Why did Lot's wife look back?

Monday Book Review

August 01, 1994|By Francine Prose

OUT Of THE GARDEN: WOMEN WRITERS ON THE BIBLE. Edited by Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel. Fawcett/Columbine. 351 pp. $23.

READING "Out of the Garden," a remarkable anthology of essays on the Bible by 28 women writers, I was reminded of how, years ago, I and the other little girls in my Hebrew-school class dressed up as Queen Esther for the annual Purim carnivals.

Inevitably, a funereal mood stole over us as we regarded one another -- ungainly, anxious children at the most awkward of ages -- and realized that all our mothers' makeup and prettiest paisley scarves had sadly failed to transform us into the Jewish beauty who won the Persian king's heart.

How it would have cheered us to hear the lively, informed voices that make up this collection edited by Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel, to read authors who prove by eloquent example there is more to value in women than pretty faces.

The amazingly various pieces gathered here range from Elizabeth Swados' account of how she was moved to compose a musical clown circus based on the trials of Job, to Daphne Merkin's smart, nervy re-reading of "The Song of Songs" as a hymn to unfulfilled desire.

Even when several writers choose the same text, the results could hardly be more unlike. Cynthia Ozick and Marcia Falk draw opposite conclusions from the story of Hannah.

Ms. Ozick sees Hannah as "a heroine of religious civilization" and her experience as a confirmation of her "personhood." Ms. Falk considers her "a woman misunderstood, unheard, invisible," a woman whose oppression was mediated only by a moment of visionary prayer.

And in a brilliant chapter that draws on such sources as Jane Eyre and the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Margaret Anne Doody is less engaged by Hannah than by what her son Samuel has to tell us about the nature of infant piety:

"A frightening thing. Either it is feigned . . . in which case it is a sticky piece of hypocrisy. Or it is genuine, in which case the child who is listening to God and not to us will be capable of startling BTC revelations, and will refuse to be taken in by our show."

What is consistently striking about "Out of the Garden" is the intelligence and daring of the questions these writers pose. Rebecca Goldstein asks, "Who was Lot's wife, and what moved her to look back and risk all?" Anne C. Dailey wonders about the violence implicit in King Solomon's threat to cut a baby in half and thus discover its true mother.

And in the book's moving last essay, Lore Segal considers what may be the ultimate question, a question asked so often by men and so rarely (in print or in public) by women: What does the Bible tell us about the nature of the divine -- about the character, the cruel justice and the loving mercy of God?

Francine Prose reviews books for Newsday.

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