Author Archives: Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Tikva Frymer-Kensky

About Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She was the author of many works of biblical scholarship and spirituality. She was a foremost assyriologist, biblical scholar, and feminist.

Hagar and Ishmael

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Hagar is Sarai’s Egyptian slave girl, whom Sarai (later Sarah) gives to Abram (later Abraham) as a wife who would bear a child that would be considered Sarai’s child (Genesis 16:3). Although it displays a resemblance to modern technological surrogate motherhood, this custom may seem bizarre. However, cuneiform texts of the second and first millennia B.C.E. attest to this custom in ancient Mesopotamia.

The first such text, from the Old Assyrian colony in Anatolia, dates from around 1900 B.C.E. A marriage contract, it stipulates that if the wife does not give birth in two years, she will purchase a slave woman for the husband.

The most famous text, in the Code of Hammurabi (number 146), concerns the marriage of a naditu, a woman, attached to a temple, who is not allowed to bear children. Her husband has the right to take a second wife, but if she wishes to forestall this, she can give her husband a slave. In the world of the ancient Near East, a slave woman could be seen as an incubator, a kind of womb-with-legs.

Sarai and Abram see Hagar in this role and never call her by name. She, however, sees herself as a person and, once pregnant, does not see Sarai as superior; “she looked with contempt on her mistress” (Genesis 16:4). With Abram’s permission, Sarai regains authority over Hagar. She “degrades her”, possibly by treating her as an ordinary slave (Genesis 16:6).

The Hammurabi laws acknowledge the possibility that the pregnant slave woman might claim equality with her mistress, and they allow the mistress to treat her as an ordinary slave (law 146). This seems to be what Sarai is doing. However, Hagar is not passive.

Rather than submit, she runs away to the wilderness of Shur, where she meets God’s messenger, who tells her to return to submit to Sarai’s abuse for then she will bear a son who will be a “wild ass of a man” (Genesis 16:12). Just as the wild ass was never domesticated, so too Hagar’s son would never be subject to anyone, and would live “with his hand against everyone” and “in everyone’s face” (Genesis 16:12).


Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

The wife of Heber the Kenite, Yael plays an important role in the story of Israel’s wars with the Canaanites, described in the Book of Judges. In the narrative about the military heroine Deborah, Yael kills Sisera, the Canaanite general of King Yabin, after he escapes from the battle with Deborah’s general, Barak. Yael’s deeds are recounted in Judges 4 and in the poetic Song of Deborah in Judges 5. The song is old, most probably dating to the late 12th century B.C.E., and may be the earliest poem in the Hebrew Bible.

Lazzarini's Jael & SiseraIn the prose account, Deborah first sends Barak to fight the Canaanites and then she agrees to accompany him. She prophesies that the victory would not be a glory for him, for Sisera would fall “by the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9), and that woman will be Yael. Sisera flees the battle and goes to Yael’s tent, for there was “peace” between King Yabin and the Kenites (4:17). This peace might mean that, since the Kenites may have been metal smiths, Heber was nearby in order to repair Canaanite weapons.

When Sisera approaches her tent, Yael greets him, invites him in, covers him with a blanket, and, at his request for a little water, gives him milk. He then tells her to stand at the entrance to her tent and respond negatively to whoever asks whether anyone is inside (4:18-20). As he lies asleep, exhausted from the battle, Yael takes a tent peg and drives it through his forehead into the ground and then shows his dead body to Barak, who has come in pursuit of the enemy general (4:21-22).

Yael thus fulfills Deborah’s prophecy, but she confounds other expectations. The reader or the listener to the tale, seeing a general at war come into a woman’s tent, fears for the woman, not for the man. Yet when the outside world of national battles comes into her domestic space, Yael takes up a domestic “weapon of opportunity” and becomes a heroine.


Although the book of Judges has traditionally been seen as describing a chaotic period of time between the Joshua’s orderly conquest and the founding of the monarchy, many modern biblical scholars consider the book an alternative historical view of how the "conquest of Canaan" came about.  This is the view of the author of this article, and by this interpretation, Deborah becomes an important figure in the story of the defeat of the Canaanites. 

Many of the heroes of the book of Judges are not stereotypical model leaders.  They often have significant moral, physical, or social weaknesses, such that the divine, rather than the human, role in Israel’s conquest of their enemies is emphasized.  The fact that Deborah is a woman is often cited as the factor that makes her, too, an atypical choice for leadership.

But Dr. Frymer-Kensky’s contends that, while Deborah’s gender may be central to the story, it is not as "atypical" as we might have thought, and other aspects of her story serve to emphasize God’s role. Her full article also includes an analysis of the role of Yael, who killed Sisera after his defeat on the battlefield.  Excerpted from Reading the Women of the Bible and used with the permission of Schocken Press.

The Challenge of War

Israel, crossing into Canaan, changes its role. It is a time of conquest, a time of war. The Israelites have become fighters, and the saviors of Israel‑-women as well as men‑-have to be aggressors. The times call for warriors, and two warrior women (Deborah and Yael) appear in the decisive defeat of the Canaanites. One, Deborah, initiates the battle, calling the troops to action and declaring the start of hostilities.


The story (of Deborah) is in Judges 4, and the song is in Judges 5. "The Song of Deborah" is a very ancient poem, one of the earliest writings that the Bible preserves: it was most probably written in the eleventh century, soon after the events it records.

The story reached its present shape much later in Israel’s history. The two literary creations have subtly different attitudes, and in placing them side by side, the historian of the book of Judges encourages the reader to read them together as well as separately.

