Women of the Bible (Lyrics)

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/judith.jpg

I don’t actually have a verse about Judith (in the picture above), but I should write one. I’d envisioned this with a sassy lounge jazz tune, minor key for the verses, major for the chorus (so the chorus sounds a bit like “Jesus loves me.”)

I was inspired to write it because the main thing people know and want to discuss about Bathsheba is whether she was David’s victim, seductress, or paramour; but one of the most fascinating stories about her is how she and Nathan hoodwinked the Old Man into making her son the heir to the throne. I was trying to figure out how to disrupt and refocus the narrative in the fewest words possible, and that led to this song.

Bathsheba
Very pretty
Know her story?
Just a little bitty:
Pulled some strings and she got her son
Sitting on the throne; now he’s king Solomon.

Miss Naomi
Was a widow
Taught Miss Ruth
How to use eye shadow
Instructed Ruth in feminine wiles
Now she’s singing lullabies to her grandchild.

[Chorus]
Strong women, these I know
For the Bible taught me so
Mothers, sisters; royal, tribal
Don’t you mess with the women of the Bible.

Queen Esther
In her palace
Had to deal
With ethnic malice
Saved her people from Haman’s plans
Now he’s swinging from a rope tied by his own hands.

Martha and her
Sister Mary
Education
Was primary
Now they’re sittin’ at Jesus’ feet
Buddy, make yourself a sandwich if you want to eat.

Chorus

Listen up now
brothers, sisters,
We got to have some
strong resisters
You don’t have to take any more malarkey
The day’s gonna end for the patriarchy

Chorus

SaveSave

Barak’s Insubordination (Judges 4)

Lambert Lombard, Jaël (1530-35). Museum Grand Curtius, Liège, Belgium.

The story of Deborah and Barak usually gets read in a very un-feminist way, in spite of the fact that she’s the only named female judge of ancient Israel (Judges 4:1-24). Preachers portray Barak as being too timid: he’s afraid to go into battle against Sisera’s army (4:8). He says to Deborah, “I will go if you go,” and the implied message of these interpretations is that if he would “man up,” then he would get the glory of killing Sisera. Instead, because Barak needs a woman to hold his hand, God delivers Sisera into the hand of a nomad woman (4:21).

This interpretation is a sleight-of-hand. It takes a story with a female hero and turns it into an object lesson about the dangers of giving up masculine strength and authority.

Some interpreters read this story in a more generous and less sexist way. They see Deborah and Barak as sharing power (the song in chapter 5 does name both of them as leaders), but Barak’s failing is that he does not adequately trust God. I’m not convinced by this reading, because I don’t really see why gender becomes a relevant point of their discussion in this interpretation.

I’m even less convinced by one alternative reading mentioned in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, which says that Barak is “inviting Deborah to bless the military expedition.” Again, if that’s the case, why does it matter to Deborah who gets the glory, or whether they are male or female?

Instead, I approach this text with a question I’ve heard asked about other female leaders—how would Barak’s response be different if Deborah were a man? If a male prophet had told him to gather the troops and meet Sisera in the field, would he have hesitated? I think there is something other that distrust of God or benevolent invitation in Barak’s resistance. I think it’s a challenge: “Lady, it’s easy for you, to talk about going to war. But will you put your life on the line?”

Read from this direction, Barak’s failing is not cowardice, but sexism. He is insubordinate to Deborah in a way that he would not be to Gideon or David or Moses, because she is a woman.

From this reading, her response makes sense: “Fine, but the path you are following will not lead to your glory; God will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

Deborah is willing to put skin in the game, to take the field of battle with the fighting men. But even she doesn’t deliver the killing blow. That service is performed by Jael (4:21), someone with even less power and standing, using a woman’s homemaker tools. Barak loses the glory of victory because he doesn’t trust a woman to lead him.

How would churches be different if this were the standard approach in sermons?

How I Became a Feminist

In 1998 my wife discovered a mass in her abdomen. It was about the size of a softball. We scheduled an appointment with an ob-gyn, who told us that it was probably not a cancerous ovarian cyst. It was more likely a uterine fibroid. An ultrasound confirmed that two very large cysts were growing, distorting the shape of her uterus so that their placement was unclear. Were they inside or outside? On her ovaries or not?

We scheduled laparoscopic surgery and a biopsy, and learned that they were, in fact, uterine fibroids. “Very unusual for a white woman to have such large fibroids,” said the doctor, a statement we’d hear more than once in the following years. “I can’t believe you’re not having more pain.” We’d hear that one, too. We scheduled a follow-up appointment and spent a couple of weeks in a haze of mild anxiety.

This was just as Google was becoming a household word, but internet searches didn’t turn up much about uterine fibroids. I was a seminary student at Vanderbilt University, and there was a fabulous medical library on campus. We spent several hours looking through journals and learned that although fibroids are very common, they are not typically dangerous. There were a variety of possible treatments, from embolization (killing the fibroids’ blood supply) to myomectomy (cutting them out), but cutting out such large cysts increased the risk that scar tissue would complicate pregnancy—if we could even get pregnant. We learned that a majority of women have fibroids, and they are the main reason women have hysterectomies.

I was surprised that neither of us had ever learned about this common problem, and frustrated that every article we read said that nobody really knows why fibroids happen. In addition to creating fertility problems, we learned that fibroids might sometimes be responsible for dangerous ectopic pregnancies. Everything we learned about them only increased our uncertainty. My wife had been taking birth control pills for years to control painful periods. Did that contribute to the growth of fibroids? There was no consensus. Some said yes, others said no.

When we went in for our follow-up appointment, we brought all of our questions. Would we be able to get pregnant? Would it be safe to do so? Would insurance cover some kind of surgery or treatment? The doctor listened to our questions and was impressed with our research, but he couldn’t really tell us much more. He referred us to a specialist.

The specialist wasn’t much help, either. Our biggest concern was a dangerous pregnancy. He basically shrugged and said, “Whatever your plans for having children, you should probably do it sooner rather than later. These things tend to grow. It may grow a little, or it may grow a lot. If it grows a lot, you could have a complicated pregnancy.”

As a student, I was required to buy health insurance. We seldom used or needed it. Every August as the semester began, I had to scrape together enough money to buy our coverage. Most of our doctor visits happened at the university, and we never had trouble with insurance.

The following month we got a statement from our insurance company saying that we owed $260 for an uncovered doctor’s appointment. We were school-poor. We budgeted each month down to pennies. Our entertainment was whatever was free on campus. We had $100 in a savings account. The bill might as well have been for $1000—there was no way we could pay it.

I called the number on the back of my insurance card. The customer service representative on the other end of the line was a young guy—probably my age. I asked him why our insurance was refusing to pay. He looked up something on his computer.

“Ummmmm… oh, here it is. Yeah, we don’t cover contraceptive charges.”

“What? No, this isn’t a contraceptive charge. This was a consultation about tumors on my wife’s uterus.”

“This doesn’t say anything about tumors,” he said.

“They are fibroids. A kind of cyst. We were just thankful it wasn’t cancerous, but we were worried about complications. So that’s why we had the consultation.”

“So, were you asking about getting pregnant?”

I didn’t like where this was going. “Yes—I mean, no, not really. Getting pregnant is part of it, we just want to make sure there wasn’t any danger. This is about her health.”

“Well, if you were talking about getting pregnant, then it’s a contraceptive charge. Or a fertility charge, and we don’t cover fertility consultations, either.”

“No, listen, you’re not hearing me.” I had tangled the cord around my fingers. “I want to make sure my wife is safe. This is about her health. I wanted to know if she gets pregnant, would it put her life in danger.”

“If you were talking about preventing pregnancy, then it’s a contraceptive charge.”

“What the hell? Look, if I had a tumor the size of a softball on my testicle, would that be covered?”

The cubicle jockey on the other end laughed, “Sir, men can’t get pregnant.”

I’d always heard of sentences being felt “like a punch in the gut,” but had dismissed them as cliche. But that’s where I felt his words: a physical pain, a cold, hollow place in my abdomen. Then I felt the rage. I started cussing.

I asked to speak to a manager, and I was referred to another man with whom I had the same conversation. They informed me of an appeal process, but said they doubted it would change anything. If I couldn’t pay the $260 at once, I could probably work out an arrangement with the doctor’s office to pay in installments.

When I hung up the phone, my wife and I were both shaking and crying, the frustration and helplessness we felt having no other outlet. I do not believe violence is the answer to problems, but in that moment, I wanted to reach through the phone and throttle the idiot on the other end. He was probably just a student, like me, working a call center to pay his way. He spoke out of his ignorance. But my wife and I had scraped together what little money we had to buy this insurance, only to hear them laugh at our physical and financial distress. They laughed at my protest of unfairness. HIs words echoed in my mind: “Sir, men can’t get pregnant. Men can’t get pregnant.” As if it explained everything in the world.

I had never experienced the dehumanizing effects of sexism myself, the devaluation of half of humanity’s fundamental life concerns: health, freedom, and responsibility. For the first time, I felt was on the receiving end of systemic misogyny. At least, I felt it financially. My own health problems were classified as health problems, but my wife’s health problems were contraceptive or fertility problems—convenient labels that allowed our insurance company to refuse to give us the money we had already paid to them for our health care. The fact that I was concerned about her life and well-being was irrelevant. The minute we started talking about her lady-parts, her identity as a human being ceased to matter.

I would never stand for an insurance company or an employer telling me what kind of medical care I could get for my man parts. The only person who can make educated decisions about my body is me. And if part of the compensation of my employment is health insurance, then I’d better get the care that I’ve already paid for.

Of course, I was worried about our family planning, too. But getting any kind of financial help with such things had never crossed my mind. We had been paying for her pills for ages. It never occurred to us that we were actually saving the insurance company money. We were not trying to freeload birth control from a corporation. We just wanted the money we had already paid.

This was also the first time I had seen first-hand the banal dismissiveness of men who fail to see the sexism present in the medical system, or their complicity in it. My attempt to point out that my wife and I were treated differently was laughed off.

I’m a bit ashamed that I had to be hit where it really matters—in the wallet—for me to understand the demeaning way our society treats women every single day. If I had been wealthier, the bill would have been a minor annoyance. Why not just pay it? Instead, I had felt the physical threat to our existence those policies represent because we were riding the edge of poverty. Of course, the worst thing that would have happened is that I would have had to drop out of school and get a job. But I was suddenly much more sympathetic to people in real poverty.

Now, when I hear someone use cowardly rhetoric to talk about birth control, or of “being a slut on someone else’s dime,” I think about all the dimes I collected to pay an insurance company for nothing. I think about the corporate jets their executives fly. I think about the very tall buildings on Wall Street that I helped finance. And I think about the sluts in congress who sell their morals to healthcare industries, and the pimps in corporate boardrooms who control them.

We did manage to have a child, eventually, though we don’t know whether or not to blame the fibroids for her two miscarriages—they still don’t know much about them, you see. And they don’t know why black women get them more often than white. If white men got fibroids on their testicles, and it required castrations, you can be damn sure we’d know what causes fibroids and how to treat them. And you know insurance would pay every cent.

When she delivered by caesarian, the ob-gyn said the largest fibroid was the size of a basketball. It had shrunk by the time she had a hysterectomy. At that point, it weighed only six pounds. By that time in our lives we had decent insurance that treated her like a human being. We only had to pay a few thousand dollars for the surgery—still far out of reach of most of America’s poor.

So, that’s how I became a feminist. That’s when I claimed the label and decided that I would work hard to be a better ally, because being on the losing side of a double standard really sucks. When defenders of that double standard accuse you of being morally deficient, it adds insult to injury. When they laugh at your distress, it makes you fighting mad. Militant, even. I am thankful for the epiphany.

While nobody ever took our medical choices completely away, we were jerked around financially and emotionally by an insurance company, and we paid for the privilege. I wished at the time that we either had no insurance or a public option. Either would have given my wife more autonomy over her own body. If we had not had the financial and moral support of our extended family, I can easily see how this kind of uncaring “care” could cost us the ability to have children… or worse.

Jesus described his problem with the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The concept of universalizability is one of the bedrock fundamentals of ethics: what applies to one, applies to all. Yet we continue to place a heavier burden on one half of humanity than the other in so many ways.

As I said, I’m grateful for the experience. It’s not the only one that has helped me to see my own privilege, and look past it, even when I thought I’d already dealt with it. I hope that our descendants can inherit a world in which the burdens of the world are shared equally between rich and poor, all genders, and where access to healthcare is no longer used as a tool of oppression.

 

Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Nicolas Poussin, from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.

Reclaiming a Forgotten Saint

Paul, Andronicus, and Junia

Junia is a relatively new name to Christian scholarship. Her name appears in Romans 16:7 alongside several other women church leaders, but she is listed as an apostle, one of the original disciples of Jesus and an eyewitness to the resurrection. It shouldn’t be surprising, since the gospels are all pretty explicit that women played an important role in Jesus’ ministry and were the first ones to witness and proclaim the resurrection, but centuries of male prejudice led translators to assume that she was a man, “Junias,” a name so unusual that it doesn’t appear in any other manuscripts of the time (while “Junia” appears over 250 times).

The recent scholarship on Junia implies some interesting things about 1) the early church, 2) Christian history, and 3) how we read the Bible today, all of which have been important themes in my own ministry.

First, Biblical scholarship and the early church has been important for my own theology. In contrast to many Christians who believe the Bible must be consistent to be true, I revel in the fact that the Bible has many authors, many points of view, and many theological inconsistencies. Like the modern church, it was made up of liberals and conservatives, authoritarians and revolutionaries, mystics as well as logicians. When we read the Bible, we are thrown into a community of believers who do not always agree with each other, much less our own notions of who God is and what God is up to in the world. This is why we have four gospels, two histories of the monarchy, two creation stories, and multiple letters. I think it’s pretty clear that the early church was an egalitarian community that believed Jesus had opened the Kingdom of God to all, and that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were all welcome at the table. But there were also early editors who were not comfortable with women in leadership, or (gasp!) uppity slaves.

