Women, Equality and the Bible

Women and our equal status in society appear to be at risk. It feels as if it is a perilous time for those of us who battled in the workplace, in the home, and in church for equality and felt some measure of success. Purportedly we are equal under the law; we have equal opportunity, if not pay; we can own property and have our own bank accounts. And, until recently it felt as if we had the right to choose our own preventive care.

When I was in my early 20’s it was not an issue of whether I could get contraceptives. My insurance covered it. It allowed me to plan for when I wished to have a family. Later, I used contraceptives to prevent pregnancy because I was told that another pregnancy would be fatal to me. I did not question the pills availability to me. It never occurred to me that it could be taken away as an affordable option. For many of us, we could not have afforded the full cost of our monthly prescription because of our financial status. In my case, we were on the edge financially and thus it was so very important that it be an option for us.

The language and the posturing of men during this debate regarding a woman’s right to plan her life and have some semblance of control in her life, is filled with the bluster of men who simply do not understand the consequences of their point of view.

It appears to me that for many men, their decision is based on the biblical point of view – that women are property, are meant to be breeders, and are servants. While Genesis says that Eve was to be a companion to Adam, there are those who interpret that as ‘less than.’ Why would the Bible so clearly relegate women to positions of inferiority?

It was 2500 years ago. The Bible was redacted or compiled during a time when the identity of a tribe was truly at risk. The Babylonians had conquered the people of Israel and had transported any who were leaders and their families to Babylon. It was the way many conquerors integrated the conquered…by creating a melting pot diffusing any unique tribal identity. In the case of Babylonia they even promoted Israelites into the power structure of their communities. But the Israelites didn’t want their tribal identity diminished, so they decided to formalize or concretize the oral history of their people into a set of books that would then define who they were and the values they held.

And, as those in power write the history, frame the history in their own personal context, the Hebrew Bible was written by the patriarchs – men. As a result, instead of viewing their history holistically, it was written from the perspective of the importance of the maintenance of the male dominant tribe. Women were not at the forefront of their consciousness. As a result, women were considered accessories after the fact, not the primary focus.

We can not consider the current situation without trying to understand the foundations for how women are treated in our Judeo-Christian ethically based culture. We are constrained by those ethics. We need to progress out of those ethics if we are to progress as a human race. Until we recognize the power of women as individuals, until we grant them not only a place at the table but an equal place at the table, the human race remains at risk – for if we only address the issues of half of the race, the other half is diminished and, therefore, puts our humanity as a whole at risk.

This is liberal or if you will progressive politics. It is not about partisan politics, but it is about power and the path to power in our society. Women do have power, just not necessarily the equivalent power of men. Women have always had power, but that kind of power has been minimized by men. I do not believe that all men withhold power from women; there are many men, men of conscience, who support women and their equality. That said, the level of participation in high levels of government, as CEOs of major companies, and even as ministers of large congregations, while greater than it used to be is still largely symbolic.

I could give many examples of women’s diminishment in the Bible. Sarah comes to mind being asked to play Abraham’s sister, hence concubine to the king, so that Abraham would be safe. Dinah being raped and then somehow being the reason for honor killings in her name and then never being mentioned again. Then there was Ester who had to prostitute herself in order to save her people.

I am concerned in our current political dialog that religion is being used as the excuse for some of the limitations placed on women – that women should be subservient to men, that women’s role is to bear children or if they don’t want children, to hold an aspirin between their knees, that women do not have a right in their own right…that women in so many ways are second class citizens. The religion being used is often based on a literalistic, conservative, concretized view of the Hebrew Bible. And, that is a shame…it is a missing of the mark of the potential value in the archetypal stories in the Bible.

The women of the Bible are as essential to the Hebrew story as the men’s stories…it is just sad that they have not been included in more detail. Eve, our sister, who has been so maligned is our metaphorical mother…a woman of great curiosity and willingness to try something outside the box. Think of Noah’s wife…how much she had to put up with. There is Sarah who had to give her husband her handmaid in order to provide a son, and then when she was 100 had to give birth to a child…now that is strength. There is Miriam – a prophetess who as Moses’ sister saved him and then preached and sang after their release from captivity. There is Deborah – a great warrior prophetess; there is Bathsheba, Jezebel, and Delilah. Then there are Naomi and Ruth who show the depth of love possible between a mother and daughter in law. These are just a few of those women…strong, courageous, and well hidden in the text…but not in the subtext.

I would ask that we abandon our literalistic view of women in the Bible and instead take a look at their strength, their wisdom, their fortitude, and their abilities. If we do that, if those literalist biblical adherants can move beyond the words to the spirit of the text, they will see in it an equality of power, of rights, and of wisdom for men and women. And, in doing so we can stop the regression of women’s rights, for then there will be no question as to the equality of all humans…regardless of gender.