Making my way into this book, I increasingly felt I could not write a review without knowing at least a bit about its author. Debbie Blue is co-founding minister of House of Mercy, a Christian congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her earlier books affirm the Incarnation (Sensual Orthodoxy, 2004), decry bibliolatry (From Stone to Living Word: Letting the Bible Live Again, 2008), and explore the symbolism of birds in the Bible (Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, 2013). Her bio at houseofmercy.org says she “approaches scripture . . . carefully but not delicately, thoroughly but not exactly cautiously.” This statement gave helpful context for reading Consider the Women.
The book has four sections: “Abrahamic Faith,” “Hagar,” “Esther,” and “Mary.” The opening chapter establishes the book’s feel, which I would describe as sermonic with more dependence on the big picture of the biblical story (and beyond) than on interpretation of specific biblical texts. Consider a quotation from p. 16: “What does it mean to claim the blessings of Abrahamic faith? It means be unsettled. Abandon safe structures. Suspend what you know in order to discover what you don’t know yet. Get lost. Have some vast and hungry questions you don’t already know the answers to.” Chapter 2 maintains a loose grip on monotheism while unveiling its “dangers.” Blue says, “The ‘mono-’ in monotheism isn’t entirely helpful. That syllable gets us thinking in terms of monolith, monoculture, monopoly . . . A monolith is massive, solid, uniform . . . You get where I’m going” (23). The reader is asked to accept certain statements without explanation, defense, or footnote. An example is the statement, “Monotheism had hardly been established—had barely taken hold—before the exile” (20).
Section 2 consists of four chapters on Hagar. Chapter 3 argues that Hagar, not Sarah, is a matriarch parallel to Abraham. As such, her story tempers the patriarchy of Abraham’s dominant story. As a key example, her encounter with God at the near-death of her son provides a preferable alternative to Abraham’s more famous near-sacrifice of Isaac. Chapters 4-6 describe how the Genesis account of Hagar is enriched by her story as presented in the Koran and other Islamic sources. “I can relate to [certain aspects of Hagar’s story] better than the image of the father being willing to kill his son for his god” (72).
As I read, the word “provocative” in its subtitle resonated primarily in two ways. First, many sentences begin with lead-ins such as “What if,” “Perhaps,” or “Maybe,” and then proceed as if true. This way of provoking thought will strike some readers as enriching and others as frustrating. The second way I sensed Blue being provocative is in her view of God. For example, the lowercase “g” on “god” in the quotation at the end of the previous paragraph is not a typographical error. Because she does not “relate to” God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, the God of this story becomes a god—more specifically, “his god.” Similarly, Blue believes “monotheism” should have welcomed certain views of God that the OT considers idolatrous, especially goddess worship (20, 116, 131, 149, 154).
Section 3 is about Esther. Reading this section helped me understand and appreciate the book better. While section 2 focused primarily on Hagar in Islamic texts, section 3 focuses on Esther in rabbinic writings. Toward the end of the section, Blue says, “I hope someday to learn to read with the imagination that the spirit of rabbinic inquiry embodies” (123). Rabbinic interpretation asks questions of the text, questions which may not be answered. The writings of ancient rabbis often give a handful of interpretations without specifying which is best or true. Indeed, this is Blue’s method as well.
Chapter 7 rehearses Esther’s story while offering interpretive and provocative comments. Blue expresses high hopes that Esther can remind us of “a God more seductive than militaristic, more beautiful than violent” (99). The book of Esther contains much of both—beauty and violence—and Blue’s following chapters focus on the Jewish festival, Purim, as a means of grappling with this dangerous irony. Much of chs. 8-9 is the story of Blue’s experiences with Purim, and here I should note that my earlier description of the book’s feel as “sermonic” includes extensive storytelling.
I was especially surprised that, in ch. 9, in a discussion of antisemitism and the Holocaust, Blue likens Jesus’s words against the scribes and Pharisees (more specifically, Matthew’s version of Jesus’s words) to Martin Luther’s appalling treatise, “On the Jews and Their Lies” (118ff.). Blue believes that not only Luther, but also Jesus himself, should have thought about the consequences of his words: “Surely, if Jesus knew this sort of thing would lead to murderous prejudice, he would have been more graceful” (120).
Section 4 is about Mary the mother of Jesus. Blue finds Matthew’s birth narrative “a little off-putting” because it is “as much about men as possible” (134). She much prefers Luke’s account, especially the Magnificat and Mary’s interaction with Elizabeth. This chapter includes comments on the common artistic image, the Pieta. Noting that the NT does not picture Jesus’s body in Mary’s arms, Blue nevertheless gleans for us the wisdom that, “In all the many ways Mary would manifest to people in the ages to come, she will be seen most powerfully as someone who knows suffering” (143).
Chapter 11 then surveys these “many ways Mary would manifest to people in the ages to come.” Stories and images from a wide variety of post-biblical sources contribute to Blue’s belief that Mary provides a counter-narrative to patriarchal Christianity. Most striking, she compares Mary to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, based on certain similarities such as images of Isis holding her son, Horus, which look similar to Mary holding Jesus. Blue calmly states, “this parallel does not seem threatening” (154)—many readers of Priscilla Papers will disagree.
The book lives up to its subtitle, A Provocative Guide . . . Though it has some value, I do not recommend it without reservation, given her methods of interpretation noted above.