Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Old Testament Narrative with Its Ancient Audience

By Philip Francis Esler

An analysis showing how the cultural milieu in which the Ancient Israelites read the Scriptures reveals new insights into the significance of the texts.

ISBN: 9780227679913


In Sex, Wives, and Warriors, our understanding of Old Testament narrative is expanded though Phillip Francis Esler’s application of an intercultural reading of the texts, focusing on the question: “What would ancient readers have understood from these stories?” This approach reveals previously undiscovered levels of meaning in the Old Testament which readers all too often fail to place in its original cultural and historical context.

Esler draws on a wide range of disciplines, and in particular brings the techniques and insights of the social sciences to bear in his analysis. Not only is this reading contextualised and its significance for the Ancient Israelites explored, but Esler utilises scholarship on myth structure and Jungian archetypes to further clarify this original understanding.

This is a book ideal for anyone wishing a closer engagement with the biblical texts. Esler makes the narratives resonate with pivotal stories from the Christian and Jewish tradition and in doing so inspires us with their imaginative and literary power and enhances our capacity for intercultural understanding.

Additional information

Dimensions 229 × 153 mm
Pages 420

Trade Information JPOD

About the Author

Philip F. Esler is Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Principal of St Mary’s University College, London. He is the author of Conflict and Identity in Romans (2003) and New Testament Theology (2005), and is the editor of Ancient Israel (2006).



1. Reading Old Testament Narrative
2. The Original Context of Old Testament Narrative

Part 1: Wives
3. Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
4. Hannah, Penninah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1-2)

Part 2: Warriors
5. The Madness of Saul, a Warrior-King (1 Samuel 8-31)
6. David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-18:5)
7. David, Banditry and Kingship (1 Samuel 19:1-2 Samuel 5:5)
8. “By the Hand of a Woman:” Judith the Female Warrior

Part 3: Sex
9. David, Bathsheba and the Ammonite War (2 Samuel 10-12)
10. Dishonor Avenged: Amnon, Tamar and Absalom (2 Samuel 13)


Author Index
Scripture Index


Endorsements and Reviews

Philip Esler has done much to make biblical scholars aware of social-scientific approaches. In this book he brings this perspective to a reading of Old Testament narrative texts, showing just how much social science can illuminate the Bible. The stories of wives, warriors, kings, and madmen are here read against the backdrop of the real society in which they were first told, and so become three-dimensional to the modern reader.
John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture, Oxford University

Each study is fascinating and thought-provoking: social context insights at their most perceptive …
Richard Briggs, in Biblical Studies Bulletin, Issue 66

… a tour de force, often brilliant and original, always illuminating … The book is highly recommended to all biblical scholars, including New Testament scholars, particularly to those interested in literary and social-science perspectives. Esler has taken a necessary and sophisticated first step in attempting to bring these discrete approaches together.
Mark Sneed, in Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament, Vol 2.1

These stories offer readers an almost esthetic pleasure to enter an imaginative world which, whilst distant in terms of time and contemporaneity, can be established in the setting of ancient Israel using ethnographic evidence. It is in this context that Esler offers us a fresh historical and literary review of the Old Testament narratives. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and exhaustive book that illuminates and brings new life an ancient narrative using socio-scientific methods that can no longer be ignored if scholarship is to glean a true insight into the content and context of the Old Testament.
Benjamin Bury, in Reviews in Religion and Theology, Vol 20, No 3

… Esler is doing what OT scholarship has been doing for at least 250 years – interpreting the Bible in the light of what can be surmised about the customs and social background of the presumed biblical writers – but doing it in a much more informed way than was possible for earlier scholars.
Church Times, 12 July 2013

Esler’s analysis of social and cultural themes in these texts is consistently fresh and perceptive … A wide range of readers will benefit from Esler’s distillation of anthropological research and from his fresh reading of familiar texts.
William L. Kelly, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, in The Expository Times, Vol 125, No 1

Esler moves masterfully through narratives concerned with the biblical wives Tamar (Genesis 38) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2); the warrior sagas concerned with Saul (1 Samuel 1-2); the warrior sagas concerned with Saul (1 Samuel 8-31), David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17), David’s rise to power (1 Samuel 19-2 Samuel 5), and Judith; and tales of sex, so of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 10-12), and Amnon and Tamar (2 Samuel 13) … Informative and engaging …
Laura Quick, University of Oxford, in Theological Book Review , Vol 25, No 1

Esler provides some thoughtful readings of the biblical narratives … His examination of the texts’ literary features is careful and detailed and his integration of anthropological studies to his reading does raise some fresh insights for contemplating these ancient traditions …
Caroline Blyth, in Theology & Sexuality, Vol 19, No 2

… Esler takes care to defend his approach against charges of anachronism (i.e., inappropriately assuming cultural practices and thought forms from a later period existed in a former age) and excessive generalization (i.e., relating findings from a particular culture to other cultures without sufficient basis). On both counts he performs admirably and provides a worthwhile resource for those seeking to overcome the cultural and temporal distance between ancient and modern readers of the biblical text.
Linda A. Dietch, in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol 43

Esler has written and excellent and refreshing work that I highly recommend.
Walter Vogels, in Studies in Religion, Vol 42, No 3