In this debut collection, nine stories shed light on Old Testament women famous, infamous and obscure.
“God said one thing. The snake said another. Which is how I learned that someone had to be lying,” Eve remarks in the title story. Where the Bible’s women are concerned, Lemberger, a respected scholar in the field, is as skeptical as Eve. After her husband (in “Lot’s Wife”) threatens to throw his daughters to a mob of rapists, Lot’s wife rescues the girls, torches Sodom and escapes—no divine wrath or pillar of salt in sight. The familiar story of Sarah and Hagar (“The Watery Season”) highlights the downside of selling young women as handmaidens to produce children for men whose wives are barren. In Lemberger’s take on Exodus (“Drawn from the Water”), colicky, wailing Moses can’t be hidden, like other male newborns, from the Egyptian slave masters, so his sister Miriam, a wisecracking adolescent, is charged with setting him afloat in the Nile. The reader’s sympathy will be drawn not to established biblical heroes but to misunderstood or otherwise marginalized minor players. Vashti, the deposed queen of Persia, and her sister Zeresh, the narrator, are the focus of “Zeresh, His Wife,” not Esther, who takes Vashti’s place, nor her uncle Mordechai, who brings down Zeresh’s hapless husband, Haman. When Yael, in “City of Refuge,” kills enemy general Sisera, she is glorified by warrior queen Deborah; but Yael is revealed as a true pacifist. In “Shiloh,” fecund Penina, another woman sold as a “breeder” and traditionally seen as resentful, nobly forgoes an opportunity to displace her rival wife, Hannah. The most villainous character here is King David: Not only does he overthrow his mentor, King Saul, but he abandons his first wife, Saul’s daughter Michel, for years, forcibly reclaiming her out of spite (“Saul’s Daughter”). While avoiding outright irreverence or anachronism, Lemberger’s diction gives cogent voice to all her underestimated or overlooked narrators.
Original and thought-provoking.