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Reading: Women in the Bible

It's easy to understand why many women want nothing to do with the Bible and the religions it spawned. But there's much in the Bible that's prowoman, if one knows how and where to look.



The Women's Bible Commentary provides a new set of answers to an old and crucial question. Throughout Christian and Jewish history, whenever the meaning of a biblical text has been disputed, behind the issue of what it "really" means lies a more fundamental question: Who gets to decide what it "really" means? That's the Hermeneutical Issue of Power, or what I call the HIP question. Down the centuries, the answers to it have often been a matter of life and death.

Do you recall, for example, John Wycliffe? The Salman Rushdie role fell to him in 14th-century England, though the fatwa against him was delivered by a Christian, Pope Gregory XI, for the intolerable crime of having the Bible translated into English so that common people might read it for themselves. Such free access was anathema to the church hierarchy; one bishop insisted that "Christ gave [the Bible] to the clergy and doctors of the Church that they might sweetly minister to the laity and to weaker persons." That's the HIP question in a nutshell.

Wycliffe managed to elude the papal pyres, dying of natural causes in 1384. Yet the Church was not to be wholly denied its vengeance: in 1417, on orders of Pope Martin V, Wycliffe's bones were dug up, burned, and cast into the river Swift. Reading his Bible, or any of his works, was made a criminal offense, as was daring to translate any part of Scripture into the common tongue without authorization.

And what about William Tyndale, who produced another underground English Bible about a century later? He was not so lucky: kidnapped in 1535, he was imprisoned, strangled, and burned as a heretic. Then there are the uncounted thousands of women who fell afoul of the notorious commandment in Exodus: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exod. 22:18).

You might think that the struggles against witch burning, and the struggles to make the Bible widely available, have been won. And in one sense you would be right: nowadays witches are mostly undisturbed, and Bibles can be had by the carload, essentially free, in practically every language you can think of and many you can't. Yet despite this seeming variety, a survey of the churches and academies would show that those answering the HIP question, across denominations and cultures and from time immemorial until just a few years ago, have had one characteristic in common: they have been almost exclusively male.

Does this male monopoly make a difference? In the last generation more and more women have gotten advanced degrees in biblical studies, and many of them think it does: hence The Women's Bible Commentary. This undeniable landmark in the 3,000-plus-year history of the Judeo-Christian religion is the first all-female scholarly commentary on the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments plus the Apocrypha. The last time such a thing was attempted was nearly a century ago, in 1895, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a small committee of pioneer feminists issued The Woman's Bible.

The Woman's Bible is a fascinating but little-known tome. Women were scarce in the theological guilds then, and the few there were didn't dare associate themselves with the extreme views of such a publication. Its commentary is perforce sketchy and uneven. But Stanton persevered, and early in the work she acerbically sums up the results of her group's efforts thus: "The Old Testament makes woman a mere afterthought in creation; the author of evil; cursed in her maternity; a subject in marriage; and all female life, animal and human, unclean. The Church in all ages has taught these doctrines and acted on them, claiming divine authority therefor. . . . This idea of woman's subordination is reiterated times without number, from Genesis to Revelations; and this is the basis of all church action."

The editors of The Women's Bible Commentary, Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, seminary professors in Atlanta and Washington respectively, pay tribute to Stanton but are somewhat less sweeping in their verdict. They start from the more moderate, or perhaps merely understated, thesis that "the power of the Bible in women's lives has been at best ambivalent."

They acknowledge that many feminists, including some of their 41 contributors, confronted by the Bible's near-total androcentricity are tempted to toss aside the entire cultural tradition it epitomizes and start over. But they seem dubious about such efforts, insisting that "for good or ill, the Bible is a book that has shaped and continues to shape human lives, communities and culture. . . . The Bible has become part of the air we breathe without our even being aware of its presence or power." Hence women need to examine it from a consciously female perspective, if only to begin to resist its negative impact on them.

