Book review: More than a Womb

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Lisa Wilson Davison, More than a Womb, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2021)

by Sue Hart, Warminster

Lisa Wilson Davison’s book, More than a Womb, challenges the trope of women being fulfilled (and fulfilling their divine purpose) primarily through reproduction. The ideal of “woman as mother” is one, Davison argues, that denigrates women who are childless, whether that is through being unable to have children or by choice. Importantly, this obsession with motherhood ignores the crucial role women have played as secular and religious leaders, prophets, warriors, negotiators, diplomats and authorities, all of which may be found in the Hebrew texts.

Davison noticed that there is a dearth of knowledge among theology students about women in the Hebrew Bible, and so the greater part of the book is a thorough excavation of the stories of Old Testament women who demonstrate roles unrelated to motherhood, which, Davison argues, may have resulted partly as a conscious choice to remain childfree.

As well as Miriam, Deborah, Huldah and Esther, Davison also gives colour and voice to unnamed “wise women” who play important parts in Hebrew history. Under Davison’s forensic eye, these women are revealed as so much more than the monochrome characters who never properly mature into multi-faceted human beings that they are so often reduced to in Sunday School stories.

Like the author, I must declare myself to be a feminist theologian who approaches Scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion. An imaginative reading of the text is not just desirable but critical for a fairer understanding of the roles women may have played in biblical times. Davison uses her imagination to great effect as she interrogates the possible motivations of not just the biblical authors, but those who have interpreted and relayed those stories through the ages with a particular bias.

I found her excavation of language particularly enlightening. She is upfront about words and phrases where it is impossible to say for certain what they might mean. But, instead of viewing this as a blockage, she takes the opportunity to suggest alternative understandings of texts that have, by habit (and, in all probability, to fulfil darker objectives), been interpreted through the lens of patriarchal power structures.

For example, Miriam has been described by scholars as leading the women only. However, a close reading of the language used in Exodus 15:21 suggests that Miriam was a worship leader for all the people – men included.

I imagine it would be fairly easy to criticize Davison’s book for extending her research beyond the canon of Hebrew and Christian texts into the cultic practices of civilisations and cultures contemporaneous with Old Testament contexts. However, given how the voices of women have been silenced, the names of women erased and their words even (possibly) attributed to others (Davison argues that some of Miriam’s words may have been redacted and placed in the mouth of Moses), it seems only fair and expedient that Davison should use every tool and avenue at her disposal to interrogate a narrative that has predominantly benefited men at the expense of women.

Davison does give plenty of space to dissenting voices, particularly those who persist in “motherising” female biblical characters, but is unapologetic in her critique of what she clearly regards as views enculturated by patriarchy.

Davison states that, “The purpose of sharing these stories is to make clear that everyone is shaped by cultural ideals and stereotypes about women and men, despite their best intentions not to be.” In my view, she has done a superb job in at least raising the possibility that women are not just wombs that will only find true fulfilment in marriage and motherhood, but are complex human beings capable of fulfilling their God-given identity in a huge variety of ways and in roles that have largely been colonised in the Western Christian narrative by men.

Sadly, this book is unlikely to change the hearts and minds of those who are fixed on the idea of “normative roles” for men and women (whatever that means). But, for women who long to find ways of reading and recognising themselves in the biblical canon outside of a mothering narrative, More than a womb will be a hugely welcome liberating gift.

More from this issue