Yesterday in class I must have used the f-word at least half a dozen times. I must admit, I was surprised that my students took this in stride. Past experience had led me to expect that at least a few students would be uncomfortable with the f-word. After all, this is a Bible class being taught at a Christian university!
Even so, most of my students didn’t seem to mind when I said the word “feminist.” The topic for the day was women in the patriarchal narratives. I wanted to challenge the class to see what happened when they tried to read the stories from the point of view of the female characters. In the process, we discussed feminist hermeneutics and some of the reading strategies adopted by feminists who remained faithful to Scripture, and yet found that the same inspired texts that liberate them spiritually often serve to subjugate them socially.
We talked about how men were also the victims of the patriarchal mindset. We talked about how the same attitudes influence how women treat each other in a patriarchal society. It was a cool day to teach, especially since we did it all in a group-discussion format rather than a “straight” lecture.
By the end, we had wandered into the realization that the Bible tells the story of real people‚ not Sunday school cardboard cutouts. With the stories of Genesis, we see rounded, three-dimensional characters who do not always conform to stereotypical roles that might be assigned to them. This is probably the first literature in history to treat its characters this way, and I’m inclined to agree with Thomas Cahill, who in The Gifts of the Jews connected the phenomenon to the new kind of religious outlook the patriarchs embraced. In a nutshell, because Abraham and his kin had begun to relate to God in an interpersonal way, they began to relate to each other as individuals as well. The biblical writers took pains to paint these characters as individuals.
The struggle to understand and follow this new sort of God who had spoken to Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans made for a messy, chaotic, and unpredictable life, and in Genesis we are treated to seeing it in all its morally ambiguous glory. So Jacob, that magnificent bastard, cons and swindles his way into history. Abraham all but pimps his wife to two foreign kings in order to save his own neck. Sarah beats her slave, Hagar. Rachel and Leah get locked in an obstetric arms race for their mutual husband’s love, which apparently ends only when one of them dies in childbirth.
All these polygamists, slave-owners, would-be child-sacrificers, manipulators, and pathological liars are the fathers and mothers of faith. That is no doubt a scandal to some. Skeptics may read these stories and wonder how anything good could come out of a story that starts with such despicable characters. More attentive readers learn to separate the eternal message of the text from the culturally bound stage setting in which it occurs. We look for the redemptive trajectory of the text rather than getting bogged down in the particulars of any specific episode. We find the positive stories‚ and even the subversive ones‚ that lead us to higher ground. We admit that we are not interested in defending the morality of the Middle Bronze Age. We wrestle with these men and women who once wrestled with God and prevailed.