I recently investigated the following question: Does the Bible pass the Bechdel test? You know, this is the test about how pro-women a dramatic production is. The test is simple, and sets an admittedly low bar. In order to pass, the film, show, or play has to have at least two named women as characters, and the two have to talk to one another about something other than a man for more than 30 seconds. I was curious how the Bible fares.
The answer? Out of the 24 books of the Bible, only one book passes: The Book of Ruth. The relationship and conversations between Ruth and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi are the sole example of named women talking to each other about something other than a man. These exchanges are also among the most poignant in the entire Bible, and present such a compelling model of compassion and care that they are credited with initiating the lineage for King David, and hence the Messiah. There is much to adore about the Ruth-Naomi relationship, and women—especially feminists—have been claiming this story as their own for some time. At all my daughters’ bat mitzvah ceremonies, I invoked these passages as examples of what I see as core Jewish values. When Naomi was left destitute in the foreign land of Moab following the deaths of her husband and sons, Ruth dropped everything to stay with her m-in-l. Ruth’s signature declaration of loyalty—“Wherever you go I go; your people are my people and your God is my God”—continues to inspire a vision of love, care and compassion, as well as a deep abiding friendship between women.
I was very surprised to learn that there is a midrash suggesting that the two women were secretly lesbian lovers. I discovered this recently at a phenomenal play, “God’s Girlfriends,” which presents a dramatic, feminist interpretation of three key women’s stories in the Bible; one of which is the Ruth-Naomi story. The play presents these stories—the other two being Sarah and The Concubine on the Hill—entirely from the point of view of the women. This did not strike me as a radical premise, until I realized that the female perspective is completely absent from the Bible.
Certainly women appear in many riveting biblical stories. The story of Sarah is a shallow aside to the narratives of her husband Abraham and their son Isaac, whom she birthed when she was 90 and whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice on the altar for his God. We never really know what her experience of motherhood was like under those circumstances. Similarly, the little-known story of the concubine on the hill is one in which we are told nothing of the woman’s thoughts or feelings. The unnamed concubine decided to leave her husband/master, only to be dragged back home through a contract between her father and her husband. On the way home, they pass through a village in the tribe of Benjamin, where her husband gives her up to be gang raped in order to save his own skin. She dies from the attack, and her husband chops her corpse into twelve bits. He then sends one piece of her body to each tribe, in order to send some kind of message. Here we have dramatic stories featuring women, in which we know nothing about the women themselves, . Someone else – male – always seems to be at the center. This play, written by the brilliant Inbal Genzer, dares to ask how the women in these stories experienced their own lives. What was Sarah really feeling during the sacrifice of her son? What about the lifel of the Concubine—who has no name and utters not one word in the original text? These are vital questions, which the Bible fails to answer adequately and which this play attempts to address forcefully.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org