This is our truth, tell us yours
I have a confession, I am a fan of The News Quiz, although only as default for it not being the Now Show. I know, I really am that middle class. One of the best panelists on it is Andy Hamilton, who reminds me that socialism is not a dirty word for all at the BBC. He also wrote and starred in Old Harry’s Game, an excellent satire on religion, politics and the establishment. It was a disappointment therefore to hear him saying that there were few women in the bible and that they all fitted into the old stereotypes of maiden, whore or crone. (Or as Granny Weatherwax would say, the other one.)
probably should not have surprised me though, the church has controlled what is said, even the language it was said in, for most of the past 2000 years, or rather the Roman Church, which was intrinsically tied up with the state and upholding capitalist patriarchy. The Celtic church, who lost by a narrow margin at the Synod of Whitby had a very different view of women, but its view sadly was not the one that allowed kings and emperors to buttress their position.
When you actually look at the bible without the prejudice of trying to use it to prove that Christianity is inherently misogynistic, as it if the rest of society isn’t, then there are so many different women who can be seen challenging, demanding, standing up for their rights and showing immense courage considering the strictures women lived under. You might think I am exaggerating.So much of people’s education about the Bible is limited by a narrative that is about upholding state and Church power instead of understanding the text, that it seems worth looking at just a few of my heroines.
The first, unsurprisingly, is a whore. Rahab hid Joshua’s spies, and made a deal with them that saved her whole family when Jericho fell. Various commentators have denied she was a sex worker, finding it impossible that one of the few named female ancestresses of Jesus could have been a whore. However it is a clear translation, she was one, and was saved by her faith in a God she did not even worship. The other named ancestress is Bathsheba, a women who traditionally is portrayed as little more than a victim or a harlot. A victim who chooses to bathe naked on her roof top where the king can see her. Presumably we are meant to assume no “good” woman would behave that way, but Rahab has already shown us that God’s idea of a good woman is different to those who have historically promoted the pure woman as the only acceptable one.
There is another instance of this in Ruth, commentators have tied themselves in knots inventing a courtship ritual where men covered women with their cloaks. There is no evidence it existed. A simple reading of this wonderful story shows two women, knowing their society placed them of little value going into the world and taking their fortune into their hands. Ruth has many virtues, she is loyal, kind, hard working, and refuses to desert her mother in law in a culture where widows were exceptionally marginalized. However Naomi does not rely on this alone.
Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor.3 Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”
5 “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered. 6 So she went down to the threshing floorand did everything her mother-in-law told her to do.
7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!
9 “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer[b] of our family.”
10 “The Lord bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character. 12 Although it is true that I am a guardian-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. 13 Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.”
14 So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, “No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor.”
There are many more I could list, Esther, or the queen she replaced, Vashti, to refused to be a mere object of adornment for the king. Tamar, who worked as a prostitute to show how she had been badly treated by her family. I am not claiming the Bible to be sex positive in the modern sense, however it was written by people who understood people, and inspired by a God who has far less interest in the perfect pure woman than the men who have used it to keep women in their place.
I will just consider one more woman, one who perhaps all readers have heard of, Mary. The idea of her as a meek mild virgin is strong in many Christian traditions, even though it is based on a false equivalence of young with virgin. It has been used to suggest that the best form for a woman is a pure one, especially when put alongside Paul. However people seem to focus on her reactions as a young girl, probably around 14, when shock is described as her overriding emotion. In the Gospels we get a glimpse of the adult woman, demanding her son turn the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, turning up with His brothers insisting he has lost his mind, and finally joining Him in his harsh nomadic existence, to witness His death on the cross. This is no shrinking violet, this is a strong, working class woman, with opinions.
That Andy Hamilton prefers to think that there are no women worth mentioning in the Bible is a result of his upbringing and prejudice, however in doing so he is simply reinforcing the narrative he satirized in Old Harrys Game. He is, perhaps without realizing it, erasing women yet again from society and history.