And examine it these women do. They find plenty to deplore and lament, much of which has been ignored or even perversely celebrated in most earlier, male-dominated commentaries. This goes beyond the easy stuff: the witch burning, and the fact that when a daughter was born in Israel the mother was ritually unclean for twice as long as when she delivered a son (Lev. 12). Not to mention Paul's outburst against women speaking in church (1 Cor. 14).

Perhaps more egregious, for the Women's Bible Commentary authors, are the repeated images--beginning with Hosea and including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Nahum, and others--portraying God's relationship to Israel and humanity in general as a marriage. God is the steadfast, long-suffering, but all-powerful husband, and Israel/humankind is the chronically adulterous, promiscuous whore of a wife. The female sinner is repeatedly punished by the righteously angry Divine Husband in the most gruesome ways imaginable: exposure of different kinds, rape, the murder of children, dismemberment, cannibalism, etc.

Once this pattern has been pointed out, its pathology almost leaps out at you. A typical passage, Nahum 3:5, reads: "Behold, I am against you, says the Lord of Hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face, and I will let nations look on your nakedness." Contributor Judith Sanderson comments, "In a society where violence against women is epidemic, it is extremely dangerous to image God as involved in it in any way. . . . What would it mean to worship a God who is portrayed as raping women when angry? . . . To involve God in an image of sexual violence is, in a profound way, somehow to justify it and thereby to sanction it for human males who are for any reason angry with a woman."

One might think it would be hard to disagree with or ignore Sanderson's analysis. Yet a look at some other widely used commentaries shows that these images are usually taken in stride. And this is true despite wide differences in theological perspective. Charles L. Taylor Jr. in The Interpreter's Bible (probably the most widely used commentary, 1950s liberal Protestant in its stance) is made uneasy by the images in Nahum and insists that "the Lord doesn't literally do these things, even if men do," but he concludes complacently that "the language used should not obscure the essential point: the Lord is offended by the crimes of Ninevah, or any city, and brings about the judgment." Such commentary on this and similar passages shows little more awareness of this misogynistic pattern than do the fundamentalist contributors of The Liberty Bible Commentary, edited by Jerry Falwell, or The Collegeville Bible Commentary, a moderate Catholic effort with several women commentators.

Once exposed, however, these misogynistic attitudes seem flagrant and appalling. Indeed, if one wants evidence of destructive attitudes toward women, both in the Bible itself and in the way it has been interpreted, the contributors to The Women's Bible Commentary provide it by the wheelbarrowful. It's easy to see why many thoughtful women want nothing further to do with the Bible and the religions it spawned.

Yet overall the Women's Bible Commentary writers don't follow this path, above all because as misogynistic as much of the Bible is, misogyny is not all that's in it. There's a good deal that's prowomen, if one knows how and where to look for it.

Take the book of Genesis, for example. For millennia male interpreters have seen Eve's taking the apple as evidence that Woman is an evil temptress. But Susan Niditch deftly deconstructs this view, arguing it's a late imposition by the likes of Milton and that arch-misogynist, Augustine. "What if one notices," she inquires, "that the snake does not lie to the woman but speaks the truth when it says that the consequence of eating from the forbidden tree is gaining the capacity to distinguish good from evil, a godlike power which the divinity jealously guards . . . ? [Eve] is no easy prey for a seducing demon, as later tradition represents her, but a conscious actor choosing knowledge. . . . The man, on the other hand, is utterly passive." She also points out that "no weighty accusation of 'original sin' brought about by woman is found in the text. That is a later interpretation from authors with different theologies and worldviews."

Throughout the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis the major women characters--Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hagar--are consistently more active, inventive, and interesting than the men who are supposedly the "real" protagonists. It's no wonder that Harold Bloom, in The Book of J, a translation (by David Rosenberg) and reinterpretation of the Pentateuch, speculates that these books were written down by a woman. Niditch doesn't repeat this assertion but makes it plain that there's much of value for women readers in Genesis once they have answered the HIP question in their own way, discarding the baggage of androcentric hermeneutics.

