L. Juliana M. CLASSENS. Claiming Her Dignity: Female Resistance in the Old Testament. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. xxvi + 165. $ 24.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8419-1. Reviewed by Alice L. LAFFEY, Emerita, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA 01610.
Based on insights derived from Jacqueline Bussie’s Laughter of the Oppressed, a study of the expressions of resistance in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as well as Michel Foucault’s more theoretical assertion that “in the face of power there always will be resistance,” and that “acts of resistance are as multiple and diverse in nature as the people from which they come” (p. xvii), Classens proceeds to study how several female characters in the Old Testament express resistance to violence.
The volume is comprised of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. Chapter One, “Resisting the Violence of War,” investigates how Abigail (1 Samuel 25) and Rizpah (2 Samuel 21) resist, Abigail though hospitality, and Rizpah through lament. Chapter Two, “Resisting the Violence of Rape, examines texts that document how Tamar (2 Samuel 13) and Susanna (Daniel 13) express resistance to rape, Tamar through her cry, and Susanna through her prayer. Chapter Three uses the elegy of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11) and the resolve of Zelophehad’s daughters (Numbers 27) to provide examples of “Resisting the Violence of Patriarchy/ Hierarchy,” while Chapter Four addresses women in precarious situations, − Hagar, Sarah, Ruth, Naomi, and Tamar − “Resisting the Violence of Precarity.” Deliberately the author considers the individual acts of resistance as well as the violence to which each of the OT female characters are reacting. Part of each chapter points to the study’s relevance, explicitly connecting the biblical women to experiences of contemporary women.
Rather than read Classens’s book from beginning to end, this reviewer went immediately to the part of chapter four that deals with Ruth and Naomi because I have been studying the book of Ruth extensively of late. While many scholars now consider Ruth to have been composed during the monarchy, its traditional dating is post exilic, and thus has lent itself to much postcolonial interpretation. Resistance is a key category for postcolonial analysis. Produced at a time when the Jews who returned from exile were under Persian control and control by fellow Jews who aligned, often for personal benefit, with imperial power, the narrative as a whole resists the perspective and directives of Ezra and Nehemiah with respect to mixed marriages. Ruth, the Moabite, becomes David’s great grandmother. But the women themselves also resist; in fact, expressions of their resistance abound. Ruth resists the easier path of remaining in Moab after her husband’s death, resisting and ultimately rejecting the known, the expected, and the more comfortable; she resists Naomi’s directive to return to her mother’s house; she determines not to conform to traditional female, or at least widow, behavior, placing herself with Boaz at the threshing floor. Naomi resists the temptation to remain in Moab and be buried with her husband and sons; she resists the more comfortable option of having her daughters-in-law accompany her to Bethlehem; she resists the seemingly inevitable future of dying without there being a future line for her husband’s family. I found Classens’ interpretation to be solid, but not as strong or as provocative as other scholarship on the women’s acts of resistance in Ruth.
At least two sources from the developing world, based on their respective cultures, suggest that Ruth and Orpah were likely the victims of marital rape, so I then went to chapter two on the violence of rape which I found both strong and focused. Often when considering contemporary rape, we assume the physical act. Susanna is not raped; she resists the attempt, though a patriarchal culture would be inclined to accept the accusations against her and blame her for sexual misconduct, rather than suspect of vicious slander the two “horny old men” who wanted to rape her.
Two aspects of Classens’ work in this chapter are most helpful. First, she considers a text that most feminists do not study because it is part of the deutero-canonical texts of the Old Testament. Secondly, Susanna’s story is one with which many women, if not most, can identify—as victims of either sexual harassment or attempted rape. Who—especially which men—will believe them? Susanna’s courage and determination to resist the judges, even at great personal risk—after all, they were well reputed elders who, she had reason to believe, would have greater credibility than herself—makes her an important role model for women everywhere and at all times.
At this point I turned to chapter one and read through the remaining chapters and sections in order. In my judgment the monograph is “the next step” in feminist studies of women characters in the Old Testament. Its scholarship is solid and can lead the reader to a greater appreciation of the existence, function and importance of resistance in both overt and covert situations of hierarchical domination. It’s not a mammoth and dense tome; its potential audience is broad, a manageable read that I heartily recommend to readers of this review.