AFTER THE APPLE: WOMEN IN THE BIBLE — TIMELESS STORIES OF LOVE, LUST, AND LONGING
By Naomi Harris Rosenblatt
Miramax, $23.95, 264 pages
REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTHAR
The names are household words; the stories are familiar. In her lively new book, “After the Apple,” Naomi Harris Rosenblatt retells the stories of 17 women from the Old Testament, but with a fresh look at the relationship of their conduct to the moral and social codes of the times, but also at their pertinence to our lives today.
Mrs. Rosenblatt, a resident of Washington D.C., is a Bible scholar and a psychotherapist. She combines her fields of expertise into a fascinating analysis of the lives and significance of these exceptional women. Of the 17, only two — Jezebel and Dalilah — are “wicked,” yet even Jezebel’s murderous deed was motivated by loyalty to her husband (as well as her self-interest) and Dalilah’s betrayal of Samson was in the interest of her people.
It all began with Eve, “the first rebel,” as Mrs. Rosenblatt calls her. She explains that the story of the first couple “links the ideas of speech and human companionship … before it even mentions sexuality and procreation.” In a contemporary analogy, she notes that “only after the male and the female can articulate their separateness and uniqueness are they equipped to express their mutual need and respect for each other and affirm their interdependence.”
Eve deliberates before deciding to eat the apple. She is aware that God will punish her severely; she is willing to trade immortality for knowledge, for, as the Bible states, having seen “that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took the fruit and ate. Then she gave some to her husband, and he ate.” Adam does not deliberate. Eve is the risk taker, “a woman who dares to question the limitations imposed on her and her helpmate.” She is the first in a long line of female descendants “who use their power as women to work everyday miracles in a patriarchal world.” And it is indeed a world run by men, a world in which women have no official power or status other than as daughters, wives and mothers.
Sarah and Abraham are the founding couple of the new monotheistic religion. They exemplify the true partnership of marriage. Like Eve, Sarah is the strong one. She joins Pharaoh’s harem to save her husband; when she cannot conceive, she decides to send her slave, Hagar, to the 86 year old Abraham as a surrogate, something she is legally entitled to do. Ishmael is the product of that union; Isaac is the son she bears late in her life who takes over the leadership of the fledgling community.
Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, too, takes matters regarding the future of her people into her own hands when she tricks the now ailing Isaac into anointing the younger of their sons, Jacob, as Isaac’s heir. She knows that Jacob, rather than Esau (who sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew), will make a good leader.
Rebecca is the only woman in the Bible who is followed from her youth through the entire span of her marriage. The author notes that “Her story demonstrates the human capacity to make free and moral choices. Free will is what is meant by being made in the image of God. Choice is inherently accompanied by anxiety and accountability.” She quotes the first century Rabbi Akiva “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given.”
The brothers of Jacob’s grandson, Er, refused to follow the custom of levirate law obligating a brother to marry the widow of his brother if he dies without male issue. As the childless widow of Er, returned to her father’s house, Tamar is an unwanted burden with no economic or social standing. So she seduces her now widowed father-in-law and tricks him by pretending to be a prostitute. The deceit works; she becomes pregnant and is welcomed back to her father-in-law’s house, where she gives birth to twin boys who “establish the ancestral line leading to King David centuries later, and later sill, according to Christian tradition, to Jesus.”
Michal, David’s first wife, saves him from her father’s assassins by warning David of the danger and helping him escape. Abigail first meets David when unbeknownst to her husband, she takes food to David and his men. David had threatened to kill her husband for refusing to feed his men after they had protected his shepherds through the winter. Abigail, a “confident, intuitive, capable, resourceful, persuasive, and very brave [woman],” uses flattery and intelligence to diffuse the situation. When her husband dies, David marries Abigail and she remains his confidant.
The tale of King David’s lust for the fair Bathsheba is the subject of numerous paintings. Certainly, David committed an immoral act in seducing Bathsheba and then sending her husband to the front lines to be killed in battle so David could wed Bathsheba, whom he had made pregnant. The Bible reproaches his conduct: “The thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of the Lord.” But Bathsheba transforms herself from sex object to beloved partner. She speaks assertively “as a woman secure in her place in the royal marriage.” When David lies dying, she approaches him to assure the succession of her son, Solomon, as king. Mrs. Rosenblatt points out, “Both Abigail and Bathsheba exude courage, the source of their self confidence. They refuse to accept the status quo when they first meet with David, although their predicaments are perilous. Both are wise and speak their minds. David stops and listens.”
Ruth, a Moabite woman, is the first convert to Judaism mentioned in the Bible. She is determined to follow her mother-in-law after her husband dies. The Bible quotes her: “wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God.” At her mother-in-law’s urging, Ruth boldly makes the advances to the wealthy landowner, Boaz, which end in a marriage.
Then there is Esther, who risks death to confront her husband, the king, and save her people from being murdered by order of the grand vizier because Esther’s father, Mordecai, has refused to kneel before the vizier. Another Tamar is raped by her half brother and avenged by her brother, Absalom. The luscious Queen of Sheba comes to visit. Sisters Leah and Rachel share Jacob’s marriage bed.
The last story is that of the beautiful Shulamite, the woman in the Song of Songs, a poem about “the longing ‘to know’ and to be known … an ode to sensual love that emphasizes [the lovers’] equality and utter delight in each other.” The setting of the poem is a universe filled with flowers and fruits, “erotic symbols reminiscent of the ‘fruit’ in the Garden of Eden.” Thus, the poem brings full circle to Eve’s decision to eat the apple so that, in the words of the Old Testament, she will be “like divine beings who know good and evil.”
Naomi Rosenblatt retells each of the Old Testament tales of “love, lust, and longing” and examines their relevance to the relationship between men and women today.
The partnership engendered in a good marriage must still be based on more than physical pleasure, important as that may be. While most women today have many more choices available to them than the Biblical heroines of these stories, and they no longer must submit to arranged marriages (although such unions continue to exist in parts of the world) issues of trust, confidence, self esteem and loyalty are as relevant now as they were three and four thousand years ago.
Motivation may not be as simple and straightforward as it appears at first reading. Avenging a sister’s honor may also be a path to the throne; to bathe on a rooftop in full view of the palace higher up on the hill may not be a totally innocent act. Naomi Rosenblatt’s skill at understanding human nature gives an added dimension to familiar tales.
If there is a weakness in “After the Apple,” it is Mrs. Rosenblatt’s tendency to be repetitive in summing up each tale. But as her enthusiastic analysis is both profound and interesting, this is hardly a consequential defect. The reader will be stimulated to know more about the world of these brave women who manipulate the men in control, often for the good of the community as well as for their own survival. They are seductive, wise, strong willed and complex and the writers of the Old Testament have done them honor. Perhaps Mrs. Rosenblatt’s musing is correct: Parts of the Bible may have been written by a woman, after all.
Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer.