Women fill the pages of the Bible. Some of them enter the narrative as mothers and wives, others as refugees, judges, and queens. Yet one burden many of them share is our interpretive tendency to blame them for sexual offense no matter how honorable their example. No doubt, some of the women in Scripture have rightfully earned such a legacy, but others bear it without warrant. Vindicating the Vixens reexamines the stories of 14 biblical women who are often misinterpreted through a sexualized or marginalized lens.
As stories from the #MeToo and #ChurchToo campaigns have rippled into the church, they have kindled needed conversation not only about the proper methods for handling cases of sexual assault but also about how we discuss sexual assault itself. This collection of essays is an instructive addition to the dialogue. It demonstrates how our mishandling of the stories of biblical women, especially those involving sexual abuse, adversely affects our handling of similar circumstances today.
Edited by Sandra Glahn, associate professor of media arts and worship at Dallas Theological Seminary, the essays focus on revisiting the “sexualized, vilified, and marginalized women of the Bible.” Some may be tempted to read this as a politically motivated subtitle, but Glahn contests this conclusion in her preface, stating, “Our motivation is to handle faithfully the biblical text, which involves bringing to light a number of women labeled as ‘bad girls’ who deserve a fresh look.”
Divided into three sections, Vindicating the Vixens explores the subjects of women, victimhood, and abuse through careful exegesis and contemporary contextual evidence. Section one includes the five women listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary); section two considers women in the Old Testament who are often marginalized or viewed through a sexual lens (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Deborah, Huldah, and Vashti); and section three concludes by visiting a handful of women found in the New Testament (the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, and Junia).
Its roster of contributors includes a diverse array of biblical scholars, all of whom embrace a high view of Scripture and possess at least one advanced degree in a biblical discipline.
Many of the women in question have been interpreted based on the terminology used to describe them in our English translations. Oftentimes, terms like “prostitute” or “adulteress” conjure contemporary images that fail to capture the circumstances of biblical times. For example, in the book’s opening essay, Carolyn Custis James dissects the story of Tamar, a woman famously remembered for posing as a prostitute and sleeping with her father-in-law, Judah, to secure her progeny (Gen. 38:1–30). This legacy has led many to frown upon the character of Tamar, but James challenges this notion on numerous contextual grounds.
To begin, she places the story within its context of both levirate marriage and the patriarchal society of Tamar’s time, as they provide important signposts for understanding the reasons behind her actions. According to Old Testament Law, a widow was to be given as a wife to the brother of her deceased husband for her own welfare and to bear children as a continuation of his line (Deut. 25:5–10). After Judah’s two oldest sons were killed for their wickedness, Tamar was left a widow, which obligated Judah to provide her with a levirate marriage, an obligation he failed to keep (Gen. 38:6–14).
Even more, within the patriarchal context of Tamar’s time, it was considered the duty of a wife to provide her husband with a son to continue his lineage. Thus, Judah’s refusal to give his youngest son to his daughter-in-law threatened her honor as a woman and responsibility before God. Taken together, these points provide an important contextual framework for understanding Tamar’s subsequent actions, namely, that of sleeping with Judah in the hopes of bearing a child.
It also explains Judah’s exclamation that “She is more righteous than I” (Gen. 38:26). Simply put, Tamar made a drastic decision to fulfill her lawful role to carry on Judah’s line and that of her deceased husband, Er. The text does not prescribe this kind of decision as necessary for biblical obedience, but understanding the cultural and legal context of the time helps us to see that Tamar’s actions were within her rights according to the Law. Rather than a seductive temptress, Tamar is an example of courageously embracing her responsibilities, one that became a cause for blessing (Ruth 4:12) and ensured the familial line of Christ himself (Matt. 1:3).
The point of James’s essay is not to condone prostitution. Rather, she peels back the layers of the story to offer readers insight into the character of Tamar, to vindicate her from unwarranted judgment, and to demonstrate her place in the biblical narrative, specifically in terms of how God used this event to transform Judah moving forward. To dismiss her as a common “prostitute” would be to miss the point of the text and to vilify a woman who was honored for her example of righteousness.
On every page, Vindicating the Vixens models sensitivity in the way we talk about certain women of the Bible. It also emphasizes the importance of what Glahn describes as having “varied eyes on the text.” The contributors are a diverse mix of gender, ethnicity, and nationality, which highlights the value of communal biblical study and allows for insights often missed in a strictly North American context.
In the case of Bathsheba, some suggest that she was complicit in sleeping with King David due to the fact that she appears to have bathed in full view on her roof (2 Sam. 11:1–4). Sarah Bowler’s essay argues otherwise, pointing out archaeological data that indicates Bathsheba likely bathed in an enclosed courtyard that would have been private—apart from those with an elevated vantage point, like that of the king (v. 2). Furthermore, the Hebrew term used for “bathing” was not exclusively used to refer to full-body bathing. In some instances, it described washing one’s feet or hands. In other words, the term is ambiguous at best, and together these clues emphasize David as a “peeping Tom” more than any fault on the part of Bathsheba.
Similarly, Lynn Cohick’s essay concerning the Samaritan woman in John 4 challenges the modern picture we have of an adulteress with loose morals. Based on a context comparable to that of Tamar, it is more likely that her situation resulted from the untimely deaths of several former husbands. Knowing she could not have survived apart from male provision, she made an arrangement to live with a man who was not her husband (John 4:16–18). Even more, Cohick argues that the text does not portray the woman as an immoral sinner, but as “a seeker of truth” who is ultimately commended by the Savior for her faith.
As Christians, the way we interpret biblical stories such as these has a profound influence on the way we interpret similar circumstances today. With sex trafficking and serial abuse occurring worldwide, there’s much at stake. When we fail to see someone like Bathsheba as an innocent victim assaulted by her king, we marginalize her suffering and hinder our ability to empathize with the biblical account. In doing so, we are far more likely react to a modern-day Bathsheba in much the same way.
Vindicating the Vixens is an attentive addition to the conversation happening within the church regarding assault, abuse, and victimhood. Its careful treatment of the biblical text makes for a convicting read worthy of serious engagement. And as a tangible application of its message, all of the book’s proceeds are being donated to the efforts of International Justice Mission, which labors to protect the poor and marginalized from violence around the world.
As pastors and leaders continue to grapple with how to care for the victims and marginalized in their midst, Vindicating the Vixens reminds us of the importance of cultivating empathy in the process. It also demonstrates how our biblical interpretations have real-life consequences. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have promoted justice for the victims of abuse, but they have also revived conversation about our responsibilities toward these problems as Christians. We would do well to lean in, listen, and pursue change where it is needed as we labor together in pursuit of the kingdom to come.
Collin Huber is a senior editor at Fathom magazine. He has written for The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, and For The Church.
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