Petersen, John

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Petersen, John




Office—Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA 98447.


Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA, professor of Old Testament.


Reading Women's Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible, Fortress Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2004.


Religion professor and biblical scholar John Petersen's Reading Women's Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible analyzes the stories of three women: Hannah, the mother of Israelite leader Samuel; Deborah, the prophet and judge who helped lead Israel to its victory over the Canaanites and wrote the "Song of Deborah" to commemorate it; and Tamar, who sought what appeared to be revenge on her father-in-law, Judah, for his deceptive ways, but ended up benefiting him. He applies techniques of literary criticism to these tales, examining their plotting, characterization, narrative viewpoints, and use of language, theorizing that this will reveal more about the women than a casual reading would.

Discussing Hannah, for instance, he makes the case that she is the protagonist in the account of the birth of Samuel, who grows up to become a hero in Israel's battles with the Philistines. Although oppressed by her husband and ostracized by society, the childless Hannah finds strength in her religious faith, and God answers her prayers for a child. Hannah's faithfulness makes her an exemplary figure, and her actions propel the narrative, according to Petersen. Also, he says, her interactions with her family showcase character development. In the section on the "Song of Deborah," he examines how the story is told from various points of view and what this tells the audience about the women of ancient Israel.

With the tale of Tamar and Judah, he focuses on how the plot is crafted, and it is quite complicated. Tamar has been married to two of Judah's sons, both of whom have died. He promises that another son will become her husband when he is old enough, in keeping with the ancient custom of a man marrying his brother's widow. Tamar discovers that the son is already of marriageable age. To repay Judah for his deceit, she enacts a deception of her own by disguising herself as a prostitute and having sexual relations with him, accepting some of his possessions as collateral for a future payment. Some time later, when she is back home and out of disguise, it becomes obvious that she is going to have a child. Judah threatens to have her killed as punishment for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, not realizing she was the prostitute he visited. She then produces the goods Judah gave her, which provides evidence that he is the father. He decides her actions were justified by his lies, and he celebrates her pregnancy. She eventually gives birth to twins. Through her cleverness, Petersen notes, Tamar is able to gain justice for herself and also help Judah become a better person.

Some reviewers thought Petersen's project succeeded in its goal. His "intense literary analysis … provides new and valuable insights," observed Carolyn Osiek in Theological Studies, adding that the women in these stories "emerge as strong characters." Elelwani Bethuel Farisani, writing for the Misjonshogskolen Web site, deemed the book "an excellent piece of work," with Petersen's discussion "clearly and well presented."

There were also critics with reservations about Reading Women's Stories. S. Nicholson, a contributor to the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, questioned the appropriateness of "using a literary analysis … to discern truths about real, historical women." Linda Day, reviewing for Interpretation, found the title misleading, saying: "The fact that these highlight women appears incidental." Given that, she still deemed the book "interesting and frequently insightful" as an exploration of literature. To Nehama Aschkenasy, a commentator for Shofar, Petersen's insights were not particularly groundbreaking, but she remarked that his book is valuable for its summary of various interpretations of these Bible stories. It offers "pleasant and enjoyable reading," she related, with Petersen "displaying his vast reading on the subject matter as well as his enthusiasm for it."



Currents in Theology and Mission, June 1, 2005, review of Reading Women's Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible, p. 216.

Interpretation, April 1, 2006, Linda Day, review of Reading Women's Stories, p. 224.

Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Volume 28, issue 5, 2004, S. Nicholson, review of Reading Women's Stories, p. 139.

Shofar, January 1, 2006, Nehama Aschkenasy, review of Reading Women's Stories, p. 165.

Theological Studies, December 1, 2005, Carolyn Osiek, review of Reading Women's Stories, p. 930.


Misjonshogskolen, (August 17, 2006), Elelwani Bethuel Farisani, review of Reading Women's Stories.

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Petersen, John

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