The Old Testament is a fairly intimidating source of scripture as it was produced thousands of years ago by a culture that is greatly foreign to our own. The strangeness of the Old Testament text and cultural milieu is likely particularly potent for women who approach the text. Among the few things that we can say with confidence regarding the culture of Ancient Israel is that it was misogynistic. Therefore, Camille Fronk Olsen’s recent book Women of the Old Testament is best considered as a good introductory text to help teachers, particularly those interested in applying scripture to women’s lives, tackle this very difficult work.
The book is structured thematically, picking out several prominent women from the Old Testament and using them to illuminate the scriptural text. Chapters discuss the context, [both] historical and religious, of the lives of matriarchs including Sarah, Hannah, Deborah, Huldah, the Widow of Ephrath, and others. Each chapter begins with an introductory overview, followed by an exegesis of the relevant scriptural narratives. Each chapter ends with a series of questions designed to make the stories and history discussed more easily applicable to the reader.
The book is more a devotional work than a scholarly work. This works to its benefit as an introduction to the Old Testament; each chapter provides a clear narrative explaining the story and a way to read it that fits into modern notions of appropriate behavior and gender concerns. For instance, Hannah’s story is presented in a context of spousal indifference and ecclesiastical neglect, a situation that some women within the church may find familiar. At the same time, Fronk’s explanation of the narrative delves into the familial dynamics of a polygamous household and the importance of sacred space within the Israelite sanctuary. The book operates from the assumption that the Bible presents as literal a history as possible, although it doesn’t shy away from questions surrounding the historicity of biblical events. Fronk does her best to balance the foreign and the familiar in the stories she examines, resulting in a text that is readable and relatable while still informative.
The book features several prints from Elspeth Young, created especially for this book. The illustrations are often very pretty, if somewhat distracting due to the artist’s occasional use of blondes to depict women from western Asia. There is an extended explanation of each portrait at the end of the book, including a bibliography of works used in her research.
However, I do have a few quibbles with Fronk’s approach. While the bibliography she offers at the end of the book features many recent works, her works cited within the text tend to be much older and the narratives she presents can reflect the state of scholarship twenty years or more ago. More thorough footnotes would have been very helpful, as references are provided according to a scheme that isn’t readily discernable. Finally, Fronk has a tendency toward whitewashing the narratives. For example, quite a bit of time is devoted to providing a rationale for Jacob and Rebekah’s usurpation of Esau’s birthright, when it may be easier to simply admit that sometimes God works through imperfect people (and imperfect acts) to accomplish his ends. However, none of this should dissuade you from considering this as a good introductory work regarding the role of gender in the Old Testament from an LDS perspective.