Kelly J. Murphy. Rewriting Masculinity: Gideon, Men, and Might. New York: Oxford, 2019.
The first modern Gideons, Kelly J. Murphy reminds us, were traveling men. The Gideons International, best known for distributing Bibles in hotel rooms, on college campuses, and wherever free Bibles are to be found, are an international association of Christian businessmen, founded in 1899 by three traveling salesmen and still in existence today (1). They took their name from the biblical Gideon, the ancient Israelite judge and military commander whose story is found in Judges 6-8. Murphy’s study of Gideon, Rewriting Masculinity: Gideon, Men, and Might, offers a fascinating journey of its own, through the transformations, revisions, and rewritings of masculinity in the Gideon story.
Murphy’s focus is on masculinity — or better, masculinities — as articulated in and around the figure of Gideon. Gideon is many things: a clever warrior, a faithful Yahwist, a seeker of signs, a vicious avenger, an ephod-maker whose creation leads Israel away from Yahweh. These representations do not produce a single cohesive portrait; instead, the combined effect is contradictory and difficult for the reader to parse. Carefully peeling back the layers of the text, Murphy identifies three overlapping but distinct representations of Gideon, each linked to a different set of norms of masculinity. In the oldest layers of the text, Gideon is a gibbôr heḥayil / “mighty warrior.” The second layer reimagines the leader as “ a hesitant if faithful Yahwist” whose impulses are basically those of a “good Deuteronomist,” including seeking signs of Yahweh’s favor (133). And in the third and final layer, Gideon is represented negatively as the builder of the ephod that leads Israel astray. But these are not the only Gideons: Rewriting Masculinity complements this three-part portrait in the biblical text with a number of brief but delightful forays into the postbiblical reception of Gideon, ranging from Josephus to the Rabbis and Church Fathers to Refuel, a contemporary Bible for teenage boys that praises Gideon as “a godly example to guys today” (101).
Murphy’s method deserves special notice. Resisting the methodological fragmentation that characterizes so much of biblical scholarship, Rewriting Masculinity brings together masculinity studies — an area of increasing importance and influence in biblical studies — with textual criticism, literary criticism, redaction criticism, and reception history. The interpretations offered here demonstrate not only the careful work of teasing apart layers of text — an original set of Gideon stories, Deuteronomistic revisions, later transformations undertaken in the Persian period — but also how we might understand each layer as literature. Each of the book’s five chapters focuses on a particular episode or set of episodes from the Gideon story. Murphy first works backward, setting out the history of the text and carefully distinguishing between back its layers. She then analyzes masculinity as it emerges in each textual stratum. While the focus is on the biblical representation(s) of Gideon, each chapter ends with a look forward to the postbiblical reception of Gideon. The study traverses sources both ancient and modern: Josephus, the Rabbis, and the Church fathers come together with contemporary teen Bibles, Veggie Tales (Larry the cucumber plays Gideon), and of course the Gideons International.
Following an introduction that sets forth the framework of the argument, Rewriting Masculinity is divided into five chapters and a brief conclusion. Chapter 1, “Rewriting Gideon,” demonstrates how textual criticism transforms literary reading, including readings centered on drawing out the forms of masculinity in a text. Central to the argument is 4QJudga, a Qumran fragment that lacks Judg. 6:7-10. The absence of this brief passage, which describes an unnamed prophet prophesying unsuccessfully to the Israelites, avoids a difficulty in the text: the success of the female prophet Deborah, who appears better at prophecy — and, indeed, at masculinity — than her male counterparts, Barak and Gideon. Murphy traces how reading the passage following Q, without the unnamed prophet, alters the gender politics of the textual episodes that precede and follow it. This chapter also explores Josephus’ representation of Gideon, the first in a series of rewritings that seek to “fix” the judge’s masculinity by bringing it in line with later masculine ideals. Josephus rewrites the characters of Deborah and Barak as well as Gideon; his reimagining of the former makes it easier for the reader to perceive the latter.
