Feminist Critique of the Bible
John C. Rankin
[adapted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, now out of print]
In my post-grad Th.M. studies in ethics and public policy at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), in the late 1980s, I then headed up a New England wide pro-life ministry. I was therefore interested in feminist studies, and HDS had perhaps the leading such program.
Suspicion or Trust?
As I mention elsewhere, when at Harvard, several lesbians challenged me to read the works of the most qualified feminist theologians they knew. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible were recommended as the most able to demonstrate how, in their view, the Old Testament ordained male domination of women. Thus I read a book by each, wrote my class paper in response, and integrated the same into my degree thesis.
In Schüssler Fiorenza’s book, Bread Not Stone, she takes her title from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says in Matthew 7:9, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” Her thesis is that a male dominated church has given its daughters stones instead of bread.
Schüssler Fiorenza begins an investigation of biblical “patriarchy” and what she defines as a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” She opposes any method of interpretation which regards the Bible as fully inspired by God. Instead she argues for the “historical-critical” method where the Bible is understood as a human collection of literary texts, and as such there is no unified biblical code, and no unified New Testament code of ethics.
“The Bible is not only written in the words of men but also serves to legitimate patriarchal power and oppression as it ‘renders God’ male and determines ultimate reality in male terms, which makes women invisible and marginal (p. xi).
Therefore, “suspicion” is required when reading the Bible so as to separate out the allegedly misogynous (woman-hating) portions, from those which give women respect as image-bearers of God. Schüssler Fiorenza believes that those who take the Bible as fully inspired fall prey to simplistic thinking, and are thus unable to discern the presence of misogyny.
“The Bible becomes for many Christians a security blanket that provides ready-made answers to difficult existential and theological problems (p. 26).
Therefore, says Schüssler Fiorenza, biblical interpretation must begin with the experience of women, and all religious texts and traditions that contribute to their “unfreedom” must be rejected. To the extent that biblical texts may remember “the struggles of our foremothers,” they then remain “useful” for feminists. Schüssler Fiorenza does not equate patriarchy and maleness – she defines patriarchy as “exploitative domination,” and on such a basis she critiques a male-centered history which she sees as the intrinsic nature of the Bible. In other words, patriarchy does not have to be gender-specific to men, but it usually is. In this light, she defines the concept of “women-church,” where women’s experiences can take precedence, where an ethic of care and nurture is in severe contrast to patriarchy. As well, “women-church” is not required, in Schüssler Fiorenza’s thinking, to be limited to women, but she sees it as the avant-garde for a feminist critique. Any men who became part of this “women-church” accede to such women’s definitions of terms.
This “hermeneutics of suspicion” and subsequent definition of “women-church” combine to foster a subjective and experience-oriented appraisal of the Bible. “Scholarship” is seen in its service, to support its claims. Such a scholarship challenges any notion that the Bible ever emancipated ancient women. And thus the Bible today is seen as a tool to oppose women’s dignity and freedom.
“These right-wing political movements, which defend the American family in the name of biblical Christianity, do not hesitate to quote the Bible against shelters for battered women, for physical punishment of children, and against abortion, even in the cases of rape or teenage pregnancy” (p. 68).
In the balance of the book, Schüssler Fiorenza deals with how a theory may be defined that allows feminists to employ Scripture for their own purposes. In the process, she identifies the “household code trajectory” (i.e. Ephesians 5:22-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 3:1-7) as the central place where patriarchy accumulates and becomes a ramrod of inequality, and must thus be opposed.
“The central interest in these texts lies in the enforcement of the submission and obedience of the socially weaker group – wives, slaves, children – on the one hand, and in the authority of the head of the household, the pater familias, on the other hand” (p. 71).
The conclusion for Schüssler Fiorenza is to develop a “canon within the canon,” namely, a select sample of biblical texts that support her hermeneutics of suspicion and the concept of women-church. This leads to the following sequence of her theological revolution:
1. Start with a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”
2. Help it mature into a “hermeneutics of proclamation” where such a “canon within the canon” is preached and taught in “women-church.”
3. Develop a “hermeneutics of remembrance” which honors women victimized by patriarchy across the centuries.
4. Embrace a “hermeneutics of ritualization and celebration” designed to institutionalize “women-church,” to secure its power for the future.
Central to Schüssler Fiorenza’s “canon within the canon,” by way of example, is the inclusion of Genesis 1:27 where men and women are celebrated as equally sharing God’s image; and Galatians 3:28 as the Magna Carta for Christian feminism (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). As well, this “canon within the canon” would exclude texts such as 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15, with both viewed as being inherently misogynous.
