Striking Women: Performance and Gender in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature
In recent decades, feminist exegesis has had a profound and wide-ranging effect on biblical studies. Many scholars have treated the accounts of Jael in Judges 4 and 5 from a feminist perspective, examining the interplay of gender and violence in the story. Other scholars have done similar work for the Book of Judith, and a handful have taken a feminist look at Pseudo-Philo’s reimagining of Jael in Biblical Antiquities. In the last few years, a small number of scholars have begun to look at one or the other of these stories through the lens of queer theory. To date, however, no one has undertaken a systematic study, both text-centered and deeply engaged with queer-theoretical frameworks, of the motif of the woman-turned-warrior in ancient Jewish literature. This dissertation asks how the character of Judith and the two different portrayals of Jael play with the signifiers of gender and sexuality, also researching possible parallels for this play in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman literature. I also ask how gender interacts with the tone and goals of each book. I show that Judith and both Jaels were characters who did not closely resemble the feminine ideal of their time periods. I argue that “putting on” the gender “female” and playing with the signs of women’s sexuality allowed these characters to get in position to slay their respective enemies. In other words, their efficacy as assassins is directly tied to their performance of the feminine. This project advances the scholarship on Judith and the two Jaels regarding how gender and sexuality factor into the portrayals of the main characters and the resolution of their stories. More broadly, it provides a new understanding of how the “woman warrior” motif plays with conventional notions of sex and gender. Feminist interpretation has helped bring these characters out of the shadows, but it has not gone far enough. I employ promising methods of analysis derived from queer theoretical frameworks to shine new light on three strong female characters from the Hebrew Bible and the early days of Jewish literature.