Prof. Yair Zakovitch
Artist, Dikla Laor, uses her camera lens to spotlight women in the Bible, and focuses only on them, creating a photographic image of their likeness. This is Dikla’s Bible, a refreshing and innovative feat. After all, the Bible with its diverse stories (except for the Song of Songs) places men at center stage: fathers of the nation, leaders and prophets.
Women in the Bible are mostly obscured by the shadow of men, their husbands, and most times are not even mentioned at all. The names of Noah’s and Lot’s wives are unknown. The wives of the children of Jacob are not mentioned except for the daughter of Shua, wife of Judah. There is also no mention of Yiftach’s wife, mother of his daughter.
Women, who make up about half of the population, are almost never born in the biblical text. Is, for example, a biblical story about a barren woman who receives word of the upcoming birth of a daughter conceivable? And if the birth of a daughter is mentioned in the Bible, it is unintentional and minimal. In the description of the birth of the children of Jacob, the text details the name of each and every son, and these commentaries help the plot by illustrating the relationship between Rachel and Leah. And now, after Leah had finished giving birth to all her sons, we are dryly told “And afterwards she bore a daughter, and called her name Dinah” (Genesis 30, 21). Dina’s name is unnecessary, and the mention of her birth is mentioned only so that the reader is not surprised when she is raped by Shechem Ben Hamor.
Even deaths of women in the Bible are few. Mention of their death and place of burial is usually not a goal in itself, but serves a purpose, such as the death of Bat-Shua, wife of Judah (Genesis 38, 12), which facilitates the meeting between Judah and the “prostitute” Tamar. Similarly, the transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19, 26) allows her daughters to perform a deed of incest with their father. Different of course, is the description of Jezebel’s dramatic death, the wicked Queen, deserving of a terrible death, a punishment for her sins against God and man (Kings B 9, 30-37).
Women’s minor role in the Bible leads to the fact that even books named after them, and in which they play a decisive role, begin with men and end with men. The Book of Ruth begins with the father of the family, Abimelech: “And a certain man of Beth-lehem in Judah went to sojourn in the field of Moab” (Ruth 1, 1), and closes with a genealogy list whose end and culmination is David “…and Jesse begot David” (Ruth 4, 22). The Book of Esther opens with the king: “Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus” (Esther 1, 1), and concludes with Mordecai: “For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed” (Esther 10, 3).
It seems that focusing attention on biblical men has caused loss of valuable traditions about women in the Bible. A surprising reference of a woman in the genealogy list, an unknown woman about whom no story has been told, such as Sarah the daughter of Asher (Genesis 46, 17), is probably a remnant of a glorious tradition that was irrevocably lost. The excitement aroused by this figure in the literature of the Sages and the Jewish literature that followed it may be the result of the desire to fill the void. On the other hand, one cannot rule out the possibility that later compositions still preserve some of the oral primordial traditions, for if not, they would have been obliterated from collective memory in the blink of an eye when the biblical stories were written down.
Another example in this spirit: The conclusion of the book of Job does not find it appropriate to reveal the names of his sons who were born to him when he was reclaimed by God: ״He had also seven sons” (Job 42, 13), but when noting the number of his daughters: ״…and three daughters״, the narrator expands: “And he called the name of the first, Jemimah; and the name of the second, Keziah; and the name of the third, Keren-happuch. And in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job” (Job 42, 14-15). There is no doubt that behind this comment hides a rich tradition, and it seems to be a window into the lost story opened through an external book, the Book of Divrei Ayub, which tells wonders about the history of these girls (chapters 46-51).
In spite of all of the abovementioned about women’s secondary place in the Bible, and perhaps because of this, the reader’s attention is drawn whenever a woman is perceived to take center stage, such as Deborah and Jael (Judges 4-5), Delilah (Judges 16), Batsheba, mother of King Solomon (Kings A 1), the great woman of Shunam (Kings B 4), Naomi and Ruth, Queen Esther, and others. In many of these stories, women discover a power that stands out in stark contrast to social norms.