New Ceremonies: Being Pregnant

Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the King, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Jewish Publication Society).

In many respects, pregnancy and parenting are new phenomena. This sounds like a patently absurd statement until we consider the dramatic changes that have taken place surrounding the experience of having children in the last 200 years. Women no longer expect to die in childbirth. Where once perhaps half of all women died giving birth, the number of women who do so now is small enough that we do not consciously worry about this risk any longer.pregnant couple 

Today Pregnancy Is a Choice

At the same time that the physical prospect of bearing children has become less frightening, the material costs of raising these children have become more daunting. With the changes in our economic system, children are not the economic assets they once were. On the contrary, raising the middle-class child involves the expenditure of an enormous amount of money and a reduction in most parents’ standard of living. Recent scholarship has indicated that the “maternal instinct” is neither innate nor universal. Deciding to have children is a difficult personal choice that involves love, will, determination, and a readiness for self-sacrifice.

It is in that word “choice” that the great magnitude of the change in childbirth becomes apparent. Pregnancy is no longer inevitable for most people. With our improved knowledge of birth control, pregnancy can usually be scheduled or prevented. Even when prophylaxis fails and accidents happen, modern abortion techniques make it possible to terminate a pregnancy early, easily, and safely. Theoretically, since every pregnancy can be terminated, every pregnancy that has not been ended has been accepted and chosen. Every pregnancy is a volitional act, every child is a “wanted” child.

If pregnancy has become an act of volition rather than inevitability, of decision rather than destiny, it demands conscious thought, recognition, and sacralization. We need to recognize parenting, with all its difficulties and sacrifices, as the valuable and valiant work that it is and to appreciate pregnancy for the labor and effort that it involves. We should celebrate pregnancy as a major contribution to our communal life. That we have not done so is due to the “naturalness” of the task and to the fact that the organized community has thought mainly about affairs in which men are more immediately involved.

Nature and Holiness in the Writings of Priests and Prophets

Reprinted with permission of the author from "Ecology in a Biblical Perspective," in Torah of the Earth, Volume I, published by Jewish Lights.

Biblical Prophecy: Israel’s Behavior in its Land

After Genesis 1-11, the biblical discourse of the Pentateuch and the Prophets is not about humanity and the cosmos, but specifically about the people and the land of Israel. These books talk about the responsibility of Israel and the protection of the sacred land of Israel. As modern readers, we extrapolate and restore a universalist sense to the text. The universalism may have always been there, but the text expresses itself in the immediate terms of its audience, the people of Israel.


In the Pentateuch, the sense that human behavior is responsible for the condition of the earth is very strong. Moral misdeeds pollute the earth: Israel is told to refrain from murder because it will contaminate the land; to refrain from allowing killers to go free because it will contaminate the land (Numbers 35); to refrain from acts of sexual abomination in order to keep the land pure (Leviticus 18, 20).

The book of Deuteronomy, produced by the teachers, makes this explicit. Deuteronomy 11 states the responsibility of humanity starkly: if you do good, God brings rain and abundance and you live a long time on the land; if you do wrong, then skies dry up, the earth will not produce, and you lose the land.

In such a text, we get a strong sense that humans are the intermediary between God and nature, and that God’s behavior towards the earth is very reactive to human deeds. In this tradition, unlike in the priestly tradition of Numbers 35 and Leviticus 18, God does not show any more allegiance to the earth than did the gods of Mesopotamia who were prepared to send a drought to decimate humanity. Not only do human misdeeds immediately pollute the earth, but God adds to the earth’s suffering by stopping up the skies.

In Israel’s prophetic books, particularly Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, the contamination of the land of Israel will lead to disaster. The most extreme formulation of this idea is found in Jeremiah’s vision in Chapter 4: here, because of the deeds of Israel, Jeremiah sees the entire collapse of creation. The skies go dark, and no Adam can be found. So, too, Isaiah sees the very earth broken and falling apart (Isaiah 24:19-23).

The Genesis Creation Story: Permission to Despoil?

An 1967 article in the prestigious journal Science, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” by Lynn White, blamed the Bible, especially the first chapters of Genesis, for fostering an exploitative and, ultimately, fatally destructive attitude toward the natural realm in Western culture. The article has drawn many critical responses. Here, a prominent scholar of Ancient Near Eastern cultures and the Hebrew Bible offers her counterassessment of how the Book of Genesis portrays the relationship between human beings and the natural environment. This selection follows her exposition of the Babylonian creation myths, where the gods use the mutilation of the earth as a weapon to punish humanity.

Reprinted with permission of the author from “Ecology in a Biblical Perspective,” in Torah of the Earth, Volume I published by Jewish Lights.

Genesis 1: Earth Is Created Fertile

When we look at biblical mythology, the situation is much more complicated [than in comparable creation stories from the Ancient Near East]. I will concentrate on the much-discussed creation story in Genesis, Chapter 1, in order to point out one facet that has been overlooked.

In this chapter, the priestly celebration of creation, God creates by introducing distinctions, divisions, and hierarchies: the very essence of creation is the bringing of order to the formless mass of chaos, depicted as the featureless deep. On the first day, God creates light and declares it good. On the second day God creates the firmament and declares it good. On both days there has been a one step process and one thing has been created, making one distinction: light/dark, waters above/below, and pronouncing this new creation good. On the third day, God creates the division between the seas and the dry land and pronounces it good, but the third day doesn’t end with the creation of earth. On that very same day, God has the earth bring forth vegetation, which is self-perpetuating and seedbearing and will maintain its own distinct varieties. Only then does the third day end.