Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Bible Rarely has One Answer: Susannah Larry on "Is the Bible Sexist?"

On the first of February, Susannah Larry, Hebrew Bible scholar from Vanderbilt University, joined us for a discussion on the existence of biblical sexism. Larry began our conversation by saying that “the Bible rarely has one answer”. She used this logic to combat traditional biblical views of men, women, and the relationship between them.
First, we asked the question “what is a biblical woman?” Many different answers came from our biblical knowledge including: a seductress, a man’s property, an obedient wife and mother, a warrior. As Larry told us at the beginning, there is no one answer to this question. Certainly, examples of all these types of women can be found in the Bible. However, in order to compile some more concrete answer, Larry took us through a few examples more thoroughly.   
Of course, it makes most sense to begin with Eve, mother of all women. Part of the argument that women are to be submissive and even inferior to me lays with the creation of Eve as the second human. In the original, Hebrew the name Adam merely means “dirt being” and has no association with gender. In fact, the words for man and woman are not used until after Eve was created. This suggests that there was no gender in place until both man and woman were created.
With the most basic claims to superiority addressed, we moved on to the first sin. Eve is consistently blamed for the fall of man. The traditional story of the serpent and the tree of knowledge suggests that Eve was alone with the snake and, therefore,was solely responsible for the Fall. However, if we read Genesis 3:6 carefully, we see a small phrase that refutes this idea. In several translations, the verse reads “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate”. Once we take notice of this phrase “who was with her”, we can say that Adam was subject to the serpent’s persuasion and, therefore, equally responsible for the Fall of humanity.
As Adam and Eve were cast from paradise, God heaped judgement upon them. One such judgement is often used in the argument that a husband should be the head of the household. God spoke to Eve “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (NRSV Gen. 3:16). The fact that this was one of God’s judgements as he cast Adam and Eve from the garden suggests that God never intended for man to rule over woman. Inequality, then, is perhaps a sign of the falleness of the world.
Next, we should take a look at the concept of warrior womanhood. The Bible gives us a couple examples of female warriors. Deborah, as the judge of Israel, was a leader in her community. Jael caught the opposing general during war by wooing him drawing him into the false security of a bedchamber. She took this opportunity to kill him. In these two stories, the Bible gives us excellent examples of women who were able to lead and protect their people.
So now that we have some idea of biblical womanhood, what is biblical manhood? We could answer this multiple ways including: a macho warrior, a tender-hearted friend/lover, a sex-crazed hooligan, a devoted spouse. Most would agree that the Bible is ripe with examples of macho warrior men and that this particular type of man is widely celebrated. Devoted spouses and tender-hearted lovers exist and receive similar celebration. It’s safe to say that the warrior man is often more preferred by both men and women. However, it’s important to acknowledge examples of strong men that are also tender-hearted friends. The best example is the friendship between David and Jonathan. The two were very close friends and often “wept with each other” (NRSV 1 Sam. 20:41). When Jonathan died, David lamented the loss of his friend greatly, “greatly beloved were you to me” (NRSV 2 Sam. 1:26). The friendship between David and Jonathan provides a good example for men to know that it’s okay to be emotional towards other men.
With an idea of a biblical woman and a biblical man, we moved on to the idea of the ultimate relationship between two people: marriage. In our western society, we often view marriage as something to do when you are in love. In the Bible, there are examples of love matches; however, there are also examples of business marriages. In Genesis, we see Jacob fall in love with Rachel and work for her father so that he can marry her (Gen. 29:18). In Deuteronomy 22, we see an example of the terms upon which a woman may be given in marriage. The man who wants to marry will “give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife” (NRSV Deut. 22:29). We can see that marriage can be defined in a couple different ways. How we view it today depends on our own personal translation.
Let’s talk about a topic potentially more interesting to a modern audience than marriage: sex. So, does the Bible say that sex is reserved only for marriage? Not exactly. In Song of Songs, we have two lovers exploring their sexuality together quite plainly; however, there is no marriage mentioned. While certain translations choose to render the sex PG, others make the sex clear. In Ruth, Naomi (Ruth’s mother-in-law) instructs her to “go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” (NRSV Ruth 3:4). Here Naomi is attempting to gain security and protection for her daughter-in-law by having her sleep with a man. Why uncover his feet though? In the original Hebrew, feet is a euphemism for male genitalia. So we see that sex does happen outside of marriage in the Bible.  
After Larry brought us through these numerous questions, we still wanted to know “is the Bible sexist?” Well, it was written by men for men in a different time and a different culture. So, maybe. The book is comprised of many discordant voices. So, maybe. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the interpreter to determine the context and how to apply the scripture to individual lives.

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