Will we ever run out of Bible interpretations? Probably not. Even in today's secular society, where people often practice religion according to their personal convictions rather than the religious rule of law, the Bible intrigues us.
The stories, moral codes and ethical dilemmas all testify to the sanctity and the fragility of human life. Whether read as literature or as a sacred text, the Bible offers us an opportunity to study the actions of those who supposedly came before us and to learn from their mistakes and triumphs. It also compels us to understand what compelled them. In Sacred Voices: Women of Genesis Speak, Sherri Waas Shunfenthal tries to understand some of the most outstanding women in the Old Testament by giving them her poetic voice.
Shunfenthal, a short story writer and poet, began asking herself questions about these women after joining a Bible study group. In the introduction to her book, she writes that by studying the Bible, "we learn in detail the motivations, thoughts, feelings, and actions of men such as Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, or Jacob. However, we see the women's lives in fragments, often only in relation to the men's lives." By imagining how Rebecca felt when she deceived Isaac or by trying to understand Leah's angst over her loveless marriage to Jacob, Shunfenthal breathes life into these characters.
The story of Lot's wife, for example, is one of the most perplexing stories of the Bible. From a literal reading, we know only that when she and Lot left Sodom and Gomorrah, she was told not to look back. But she did and was turned into a pillar salt. In the poem "The Woman with No Name: Lot's Wife," Shunfenthal writes:
Lot's wife has carried her past
Many times to new places. Like
a heavy sack
Upon her back it has grown heavier
Each time she leaves. The sack has
Open her heart leaving a trail
and family she will never see again.
There is too much leaving.
The common interpretation of this story tells us that Lot's wife was killed because she did not obey God. So quick and decisive is her demise, we never even know her name. Yet, Shunfenthal wonders, how could we not look back if our home were on fire and our children and relatives were left to burn in the flames? She also notes in her commentary at the end of the book that while a pillar of salt means little today, salt was essential to life in Biblical times. It preserved food, it was used to bathe newborns, and it was necessary for life in the desert. Maybe the fate of Lot's wife not only symbolizes the importance of following God's will but also the desperation one feels when facing shattering and unexplainable events. Perhaps Lot's wife remains nameless because she is everyone who has ever questioned God in times of helplessness. Shunfenthal also reminds us that Lot's wife is not turned into a pile of salt, but a pillar, suggesting strength and fortitude.
Into a pillar of salt
Frozen in time.
Into a pillar of remembrance
Nameless like the people
Of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Lot's wife is just one of the nine Genesis women Shunfenthal speculates about in her poetry. Most of the poems are written about in the first person; thus, the poet is not only the author, but the subject, as well. Through her poems, we see how Sarah/Shunfenthal or Rachel/Shunfenthal feels. As with all poetry, it is up to the readers to decide whether or not the poet's experience is one they can relate to. In Sacred Voices, Shunfenthal shows both empathy and awe. The rhythm of her poems draws the reader in and evokes compassion. But Shunfenthal is not didactic. Her poems do not declare feelings; they portray the intricacies of conflict and the zigzags of emotion.
Still, this poetry is easy to read. In fact, if one were to ignore the spacing, it could be read as flowing narrative. But, the tone would be lost, and tone is an important part of the story here. Successfully depicting the thoughts and sentiments of those who lived in a time and place for which we have little documentation other than the Bible depends on the poet's ability to contemplate emotion. In "In the Desert God Also Spoke to Miriam," Shunfenthal writes:
When we, the Israelites
We yell at the heavens
"Did we leave Egypt to
How far must we journey?
We are tired.
We are afraid."
Through the use of modern, everyday language, she is able to establish a connection between ancient tales and today's world, and thus reveals why these stories have staying power. The poems of Leah and Rachel were particularly interesting to me.
Here, Leah becomes sadly aware that not only has she betrayed her sister by marrying Jacob, but that she has been betrayed:
Sorrow of my soul!
My father has deceived me.
Rachel has also been promised
to my husband, Jacob.
My father used me
So that Jacob will stay on
To create abundance
In my father's fields and
Leah, whose vision is described as poor in the Bible, is not shortsighted in this poem. She realizes that she is a pawn in her father's quest to prosper and while she has been blessed with many sons, she is the vehicle for, not the object of, Jacob's affections. "Love cannot be forced./It cannot be bartered or traded."
Rachel, who is Jacob's true love, also pays a price and not just the obvious one. She, too, was deceived by her father and, as a result, the love that was "an open blossom/reaching toward the sun" is delayed for another seven years. "Blossoms shrivel/without water/without the fragrance of youth/and desire."
When, after fourteen years, Rachel finally marries Jacob, she is barren. She is jealous of Leah who continues to bear Jacob children. She is ashamed that she cannot produce a son, the most important duty of women in her time, and she is desperate because she believes that only a child will permanently bond her to Jacob. At times, she behaves like a spoiled child and is embarrassed only when Jacob refuses to sympathize.
As Shunfenthal continues, Leah and Rachel accept their lots in life. Their immortality comes from the roles in which they have been cast, roles that women still grapple with. In the end, Leah concedes, "For me, I ask nothing/but bless our sons." In "Rachel, Our Matriarch," Shunfenthal writes, Rachel "comforts those in search of dreams./Rachel knows desire/knows how dreams may and may not be fulfilled."
These poems are not for biblical scholars. They are for people who want to look at history another way. Ironically, they also exemplify how women's roles have evolved. Our grandmothers may have instinctively understood Sarah and Rebecca, but the times did not call for scrutiny and documentation. Our points of view are different now. Women today are anxious to re-examine their role in history and, as a result, new and interesting literature has come forward. The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant, which fictionalizes the life of Dinah, immediately came to mind as I read Sacred Voices. In both books, the women the Bible tells us so little about real people whose destinies are guided by their passions and their flaws as much as by their attributes. Sacred Voices not only inspires thought about the women who were our ancestors, it brings women to a place that once was reserved for men.