Houghton Mifflin's splendidly browsable new reference book, Women in Scripture, is so exhaustive even its sub- title is lengthy: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament. The stroke of genius in this approach is to combine several groups of characters into one volume. The three sections include Named Women, Unnamed Women, and a fascinating catch-all called Unnamed Women, Female Deities, and Personifications. Faced with such a vast landscape, we are encouraged to wander. A short stroll will take you from Hoglah, about whom we know only that she was the daughter of Zelophehad, to the erotic overtones of the word translated as maiden in the Song of Solomon. Another jaunt could begin with matriarchal figures such as Sarah and Rebekah and lead to Esther's relationship with her harem slaves. You can find choice morsels about the nameless women weeping for Tammuz, the reviled but adventurous Eve, and even the Great Whore of Babylon.

For the record, the Apocrypha consists of those books absent from the Hebrew Scriptures but included in early Christian versions of the Old Testament. The Deuterocanonical books are those manuscripts, both entire books and parts of books, that do not show up in the Hebrew text but are found in the Greek Septuagint translation. If a woman or group of women have anything to do with any part of these sacred texts, you will find her or them here.

Why does the Bible require so many commentaries and reference books? After all, it is safe to say that this anthology of poetry, history, axioms, folklore, and prophecy is already the most common book in the world. Ironically, Carol Meyers, the general editor, points out in her introduction, perhaps because it is so familiar directly and indirectly to so many, it also may be one of the world's least understood literary productions. The Bible's length and complexity not to mention the many translations and their varying inclusions leave most readers begging for intrepid guides to point the way, beat the bushes, and watch for traps. In Women in Scripture, Meyers and her cohorts have provided this crucial service, and have done so with energy and style.

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