Suppose you could make a list of all the people who have been officially authorized to interpret the Bible for Jews or Christians down through the centuries. Until just recently, despite the many denominations and cultures represented, practically everyone on such a list would have had one characteristic in common: Virtually all were men.
Has this male monopoly made a difference?
As you consider this, remember the “HIP Question”, the Hermeneutical Issue of Power, described in earlier posts: Only in the last generation or so have enough women gained advanced degrees in biblical studies to begin to challenge this male hermeneutical mindset. But already their work is having far-reaching impact. We now, finally, even have the first all-female scholarly commentary on the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments plus the Apocrypha.
This book, The Women’s Bible Commentary (WBC for short, published by Westminster/John Knox) was a landmark in the 3000-plus year history of Judeo-Christian religion. And these women scholars found plenty to question in the work of their male predecessors, and in the canon itself. Their challenges go beyond the easy stuff, such as the warrant for witchburning in Exodus 22:18, to Paul’s oft-cited outburst against women speaking in church (First Corinthians 14).
Perhaps more egregious, for the WBC authors, are the repeated images, beginning with Hosea, and recurring in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Nahum and other books, portraying God’s relationship to Israel and humans in general as a dysfunctional, abusive marriage. Here God is the steadfast, longsuffering (but all-powerful) husband, and Israel/humankind a chronically adulterous, promiscuous whore of a spouse. The female sinner is repeatedly punished by the righteously angry Divine Husband, through the most gruesome violence imaginable: exposure, multiple rapes, murder of her children, dismemberment, cannibalism, etc.
Once this pattern is pointed out, its pathological character almost leaps out at you. Commenting on a typical passage, Nahum 3:5 (“`Behold, I am against you,’ says the Lord of Hosts, `and will lift up your skirts over your face, and I will let nations look on your nakedness…”’), WBC contributor Judith Sanderson declares: “In a society where violence against women is epidemic, it is extremely dangerous to image God as involved in it in any way ….What would it mean to worship a God who is portrayed as raping women when angry?”
(Incidentally, a Quaker scholar, Gracia Fay Ellwood, summed up this critique brilliantly and succinctly in her 1989 Pendle Hill Pamphlet [#282], “Batter My Heart”.)
Nowadays, one might think, it would be hard to disagree with or ignore such reactions. Yet a look into some other widely-used commentaries, varying from Fundamentalist to liberal Protestant to moderate Catholic, showed these images being taken in stride, as no big deal.
Once exposed, however, these appalling misogynist attitudes serve as another indication of the unwisdom of calls to accept some self-defined “authoritative” version of traditional male Bible interpretation as a standard for Friends. Or anyone else.
Indeed, it’s easy to see, after absorbing some of these women’s work, why many thoughtful women want nothing further to do with the Bible and the religions it spawned.
Yet overall the WBC writers don’t follow this path, above all because as misogynist as much of the Bible is, misogyny is not all that’s in it. In fact, there’s a good deal in it that is pro-women, if one knows how and where to look.
(This is an old Quaker insight, too.)