I remember well, in my seminary training at Gordon-Conwell, the emphasis on what can be called a “hermeneutics of trust.” In a real point of analogy, it is the same root conflict as that between John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes on the question of where the necessary social glue of trust is to be rooted and nurtured. The exegetical tools I learned in seminary were necessary to know how to understand the Bible on its own terms. Part of that training involved a thorough acquaintance with the historical-critical method which Schüssler Fiorenza depends on. And I had already been introduced to it in college as I studied under professors who were personally taught by German theologians Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich.
This question of suspicion versus trust is always at play in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, the “book of Moses”) – from the original words in the order of creation to the final words of Moses, and as well, the final words of Joshua. Yahweh did not expect the children of Israel to choose to become a part of his covenant community apart from having first known and experienced his goodness well enough to fully trust in him. When we are confronted by such an articulate and passionate critique of the Bible’s nature as Schüssler Fiorenza provides, what is our response? Do we know and trust in God’s goodness, and do we grasp the inspiration of the Bible which fully serves such a goodness? [I address the biblical nature of male and female in two books — The Six Pillars of Biblical Power, and Genesis and the Power of True Assumptions: see teibooks.com.]
For example, I am satisfied that my exegesis and hermeneutics of the Bible’s view of women is sound and faithful to the text on its own terms. I am likewise satisfied that it clearly answers every concern that Schüssler Fiorenza raises. But unless I know the Bible well enough to trust the text itself, then I will have harboring suspicions when I come to difficult portions. Another way of looking at this question is: What is necessary to engender trust? What permits the freedom of trust to exist? And how does someone, whether a scholar of Schüssler Fiorenza’s stature, or a coal miner’s daughter, learn to be suspicious?
I believe the answer is summed up simply in whether or not we grasp the Bible on its own terms, and how it begins with the goodness of Yahweh’s power to give.Suspicion is born out of violation, out of the distrust introduced with human sin, and in terms of pagan feminists, born out of the violations of male chauvinisms.
Thus, in response to Schüssler Fiorenza, I can itemize the following convictions based on the theological foundation of only Genesis (see onlygenesis.org):
1. Only Genesis gives bread to women, reflecting the power to give of God the Father; rooted in the knowledge of the Bible’s self-interpreting doctrines of creation, sin and redemption, of the order of creation, the reversal and the reversal of the reversal. Pagan origin texts give stones, reflecting the power to destroy of the ancient serpent.
2. Only Genesis presents Yahweh as greater than human sexuality, and does not reduce God the Father to the level of a human male or female.
3. Only Genesis provides a unified moral code, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. Where else among the world religions can such a unified and consistent moral code be found that edifies men and women equally?
4. Only Genesis provides a basis for complete trust. Suspicion is born out of the experience of the reversal, the substance of which cannot be understood or remedied apart from knowing the prior order of creation and the subsequent reversal of the reversal.
5. Male domination is real, but it is part of the reversal, not part of the order of creation. The church needs to demonstrate to her daughters that “bread not stone” is the gift of the good God, the eternal Father.
6. Only Genesis has a simple interpretive foundation for truly grappling with the complexities of sin in human history and experience. It opposes any simplistic thinking. Pagan origin texts are all complicated by the sins of competing egos among the gods and goddesses from the outset. In To the extent that any of us biblical Christians tend to be simplistic in dealing with complex issues, we pose a stumbling block to such skeptics as Schüssler Fiorenza, and we mock a commitment to the power to love hard questions. As well, we will get lost in sin’s complexities unless we know the simple realities of the order of creation.
7. “Women-church” is a reaction to real male chauvinism, but it is a boomerang which is in ultimate disservice to the unity of man and woman as joint image-bearers of God.
8. To begin any hermeneutic with human experience, women’s or otherwise, is to reverse the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. The net result is to remove experience from the anchor of God’s truth, and to thus vitiate true experience. When experience places reason, tradition and Scripture into its subjective service, no unified moral code is possible. All people ultimately become their own gods, having been poisoned by the forbidden fruit into defining for themselves what is good and evil, in competition with one another, and a take before you are taken ethos becomes the rule. It is in service to the war between the sexes.
9. It is the ethics of only Genesis that truly ministers to battered women, that can truly discipline children lovingly, and effectively oppose their abuse. Human abortion proves to be in service to male chauvinism not women’s freedom, and it abuses unborn children the most severe way possible by killing them. Where does Schüssler Fiorenza find people quoting the Bible against shelters for battered women? And in the face of the evil of rape and incest, abortion only multiplies the brokenness, and it heals nothing. [Click here for four stories about addressing this hard and deeply painful question].
10. The “household code trajectory” serves the equality and complementarity and equality of male and female; but the Roman concept of pater familias, where the husband and father has the right to treat his wife and children as chattel, as disposable property, is foreign to the Bible.
