While Christians through the ages have certainly found biblical scriptures that speak to the soul and inspire, there is also a complicated relationship between biblical text and those who name the Bible as sacred. Christian history reveals a long record of countless theological debates, tens of thousands of splits among Christian groups and denominations, struggles over translations — some even to the death — and it continues in our current deliberations over the biblical criteria for such things as marriage and ministry qualifications, stewardship of the land, and justice and equity for our communities. It doesn’t take long to discover evidence of how the Bible has been used as abuse, how scripture has supported oppression, and how biblical text has been abused via interpretations, translations, and claims of authority.
I sympathize with the Church in this relationship of struggle. I, too, have grappled and wrestled like Jacob with the angel over beautiful and ugly meanings of verses and words, struggling to understand an interpretation, a theology, a behavior, or mandate claimed to be “right” or “moral” or “natural” because of scripture. And like Jacob, I have been wounded from the struggle by family, friends, ministers, professors, and others by their use of scripture against women and women’s roles in life.
A feature of sacred text is that, for better and for worse, the text does not stay on the page. The great temptation to interpret and reinterpret in each generation is too strong to resist. Whether we glean biblical texts for such purposes as integrity in living, authority, and/or discernment, we draw out what we can from the text to set it loose from its ancient written crypt and reveal any living wisdom we seek to find within the ink and pages.
Yet it is not simply the text with which we struggle — though that in and of itself would be plenty for me. Reading the text as a female requires energy, strength, patience, and also anger to wrestle with the layered patriarchal culture. To read of the violence, abuse, marginalization of women in the biblical stories is to be wounded and struck again and again. To finally hear a woman’s voice in the text and then to realize it is in support of patriarchal values of women as possessions, women as worthwhile only when they bear sons, or women pitted against one another to be the link in a lineage chain, is disheartening to say the least. This struggle with the written scriptures would be enough without adding on 2000 years of wrestling with cultural interpretations that have seen, and sadly continue to see, women as less-than, women still as partial characters in the story of patriarchy.
Given this multi-dimensional mosaic of biblical text and interpretation, a mosaic with awe-filled and damning pieces in it, a mosaic that has both supported and challenged (though the latter to a lesser extent) racial, class, ablist, gender, etc., oppression, what questions do we bring to bear to the text today? The significance of the questions is always of critical importance, as the right answer to the wrong question is fairly useless. If we are going to approach the text with a desire for integrity, with naming clearly what the text says and does, identifying how it has been and can be used, what will be the questions that are important for feminism and the Bible today?
A common definition of feminism is the striving for social, political, and economic equity. In essence, feminisms (as there are many) offer an alternative to hierarchy and challenge the preservation of social and power hierarchies. This latter desire to preserve social and power hierarchies has resulted in biblical interpretations that have too often been more patriarchal than the text itself, even when the interpretation is from a cultural context hundreds of years removed from the 5th century BCE early manuscripts.
For example, many biblical scriptures offer narratives of transgressing traditional gender roles, yet the vast majority of our interpretation of these narratives overlooks these occurrences. When was the last time we read biblical texts with gender-bending lenses? Saw the masculinity of Deborah, recognized the femininity of Jesus as Sophia/Wisdom? In our current biblical interpretations, it is evident that fear of gender equality is a fear of a lack of hierarchy.
Heteronormativity, or the normatisation of heterosexuality, functions as a reinforcement of a hierarchical binary gender system. Not only is the male/female hierarchy still in place today, the binary system that recognizes only male and female remains firmly entrenched. How often do we read with an intercultural lens that breaks down hierarchical interpretations that subtly, perhaps even through our use of metaphors, reinforces ablism, white privilege, class privilege, and other hierarchies? Can we name the educational methods biblical women such as Judith, the Syrophoenician woman, midwives Shiphrah and Puah and others used to teach Jesus and their communities?
How much does our own sense of and subconscious desire for hierarchy obscure what is before us in the written Torah of scripture and in the living Torah of our communities? In our biblical reading and interpretations we are witness to a long-standing effort to protect hierarchy. When interpretations of biblical texts are used to limit, exclude, or cause harm, wisdom and beauty in the text are obscured. The wisdom/sophia to be found in biblical text and the wisdom/sophia in challenging biblical text is not hidden. It is there for those with hearts open. May ours be so.