Ideal and Dangerous Sisters in the Bible

Fortress Press has published an interesting book written by Amy Kalmanofsky, Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible, in which she studies sisters and sisterhood in the Hebrew Bible. The title of this book called my attention to the fact that in the study of the family in ancient Israel, scholars focus their attention on the role of fathers and mothers within the family. However, the role of sisters and sisterhood in ancient Israel has not received much attention.

According to the promotional information that accompanies the release of the book, Kalmanofsky argues that sisters and sisterhood “play an important role in narratives, revealing anxieties related to desire, agency, and solidarity among women playing out (and playing against) their roles in a patrilineal society. Most often, she shows, sisters are destabilizing figures in narratives about family crisis, where property, patrimony, and the resilience of community boundaries are at risk. Kalmanofsky demonstrates that the particular role of sisters had important narrative effects, revealing previously underappreciated dynamics in Israelite society.”

I have read the introduction to the book which was made available by Fortress Press. Below are excerpts from the introduction to Ideal and Dangerous Sisters in the Bible:

My goal is to understand how the Bible represents sisters and sisterhoods—women’s networks not defined by immediate kinship ties—and to consider how they function within their discrete narratives as well as within the Bible at large. My analysis of the Bible’s sister and sisterhood stories draws upon recent social and historical scholarship about ancient Israel’s families and society, but my argument here is a literary analysis rather than a historical one, though it may have implications for understanding the roles sisters and sisterhoods played in ancient Israelite families. I am interested in how sisters and sisterhoods are portrayed and how they function in the biblical narratives.

To understand how the Bible represents sisters and sisterhoods, I provide a close literary reading of each narrative, considering its rhetorical strategies, themes, and function within the greater biblical narrative. All translations of the biblical texts that I include are my own. I rely upon the resources of contemporary biblical scholarship to enrich my understanding of these narratives, as well as to offer points of comparison to my own readings. When brought together, these readings reveal common themes and narrative strategies that provide a coherent image of the biblical representation of sisters and sisterhoods.

The texts I address in this study come from a variety of biblical books and cross genres such as narratives, poetry, and law. As such, they certainly reflect different periods in Israel’s history and in the composition of its texts. Despite this range, I believe it is possible to discuss the biblical representation of sisters even as it relates to the structure of the family in the ancient world because, as Jon L. Berquist observes, the structure of the family remains consistent through much of Israel’s history. Studies like this one that consider the literary representation of particular figures are crucial to the study of the Bible.

By analyzing the Bible’s sister and sisterhood stories, I identify a heretofore overlooked common narrative concern and function. Just as there is a typical brother story about rivalry and inheritance, there is a typical sister story concerned with the vulnerability of the natal household and a typical sisterhood story concerned with the vulnerability of Israelite society.

The Bible’s sisters and sisterhoods are powerful figures, and their stories are essential to the greater biblical narrative. Analyzing their significance sheds light on women in the Bible and perhaps in ancient Israel. My analysis suggests insight into the nature of actual interpersonal relationships within families and society and the particular anxieties sisters induce. Sisters and sisterhoods may be marginal and, at times, destabilizing figures, but they are crucial players in the biblical drama. As we will see, sisters ensure the success of the designated patriarch; and sisterhood provides a potent model for the divine-human relationship.

I divide this study into three parts and begin with the stories—two narratives and one parable—of the paired sisters Rachel and Leah, Michal and Merav, and Rebel Israel and Faithless Judah, whom the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel portray as sisters married to God. Next, I examine the role sisters play in the Bible’s incest narratives and consider the stories of Lot’s daughters, Sarah as Abraham’s wife-sister, and Tamar, who is raped by her half-brother. Although I identify the women I study as sisters, I recognize that they also play other roles such as mothers, wives, and daughters within their narratives. In my analysis, I offer reasons for identifying them as sisters and their narratives as sister stories, but I do not argue that they must be seen exclusively as sisters. Rather, I argue that seeing them as sisters illuminates their role in their specific narratives and provides insight into the overall role sisters play in the biblical narrative.

In the final section of my study, I examine sisterhoods and begin with the daughters of Adam, Moab, the land, and Israel. I then consider the daughters of Jerusalem in the Song of Songs. In the final chapter, I examine the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, which I argue is the Bible’s most positive sisterhood. I conclude by reflecting on the role of sisters and sisterhood in the Bible and consider its narrative and theological implications.

Throughout this study, I identify two paradigms of sisters and sisterhoods—which I call the “ideal” and the “dangerous”—that shape these passages and determine their broader narrative function. I believe these paradigms reflect the Bible’s implicit gender ideology and provide general insight into the biblical representation of women. At no point does the Bible explicitly present its gender ideology or these paradigms. It is the role of the reader, and specifically the role of the feminist Bible scholar, to extract the gender ideology that is encoded in the text.

Amy Kalmanofsky is assistant professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and an ordained rabbi in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. You can read the introduction to Ideal and Dangerous Sisters in the Bible in a PDF format by visiting Fortress Press online.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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