11. The “canon within the canon” of “women-church” is entirely subjective, and it does not respect the Scripture on its own terms. Any number of “canons within the canon” can be developed by those who wish to remake the Bible in their own image. Here, the Bible is thus rejected on its own terms, as Schüssler Fiorenza does not even address its foundational assumptions of creation, sin and redemption. Why then even make the pretense to be called a Jew or a Christian? Why not just start your own religion, or join another existing one?
12. The “theological revolution” which Schüssler Fiorenza recommends, moving through the successive hermeneutics of suspicion, proclamation, remembrance and ritualization has effectively won allegiance in much of the institutional church and cultural institutions. But its very definition of “power” is foreign to the biblical power to give, as it equals “the power to take” from oppressors. We who claim to be biblical must exemplify the power to give in all our dealings if we wish to see the institutional church or any social institution redeemed.
Texts of Terror?
In Phyllis Trible’s book, Texts of Terror, she shares a similar hermeneutics of suspicion, and specifically a hermeneutics of remembrance, with Schüssler Fiorenza; and she applies it to four Old Testament stories where she maintains that women are terrorized by a “Christian chauvinism” (she does not call them a “Hebrew” or “Jewish chauvinism”). Trible describes her hermeneutic this way:
“As a critique of culture and faith in the light of misogyny, feminism is a prophetic movement, examining the status quo, pronouncing judgment, and calling for repentance. This hermeneutic engages scripture in various ways. One approach documents the case against women. It cites and evaluates long neglected data that show the inferiority, subordination, and abuse of the female in ancient Israel and the early church. By contrast, a second approach discerns within the Bible critiques of patriarchy. It upholds forgotten texts and reinterprets familiar ones to shape a remnant theology that challenges the sexism of scripture. Yet a third approach incorporates the other two. It recounts tales of terror in memoriam to offer sympathetic readings of abused women” (p. 3).
The first story Trible reviews is that of Hagar. With the beginning of each chapter, Trible has a drawing of a tombstone on the facing page, in her commitment to in memoriam. This one reads – HAGAR: Egyptian Slave Woman. Underneath this heading, Trible then places the following:
“She was wounded for our transgressions; she was bruised for our iniquities (p. 8).
Thus, we have a remarkable theological temerity on Trible’s part to make Hagar into a substitute Christ-figure.
The texts which recount the story of Hagar are found in Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:8-21. The first text reads:
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”
“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.
Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”
The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery.
“He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
The second text reads (after Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah):
The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
In Trible’s review of Hagar’s story, she points out that Hagar is initially the victim of Sarai’s dominating power, of mistress over slave woman, and where Sarai sought to gain a lineage by making Hagar into a surrogate mother.
But Trible ascribes Sarai’s motivation to her subservient role within a male patriarchy, where culturally the only means she had for status and identity was to bear Abram a son. Ironically, Hagar is said to gain esteem in her pregnancy as she sees herself being superior to Sarai’s barrenness, despises her mistress accordingly, and thus Sarai becomes revengeful and abuses her with Abram’s permission. When Hagar flees into the wilderness, God speaks to her and comforts her with the promised blessings that will come through her son. As such, Trible says Hagar becomes the first woman recorded in the Bible to be spoken to by God. Here dignity is given to her, specially since the angel of Yahweh calls her by name – something denied her by Abram and Sarai (at least implicitly).
But then Trible ascribes “divine terror” to God when he calls Hagar to return and submit again to Sarai.
“Without a doubt, these two imperatives, return and submit to suffering, bring a divine word of terror to an abused, yet courageous woman (p.16).
Trible also argues that Ishmael becomes the object of divine rejection because he was Hagar’s son, not Sarah’s. Hagar is powerless because God supposedly supports Sarah against her, and as such is on Isaac’s side; thereafter to be on the nation of Israel’s side against the sundry Canaanite nations. When Ishmael mocks Isaac, Sarah gets Abraham to send “that slave woman and her son” into the desert, ostensibly to die. Here God responds to the pain of Ishmael and rescues them both, but only because he cares for the boy and not necessarily for her.
Trible then says:
“Having at first promised her innumerable descendants (16:10), God later transferred the promise to Abraham (21:13) [p. 27].
Trible concludes with a parallel between Hagar and the exodus:
“Yet she experienced exodus without liberation, revelation without salvation, wilderness without covenant, wanderings without land, promise without fulfillment, and unmerited exile without return. This Egyptian woman is stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted for the transgressions of Israel. She is bruised for the iniquities of Sarah and Abraham; upon her is the chastisement that makes them whole. Hagar is Israel, from exodus to exile, yet with differences. And these differences yield terror (p. 28).
