Women and the Bible

Yesterday, I said I’d try to talk about the Bible and its effect on how women function in the church. I think I want to broaden this post a little, but I’ll see how I go.

I think it’s true that when pushed to justify their behaviour, most people will defer to some sort of higher authority. For Christians, this higher authority is usually  God’s will as revealed in Scripture, with or without reference to the tradition of the church. People who believe that they have a divine mandate for their behaviour are less likely to change it than those who appeal to a less powerful authority for justification for their behaviour.

The Bible in its Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts is seriously androcentric. Most English translations make it even more androcentric. Phylis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality provides an impressive set of examples of how this is so – how female images in the Hebrew text are “degendered” in English translations.  Her Texts of Terror gives some chilling examples of how Christian Scripture is not just androcentric but also misogynist.

How a particular church views the status of Scripture has some significant consequences for the place of women in their communities today and, as I suggested yesterday, I think that the place of women in a particular church community will influence how likely she is to become a biblioblogger. A church that believes that the stories in Scripture are socially located and a reflection of the culture in which they were written will have a very different approach to one that believes that Scripture is literally word-for-word Gods’ word and true in that form for all time. I don’t think that anyone actually takes the Bible word for word literally, but many people say they do.  There are quite a few commandments in the Hebrew Scripture that Christians cheerfully ignore. Like the one in Leviticus 19: 19

You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. (NRSV)

Even when we still want to stand by some of the Levitical laws, we tend not to think that death by stoning is an appropriate punishment for breaking them, although that’s what the Bible often suggests. And I don’t think that many Christians think that it is OK to offer to throw their virgin daughters out to be raped by a crowd of rowdy blokes in order to protect visitors, as Lot did in Genesis 19.

Nevertheless, if you see Scripture as being socially located etc, you will be more inclined to look at what it meant in the context of the time in which it was written in trying to work out how to apply it today, and thus to critique the androcentricity and misogyny. If you consider it to be literally true, you are less likely to think about the fact that Scripture in general seems to say that it is OK to treat women badly and ask what that means for how you live today.  This is not to say that all members of all conservative churches are misogynist. Scot McKnight is an example of someone from a reasonably conservative branch of the Christian church who has gone into print (in The Blue Parakeet) to argue for a more egalitarian treatment of women and as a professor teaching at a university level tries to instill confidence in his female students.

It was certainly important to me that the professors where I studied theology evaluated our contributions on the basis of their academic worth, not on the basis of whether we were male or female. They also challenged students who made sexist comments, didn’t use inclusive language and so on. This was also important in my formation as a minister and as a biblical scholar.

I indicated at the top that I thought I wanted to talk about more than the Bible. I think what happens in worship also has an important role in forming women who are confident to have their biblical scholarship voices heard in the blogosphere and I will look at that tomorrow (or the next day).

10 thoughts on “Women and the Bible

  1. Thanks for this post Judy, and for your previous post on this issue as well. They are both thoughtful and insightful. One of the real problems in the more so-called “conservative” branches of Christianity is not just sexism and misogyny, but the fact that these are problems that many men are totally unaware that they have. I would know, as a recovering misogynist myself.

    I do think, however, that the tide is turning. I still run in pretty “conservative” (can you tell I don’t like that term 😉 ) circles but I rarely come across anybody arguing for subordinationism. The latent sexism is still there a lot of the time, which is a huge problem, but even that seems to be dwindling, albeit too slowly. And the reason things are changing can, I think, be tied quite closely to the hermeneutical issues that you raise in this post.

    • Thanks Colin. I don’t like the terms “liberal” and “conservative” either. I think that theologically where I fit is somewhere between “radical discipleship” and “progressive”, but don’t think they’re much more helpful labels. And I have no idea what to use instead of “conservative” – clearly “fundamentalist” is neither a synonym nor accurate, despite the way some people use it. And I agree wholeheartedly that the fact that many men aren’t aware that they have sexist and misogynist attitudes is a significant problem. I also think that what we do in worship contributes and I am working on a post on that, too. 🙂

      • Hmmm, I am intrigued by the idea of sexism related to worship and liturgy. Leading worship is one of my gigs (from time to time) so I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

        And as for labels…binary oppositions suck don’t they? Part of the reason that sexism exists.

  2. Hi Judy,

    I’m surprised you make this comment:

    I don’t think that anyone actually takes the Bible word for word literally, but many people say they do. There are quite a few commandments in the Hebrew Scripture that Christians cheerfully ignore. Like the one in Leviticus 19: 19

    I guess you are not familiar with Christianity’s view on the Mosaic Law?

    • Christianity doesn’t have a singular view on the Mosaic Law. Though if you’d prefer a NT example that nobody seems to take literally (with the exception of Origen of course), how about Matt 5:29-30.