An illustration of the spark of power in weakness, dictated by social patterns, is found, for example, in the widespread archetypical story, by which men set women on other men, the objects of their scheme, to seduce them. The Philistines know that the way to Samson’s heart is through the women in his life. They force his wife to extract the secret riddle he had given them at the wedding feast: “’Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire” (Judges 14, 15). The woman does what is expected of her, by means that ostensibly express feminine weakness: “And Samson’s wife wept before him, and said: ‘Thou dost but hate me, and lovest me not’” (Judges 14, 16). She wept incessantly during the seven days of the feast, thus achieving the goal. The brave hero, Samson, submits, surrenders to the woman. Later in his life it is apparent that Samson did not learn his lesson, and he falls back into the trap that the Philistines had set for him. The Philistine captains bribe Delilah, who, aided by wonderful rhetoric, manages to persuade him to entrust her with the secret of his abstinence, the secret of his power and his life, and thus setting up his own demise: “And it came to pass, when she pressed him daily with her words, and urged him, that his soul was vexed unto death. And he told her all his heart” (Judges 16, 16-17).
A second expression of the same literary pattern is of Nathan the Prophet, acting cunningly, who wants Solomon to replace his father on the throne, in order to thwart the plan of Adonijah, son of Hagit to reign. Nathan does try to persuade David to agree to his opinion before he sends Batsheva to Solomon, so that she softens his heart with the words he, Nathan, had put in her mouth (Kings A 1, 11-21).
A woman’s power, the power of a mother, is revealed in full force in the story of the Shunammite woman (Kings B 4, 8-37). In this story, not Elisha the prophet and his miracles stand at the center, but a woman. When Elisha tells her that she will have a son, she reveals her fears ““And she said: ‘Nay, my lord, thou man of God, do not lie unto thy handmaid’” (Kings B 4, 16). And now, with the death of the child, the woman reminds the prophet of her words, proving to him his haste and recklessness: “Did I not say: ‘Do not deceive me?’” (Kings B 4, 28). Elisha’s reaction indicates an avoidance of responsibility. If, on the birth of the child, he acknowledged him, now, in the light of the crisis, he prefers to send his servant to face the challenge of reviving the child. But the mother does not relent. She, who felt the taste of motherhood, would not give up: ”As the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee” (Kings B 4, 30). And the prophet has no choice but to obey, to follow her, and to return her son.
The assumption that oral traditions have undergone a metamorphosis, while being written, will also accompany us in presenting the following issue: the preservation or rejection of sexual elements in the biblical text. It should not be forgotten that biblical fiction is religious literature with didactic motives, and what is worth telling by the fire or at a banquet is not necessarily worthy of documentation in the Holy Scriptures. The written narrative is not entirely devoid of sexual elements, but the preservation of such elements is deliberate and intent, such as the act of Reuven and Bilha, his father’s concubine (Genesis 35, 21-22), which is intended to explain why Reuven, Yaakov’s firstborn, lost his birthright (Genesis 49, 3-4).
The story of the daughters of Lot, who gave their father wine in order to bed him and leave a seed for themselves (Genesis 19, 30-38), was recounted only to defame their descendants, the peoples of Moab and Ammon, in the eyes of the Israelites, so as not to intermingle with them, because their creation was in sin, in a bold act of incest.
It seems that the origins of the story of the Queen of Sheba and her visit to King Solomon’s court (Kings A 1, 10) reveal that they had a sexual relationship, hinted at in one verse in the story, which stands out in the abundance of its words: “And King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty” (Kings A 10, 13). Middle Ages Hebrew literature takes this element into practice, and the Ethiopian tradition, documented in the Ethiopian national epic, in the Book of the Glory of Kings, tells that Menelik, the first king of Ethiopia, was the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
The reader of the Bible knows almost nothing about the physical appearance of the figures. The biblical story, which is dramatic by nature, leaves is no room for descriptions (neither of landscapes nor of figures’ appearance). The narrator makes do with specifying the beauty of a figure when it serves the plot and motive. Sarah’s beauty was mentioned only when a justified fear arose that her husband would be in danger. Then the narrator puts into Abraham’s mouth words that relate to the beauty of his wife: “Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon. And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they will say: This is his wife; and they will kill me, but thee they will keep alive“ (Genesis 12, 11-12).
Batsheva’s beauty is immediately apparent when she is presented to the reader in the text: “And it came to pass at eventide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon” (Samuel B 11, 2). The king is blinded by the beauty of a woman, sins, and the foundations of his home are shaken. The king will pay for his exploits through his sons. The first blow quickly lands upon him when his first born, Amnon, desires Tamar, his half-sister: “That Absalom the son of David had a fair sister, whose name was Tamar; and Amnon the son of David loved her” (Samuel B 13, 1), and rapes her. Many more times, female beauty is mentioned in an impure connection, and it seems that the narrator of the Bible usually shares the views of the righteous poet: “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31, 30).