How do we respond to Trible’s critique and provocative analogies? At the outset, we need to recognize that along with Schüssler Fiorenza, Trible does not take the Scripture on its own terms. Her feminism as a “prophetic movement” starts with the experiences of women who have been violated by men, and as such it begins with the reversal, also of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and not with the order of creation. Thus, she has no foundation in place to undergird a genuine reversal of the reversal. Like Schüssler Fiorenza, Trible does not even address the biblical hermeneutic of creation, sin and redemption. This is a cardinal weakness that pagan origin texts also begin with – they are so enmeshed in the violation of sin in their human experiences, that they cannot see or have not been introduced to the order of creation from which to gain proper vantage-point to grasp the order of redemption. To the extent that the church has not given clear witness to such a foundation, we are first to be judged in such a matter.
Accordingly, Trible documents what the Bible documents, while at the same time passing judgment on it. Namely, the Scripture is utterly candid in portraying the sins of it saints, whether men or women, including the documentation of the war between the sexes that began in Genesis 3:16, as it manifests itself either in male chauvinisms or female intrigues. Trible observes the Bible’s freedom and candor in profiling moth tamuth [“in dying you shall continually die”], without identifying it, and with a focus on male domination. But then she assigns to the biblical writer a non-biblical view that God’s character is that of a chauvinistic human male. So apart from the question of divine inspiration of the text, and apart from the reality of the God who created the universe and has revealed himself in the text – Trible does not represent the Bible on its own terms. She remakes it in the image of many women’s pain in experiencing human sin, in boomerang to how male chauvinists have used Scripture falsely to justify their own sin.
Because of this genetic fallacy, Trible confuses God’s nature and sinful human nature, and specially since she views the Bible as a male chauvinistic document. She does not see a loving God who reveals himself, but she sees men who create a schizophrenic god in their own schizophrenic image. So on the one hand she says the God of the text gives dignity to Hagar, but on the other hand, he imposes terror on her. With such an inconsistent “God” and inconsistent “text,” how can she even be sure her analysis is consistent, since ultimately she is the judge of what is good and evil according to her subjective human experiences? She sets up the text to argue against itself, contrary to the nature of merismus [“a little part here, a little part there”].
In terms of Trible’s actual analysis, there are several salient observations. First, Hagar, Abram and Sarai all do suffer because of Abram’s unfaithfulness – as he did not wait for Yahweh to fulfill his original promise to provide him a son through Sarai (and he obeys Sarai a second time in faithlessness as well, in Ishmael’s first exile). But he did not initiate the matter with Hagar. And though Sarai certainly sought the dignity that would come through childbearing, she acted as a free moral agent when she brought her idea to Abram – much as Eve did when she brought the forbidden fruit to Adam. As Adam and Eve were equally responsible for their sins, so too Abram and Sarai. And though Adam was held responsible ultimately, Eve was not given the freedom to hide from her accountability. Sarai knew equally with Abram that Yahweh had promised her a son through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and thus magnifies her sin by saying that it was Yahweh who was keeping her barren. She was impatient, and impatience leads to so much sin …. When the angel of Yahweh appears to announce the coming birth of Isaac, Sarai laughs with surprise and fear, still wrestling with a faith she knows she acted against in the matter of Hagar.
Sarai cannot be excused by Trible because of the culture’s value placed on childbearing, unless Trible wishes to likewise denigrate Sarai’s intrinsic and expressed power as a free moral agent. Sarai’s dominating power over Hagar, in an intramural war between women, and power to abuse her through an enforced surrogacy, cannot be minimized. As well, to say that Hagar gained esteem in her pregnancy in a power struggle against the barrenness of her mistress, as though this were redemptive for Hagar, is in fact a reversal of biblical reality. There is nothing redemptive when Hagar despises Sarai, even as Sarai implicitly despised Hagar’s humanity to begin with by using her as a surrogate. This idea that spite is superior is rooted in the reversal – the power to take before being taken. And yet too, to despise when violated is to take because you have been taken – Hagar’s despising of Sarai only led to another boomerang where Sarai despised her worse in return, and used her social power to abuse Hagar.
It all comes crashing down upon Ishmael in the end, in terms of his sense of self-worth. Ishmael has a wedge driven between himself and his father from the outset by this war between the two women, and when exiled as a teenager, he prefigures the quintessential “fatherless boy” as he becomes a “wild donkey of a man.” Yahweh knows the depths of the rejection Ishmael would feel as he had to leave his father’s household in chapter 21, but this reality is rooted in Abram’s original consent to Sarai’s surrogacy idea, and here Yahweh knows that Ishmael’s life is in greater danger in the presence of the jealous Sarai, than in exile. So Yahweh intervenes on Ishmael’s behalf, twice saving him and his mother from death. But too, it comes crashing down on Isaac, and Yahweh intervenes for him. Especially, he intervenes for Isaac’s life, as the promised seed here in the Messianic lineage, for Isaac is and will be in great danger from Ishmael. So Yahweh, consistent with the ethics and power of informed choice, allows the moth tamuth realities to proceed, but redemptively intervenes for everyone’s sake, consistent with their passive circumstances and active choices.
In fact, I do not see Hagar despising Sarai because she has a new sense of superiority as Trible diagnoses it. Rather I see Hagar despising Sarai because she realizes the depth of how she has been abused, and feels more trapped yet in an inferior social position within the Babylonian social order Yahweh was calling Abram to leave. Here I see Trible wishing so much to affirm Hagar’s humanity. But without a proper biblical hermeneutic in place, she seeks to do so in concert with the reversal, in violation of the text and in a way that disserves Hagar in the end. Yes to Trible’s desire, no to her hermeneutics.
Second, Trible is on the mark in her observation about the dignity God gives Hagar as he addresses her in the wilderness in chapter 16 (but Hagar is not the first woman in the Bible recorded as having been spoken to directly by God – Eve was). However, Trible is wrong about ascribing to God a “divine terror” when he calls her to return to Sarai. The Bible’s understanding of redemption is that since it reverses the reversal, it necessarily crosses back through the territory of the reversal as it aims to regain the promises of the order of creation. In redemption, God reaches us at whatever place in sin’s vortex we are, and lifts us heavenward through its chaos to himself. To flee the consequences of sin is to flee dealing with it head on. To ignore moth tamuth will not avoid death. Had Hagar remained in the wilderness in her early pregnancy, the likelihood of survival would have been very low. Thus God calls her to return to Sarai, but in so doing, he also gives her a promise she can hold while she embraces a suffering that also provides for her material well-being as she gives birth to and raises her son. Later, in chapter 21, it is time to flee for safety.
In giving the promise that Ishmael will become a nation with many descendants, Yahweh was recognizing that though Abraham and Sarah acted sinfully in his surrogate conception, the boy was nonetheless a child of Abraham. Thus, as the blessings of the fathers and the sins of the fathers are passed along to the next generation, Ishmael receives both. He becomes a nation, but as well he was conceived in fear not faith, and he was raised in a psychological war zone where true fatherhood and the power to give were seriously abrogated. The redemptive love of God affirms Ishmael and does not reject him as Trible says. But as well, the ethics and power of informed choice are in place as Ishmael is both shaped by his upbringing and as he equally chooses to always be at enmity with his brothers. Yahweh blesses but does not coerce, and Trible misinterprets this as divine rejection, given her absence of a foundation in only Genesis. As David notes too in Psalm 51, the sins that color our entry into the world do not mitigate God’s love for us. Yahweh loves Hagar by ministering to her in two instances where her life was in danger, and does not mitigate his love for her in his concern for Ishmael, as Trible says.
One difficulty with a hermeneutics of suspicion is that, by definition, it is colored by the autobiography of the interpreter. A hermeneutics of trust is colored by the nature of the text being read on its own terms. If the author of the text is trustworthy, trust in the text becomes liberating, but suspicions of the text lead to bondage. If trust is invested in an untrustworthy author, such naïvetè also leads to bondage. This is why the power of informed choice and the power to love hard questions are so important. We cannot trust God unless we know he is good and keeps his covenant promises, and my passion in only Genesis is to give evidence for why the Author of Scripture is trustworthy. We need to ask the hard questions so as to inform our choice in whom to place trust. Yahweh is trustworthy, Marduk [the Babylonian deity] is not. Trible asks some hard questions, but at what point can a hermeneutics of suspicion ever become open to a hermeneutics of trust, if at all? At what point can a hermeneutics of suspicion ever be redeemed into the power to love hard questions? If the only trust is in a subjectively defined “canon within the canon,” then a non-biblical religion has been chosen where every person is his or her own god, defining for themselves what is good and what is evil. The very forbidden fruit which leads to death. If we truly believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we will welcome and embrace the hard questions of skeptics such as Phyllis Trible, and then seek to give answer for the hope that is within us.
Since we all have our own stories, with varying hopes and fears, varying trials and blessings, a hermeneutics of suspicion cannot be consistent with a text – it is always reshaping the text to the moment of suspicion at hand. Trible is inconsistent, where on the one hand she says God affirms Hagar, and on the other hand she says God rejects her. She is inconsistent, but not in following her assumption that the biblical God is the creation of schizophrenic male chauvinists. Rather, she is inconsistent in her assumption of misrepresenting the text on its own terms to begin with, as she regards God to be untrustworthy. She is subject to her own subjectivity as she puts upon Hagar a growth in self-esteem in her pregnancy, rising, it is said, to a superior position over Sarai, when in fact the exegesis of the text shows Hagar deepening in her sense of inferiority. Trible wishes for Hagar to be lifted up, but she can only accomplish it by a power to take, and not the power to give. In fact, when God calls Hagar to go back to Sarai, he is calling her to embrace both the power to give and the power to forgive. He is calling her to succeed where Sarai has failed. Yahweh is calling Hagar to succeed in the reversal of the reversal motif. The esteem for Hagar that the text does portray is far greater than the esteem that Trible tries to give her.
Third, Trible’s subjective gloss is most bald when she states that God transfers the promise of innumerable descendants from Hagar (16:10) to Abraham (21:13). In these two verses she quotes, it is the same promise given; the first to Hagar as the mother of Ishmael, and the second to Abraham as his father – but both are in reference to Ishmael, so there is no dissonance here.
The “first” promise being given to Hagar, then being “transferred” to Abraham has no basis in the text. In the first case God is giving comfort to Hagar when she has been abused by Sarai, and notes the future of her son as an encouragement. In the second case God is giving comfort to Abraham when he has to deal with Sarah’s abuse, that despite the exile of Hagar, Ishmael has a future.
In both cases, that future is through Hagar and without Abraham having anything to do with it. Abraham gains nothing in the process as though a “promise” has been transferred from Hagar to him for which he had no merit to receive. Nothing in the text says anything about such a transfer that Trible seeks to indicate. And as we see with any hermeneutics of suspicion, it has the power to change the meaning of the text according to the presuppositions of the interpreter. In theological terms, this is not exegesis, it is eisegesis – not a digging out of the text what is there, but an insertion into the text what the interpreter wants to be there, and pretending that it was there all along.
Also, when biblically literate people encounter language of the “first promise” being given to Abraham, we think of the original purpose for Yahweh to bless Abram through Sarai, which means that Isaac is the object of the first promise. And Israel comes from Isaac. Trible’s language is thus a conscious attempt to transfer the original promise made for Sarai’s lineage to Hagar’s lineage. It is syntactically clever to limit her language to the two texts she quotes, and not to give full exegetical background to the original texts in which Yahweh first gave the promise to Abraham. She can be said to be technically correct by saying that Yahweh “first” promised Hagar innumerable descendants, and to create a false dichotomy, but only by operating in a vacuum where the whole context of Abraham’s story is not brought into the picture.
That context begins with the first three times Yahweh made his promise to Abram, all of which precede the story of Hagar. The first time is the overall promise Yahweh made in Genesis 12:1-3:
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
The second time is in Genesis 13:14-17:
The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk throughthe length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”
The third time is in Genesis 15:1-7:
After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
He also said, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
Thus, the whole question of the promise being made for innumerable descendants is made to Abram to begin with. For Trible to say that it was given first to Hagar, then later transferred to Abraham, violates the text severely. If such a hermeneutics is embraced, should not the interpreter at least embrace a truth in advertising, and advise the reader what Genesis 12, 13, and 15 say, and why these texts are allegedly not relevant? As well, Trible did not mention the text in Genesis 17 where Yahweh changes Abram’s name to Abraham (from “exalted father” to “father of many”), and inaugurates the covenant of circumcision. In this context, we read:
God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
Then God said, “Yes, but your wife will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant and for his descendants after him” (vv. 15-19).
Yahweh purposed from the outset to fulfill his promise to Abraham through his wife, not another woman; through Sarah not Hagar. But Trible twists the text to fit her preconceptions. This is why I am so critical of the hermeneutics of suspicion, because I have seen many times where it does not care for truth in advertising. It thus opposes the ethics and power of informed choice.
In the fourth and final place of response to Trible’s analysis here, we need to note her use of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah, and the application to Hagar. Trible’s purpose of in memoriam (consistent with Schüssler Fiorenza’s hermeneutics of remembrance agenda), her use of language, and the symbolism of the tombstones with the Messianic references at the head of the four chapters which outline the “texts of terror” – it is in service to making women, as women (sui generis), into a replacement Messiah.
In classical terms, this represents an attempt at antichrist, for the raising up of a false messiah. It represents the reversal. Namely, it is Jesus as the Messiah who fulfills all the prophecies in the four servant songs of Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12. It is not Hagar or any other women or man. Jesus is the Messiah because “he was pierced for our transgressions; and he was crushed for our iniquities.” Jesus was incarnate as a man and not a woman because of the nature of the power to give resident in God the Father, as the Second Adam who redeems Adam’s failure at the power to give, and his need to initiate and consummate the power to give and the power to forgive in human community. God the Father, Yahweh Elohim, is the only God who rises above space, time and number and above the limitations of human sexuality which would make him into either a man or a woman. Thus, in his incarnation as a man, he is not limited to maleness, and Jesus did not come to marry and procreate. He came to redeem man and woman alike as full bearers of the image of God. To replace the Messiah with a human woman is a pagan and dualistic syncretism which rejects the power to give. To argue, as Trible does implicitly, that a pagan woman (Egyptian in this case) or culture is superior to Yahweh’s covenantal law, is likewise committed to a dualistic paganism.