      I think that part of Judy’s point is that “literally” isn’t a helpful category when it comes to the Scriptures.

      • Yes, Colin, my point is partly that “literally” isn’t a helpful category. The other part is that although there is a generally accepted view in Christianity that Jesus’ death and resurrection means that the Mosaic law is superseded, I often have bits of the Mosaic law quoted to me as at least partial justification of a person’s stance on a particular issue.

      • Christianity doesn’t have a singular view on the Mosaic Law.

        Why would you respond with something like that? After all, I didn’t say Christianity has a singular view on the Mosaic Law. And despite how nuanced the views on it are, as Judy already said, the generally accepted view in Christianity is that Jesus’ death and resurrection means that the Mosaic law is superseded.

        So again, if you Judy acknowledge this, why would you bring forward arguments from the Mosaic Law to prove that Christians don’t take it literally. It just doesn’t make sense. Your argument against taking the Bible literally doesn’t really work, because it’s not like Christians think those passages in Leviticus are to be taken symbolically. Instead, as you said they are “superseded” by Christ.

        Also, I can’t help but notice a certain amount of sarcasm or bias (or both) towards some or all Christians on your part:

        There are quite a few commandments in the Hebrew Scripture that Christians cheerfully ignore. Like the one in Leviticus 19: 19

        “*Cheerfully* ignore”? Really?

        Though if you’d prefer a NT example that nobody seems to take literally (with the exception of Origen of course), how about Matt 5:29-30.

        I think that part of Judy’s point is that “literally” isn’t a helpful category when it comes to the Scriptures.

        I certainly agree. But making such a sweeping statement isn’t helpful either, because that might be interpreted *literally* 🙂 If you want to eliminate the literal side of the Bible (because it’s not “helpful”, so why keep it), then there is no Christ, Jesus has not died, there’s no church, there’s nothing. It’s all symbolic or just a cultural product of those times isn’t it? Just a “reflection of the culture in which they were written”.

        So don’t really expect this tactic to work, in order for women to be seen as equals. A more accurate approach (in my view) would be to emphasize the fact that there are doubts about the authenticity of the “Pauline” pastoral epistles (and Ephesians); that there are also doubts on 1 Co 14:34-35 (see Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture); that Paul has a high regard of women’s role in the church (Phoebe and Junia comes to mind).

  3. JohnE,

    I am not trying to provide an argument for women’s equality. You’re right – if I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t have started where I did. What I am trying to do is provide what I see as at least some of the reasons why there are so few women bibliobloggers. And one of those is that Christians who say that they take the Bible word-for-word literally use this as an argument to disregard women’s work on the Bible. However, I think that even people with that perspective only take selected bits of the Bible literally. Superseding of the Mosaic law notwithstanding, they use literal interpretations of selected bits of the Mosaic law to bolster their cases when it suits them.

    And I am well aware that I have biases of my own and that I am biased against some expressions of Christianity and towards some others. Unfortunately, blogging lends itself towards the sweeping statement, because no-one is going to read twenty screens of closely argued text. 🙂

  4. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” 2 Timothy 3:16

    “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;” Ephesians 4:14

    “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” Malachi 3:6

    “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” Hebrews 13:8

    “He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. 9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. 10 For moses said, Honour thy Father and thy mother; and, Whoso curesth father or mother, let him die the death. 11 But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.” 12 And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother. 13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.” Mark 7:6-13

    “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

    “But I suffer not a women to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. 13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” 1 Timothy 2:12-13

    “But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. 5 For in this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands:” 1 Peter 3:4-5

    “Ye adulterers amd adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” James 4:4

    “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

    “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.”Revelation 3:5

    “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Matthew 7:21-23

    “He that ears to hear, let him hear.”Matthew 11:15

    “He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.” 1 John 2:6 -> Jesus Christ took scripture literally

    these scriptures i have put are clear indications – its not a matter of being “sexist” to women, its a matter of fearing God, and respecting, honouring, and following the Bible. – the bible also says “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;” Ephesians 5:26 – so its not about being “sexist” or neglectful to women, the simple matter at hand here is honouring the word of the LORD. Which is scared and everlasting “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Matthew 24:35
    Really Loving the LORD is important, and I do not agree with what you are saying. i am not trying to be rude to you, I just think as Christians we must cherish the Scriptual word. I find what is written here to be discrediting much scripture that warns against such doctrine.

  5. Yes, Lawrence. Your post is a perfect example of the approach that I have characterised as the literalist approach to the Bible. We will have to agree to disagree because my approach comes from just as careful a reading of Scripture as yours, but reaching different conclusions because when I find parts of Scripture that contradict other parts, I take different segments to be authoritative to the ones that you take.

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