Women’s beauty is mentioned many times, but we do not know if Batsheva was full or perhaps well-groomed; if Avshalom’s sister, Tamar, was tall or short; or if Sarah’s coloring was fair or dark. The frustration resulting from the lack of descriptions and the desire to portray the female characters’ face and appearance have caused ancient writers to fill in the gaps. The exterior scroll of the Book of Genesis that was discovered at Qumran, written in Aramaic, paraphrases the stories of the first five books of the Bible. The author expands and portrays Sarah’s beauty in detail, through descriptive poems similar to those in Song of Songs. In the external scroll, Sarah’s beauty is described by Pharaoh’s ministers who give her praise.
Complementing features of external appearances, and shifting women to center stage and turning the spotlight on them, are expressions of commentary interpretation. The Commentary of the Sages and their expansions of stories about women in the Bible are well known to Dikla, and their influence is evident in her work. Here, what the sages have done with words, and what painters and sculptors have done with a brush and chisel for generations, Dikla does with her camera (preceded by the artist-photographer Adi Nes in several staged photographs of biblical women).
Dikla’s photographs not only enliven the stories of the Bible and the interpretations of our Rabbi’s, but also brings to the images additional layers of her spiritual world, such as the strong influence of Renaissance and Baroque art on the one hand and twenty-first century feminist ideology on the other. Dikla pours all this into the beautiful open sceneries of the Golan Heights, the landscape of her life.
Dikla’s Bible is therefore a response and answer to the traditional Bible. In her Bible, as mentioned, there is no room for men. The male characters appearing in the photographs are passive children, such as Moses in the ark, his infant son circumcised by Tzipora his wife, or the son of the woman from France who lived with Elijah. Even women who are in the Bible’s margins occupy a place at the center of the photographs, such as Sarah the daughter of Asher, Osnat the wife of Joseph, and Yehosheva the wife of Yehoyada the priest.
Every photograph of the thirty-five photographs in the book is a complete show. Dikla, the director, does not leave any detail to chance. She casts the photographs with women, dresses them and puts makeup on them, places them in the landscape, guides their movements and expressions, and even adds animals and various accessories to the photograph to complete the drama.
I cannot help but be tempted to try to shed light and interpret the photographs. I chose two of them, Deborah and Jael, appearing side by side in the Book of Judges. I am not ashamed to admit that I have no formal education in Art History, and my comments on the photographs are an amateur deed, commentary and interpretation, my commentary of Dikla’s photographs.
The face and chest of Deborah are illuminated. Her gaze, reaching the sky, sees what the partially-clouded sky shows her. Her face is serious, her mouth slightly pulled down. Deborah is riding a horse, unlike the women in the Bible, but riding suits her: Deborah is the one and only, a judge, a leader, and a commander in chief. Deborah’s dress, lush waves of red fabric, is a symbol of power, of a kingdom, but also of the blood that is to be shed. At Deborah’s feet, the green valley is spread, perhaps illuminated, perhaps dark, and she already sees the inevitable vision of war, where the victors are also defeated.
The beauty of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, is a foreign beauty, not an Israelite one, not from here. Jael’s exposed right arm, and the fabric that covers her right breast is translucent. Her other arm is covered and the second breast is not visible (an erotic look from here and a modest one from there). The photograph is divided: in the background appear two brown hills, a hint of two possible destinies, and a gray valley between them. Jael’s one hand pours milk, a drink of life, into an enormous goblet (and next to it a basket of vegetables, a gesture to a still life), a motherly act, watching her home. But Jael’s other hand, reflecting an erotic, dangerous aspect, is already holding a weapon, a tent peg. There are two fabrics in the photograph: Jael’s green dress from here, and the red cloth – the blanket that will cover Sisera (?) and onto which his blood will flow. Jael’s face is thoughtful, veiled. She does not gaze at her hands. Her gaze follows her thoughts, moving between the milk and the blood.
All who gaze at Dikla’s photographs will find a whole world in them, and can interpret them according to their heart’s desire,and their spiritual world, and the associations that the photographs inspire. My arbitrary interpretations are nothing but a mirror of my own soul.
In conclusion, I must express my deep appreciation for Dikla’s art work, for joining the multi-generational beauty of Bible commentators and observers, and for her bold photographs, which enliven the ancient stories, bringing forth a new spirit.