Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Joy A. Schroeder's "Deborah's Daughters"

Joy A. Schroeder a Lutheran pastor, teaches church history at Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary (Columbus, Ohio) where she holds the Bergener Chair in Theology and Religion. She is interested in the history of women in religion, the history of biblical interpretation, medieval mysticism, and the church's response to sexual and domestic violence.

Schroeder applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Deborah's Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation, and reported the following:
Deborah’s Daughters traces the “afterlife” of a biblical character through two thousand years of Jewish and Christian interpretation. The biblical Deborah was a prophet, judge, poet, and military leader in ancient Israel (Judges 4-5). She ordered the Israelite commander Barak to attack the army of a Canaanite king who oppressed them. Barak refused to go to battle without her. Deborah’s example was used in arguments for and against women’s expanded roles in synagogues, churches, politics, and society. Through the centuries, Deborah, a forceful and authoritative biblical figure, inspired a multitude of women, including female rabbis, pastors, preachers, judges, soldiers, authors, suffragists, and queens. These women claimed Deborah as precedent for their extraordinary roles.

Numerous male interpreters were uncomfortable applying Deborah’s example to the women of their own day. Some found ways to limit or “domesticate” the biblical Deborah. Many men highlighted her gentleness and submissiveness, character traits not actually found in the biblical text! A few criticized Deborah for being too “haughty” in her interactions with Barak. One twentieth-century Christian minister accused the prophetess of being a bad homemaker, warning his female readers to confine their activities to the household rather than following Deborah’s example of public service and employment outside the home. However, a surprising number of men supported women’s expanded roles, or, at least, they affirmed particular exceptions to the rule of male authority and female submission. The presence of a godly prophetess in scripture was evidence of women’s leadership gifts and God’s approval.

On page 99, I quote from Protestant reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), who addressed Queen Elizabeth I shortly after she ascended to the throne in 1558. Elizabeth styled herself as “England’s Deborah,” raised up by God to liberate her nation from foreign tyranny and Roman Catholic “idolatry” following the reign of Mary Tudor. Writing to Elizabeth to register his support for her reign and to offer advice, Vermigli invokes the examples of courageous biblical women:
Play the role of holy Deborah for our times. Join to yourself some godly Barak. Bring the Israelites who are oppressed in various ways into the sincere and pure liberty of the Gospel…. May these holy women give encouragement to Your Majesty, and do not let yourself be shaken because you were born a woman and not a man.
On the same page of Deborah’s Daughters, I offer this commentary:
Vermigli urges the queen to find a male partner, “some godly Barak” to share her leadership. He may be talking about her taking a husband, though more likely he feels she needs the special assistance of a male official to give her aid. Since he mentions the need for Barak in the context of gaining liberty from the oppressive Canaanites (symbolizing the Roman church), he may be particularly concerned that she enlist a male leader for the work of church reform.
Thus page 99 offers one of the book’s numerous examples of how interpreters read Deborah’s story through their particular cultural lenses, to support their own agendas and views about women’s roles.
Learn more about Deborah's Daughters at the Oxford University Press website and Joy A. Schroeder's page at Amazon.

--Marshal Zeringue