Lady Midrash: Poems Reclaiming the Voices of Biblical Women
by Elisabeth Mehl Greene
Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016
Paperback, 170 pages
Reviewed by Jean Rodenbough
Poet and biblical scholar Elisabeth Greene has done the nearly impossible in her portrayals of women in scripture, virtually bringing them alive and letting us hear their unique voices by skillfully turning her scholarship into beautiful poetry. She does this by making use of midrash in honoring these powerful and wonderful women. As Kendra Weddle Irons explains in her foreword to the collection, “Midrash, the ancient Jewish practice of asking what if?, begins by utilizing one’s imagination to ask questions of the Bible that usually are not considered.” In Lady Midrash, Greene is specifically asking questions of the biblical stories where women play an important role. In the process, we are taken on a pilgrimage that liberates scripture and carries it to “godly interrogation” (p. xi).
In Part I: “Tanakh” [the Hebrew Scriptures], Greene reveals the lives of 31 women, who contributed to the strength of Israel. And in Part II, the New Testament, we are given insights into 30 women whom she celebrates as women who discovered themselves, ranging from Jesus’ mother Maryam an-Nasiri to the women who shared ministries with Paul in his missionary work of carrying the good news of the gospel to Rome and beyond.
After the reader reaches the final page of this extraordinary collection, it will never again be possible to read these women’s names without awareness of this new wisdom such women offer us. I was captivated not only by the power of Greene’s poetry but by the keen insights a poet can offer us. One such insight that caught me by surprise was the strength of the Old Testament women. In fact, I find the stories of such women show a courage I envy, as they brashly speak to—and stand up to— the ruling power of males. I love the lines “Eve knew what she was doing./She saw the knowledge —/life, breath, and understood the love,/that it was good.” Greene’s poetry does not spend words “pentanmetering” through stanzas, but speaks directly, succinctly, and with strength of phrase. The Old Testament women are strong and salty, like Irit, Lot’s wife, and the last lines of her poem: “Remember,/no one tells Abraham/not to look.” Delilah speaks to Samson with her strong insight: “Never were you so blind/as the day you first/caught sight of me.”
Women of courage are also portrayed in the New Testament. The Syro-Phoenican woman Kalima does not back down in her conversation with Jesus: “To be human/is to have these thoughts,/To be divine/is to learn from them?/ (a process theologian?)/ . . . . But I still can’t believe/like so many others before/He called me a bitch.”
Another poem that caught me speaks with the voice of one of Jesus’s sisters, Lysia. I’ll quote from a large section of this poem: “. . . his sisters didn’t need to look for him/we were already there/ Maris/Lydia/Ann/Salome/and Lysia/ listening to our brother/the prophet/the other brothers /could not accept/the one all the other sheaves/would bow down to/the one who had dreams/the one who was not like the others,/we knew better/and we do the will of God in heaven/and we are his sisters/written out of the story.” This poem connects the Old Testament story of Joseph with Jesus, so many centuries afterwards.
What provides exceptional help to the reader is Greene’s extensive end notes. I kept a marker for those pages as aids to what the poems were describing. In fact, without the careful end notes to guide me, I could not have gained as much from the poems as I did. The explanations they provided were exceedingly helpful.
I am so thankful for the honor given to these biblical women by these poems. This collection, spoken through the voices of women in both testaments, puts flesh and energy into what have too often become stale stories from our early Sunday School days—if we heard them there at all.
I celebrate the power of those Old Testament women who spoke their minds in spite of the consequences of unsettling the male religious tribal leaders of their day. I celebrate the New Testament women who confronted, challenged, learned from, and followed Jesus in the gospel stories, and the women who worked with Paul as the church grew and ranged farther from Jerusalem into Rome and beyond. We hear their stories with new ears through Greene’s creative retelling, which demonstrates magnificently the interpretive approach that Kendra Weddle Irons in her foreword describes as “informed imagination.” The power of using poetry to condense the most important of beliefs into nutshells is a rare gift. And we can all be grateful for the way Elisabeth Mehl Greene has so generously shared her gift through the poems in Lady Midrash.
Jean Rodenbough is a retired Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, a Benedictine Oblate with the Erie (PA) community, and an author of several books of poetry and prose. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.
© 2016 by Jean Rodenbough and Christian Feminism Today