Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back to the Bible

About a month ago, I was lucky enough to be contacted by author Eva Etzioni-Halevy about the possibility of reviewing her newest book, The Triumph of Deborah. After a few emails back and forth, she graciously sent me copies of all three of her books. How cool is that? Even cooler is that I enjoyed all three, very much.

Eva is a professor of political sociology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. She writes historical fiction based on women from the Old Testament, and presents fascinating portraits of the lives of these little known but extremely influential biblical figures. Eva herself has lived a life as interesting as her characters, and I encourage you to visit her website,, to read her biography. Also, if you send her a message, she promises to respond, and after my correspondence with her I believe she really will!

The Triumph of Deborah is her most recent novel, published in 2008. It tells the story of Deborah, an Israelite prophet and judge, who lived in the time of the Old Testament book of Judges, probably somewhere between the 12th and 11th centuries BCE. Deborah is given a vision from the Lord to make war upon the Canaanites, and she chooses Barak, a young commander, to lead the Israelites in this war. When Barak defeats the Canaanite king, he takes captive two Canaanite princesses, who will eventually form part of a complex, emotional tug-of-war between Barak and Deborah.

I found the author's treatment of Deborah to be fascinating. She was a fully powerful leader, demanding the respect of the elders of her tribe, and yet she was also a wife and mother, desiring to be led by the wishes of her husband. Etzioni-Halevy walks the tightrope of power and expectations well, and I found Deborah's struggle to resolve her call to leadership with her desire to be a proper wife and mother to be completely believable. Nogah, one of the princesses taken captive by Barak, was equally intriguing, and almost the co-heroine of the novel. Each of the main characters takes a turn having their stories told, and I found myself sympathizing with and being frustrated with them equally - much like in real life, I would imagine. My main quibble with the book is that I felt we spent too much time in the characters' love lives, when I would have preferred more exploration of the themes of war and peace, and female empowerment versus traditional roles. But in general, I was captivated by the novel, and recommend it to fans of historical/biblical fiction.

A few days ago I posted the above thoughts on another website, and the author gave me the following comment, which I thought was very interesting:

"Based on the book of JUDGES, the novel shows that in her own life Deborah was very much a woman, and that her femininity did not detract from her stature as national leader.

She must have been a very forceful leader, to be able to compel warrior Barak to go to war under such unfavorable, nearly hopeless circumstances. Yet the Bible, indeed she herself, also emphasizes her femininity: she refers to herself as “a mother in Israel”.

The novel further develops the combination between leadership and femininity, and is iteded to show that there was no contradiction between the two.

The same can be said of women attaining high-ranking positions today: There is no evidence to show that they are less feminine (attractive, gentle, showing sympathy to others, motherly) than stay-at-home moms."

I completely agree that her novel does an excellent job of examining the duel roles that Deborah was forced to play. I think the author has a lot of really interesting and important things to say about the roles of women in society, and I hope to read more in her future work.

The Garden of Ruth, published in 2007, takes its inspiration from the biblical book of Ruth. However, Ruth is not the main character - instead, the heroine is Osnath, a young Jewish girl living several generations after Ruth. Osnath travels with her uncle, the prophet Samuel, to Bethlehem. While there, she stays with the family of Jesse, who has several sons. One of his sons, David, is annointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel. While she is there, Osnath discovers an old scrap of a scroll that appears to be written by Ruth, David's great-grandmother. When she tries to investigate Ruth's story, however, Eliab, David's brother, tries to thwart her interest. Realizing there is a secret to be discovered, Osnath continues to seek out more information about Ruth, while becoming entwined in the lives of David and Eliab's family.

I was extremely pleased with this novel. Unlike The Triumph of Deborah, where the main characters are based on actual biblical figures, Eztioni-Halevy creates a completely imagined heroine to be the central figure in this book. I felt like this allowed me to believe more fully in the character and her life. Osnath is very likable, and it is easy to find yourself rooting for her as she tries to solve the mysteries of Ruth's life. Some of her reactions to various events seemed strange, but I think they would have been true to the period in which she was living. The section in which the author finally reveals Ruth's story was fascinating, and paints a new and interesting picture of the biblical legend. Again, there is quite a bit of romance, but it did not seem to be as intrusive in this novel - it felt more appropriate, because Ruth's story is a love story, as well. I would highly recommend this novel to historical/biblical fiction readers - you will enjoy it!

The Song of Hannah, published in 2005, tells the story of the Old Testament prophet Samuel through the eyes of two women - Hannah, his mother, and Pninah, his father’s other wife. Hannah and Pninah are childhood friends who grew up together learning to read the Torah. Hannah, the beautiful one, is pressured by her family to marry, but feels in her heart that there in only one right man for her. Pninah meets Elkanah when his family purchases the property next door, and quickly falls in love and becomes pregnant. At their wedding ceremony, Hannah meets Elkanah for the first time, and immediately knows he is the man she has been waiting for. When Elkanah takes Hannah as his second wife, Pninah is devastated, but still maintains her hold on him by giving him children. Hannah, who is loved but barren, begs the Lord for a child, promising him to the temple after his birth. Hannah’s son, Samuel, becomes the greatest prophet of the Israelites, but has demons of his own that make him all too human.

The Song of Hannah is told in alternating voices, so the reader is able to see the story from the point of view of both Hannah and Pninah. Etzioni-Halevy does an excellent job of giving each woman her own distinct voice, and each woman has an equal share of admirable and shameful moments. I couldn’t help sympathizing more with Pninah, but that could be my natural tendency to root for the underdog. I think the author is at her best when she is examining the complex relationships between men and women, and women and women, and this novel certainly has many such relationships to explore. Her new imagining of the barely mentioned biblical character of Pninah makes the well-known narrative seem fresh. Again, I would highly recommend this novel to biblical/historical fiction readers. It is excellent.

I cannot thank Eva Etzioni-Halevy enough for the opportunity to read her novels. I enjoyed all three very much, and loved the opportunity to immerse myself in a new way in the stories I grew up listening to. I will certainly be on the lookout for more of her work, and can't wait to see what she will find to write about next!

No comments: