Those Troubling Parts of the Bible
Those who seek to glorify biblical womanhood have forgotten the dark stories. They have forgotten that the concubine of Bethlehem, the raped princess of David’s house, the daughter of Jephthah, and the countless unnamed women who lived and died between the lines of Scripture exploited, neglected, ravaged, and crushed at the hand of patriarchy are as much a part of our shared narrative as Deborah, Esther, Rebekah, and Ruth. We may not have a ceremony through which to grieve them, but it is our responsibility as women of faith to guard the dark stories for our own daughters, and when they are old enough, to hold their faces between our hands and make them promise to remember.
I open with those words from Rachel Held Evans’ conclusion to a section on some of the terrible texts of the Bible because I found them so powerful even as a man. Rachel began her chapter on Obedience with a list of biblical laws that many Christians don’t even know about. The common thread is that women are property, something that those trying to get us back to “biblical womanhood” typically don’t actually want (fortunately). Married women who are raped are to be killed along with their rapist. Unmarried women who are raped have to marry their rapist instead, and divorce is never allowed (normally only the man could initiate a divorce anyway). Men were free to have sex with as many women as they wanted, but women could be killed if it was discovered they were not a virgin on the wedding night or if they were caught in adultery. I could keep listing them, but it’s not the point so I want to move on. Rachel includes a quote from a young woman who has been taught this general principle of women as property, even if the group she was raised in is not following the specific laws, discussing how she is not her own person but is the property of her father until he has decided who she will marry. It was very disturbing, but also undoubtedly true to the Bible.
Understandably, Rachel was not able to live out some of these aspects. She wasn’t going to wait to be raped and then have someone kill her so that she could write about it… if she wasn’t dead, obviously. Her husband Dan also refused to have a child for the sake of a book (which I’m sure she wouldn’t have done either). And Dan wasn’t going to marry a few extra women for the sake of living out the polygamous lifestyle that was the norm throughout the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). On that point, though, she did feature a really interesting interview with an evangelical first wife. The woman tells the story: She and her husband fall in love at their Baptist church, then after a few years he falls for another woman. Not wanting to dishonour his marriage vows, he starts to look into the idea of polygamy and what the Bible says about it. Quite correctly, he finds that it is normal in the Bible – not commanded but accepted up until the Roman era (the New Testament). Eventually he manages to convince both women that there is nothing wrong with it, and the two wives live in different houses with the husband going back and forth, all quite happy with the situation overall. I include this story because I think most modern Christians would consider polygamy wrong, yet there it is, clear in the Old Testament.
All of these things bring together one idea: what do we do with the troubling texts of the Bible? Do we need to keep them literally true for all time? There are very few Christians or Jews who do keep to these laws even though they are quite clearly biblical. This is why I, like Rachel, shudder at using the word “biblical” as an adjective for anything other than maybe “a biblical story.” A lot of the societal norms we don’t want to reclaim. Those who say that nothing bothers them about the Bible have probably never actually paid attention to it. Fortunately, even Jesus breaks some of the laws, so they are a little less disturbing because we know we don’t have to take them literally if God is willing to break them.
This brings to one of Rachel’s general conclusions that come up throughout the book: everybody picks and chooses what texts to take legalistically and what to let go. This picking and choosing isn’t necessarily arbitrary but is based on some hermeneutic either stated or unstated. In the case of conservative complementarianism, the hermeneutic is that gender norms are brought in line with 1950’s Americana before that pesky feminism got in the way. My hermeneutic on the other hand is a Christo-centric one where all Scripture is seen through the lens of Christ – I think this is the most in line with how Scripture discusses itself and how the early church understood it, but that is a topic for a different day. My main challenge is the same as in my last post about accusing Rachel of mocking the Bible: if we acknowledge that we all have a hermeneutic – that none of us are purely objectively faithful to the text – then we can have meaningful conversations as family over our disagreements. If we continue to think that everybody is inherently wrong because they’re not the same as us (or our tradition), then we won’t get very far in any kind of growth.
I’m a theologian, so my main interest is often which hermeneutic is best and then in applying that hermeneutic to the various issues like those discussed above. But I acknowledge that theology only gets us to a certain point. At this point, Rachel is able to give something that I rarely can. The most powerful part of the chapter came when Rachel described how she decided to deal with these troubling texts. For background context, there is an often-missed ritual in ancient Judaism referenced in the text. Every year, the women of Israel would go into the mountains to mourn the death of Jephthah’s daughter who was sacrificed to God essentially because her father Jephthah was an idiot and promised to kill whatever was the first thing to come out of his house. So Rachel chose to enact a ritual of remembrance with a couple of friends which honoured women of the Bible who are often forgotten but were treated poorly essentially because they are women. I’ll be honest: I almost cried reading it. I can’t imagine how meaningful it would be to actually do that. This is the kind of thing which makes the book a very worthwhile read because it is so incredibly real to the struggles that many (mostly women, but some men) have when facing this text that we consider Scripture.