Feminism and Scripture

Earlier this month I finished this fantastic book on the theological interpretation of Scripture called Text, Church, and World.  I’m only really understanding about 60% of what I read right away but the rest is flying around in the back of my brain and eventually, I think, it will all come together.  A lot of interesting stuff with big words like metanarrative, postmodernism, literary feminism, theological hermeneutics, and so on.  But I’ve been itching to blog about feminism and Scripture for a while now, and I figure it’s about time to scratch.

One of the more fascinating changes in biblical scholarship in the past, oh, fifty years or so has been that the readers of Scripture have become much more diverse.  Biblical scholarship used to be, for the most part, restricted to white male natives of either Germany, England, or America.  Our understanding of Scripture has been, unfortunately, limited as a result.  But biblical scholarship, thank God, is now on the rise not only among South American, African, and Asian readers (which merits another post in its own right!), but among women as well.  As more and more women have entered the academy, our understanding of Scripture has been enriched and enlivened by the simple fact that we have a greater diversity of readership.  By paying special attention to the way that women are discussed in the Bible, the Church has come to a better understanding of what the Bible says on all kinds of issues: especially gender, marriage, and family.

Problem is, the Bible contains lots of messages that aren’t exactly progressive for the feminist agenda.  So, feminist biblical scholars for the past few decades have tended to fall into one of two camps.  Either the Bible is hopelessly patriarchal and must be completely abandoned, or sections useful for the liberation of women must be salvaged and the rest relegated to the irrelevancy of the long-dead past (in what amounts to a total surrender to the historical-critical paradigm, I’ve even heard teenage evangelical girls utilize the latter).  But neither approach is satisfactory for the Christian seeking a holistic understanding of Scripture.

So.  The attractive thing about this Francis Watson guy is his rejection of the historial-critical paradigm (which analyses the text in an attempt to uncover “what really happened”) for a literary-theological approach, one concerns itself with the final form of the text as containing authority.  But this approach, at first, opens up a sort of pandora’s box for Christian feminists: if the patriarchal, misogynistic portions of Scripture can’t be relegated to the junk heap of “history”, and must be taken, in some sense, to be authoritative, then what is the biblical interpreter to do?

Watson’s provocative thesis is that while the patriarchal elements of Scripture cannot be ignored by the responsible interpreter, they cannot be taken at face value without looking at the whole story.  The broad narrative arc of Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation—is actually subversive of its own patriarchy.  As MLK (fittingly, since I’m writing this on his birthday) said, “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Let me show you what I mean.

In the Creation story of Genesis, after God creates Adam from the dust of the earth and places him in the garden, God notices something: Adam is lonely.

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 

Now, the Hebrew of the italicized text, ezer kenegdo, is notoriously difficult.  The KJV famously translates it “help-meet” (the NRSV above tries “helper as his partner”), but from what I understand, both of these phrases are possibly the most limp and uninspired translation of the original ever.  

One way to determine a word’s meaning, if you’re unsure about its meaning in a particular passage (such as this one), is to look up where else it is used in the Bible and see what you can figure out.  And what’s particularly intriguing about the word ezer—the “helper” part of the phrase—is that it is elsewhere found only in reference to God when you desperately need God’s help.  For instance, Deuteronomy 33:29:

Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you,
         a people saved by the LORD,
     the shield of your help,
         and the sword of your triumph!

Or, Psalm 20:1-2:

The LORD answer you in the day of trouble!
         The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary,
         and give you support from Zion.

With this in mind, what new meaning does the following passage take on?

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 

Given the military imagery of both of the other passages where ezer is used, the translation “helper” seems rather domestic, don’t you think?  “Savior” would be better.  “Rescuer” would work great too.  “Helper” carries all kind of connotations—mainly that Eve is somehow Adam’s assistant, like a secretary—that the Hebrew resists absolutely.

Now, if ezer means savior or rescuer, kenegdo might be best translated as counterpart, or better, soulmate.  The imagery here is perfect correspondence: Adam and Eve “fit” eachother (like puzzle pieces from the clay, as Ben Gibbard would have it) as complements.  Adam was missing someone, and Eve was just the girl for him.  In fact, their unity is so perfect that Adam can only respond with poetry.

Then the man said,

     “This at last is bone of my bones
         and flesh of my flesh;
     this one shall be called Woman,
         for out of Man this one was taken.”

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

This narrative on the unity of Adam and Eve, prototypical of husband and wife, is given as the reason a man leaves his home, because of his need for human community.  Their mutual intimacy can only be expressed metaphorically: they are as “one flesh”, a single living organism.  This is the story of the first husband and wife, devoid of any kind of heirarchical language whatsoever.  No authority is given to the man over the woman (nor vice versa), but rather the two are pictured as equals—the fact that Adam was made first says nothing about his authoritative status.  God creates both male and female in God’s image, co-heirs to the throne of all the earth, destined to “fill the earth and subdue it”.

In fact (and this is really the crucial point), the first overt discussion of the domination of women by men—the definition of patriarchy—comes in God’s words after the Fall.  First, he curses the serpent for his deceit.  But

To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
   in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
   and he shall rule over you.’

That’s right folks.  The rule of husband over wife, man over woman, is here described among the twisted relationships that have resulted from the Fall.  Just as the relationship between serpent and woman, and between Adam and the earth, is here fractured, so the relationship between man and woman is broken as well.  Thus, from the very lips of God, the rule of man over woman is proclaimed not as part of the natural created order, but as a result of human sin.

Now, if the story of Scripture is the story of God’s redemption of all Creation, and if the birth of Jesus represents the inauguration of a new creation destined not for destruction but for glory, and if the Church is the living presence of Christ in the world—if indeed, we are a new creation in Christ . . . what does that mean for passages like this?

It means that we must take a second look.

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4 Responses to Feminism and Scripture

  1. Kathryn says:

    A really interesting take, you have some well thought out points. You might be interested in a book called “Jesus and the Feminists”, I mentioned it in my blog recently because its one of the few comprehensive overviews on feminism and scripture that I know of.

  2. fin says:

    i’m glad we talked about this before you spilled it in such an organized fashion upon the blog page. it’s nice to have it here to reference when i need it; i really dig the translation stuff.
    also, hermeneutics is a ten dollar word, and i just learned that it actually has a meaning when used in a biblical understanding context. we use it in regard to symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology in sociology. because we rock like that.

  3. ben adam says:

    I need that book. Badly.

  4. Kasey says:

    Hi! Thank you so much for the post. It was very well written and I enjoyed it. As a woman trying to be a follower of Christ it is very difficult to read those passages that just make the hair raise up on the back of your neck, especially a modern woman who’s been brought up in the wake of feminism. Although I do not agree totally with all feminism teaches I believe that there is a necessity for women to stick up for themselves because of what you cited in your blog: the twisted relationship between the man and the woman that resulted from the fall. The down side to both of our natures I suppose. I don’t fully understand this as of yet but it’s something I’m constantly struggling for the knowledge of.

    As for the Ephesians verse that you cited also, I’ve heard it described in this manner of breaking down the word “submission.” “Sub” meaning under and “mission” meaning, of course, a mission or the purpose. So submission means being under the mission or purpose of your spouse. I think it’s also important, like you said, to see what the Greek or Hebrew word for “submission” is and see where it’s used elsewhere in the Bible. This breaking down of the word “submission” has helped me in the dating realm also. I don’t want to date a man whose “mission” in life I don’t want to be under, or in other words, a part of. If I’m his helper/savior/whatever I want to be with a man whose mission in life is the same as mine. This is on a broad and specific scale. As a friend of mine said “I don’t want to ask my wife how work was and really not care.” This is how I’ve come to understand Ephesians 5:22 – I’m sure there’s room for improvement and there’s a lot more truth that could come from this verse.

    – Peace of Christ

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