It's in the Hebrew canon that one finds the most strikingly profeminine scripture of all, the Song of Songs. This brief collection of sexy love poems could even serve as a paradigm for "liberated" relationships, which is undoubtedly why both Jewish and Christian authorities have had so much trouble with it. (The Song is said to have been the last book admitted to the canon by the rabbis.)

The character of the community Jesus gathered is also shot through with hope for women. The gospels repeatedly show Jesus treating women with unusual courtesy and affirmation; he also uses them in some of his parables. And the Women's Bible Commentary writers unearth considerable evidence in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John that women played a central and in many ways equal role in the community he created.

But the egalitarian aspect of Christianity soon faded, first from early Christian practice, and then from Christian writings. This decline into sexism was no accident, Women's Bible Commentary scholars insist. They trace with some rigor a pattern of retrenchment and growing repression. In fact, The Women's Bible Commentary lays out something of a Gospel According to Feminists, and in considerable detail.

The chief culprit in the process of reestablishing patriarchy, at least as far as the New Testament is concerned, is not Paul (the usual suspect), though he does his share, but Luke, author of the gospel and the book of Acts. Jane Schaberg opens her introduction to Luke with a headline--"Warning"--and declares flatly, "The Gospel of Luke is an extremely dangerous text, perhaps the most dangerous in the Bible." Luke is a skillful artist, she argues, who portrays women often and apparently in positive ways, but in fact he subtly yet systematically shows them in subordinate positions and downplays their contributions, describing a community that is unmistakably and increasingly androcentric. "Women are included in Jesus' entourage and table community," she says, "but not as the equals of men."

Once Jesus is out of the way, in Acts, women rapidly fade into the background: "In the teachings of Jesus in Luke, women are mentioned 18 times. . . . In Acts, in the teaching of the apostles, women are mentioned only once." Schaberg concludes that "enthusiasm for Luke-Acts, the most massive work in the New Testament, is enthusiasm for a formidable opponent, not an ally."

According to this feminist interpretation, the process of subordinating women was driven principally by Christians' desire for respectability (and, later, advancement) within the surrounding pagan culture, which considered egalitarian notions at the very least perverted, probably subversive, and certainly not genteel. The later epistles show the process gaining momentum; of First Timothy and its famous edict, "I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence" (2:12), Joanna Dewey says, "The author is asking women to behave in such a way as to give no offense to men in power, to conform to the values of the dominant pagan culture." Soon enough, of course, church authorities didn't just ask women to keep quiet.

The implications of this comprehensive reinterpretation are huge. But when the Women's Bible Commentary writers try to draw them out, frequently they lapse into PC jargon. Kathleen O'Connor, writing about Lamentations, says, "to pray with Daughter Zion is to join with the struggles of women around the globe." And when women are done praying, they can become "committed to an ever-deepening understanding of the interactions of sexism, classism, racism, militarism and nationalism," as Judith Sanderson says in her commentary on Amos. Such sloganeering obscures more than it explains but is mercifully rare.

Nonetheless, Jewish and Christian communities that absorb the insights abounding in The Women's Bible Commentary will undoubtedly wind up a lot different from what they are now. My suspicion is that the feminist religion represented here will be profoundly subversive of hierarchy, doctrinal fixity, and received liturgical language and rituals, all of which are dear to partisans of the male status quo.

The self-appointed guardians of this establishment are already in high dudgeon over the inroads such feminist interpretations have made. Consider R. Emmett Tyrell Jr. in the Washington Times last spring, responding to feminists on the inequities of characterizing God as male: "In truth, the topic of God's sex or physique is beneath intelligent discussion. Those who bring it up are not reasonable people with disciplined minds. They are zealots or ignoramuses, and there is no arguing with a zealot or an ignoramus." He got that right.

There is certainly much more to be done in this field, but The Women's Bible Commentary has a sense of inevitability about it, like Tyndale's Bible. Though Tyrell et al should have a field day with it, I doubt they'll be able to blunt its impact much--after all, burning Wycliffe's bones and Tyndale alive didn't stop their work, much less stamp out witchcraft. And what more can they think of to do?

The Women's Bible Commentary edited by Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, Westminster/John Knox, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Patti Green.

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