Tonight a girl from our Melbourne church asked me how a feminist can read the Bible. In particular, she wondered why the Bible treats women so negatively, as the ones who do the wrong thing.
I thought it was a good question and it expresses what I think is a common perception of the Bible. For that reason, it’s worth reflecting on more. I said to her that I’m not convinced that the Bible does have a negative bias towards women. Here’s why.
My friend could name the story of Sarah laughing when God said she would bear Abraham a son, after which she gives him Hagar as an alternate wife. She was less familiar with the story of Abraham lying to protect himself at his wife’s expense. I started at the beginning of the Bible and talked about the failure of Cain, Noah and Ham, Jacob, etc. Sure the Bible presents women as doing the wrong thing, but we are often more familiar with these passages that we are with the ones that show men failing. I don’t think the Bible is negative about women so much as pessimistic about humanity, both men and women. We need to read stories of both women and men if we are to understand how the Bible views women.
Missing the point
Even when we do read the whole Bible, we can emphasise something other than what the text is getting at. Take Samson and Delilah. How many of us have heard a sermon about not being swayed by the evil temptress? Sure, the warning’s there, but Judges is actually about an evil people and their failed rulers. God uses the judges for the benefit of his people, but that’s an expression of his grace, not an endorsement of their behaviour! To focus on Delilah is actually to miss the flow of Judges. It’s tempting to focus on the characterisation of one woman but we must let the message of the whole text inform our thinking.
Choosing an interpreter
The negative view of women may stem from seeing Eve as the first sinner. Yet, that’s not how the Bible views the situation. Adam is the first to be held accountable for the eaten fruit and Romans 5 talks about sin coming into the world through Adam. Similarly, though we might hear about Sarah’s lack of faith, the Bible remembers her as a holy woman worth imitating. We need to let the Bible interpret these women’s stories and use that as the basis for our understanding of them.
But if the idea of reading the Bible is just a little too overwhelming, why don’t you start by checking out some of my favourite stories about women in the Bible? There are courageous women like Deborah and Jael; clever women like Abigail; vindicated women like Hannah; and wise women like Manoah’s wife. I could go on! There are stories of subversive plots, valiance in the face of mortal danger, and real grit.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.