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Biblical Seductions: Six Stories Retold Based on Talmud and Midrash, by Sandra E. Rapoport. Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2011. 638 pp. $29.50.
Sandra Rapoport has been a practicing attorney specializing in sexual harassment among other areas of law, consultant to auction houses selling rare Hebrew books and manuscripts, and most recently Resident Scholar at Harvard University, where she completed the manuscript for Biblical Seductions while lecturing and teaching classes in which she brought the characters of the Bible to life by using a combination of the biblical text and midrash. Rapoport’s definition of midrash is not narrow; it is not only the colorful and sometimes—to modern ears—strange legends the ancient rabbis developed (midrash aggadah) to answer various questions the biblical text raises. She uses the term broadly to include interpretations from the medieval and modern periods as well, from both Jewish and Christian scholars.
Biblical Seductions is a fascinating reading of the stories of Lot and his daughters, Dinah and Shechem, Judah and Tamar, David and Bathsheba, Ammon and Tamar, and Ruth and Boaz, weaving together not only interpretations across the post-biblical centuries, but also commenting on the inter-textual connections between the stories. Rapoport is the most helpful in her discussion of the ancient and medieval Jewish midrash and commentators, since not all of this material is available to the general reader, even one who knows biblical Hebrew.
One example out of the many that could be presented comes from the story of David and Batsheva (the Hebrew name of Bathsheba which Rapoport uses). Rapoport points out that contrary to popular belief the biblical text does not say that Bathsheba was bathing on her roof; it only says that David saw her bathing while he was standing on his roof. This fact puts a rather different spin on the story, for it means that the biblical text is not clear on how he saw her. It is interpreters who have inferred that she must have been on her roof, but she might have been inside her house and David saw her through a window.
Another example of Rapoport’s insights relates to the question of whether Ruth and Boaz had sex on the threshing floor the night Ruth seduced him. Rapoport argues persuasively based on a difference in spelling in the Hebrew word translated as feet, but also used euphemistically for genitals (the absence of the letter yud in the second use of the word) and the interpretation of this difference in the midrash, that they did not. When Ruth came to the threshing floor to seduce Boaz she uncovered his margelotav, i.e. his genitals, but after their conversation, she spent the night at margelotav, its foot, i.e., the foot of his bed.
Rapoport’s use of the modern commentary material is not comprehensive and sometimes gives greater weight to less important views, while virtually ignoring more significant perspectives. An example is her discussion of a Harvard B.A. thesis in the David and Bathsheba chapter which makes the argument that Bathsheba tried to seduce David. Rapoport spends several pages presenting and then shooting down the argument of this B.A. paper, when more sophisticated arguments for this idea are available in the scholarly literature. Similarly, she dismisses with one sentence the possibility that Shechem might not have raped Dinah, when there is a significant body of feminist scholarly work with philological arguments to support such a view which she seems unaware of.
Rapoport’s understanding of biblical Hebrew is clearly excellent. Yet she makes a number of statements that strike this reviewer as odd. For example, she suggests repeatedly that the Hebrew word vayehi indicates that something tragic is about to happen. This phrase, which is sometimes translated as “it happened that” and is really the beginning of a string of a particular type of past tense verb, is one of the most common words in the Bible, occurring 814 times. It would be hard to argue that in all or even a majority of the cases something ominous is about to happen.
Similarly, when Rapoport discusses the verb inuy (Pi‘el of ‘nh) in the story of Dinah and Shechem, she begins with the Talmud’s understanding of the meaning of the word (torture). When she begins to consider modern commentary, however, the starting point should be all of the biblical uses of the root in the Pi‘el, which are much broader than torture. Similarly, she assumes that the verb lqch means forcibly take and only later in a footnote does she acknowledge that in many contexts it means to take (non-forcibly) as wife. Doubtless her experience as an attorney in the area of sexual harassment has influenced her reading of this story, in which the Hebrew text regarding Shechem’s actions is actually ambiguous.
One other minor concern is that the copy editing for the book was not well done. Throughout the book the transitive verb “lay” is used when the intransitive verb “lie” is needed. On p. 283, the phrase “it is seems…” is found. On p. 378, the phrase, “his sons are champing [sic] at the bit,” occurs. Similarly, on p. 423, we read, “she is anxious to take up the reigns [sic]….” Finally, on p. 514, we learn that “Ruth sank into an depression.”
In spite of these concerns, Biblical Seductions is a truly intriguing book, filled with information and insight. It fills a large gap in the literature available on the stories of Lot’s daughters, Dinah, the two Tamars, Bathsheba, and Ruth. It is both readable and accessible to college students and people in faith communities as well as those studying in graduate level courses. The fact that it is available as a paperback in a reasonably priced edition makes it likely to be very popular.
Alice Ogden Bellis
Howard University School of Divinity