If any of us were transported back to ancient Babylonia, Egypt or any other pagan culture, with our modern sensibilities in place, which society would we choose to live in? If we had the time to experience all the various pagan cultures and their assumptions as worked out in the daily treatment of women, and then we were to consider what we know about Hebrew culture, I think we all would soon yearn to be rescued and brought into the nation of Abraham’s seed. Even Schüssler Fiorenza and Trible. For in their very critique of male chauvinism, biblical exegesis shows that the only reason why they are concerned with the equal dignity and image of God status of women, is due to the biblical assumptions of the order of creation. Namely, only in the Bible is equal dignity for women an assumption – everywhere else the assumption is inequality.
Jesus was pierced and crushed for all of humanity’s transgressions and iniquities, and he alone can carry Hagar’s pain. Trible’s parallel between Hagar and the exodus of Israel is in service to the reversal, to the spirit of antichrist. She makes God the author of “divine terror” and represents him to be a god of favoritism, where he picks on a poor Egyptian slave girl through which to carry the sins of Abraham and Sarah – to make them “whole” as it were. And yet, it is the God of the Bible who uniquely says no to favoritism, who welcomes Egyptian exiles to join with the Hebrew exodus (even after their Pharaoh had unjustly enslaved the Israelites), and who gives laws whereby the alien receives the same justice as does the native-born. Trible’s critique is apart from the knowledge of the power to give and the power of informed choice.
Thus, whereas Trible wishes for Hagar to be honored for her sufferings, she does so by making her into a messiah unto herself – which is to eat of the forbidden fruit. But Hagar, in the biblical text, does not so elevate herself – it is Trible who uses Hagar as a surrogate for her own feminist agenda. Trible has violated Hagar as did Sarai, using her for her own de facto pagan purposes. Thus, whereas I respect the elements of the image of God for which Trible seeks, I need to be faithful to the text and point out the theological danger of such a hermeneutics of suspicion. If Trible is right that the Bible is the mere collection of male chauvinistic texts, then my critique is only that of a singular male, and of no consequence in the scheme of things. But if the God of the Bible is who he says he is, and Scripture is to be honored on its own terms, then my critique is given in respect for her humanity; and indeed, as I hold a spirit of fierce opposition to the demonic agents that catalyze any form of male chauvinism.
The second story Trible addresses is that of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-22. The tombstone on the facing page reads – TAMAR: Princess of Judah. Underneath the heading, Trible then places the following:
“A woman of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (p. 36).
The biblical text reads:
In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David.
Amnon became frustrated to the point of illness on account of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her.
Now Amnon had a friend named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”
Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”
“Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’ ”
So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.”
David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.
“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”
“Don’t, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.
Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”
“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”
But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of here and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing a richly ornamented robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.
Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.
When King David heard all this, he was furious. Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.
Trible observes how ugly rape is, how violent it is in employing a destructive power over and against women, and how Amnon treated Tamar as a disposable object. In her in memoriam, applying messianic language to Tamar, she states:
“Raped, despised, and rejected by a man, Tamar is a woman of sorrows and acquainted with grief. She is cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the sins of her brother; yet she herself has done no violence and there is no deceit in her mouth. No matter what Absalom may plan for the future, the narrator understands the endless suffering of her present” (p. 52).
Then Trible takes aim at David’s complicity after the fact:
“The received text says only that the king was “very angry.” A Qumran manuscript adds, ‘for he loved him because his firstborn was he.’ The explanation suggests opposite interpretations. Is David angry at Amnon for what he has done, or is David angry about what has happened to Amnon? In other words, does the father’s love for his firstborn condone or denounce the crime? The Greek Bible removes the ambiguity: ‘And he [David] did not rebuke Amnon his son because he loved him, since his firstborn was he.’ David’s anger signifies complete sympathy for Amnon and total disregard for Tamar. How appropriate that the story never refers to David and Tamar as father and daughter! The father identifies with the son; the adulterer supports the rapist; male has joined male to deny justice for the female. After all, in these days there is a king in Israel, and royalty does the right in its own eyes” (pp. 53-54).
Truly, Tamar is violated in the most heinous fashion, and as the result of sinful male domination. And David compounds the sin by his refusal to hold Amnon accountable. The power to give has been mocked, and the power to take has taken over.
The Bible is candid about the sins, the reversal realities played out in the lives of its saints, in demonstrating the process of moth tamuth, against which God invests the reversal of the reversal. Trible sees the moth tamuth plainly in this incident, but she does not identify the doctrines of creation, sin and redemption in Genesis 1-3 as the basis for interpreting the Bible. She is justly horrified at the male abuse of women, but without acknowledging God’s nature in the order of creation, and since she thinks that the God of the Bible is the figment of male chauvinistic imagination, she does not see how the Bible completely opposes what Amnon, Absalom and David have done. She sees the Bible as self-contradictory, without a unified moral code; therefore on the one hand it perceives the injustice done to women, but on the other hand it is blind to it.
