Quick, name the absolute worst parts of the Bible.
Chances are, you thought of one of these four stories [TW]:
The rape and dismemberment of the concubine in Judges, the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in order to fulfill a vow he made to God, and the use, abuse and expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.
These stories – all of them describing violence against women without overt condemnation by either God or the narrator(s) – are what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”
Somewhat surprisingly, she analyzes these passages not to explain them away or redeem them with a pro-woman retelling, but to simply sit with them, to understand the fully the depth and breadth of the horror these passages inflict on the characters – and therefore on us, the readers who cannot help but sympathize with them.
In so doing, Trible hopes to memorialize them. These four women – two of them nameless, one of them voiceless, all of them utterly vulnerable to the whims and lusts of powerful men – do not get preached from pulpits, featured in liturgies or adhered to flannelgraphs. Yet they are essential parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If nothing else, they personify, as Trible expertly highlights, the qualities of the “suffering servant” in Second Isaiah’s famous prophecies.
Although originally referring to Israel, Christians, taking cues from the gospels, have appropriated the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 to describe Jesus – “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” etc. Trible moves in the opposite direction, identifying these four women as suffering servants, and given the longstanding Christian confession of Jesus as the sufferer, implicitly identifying them as Christ figures.
Most poignantly, Trible makes this association explicit in her analysis of the concubine in Gibeah. Echoing the more famous tale of Lot in Sodom (do these stories reflect a single event buried deep in Israel’s memory and adjusted as needed for different contexts? I’d say it’s likely, but that’s not Trible’s concern here), the concubine and her master spend the night in an old man’s home, where men of the city arrive and demand the male guest be given to them to rape. The man offers the concubine instead, and she is raped and tortured until morning (and potentially killed, although Trible points out the text seems to indicate the concubine’s master actually murders her once they arrive back to his home in Ephraim). Trible describes the key moment this way: “Truly the hour is at hand, and the woman is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”
Trible’s insight and deft handling of the texts make Texts of Terror a swift and insightful read – I’d almost call it a joy, but the subject matter makes that an impossibility. She refuses to get bogged down in questions of authorship, redaction or historical criticism, all things I enjoy getting bogged down in, but which would serve to distract from the women at the center of Trible’s focus. Her goal is to dig as deep as possible into the texts as they are, under the assumption that the text we have is there for a reason, no matter how it got that way.
Therefore, Trible points out patterns and structures of the original Hebrew that have become invisible under the layers of translation and interpretation that have accumulated over the millennia. Some of these are brilliant and beautiful; others feel like more of a stretch. But all of them are fascinating and demand careful consideration. Almost uniformly, Trible ends up highlighting how the original text mercilessly marginalizes and degrades these women.
But that’s the point: Trible is “telling sad stories,” as she puts it in her introduction. That they are sad does not mean they are worthless. Indeed, sad stories often tell us more about ourselves than happy ones. They force us to wrestle with the world as the world is, with God as God is, and with the Bible as the Bible is – not as we wish those things would be. For wrestling with them, we hopefully emerge stronger, with greater insight on what it means to be a “suffering servant” in whom we should see the life and work of Jesus.
Published 34 years ago in 1984, Texts of Terror remains a vitally important work, one that should be on the bookshelf of every preacher, every counselor and every church leader. In a day where many women are finding their voices for the first time, we would all do well to return to Trible’s classic, in which she helps four ancient women cry, “Me, too!”
The numbers don’t look good for the movement that calls itself “pro-life.”
After years of stasis, the most recent surveys are noticing a shift that bodes ill for the future of the movement that exists to eliminate legal abortion in the United States:
In the survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely to report that their views on abortion had changed in recent years — and when they moved, they tended to move in favor of abortion rights. Of those young people whose opinions had changed, 25 percent said they became more supportive of legalized abortion compared to 9 percent who became less supportive.
That poll was taken in March, and while it did not show a noticeable change in overall support for the notion that abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases” from where it’s been for the past decade (43 percent, compared to 54 percent saying it should be “legal in all or most cases”), it’s not hard to see that the millennial generation is growing as a percentage of the public. If they continue shifting leftward on abortion, the overall numbers will follow.
A separate PRRI poll of even younger Americans, age 15-24, finds an even stronger shift: the cohort opposes making abortions more difficult to obtain by a 72-28 margin – and even 43 percent of Republicans in this group oppose abortion restrictions.
The Christian pollster George Barna is seeing the same thing: “In fact, when we compared the views of Millennials to those who are 30 or older, there were consistent differences showing that the younger generation is comparatively less supportive of life and more supportive of abortion.”
I finished 2017 by reading Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language by Sallie McFague. That title is terrible; it obscures and deadens what is easily one of the most compelling and thought-provoking theological works I’ve read in a long time.
I probably used up most of a highlighter on this book’s 194 pages. Published in 1982, it feels as relevant as ever. Here are some highlights:
- McFague starts by exploring the importance of metaphors for human learning. We tend to think of metaphors as poetic and rhetorical – “your eyes are deep pools” – when in fact they are essential building blocks in the creation of our respective worlds.
- She uses the intentionally absurd example of a chair. How do you know a chair is a chair? Because it has the same characteristics as things you identify as chairs. That’s a metaphorical move. Just as you use “deep pools” as the reference for describing “eyes,” you use “chairs” as the reference for this new object you’ve never seen before. This new object is both like and unlike “chair.”
- Thus metaphors are inherently relational: They forge connections and enhance learning by describing relationships between understood concepts and new ones.
- Metaphors are also inherently uncertain and filled with tension: They are incomplete and even inaccurate to some degree. Eyes are not actually deep pools. This chair is not identical to previous chair examples. God is not actually our father.
Oops. I gave it away. McFague uses this argument about the essentiality of metaphors to build what she calls a metaphorical theology – a way of talking about God that understands and relies on the importance and tension inherent in metaphors. Continue reading Book Review: The Friendship of God
Sixty million years ago, what is now south-central Alabama was the shore of an ocean. Over time, the continents shifted, sea levels receded, and the nutrient-rich mud deposited by those waves eventually became nutrient-rich black dirt perfect for planting crops like cotton.
Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of textile manufacturing made cotton an increasingly vital part of the Southern – and the American – economy. The children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans, kidnapped and brought over the ocean to harvest tobacco in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, were torn from their families, chained together and marched southwest to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to expend their bodies scooping bowls of cotton from thousands upon thousands of plants growing in that ancient shoreline. The modern American economy, from which some of us benefit more than others, was built on their backs.
War. Emancipation. Reconstruction. Segregation. The well worn story, still somehow not told often enough or understood well enough. When I visited Alabama to do thesis research two years ago, I was struck by the extent to which the history of those slaves and their descendants has simply been ignored. Jefferson Davis, traitor to his country, has his statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Montgomery. Down the street, where men and women and children were chained and sold like animals – where their descendants were beaten and brutalized and ghettoized – no marker stands.
At the risk of generalizing too much, Alabama seems to have a knack for ignoring. Forty years after KKK members bombed a Baptist church, killing four black girls, it took a prosecutor named Doug Jones to finally bring them to justice; their identities had long been known to authorities. They were just … ignored. That bombing, in Birmingham in 1963, occurred as the South convulsed with marches and demands. Martin Luther King Jr., a young preacher in the first capital of the Confederacy who every Sunday delivered sermons extolling the need for equality almost literally in the shadow of the statue of the man who led a war to deny that equality to men like King. By 1965, King led a march for voting rights up the same steps where Davis had delivered his inaugural address as president of the nation founded explicitly on the denial of humanity to dark-skinned people.
For decades, the descendants of the enslaved had been denied their voice. In a nation that preaches the power of the vote and the principle of democracy, black men and women had been stripped of that power, and with it their place as true citizens of a country they had been forced to inhabit. Even after the march from Selma to Montgomery left bloodstains in the 60-million-year-old dirt, African Americans found themselves struggling to make themselves heard. Restrictions on voting for convicted felons. Voter ID laws. No early voting. No online registration. Police intimidation at polling places. Voting, the one measure of power granted to every person born in the United States, the primary tool of self-governance, was granted only reluctantly to those who arguably needed it most desperately.
Ignore it or dismiss it how you will, history is always there. That long chain of events leads directly to yesterday’s election of a new senator from Alabama. Yesterday, people of color – many of them residents of that “Black Belt” of south-central Alabama that once was a seashore – overcame obstacles, waited in line for hours and cast provisional ballots after being wrongly classified as “inactive voters.” They did so because, for the first time, the established power structures of the state – which for so long had domineered and silenced them – were vulnerable. That power structure long had said they were unfit to vote because they were black, or because they were female, or both. Today, they told the power structure it was unfit to represent them on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Against a candidate who embodied everything wrong about the current American political moment – a likely serial sexual abuser of teen girls who, according to his spokesman, “probably” believes homosexuality should be illegal and rejects the rights of Muslims to hold political office, who just this week pined for the days of slavery – people of color, and especially women of color, rose up. As they have been doing for the past year. As they have been doing for generations.
They rose up to take one of the most powerful actions any person in our society can take – an action so consequential its potential use by African Americans sparked dread among white Alabamians for more than a century: They voted. And in so doing, they pulled down a bastion of power that said they should stay in their place, the place carved out for them as women, as people of color.
By all accounts, it wasn’t easy. Progress never is. It takes a long time for that sea to deposit its grains on the beach, imperceptibly building a fertile land in which freedom and equality can eventually take root, even if only after violence and oppression trample it first. It takes persistence, against long odds, against a bloody history too often whitewashed and denied. It takes being assaulted and insulted and gaslighted by monsters who claim the backing of God and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while you dismantle their corrupt edifices.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends – with difficulty – toward justice. Nevertheless, they persisted.
Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.
Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:
31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.
(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)
37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.
The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.
But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:
This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)
So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).
But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.
Last year for International Women’s Day, I wrote a letter to my three daughters. International Women’s Day was last week, so here is a slightly edited version of that letter.
Dear J, G and H,
This world will tell you lies. It will lie to you about your value, about your appearance, about your place. It is filled with people who will see you as weak, who see you as less valuable – to them and to God – and who see you as an object, all because you are female.
I pray you keep this letter in mind when you hear those things. I am afraid that, though the world is changing, it will not do so fast enough to spare you from the warped wisdom and twisted value system that prioritizes, above all things, the gender of a person.
Because you are more than women, as I am more than a man. We are children of God, three daughters and a son. We are loved, valued, respected, prized by the one who made us – the parent of the entire world, the one who is big enough to breathe life into existence, small enough to weep with us when that life goes awry.
But you are, in fact, women. And you should be proud of that. I pray you never accept the attempts of men to make your gender a cause for shame, embarrassment or pity. You are women. Congratulations!
This is my prayer for you: