Monday, February 01, 2021

Rev. Dr. Renita Weems: "The Hebrew Women are not like the Egyptian Women"

Rev. Dr. Renita Weems 

Essay: "The Hebrew Women Are Not Like the Egyptian Women: The Ideology of Race, Gender and Sexual Reproduction in Exodus 1"

In this essay, Weems points out an ideological conflict within the text of Exodus 1:8-22. The midwives Shiphrah and Puah are able to exploit Pharaoa's assumption that Hebrews and Egyptians are fundamentally different by telling him that Hebrew women give birth more easily. At the same time, they are proving his assumption that women are more compliant than me is false as they deceive him. Weems says the text remains problematic in terms of its usability in liberation struggles because it does not question the ideology of different.

Weems examines the power dynamics in play with the people who actually wrote and read the text (the world behind the text). She examines the ways assumptions about race and gender are depicted within the ideological struggle we see in Exodus 1:8-22.

Main points:

  1. Most of the studies that have analyzed the story of Shiphrah and Puah have viewed the biblical text as primarily a "literary production" and "a document with historical import and ramifications" (25). But by treating the text as "an intellectual transcript of the past" that is constructed by the implied author of the text "the dominant voice becomes the sole one worthy of attending to" (25). These previous studies have not considered the context of the social origins of this story and "the social configurations construed within it' (26).
  2. Biblical texts are social productions: "they emerge out of very particular social and material settings, and as a result, they simultaneously preserve and promote certain views about power relations and social identity" (26). This means we can see biblical texts taking sides in ideological debates, especially around issues of power. For example, at least some of the existing structure of power relations that was in place at the time the text was written is "both embedded in and assumed by the text" (26). In the case of Shiphrah and Puah, the story shows us how women and Hebrew slaves were thought of in the past, but the story also advocates "a similar or a different social ranking for women and Hebrew slaves in the present" (26).
  3. An ideological analysis pays close attention to the "narrative voice and ideological perspective inscribed in the text" (26). We ask questions such as, "From whose point of view is the narrative being told? Whose class, gender, and ethnic interests are being served in the preservation and commodification of this story? (26).
  4. As contemporary readers and interpreters we like the fact that women are highlighted as "setting in motion the liberation of Israel", but ultimately, "the story is as eloquent and aristocratic in what it does not say as in what it does say" (32). Exodus 1 does not actually challenge the idea of differences between men and women or between the Egyptians and the Hebrews (32). Those differences have simply been recast and "co-opted" for the narrator's purposes and ideological interests (32).
  5. Weems concludes by saying that those who are involved in race, gender, and/or class struggles in today's world who want to use this story as a positive example in their struggle for liberation will need to exercise 'due caution" (33).

Works Cited

Weems, Renita J. "The Hebrew Women are not Like the Egyptian Women: The Ideology of Race, Gender and Sexual Reproduction in Exodus 1". Semeia (Volume: 59) 1992. pp. 25-34.


This is part of my final project for "Womanist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.":

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