Chapter 2 considers Gideon’s actions in battle in Judg. 6. Here, Murphy engages most fully with contemporary masculinity studies, drawing on the theory of hegemonic masculinity to analyze the biblical text. Hegemonic masculinity describes “a culturally exalted form of masculinity” (Carrigan, Connell, and Lee 112 , quoted on Murphy 40); it stands in superordinate relationship to other iterations of masculinity, which may be described as subordinated, complicit, and marginalized (here Murphy draws in particular on the work of R.W. Connell [e.g. Masculinities, 2005], which is foundational in masculinity studies.) Murphy considers how theorizations of masculinity help us to perceive biblical masculinities, beginning with Moses (whose masculinity has attracted fairly significant attention in biblical studies) before pivoting to Gideon. Judges offers and ambivalent and unstable portrait of Gideon’s masculinity, portraying him, for example, as both a mighty warrior and a fearful man who hides from enemies and seeks signs (43-44). The implied comparisons between Gideon and Moses (as well as other leaders) also complicate the picture. Murphy argues that the “ambiguous masculinity” (60) on display is the result of multiple compositional layers, including a Deuteronomistic redaction with a quite different norm of hegemonic masculinity. The postbiblical voices in the chapter come from the Rabbis. They, too, reimagine the story of Gideon, revealing their ideals of masculinity “while also rewriting Gideon so that he lived up to those ideals” (65).
The focus of chapter 3 is the many signs Gideon seeks from Yahweh. These include two acts of laying out a fleece on the ground overnight to see whether or not it will become wet with dew (in the first test, a wet fleece indicates divine favor; the second test asks for a dry fleece [6:36-40]) and deciding which men to bring into battle based on how they drink water (lapping like a dog is preferred to drinking from one’s hands [7:3-7]). These incidents are often treated as strange and even taken as signals of Gideon’s excessive timidity, which is deemed hardly fitting of a man. However, Murphy reads both forwards and backwards to make meaning of these peculiar scenes, while also complexifying the representation of Gideon’s masculinity. The “backward” dimension contextualizes seeking signs as a common ancient Near Eastern practice. Furthermore, the insertion of additional signs and stories of divine insurance by the Deuteronomistic editors “turns Gideon into a good, if somewhat timid, Yahwist,” while preserving “Yahweh alone [as] the true warrior” (85). The “forward” look is to early Christian writers, who viewed Gideon’s seeking of signs positively, even viewing Gideon as a model man, in the case of Ambrose (88).
Gideon is also famous for the battle he fights in chapter 7, which he wins using a complex military strategy involving trumpets, torches, and jars. Here it is worth briefly quoting the text:
So Gideon and the hundred who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. So the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars, holding in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow; and they cried, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” (Judg. 7:19-20, NRSV).
Victory ensues, even as the text presents a rather mixed view of Gideon and his purported military genius. As Murphy notes, “In the received text, any older memories of a clever battle strategy are hidden beneath a humorous proliferation of weaponry” (98); the chapter works, as the previous chapters have done, to tease apart these layers. The final section of the chapter is an especially fascinating consideration of how this story appears in Bibles and biblical retellings targeted at teenage boys. These modern texts reconceive the story as about giving credit to God, while downplaying Gideon’s actual military actions and strategy.
All good things must come to an end; this is true for Gideon’s reputation. Chapter 5 considers three of the most negative features of the Gideon cycle: Gideon’s extreme violence toward enemies, including the killing of captives (8:18-21), his building of the ephod (8:24-27), and his son Abimelech (8:31-35). Murphy notes that it is the ephod, not the killing of captives, that is condemned by the narrative, indicating the ways norms of masculinity are always culturally positioned and culturally specific. She emphasizes that 8:27b — “and all Israel prostituted themselves to it [the ephod] there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” is a crucial verse that “reflects a crisis tendency or transformational moment in thinking about what it means to be a man—one that is directly related to how editors encountered earlier memories of the men from the premonarchic era” (123). This brief mention of the ephod and its effects is thus a crucial feature in the multilayered rewriting of Gideon’s masculinity that the text undertakes. Several voices in the history of reception also appear briefly at the chapter’s end. The book ends with a short conclusion, synthesizing the findings.
Rewriting Masculinity does not simply show us what it means for a biblical masculinity to be “rewritten” (or, for that matter, “written” or “constructed”); it peels back layers of text to reveal this process in action. It also stands as an example of how to “do masculinity studies” of biblical texts, while also showing how such a practice can — and perhaps must — draw on a wide range of interpretive strategies and approaches, from textual criticism to reception history to literary analysis. Gideon, in the final analysis, may have been no model for masculinity; Murphy’s book, however, is a model for masculinity studies. It is a welcome contribution to a dynamic field of biblical interpretation.
Additional Sources Cited
Carrigan, Tim, Bob Connell, and John Lee. “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity,” in The Masculinity Studies Reader, ed. Rachel Adams and David Savran, Key Works in Cultural Studies 4 (Malden, MA: John Wiley, 2002), 112.
Connell, R. W. Masculinities, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).
Rhiannon Graybill is W.J. Millard Professor of Religion and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. She is the author of Are We Not Men? Unstable Masculinity in the Hebrew Prophets (Oxford, 2010).