"Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible" is a thoughtful, intriguing collection of 28 essays on what it means as a woman today to read the Bible.
Celina Spiegel and Christina Buchmann are the co-editors who conceived of the idea and solicited contributions.
Spiegel is an editor at a New York publishing house and Buchmann teaches at UC Berkeley where she is a Ph.D. candidate in English Renaissance literature. She is writing her dissertation on how John Donne and George Herbert render religious experience in their poetry.
In a recent phone interview, Buchmann described why she and her former colleague decided to collect essays by women on this broad subject.
"I discovered the Bible through my research," she said. "I needed to check references people were using in their poetry...and I discovered I couldn't just use the Bible to check references. Reading it was like reading literature. I was just fascinated."
Buchmann, who speaks with a trace of a Swedish accent (she moved to the United States in 1978), said she was interested in the attitudes of women to the Bible. On the one hand, she said, there are pious apologists. Others suggest that the patriarchal voice in the Bible should be ignored.
"I think the Bible is very sexist," said Buchmann, "but I enjoy it anyway."
Contributors, Christians and Jews, were asked to write on any aspect of the Bible they found meaningful.
"We were afraid that we would end up with 28 essays on Eve," said Buchmann. But that was not the case.
The first person to respond was Rebecca Goldstein who taught philosophy at Barnard for 10 years. She wrote about Lot's wife who was turned into a pillar of salt when she dared look back as she fled from the burning city of Sodom. Why did she look back? Because she yearned for depravities that took place in the city? Because she couldn't resist an overwhelming compulsion to take a peek? Goldstein suggests that she may have looked back to see if her daughters were following.
June Jordan, a poet and professor at UC Berkeley, initially wrote an essay celebrating the friendship between David and Jonathan as a model of loyalty and heroism. Then she was diagnosed with cancer. Her women friends gathered around, caring for her every need.
"She changed her notion of heroic friendship after that experience," said Buchmann. Jordan then used the Biblical example of friendship by looking at Ruth, a widow, who was devoted to her mother-in-law Naomi.
Hannah was the Biblical woman most frequently written about. She appeared in three essays. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, was barren until God answered her prayers and gave her a son.
Other contributors like Patricia Hampl and Louise Erdrich wrote touching memoirs about their experiences with and memories of Bible stories.
"We were glad to have such a mix, such a variety of approaches," said Buchmann. When the book was first published two years ago it made the San Francisco Chronicle best-seller list for several weeks. "Out of the Garden" was recently released in paperback (Fawcett, $12.95).
Buchmann said both very religious and very secular people have been buying the book. "Both groups feel that the book agrees with them completely," she said. Buchmann said editing the book has given her a sincere appreciation and love of the Bible.
"The more I work on it the more I come to appreciate it," she said. "It combines wisdom and good reading. It has something to offer people. I would earlier have dismissed certain interpretations but now I see there are many ways to read it - characters to identify with and advice to be taken. The material is unbelievably rich."
One of her favorite overlooked Biblical characters is Abigail.
"I've come to see her as heroic and interesting," Buchmann. Abigail stopped an entire war just by serving dinner. This happened after her husband, Nabal, violated the rules of hospitality by refusing to feast with David. Abigail interceded, packed food and supplies, and took them to David. When Nabal died, David married Abigail.
Buchmann thinks "Out of the Garden" has done well for several reasons.
"I think it's because people have become less hostile to tradition than they were some decades ago. I think the very favorable reception we got was due to people looking at tradition favorably," she said. "And I also wanted to show that any subject a woman wants to think about is a woman's domain."
Buchmann said she's certain a sequel would be well-received. But there's just one little problem. "I have to finish my dissertation first," she said.