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Jacqueline E. Lapsley

When it began in its modern form several decades ago, feminist biblical scholarship was at first attentive to representations of women in biblical texts, and then, furnished with the insights of newly emerging feminist theory, slowly grew to include increasingly sophisticated investigations into patriarchy and androcentrism in its various ideological manifestations, along with signs of resistance to those ideologies. Intersectional approaches (Crenshaw 1989), which have become typical of feminist exegesis, have intensified the sophistication of these approaches. The ways in which gender, class, race, disability, sexual identity, and other markers of identity are intertwined among both the producers of texts, and their recipients, have illumined the biblical texts. But it is a sign of the times that the question for the panelists is framed not in terms of feminist analysis, but in terms of gender analysis. In recent years, feminist studies in the wider academy has expanded beyond a feminist orientation alone, to include attention to gender issues more broadly. We know that biblical studies works on a time-delay, picking up trends in other fields as though in another time zone. Thus, because the wider academy began the move from feminist studies to gender studies decades ago, especially after Judith Butler’s groundbreaking theory of gender as performance in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, biblical studies has now been following suit. Women are no longer the only focus of gendered readings of biblical texts, but work in this area now includes a burgeoning sub-area of masculinity studies, and critical attention to the ways in which modern Western binary understandings of gender cloud our view of the ancient texts and contexts.

1. In your experience and scholarly context, what has been the greatest gain for using gender as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Hebrew Bible?

I would name three gains in particular to the use of gender as a category of analysis in my context: First, exegesis that illumines the ways in which gender is constructed in the biblical texts—that is, the fact that gender is a social construction—in my experience has helped readers to observe the ways in which gender is constructed and performed in our own society. Most significant in revealing the constructed nature of gender in the Bible is the growing body of literature within masculinity studies. Martti Nissinen and others have produced important work on the construction of masculinities in the ancient world and in the Bible in particular, much of which, unfortunately, has not yet influenced other areas of biblical studies as much as one might hope.[1] Among this work, for example, is a discussion of the ways in which the so-called eunuchs, Heb. sarisim, disrupt the gender binary that is supposedly in place in the biblical material.[2] Fascinating studies of both dominant, aggressive forms of masculinity in the Bible exist alongside studies of alternative masculinities present.[3] Masculinity studies is closely related to gender fluidity, and the representation of non-binary gender in the Bible—there was even a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, showing how much the question has surfaced in the public arena.[4] It is beneficial to observe these constructions in the biblical texts because seeing the variety of constructions destabilizes the idea that there is one normative understanding of gender that the Bible promotes. And seeing the variety of gender constructions in the biblical texts, my students and I observe the constructions also present in our own society.

As I review my panel contribution, it is one week before the U.S. presidential election (2016). Having studied gender performance theory, I have a new appreciation for the ways in which Donald Trump as a candidate for U.S. president is performing a certain kind of aggressive masculinity, and that it is primarily his gender performance, not any policy that he advocates, that attracts so many white men without a university education to his candidacy. This group feels demasculinized, and they long for an aggressive dominant male to instate or reinstate their own masculinity. The fact that Mr. Trump's behavior is overtly sexist is relevant to the question under discussion: I am convinced that one of the keys to the liberation of women and gendered minorities from the oppressions of patriarchy and its twin, misogyny, is not feminism itself, but masculinity studies. Only by exposing the ways in which certain types of toxic masculinity are performed and codified as normative will we make progress in gender justice.

Secondly, attention to gender in the biblical texts has helped readers to see the connections between the oppression of women and minorities in the biblical texts, and the oppression of women and minorities in society. The first fifteen years of my teaching career I lamented with my feminist colleagues how the younger generation of women in the U.S.—our students—did not consider gender an important category of analysis. They considered the oppression of women a problem of the past. By contrast, we are now seeing among students renewed interest in gender as a site of oppression, now intersecting with other forms of oppression in complex ways. My students are much less sanguine than previously that we have arrived in a post-feminist, post-racial America.

Thirdly, gender analysis has helped to open the eyes of readers of the biblical texts, whether students, pastors, or colleagues, to the fact that all exegesis is contextual. The phrases “contextual exegesis,” and even more often, “contextual theology,” are still prevalent in theological academic circles in the U.S., and feminist exegesis and feminist theology give the lie to this terminology at every turn. The idea that theologians who study Karl Barth are somehow doing “theology” but theologians of Ivone Gebara are doing “contextual theology” persists (or the idea that Pentateuchal criticism is not contextual, but feminist criticism is somehow “contextual”). These descriptions obscure the way context works in all interpretation, and in obfuscation lies undisclosed ideology. But such distinctions are undermined by the robust results of the gendered analysis of biblical texts. One can say there are two types of theologies or exegesis, those that are consciously contextual and those that are unconscious of their contexts. The practitioners of the latter are in need of being “woke,” as those younger than me would say.

