J: The Woman Who Wrote the Bible

Written by Mary F. Burns
Review by Cecelia Holland

Several scholars have advanced the idea that the Yahwist, or J writer, of the Old Testament was a woman who lived at the court of Solomon, a daughter of the royal house. In J’s stories, the heroes are often women, like Rachel and Rebecca, whose vigor and force outshine the men. J’s purpose may have been to give the upstart David a good pedigree and glorify the Hebrew past; if so, then almost inadvertently she created a world-historical literature, the foundation for monotheism and some of the best-loved stories of all time.

J: The Woman Who Wrote the Bible begins with this premise. Readers who enjoyed The Red Tent will like this book too, with its retellings of many of the stories of the Old Testament. Janaia is her father’s prophetess, and witnesses David’s career from the time in the cave of Adullam to the glory, crimes and tragedies of his reign in Jerusalem. Mysteriously, Burns has opted to incorporate the Qu’ran’s version of the Ishmael legend, which has the effect of reducing the whole story to a gloss on the modern crisis in the Middle East. This may be comforting to many, who want to find the familiar in the extraordinary, the present in the distant past, the now in then, but it gets pretty threadbare after a while.