is Woman obsolete. More Scripture references, more scholarship, better English…and more stories! And Higgs is a living writer who can still use a dollar! So, to begin a study of women in the Bible, get these books

Does that leave any room on the shelf for Her Name Is Woman? Very few books are completely useless. Gien Karssen was a leader in The Navigators’ outreach to Europe; her books (she’d written others) shed some light the history of Christian studies on European campuses. So, I can recommend Her Name Is Woman to people who are already Bible students and/or church historians. I can’t recommend it as a first book on its topic but, as the twentieth or fiftieth book to add to your library, it’s worth having.

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