Second, Christian history has likewise been a story of reformation and counter-reformation, of new movements of people reaching back to earlier traditions and reclaiming forgotten parts of the Bible. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Theresa, all created movements and changed their world because they reached back around their traditions to older Christian examples and the Bible itself. You can look at this as a big mess of conflicted history, or you can choose to see the power of the Holy Spirit leading people to deeper understanding of what Jesus’ Good News means to their generation or culture.

Lastly, when I preach, one of my main goals is to help people hear the Bible with fresh ears. Many of us—believers as well as skeptics—have been trained to miss important ideas in the Bible. I didn’t really fall in love with Jesus until I learned that he had a sense of humor which sometimes tended toward the gutter. People have managed to argue about homosexuality and religious exclusivism without ever recognizing the early church’s belief that God shows no partiality. I don’t want to ever claim that my interpretations of scripture are the only right ones, but I do think I offer people fresh theological options for engaging the Bible and understanding their world in light of it.

So for me, Junia speaks to all of those things—she is a link to the early church, a correction for the abuses of Christian history, and an interpretive lens for how we do theology today. She stands for all the forgotten saints at the margins who we reclaim from the past, and she symbolizes hope for a more just future for those who follow Jesus.

As I’ve been toying with church names for a church plant in the Birmingham area, Junia has come to mind. There are plenty of Methodist and other churches named after male saints, and there are even a few named for Saint Mary or Saint Elizabeth. But there aren’t any named for Junia.

Just a thought.

Judah, Tamar, and “Slut Shaming”

Horace Vernet: Judah and Tamar

The following is an excerpt from my book God Shows No Partiality. Given Rush Limbaugh’s recent insults toward Sandra Fluke, I thought it might be appropriate to share this ancient story. “Slut shaming” is a toxic aspect of our culture. I won’t say much more about Limbaugh’s comments, since others are doing such a good job of it already. But I do feel it’s important to point out that the Bible (which is often recruited to justify policing women’s sexuality) contains several stories that turn the tables on men who use such tools of social control.

One good example of an “unmasking” story is the drama of Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah, in Genesis 38. Tamar’s husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with neither a source of financial support nor a male heir. In the tradition of their culture, the responsibility for providing her with a male heir falls to her brothers-in-law. Unfortunately, the middle brother also dies when he tries to cheat her out of an heir.

Judah grieves over his two lost sons. According to their tradition, the duty of providing Tamar with a child now falls to Judah’s youngest son. Having already lost two sons to this woman under mysterious circumstances, Judah hems and haws about whether he will allow his youngest son to make love with Tamar. Years pass. Tamar is stuck at home, shamed and seemingly abandoned by God and her in-laws.

Tamar then comes up with a ploy worthy of classic theater. She learns that her father-in-law will be going on a business trip to the city of Timnah, so she disguises herself like a prostitute and seduces him while he’s away from home. Like modern cheats, he may have believed that “what happens in Timnah, stays in Timnah.”

After he has returned home and forgotten about the affair, he learns that Tamar is pregnant. Outraged that she has “played the whore,” he commands that she be burned to death. Just as she is being dragged from her tent to her death, she produces evidence that he, Judah, is the father. Filled with shame, he admits “she is more righteous than me” (v. 26).

Like many great stories, Tamar’s tale plays with the boundaries between right and wrong. On the surface, she is a wanton, a black widow, and Judah is the pillar of the community who speaks for society in sentencing her to death. But God shows no partiality, and knows that Judah is a hypocrite. God takes the side of Tamar, the woman seemingly trapped by circumstances beyond her control who uses her sexuality to win her freedom. Even situations that human beings consider scandalous violations of propriety, God may see as acts of justice.

The story itself unmasks something ugly about our society. Even today we use double standards when judging men’s and women’s sexual behavior, holding women to a higher standard while excusing men’s bad behavior by saying, “boys will be boys.” Legislators and popular evangelists still loudly condemn what they perceive as sexual immorality even as they cheat on their spouses and sleep with prostitutes. This story in the first book of the Bible works as a subtle critique of anyone who would use the Bible to police others’ sexual behavior. There is more to the story than the surface appearance of things, the author says.

In the New Testament, Matthew mentions Tamar as one of four women included in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:3). All four women are involved in similarly scandalous stories, which indicate Matthew’s awareness of a divine (and somewhat feminist) pattern in Jesus’ ancestry. Jesus, like Tamar, will be judged by an unjust system and sentenced to death. Jesus, like Tamar, will be vindicated in a radical reversal that will unmask the earthly powers.