2. What would you say is the greatest challenge faced by scholars interested in gender and the Bible, especially with regard to a discourse across contexts and continents?

When it comes to challenges for discourse about gender, I would name three: the first challenge is the old one of being taken seriously by so-called mainstream scholarship. Some progress has been made in this area, but there is still much work to be done. The second challenge for discourse across contexts and continents is precisely the diversity of those contexts. Issues of sexual orientation, sexual identity, the status of women, and so forth, are so different in different contexts. In some places the dignity of homosexual persons is still disrespected and even threatened, whereas in some places, including my own institution, the conversation has largely moved on to other issues, such as non-binary gender identities.

Finally, there is the problem caused by the success of “gender” as opposed to “women” as a defining category of analysis. As Maricel Mena-López and María Pilar Aquino have said in their introduction to their edited volume on Feminist Intercultural Theology: Talking about “gender” instead of “women” can be a “strategy for minimizing critical feminist discourse and can depoliticize feminism and coopt “the category of gender for the purpose of reducing feminism’s political impact.”[5] I experience this problem quite directly in my work at the Center for Theology, Women, and Gender at Princeton Seminary. Among the women I work with, alums and students, some worry that the attention to gender as a category, instead of women, will cause women to lose the political and social gains for women that the feminist movement achieved. But others, often younger persons, reject the gender binary itself and ask: if gender is fluid and constructed, why do we persist in speaking about the category of “women” at all? Is not the path to liberation to show how there is no such thing as a “woman” in any case? Navigating these different perspectives, both of which have certain merits, in my view, is a particular challenge for me in my context.

As I now finish editing my reflection from the panel, it is one week since Mr. Trump has been elected President of the United States, and with his victory arrives the defeat of concern for women and minorities of every kind. But that defeat must be temporary. The vision of a world in which all persons and the created order as a whole might flourish still feeds us, and many will continue to work for its realization. After the crucifixion of Jesus, when his disciples had lost hope that the world he announced would take hold in this one, the ones who went to the tomb to lament, and who became the first bearers of renewed hope, were women (Mark 16:1). The tasks before us are clear: to be vigilant in tending the truth, and in defending the vulnerable against injustice, and so to go forward, bearing the flame of hope.



[1] Martti Nissinen, “Biblical Masculinities: Musings on Theory and Agenda,” in Biblical Masculinities Foregrounded, ed. Ovidiu Creangā and Peter-Ben Smit (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2014), 271–285.

[2] Martti Nissinen, “Relative Masculinities in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,” in Being a Man: Negotiating Ancient Constructs of Masculinity, ed. Ilona Zsolnay (New York: Routledge, 2016), 221–247.

[3] See for example, Christine Mitchell, “1 and 2 Chronicles,” in The Women's Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., ed. Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe and Jacqueline Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 184–191.

[4] Mark Sameth, “Is God Transgender?,” The New York Times, Aug. 13, 2016, http://www. The Op-Ed has been widely criticized for misunderstanding Hebrew grammar (e.g., Carolyn Klaasen and Jenna Stover-Kemp, “Bad Scholarship a Poor Solution to Anti-Trans Politics: A Response to the New York Times’ ‘Is God Transgender?’ ”,, accessed October 31, 2016).

[5] Maricel Mena-López and María Pilar Aquino, “Feminist Intercultural Theology: Religion, Culture, Feminism, and Power,” in Feminist Intercultural Theology: Latina Explorations for a Just World, ed. María Pilar Aquino and Maria José Rosado-Nunes (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2007), xx.


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Jacqueline E. Lapsley,

is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is interested in literary theory, ethics (especially creation ethics), theological anthropology, and gender theory, as tools for reading the Old Testament theologically. She is on the editorial boards of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, and is a general editor for the new series of Interpretation commentaries (Westminster John Knox). She is most recently co-editor (with Patricia K. Tull) of After Exegesis: Feminist Biblical Theology (2015), and A Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd edition (2012, with C. Newsom and S. Ringe).

© Jacqueline E. Lapsley, 2016,, ISSN 1661-3317