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Getting into the minds of the Hebrew Bible's heroines

BOOK REVIEW

After the Apple Women in the Bible Timeless Stories of Love, Lust and Longing Naomi Harris Rosenblatt Miramax Books: 264 pp., $23.95

April 26, 2005|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

Think of tales from the Hebrew Bible, and the names of numerous men come to mind: Adam. Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. Joseph. Moses. Women featured in the stories often take a backseat to the patriarchs. In "After the Apple," an examination of stories from the Hebrew Bible, psychotherapist Naomi Harris Rosenblatt sets out to extricate the women's voices from the male-centered narratives. She follows the ancient Jewish tradition of midrash -- the "constant reinterpretation of the Bible stories to derive from them new ethical and spiritual applications to meet the issues and concerns of succeeding generations."

These women have much to teach us about navigating life choices and desires, suggests Rosenblatt, who highlights the character strengths embodied by them and the risks they undertook to ensure their survival and the survival of their family, their tribe and their common spiritual identity. There's Eve, the first woman; Sarah, Abraham's helpmate; Rebecca, wife of Isaac who helps her son Jacob trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing due to his brother Esau; Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob; Tamar, the widow; David's first wife, Michal; Abigail, David's intellectual match; Delilah, who became the downfall of Samson; Bathsheba, the bathing beauty; the Queen of Sheba; Jezebel and others.

Rosenblatt retells the tales, focusing on lessons gleaned from the women's actions and fortitude. She learns, for instance, there's danger in the lust David harbors for Bathsheba, but she also wonders why Bathsheba would bathe on the low lying roof of a house in a city built on hills. "Did she expect privacy?" Rosenblatt notes the great pain and jealousy in Sarah's tale of sharing Abraham with her Egyptian maidservant Hagar, and of Sarah's eventual banishment of Hagar. The tale of Ruth and Naomi, on the other hand, instruct her about committed love and abiding loyalty. Esther demonstrates courage. And Leah's story depicts immense tenacity and endurance.

These are not simple tales in which righteousness always wins out. The women in these stories are often devious as they go about achieving their aims. Tamar, for instance, disguises herself as a roadside prostitute to lure her father-in-law, Judah, into her tent after Judah has failed to provide her a husband after the sudden death of his son Er makes her a widow. She plots to get pregnant by Judah as a way to guarantee her survival. From this tale, Rosenblatt sees not a women degraded by her social position, but an affirmation that a single human being can make a profound difference to history. According to Rosenblatt, the Bible lauds Tamar's courage and actions "because they serve a goal larger than her own immediate welfare: the preeminent biblical values of family and continuity."

Likewise, the story of Eve. Contrary to popular understanding, Eve, to Rosenblatt, is not a manipulative temptress who entraps a hapless Adam; nor is she a gullible victim who succumbs to temptation. Rather, Eve is a risk-taker driven by the need to create new life; she's humankind's first rebel. By daring to question the limitations put on her and her helpmate, she blazes a trail the rest of us, to this day, follow.

These tales, Rosenblatt suggests, present the complexities of the human condition, depicting frailties and imperfections hand-in-hand with heroics and courage. Each of the stories is permeated with a sense of spiritual urgency. There is a moment of crisis, after which the heroine is aware of being in the presence of God, conscious that whatever choice she makes will have a profound effect. "[T]his ancient book presents life as untidy and riddled with contradictions yet at the same time expects all of us to seek the spiritual and moral high ground."

There's provocative material throughout: the power of sexuality, a wife yearning for the love of her husband, and the unabashed delight of a couple in their mutual passion. Most of these women also defy male authority when it is unjust or does not answer their needs or those of their family. They challenge. They seduce. They trick. Rather than being passive recipients in an unequal society, they become the protagonists around which each story revolves. Though at times Rosenblatt's assertions of strength may seem a stretch, readers quickly forgive her overreaching, so delightful are the tales and her affirmative reading of them.

After all, the women in the Bible, Rosenblatt reminds readers, "are part of a long line of Eve's female descendants who use their powers as women to work everyday miracles in a patriarchal world."

Bernadette Murphy is a regular contributor to Book Review and the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting," a work of narrative nonfiction.

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