Thus Trible seeks to elevate Tamar into a messianic figure, nothing Tamar claims for herself. Tamar is again a surrogate for Trible’s feminist agenda which says no to a real Messiah, as she says no to Jesus being able to truly carry Tamar’s sorrows and griefs. Trible makes this clear in the opening of her book:
“… to subordinate the suffering of the four women to the suffering of the cross is spurious. Their passion has its own integrity; no comparisons diminish the terror they knew. Fourth, to seek redemption of these stories in the resurrection is perverse. Sad stories do not have happy endings” (p. 2).
Sadly, Trible mistakenly believes that for Tamar (or any woman) to believe in the biblical Messiah, she must forfeit the integrity of her own story and sufferings. She must embrace a perversity to hope in eternal life. This view is both secular, pagan and ultimately of the antichrist. There is no hope in Trible’s view – there is no ability to redress injustice.
If the Bible is not what it says of itself based in only Genesis, then all claims to truth are equally fallacious, and a sinkhole of meaninglessness is all that awaits us in the end. And Trible misrepresents the Bible as she strives for justice for women who suffer male evil. Where else can she find this justice but in her own subjective hermeneutic, which has no greater claim to truth or power to enforce justice than does anyone else’s hermeneutic? She only participates in a war between the sexes that has no happy ending. Only Genesis has the power to rescue women and men from the ravages of this war. Only the Messiah who fulfills only Genesis gives full integrity to women like Tamar, as he conquers moth tamuth for those who trust in him. For those who believe against appearances, as Abram did when he believed God would give him a son in his old age – it is credited as righteousness.
What about Trible’s critique of David? Her reference to the Qumran scrolls and the Septuagint shows David turning away from Amnon’s sin because of favoritism to him as his firstborn son. This is reprehensible on David’s part. However, to then say that David was siding with Amnon against Tamar, is a boomerang on her part, and another evidence of the prejudice that a hermeneutics of suspicion can yield. For example, David becomes “furious” when he “heard all this.” This includes not only his fury with Amnon, but with how Absalom handled the matter, whose words to Tamar minimized her pain: “Don’t take this thing to heart.” Absalom employed these words to set up his revenge against Amnon in a way that did not serve Tamar’s dignity or need. No favoritism in the text – David is furious at all that transpired.
As well, Trible neglects the reality that any father would know – anger with a son (or daughter) when he sins, and against his sin, because of the love the father has for the son. David loves Amnon as his firstborn son, and he is angry with him out of such love – heartbroken with such sin, and out of his equal love for his daughter. But as we shall see, there are complicating matters where David fails in his love to also discipline Amnon for his sin. (He should have at least cut him off from the covenantal community until repentance was satisfied, cf. Leviticus 20:17. There is also the death penalty for rape in Deuteronomy 22:25, but may not be applicable here if it were determined that Tamar had the power to scream for help, which she probably did, but did not exercise, as she favored appealing to Amnon’s dignity as her brother and a son of the king – which is to say, she was in a unique and difficult position no matter what she sought to do).
Tamar was David’s daughter, and she pleaded with Amnon to ask “the king” that he marry her instead of raping her (which was forbidden, cf. Leviticus 18:9,11; 20:17 – Tamar was doing what she could to get out of his clutches). Trible seeks to say that David does not care for Tamar because they are not referred to as father and daughter in the text. But this reasoning disregards the integrity of the text. Tamar is referred to as Absalom’s sister because as the story develops it is Absalom who avenges her. Also, the original Hebrew readers of the text know that Absalom is the son of David and Maacah, and Tamar is his full sister, for she is identified as the daughter of the same. Amnon is known to be the son of David and Ahinoam, thus Tamar is his half-sister.
As well, Tamar lived in the palace with her mother as a virgin daughter of the king, hardly reflecting the father-daughter antipathy that Trible inserts into the text. Trible has a prejudicial argument from a prejudicial diagnosis about the “silence” of the text.
In 2 Samuel 13, the structure of the book begins to focus on the breakdown of David’s family line. The prior text which sets this up outlines David’s sin in sleeping with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and arranging for Uriah’s death in battle. David did so in order to cover over the pregnancy resulting from their adultery, and thus he rationalizes his subsequent taking of Bathsheba as his own wife. Then the prophet Nathan rebuked him:
“Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.”
This is what the LORD says, “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.”
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die” (2 Samuel 12:10-14).
The Bible shows what happens when the integrity of one man, one woman, one lifetime is forsaken – the war between the sexes is exacerbated and is passed on to the subsequent generations. Though David had a heart to seek Yahweh, in contrast to Saul, the power of being king corrupted him and he imitated pagan kings by adding wives. What 2 Samuel 13 shows from the outset is the fracture this causes, not only between the wives, but between the siblings who have the same father but different mothers – especially since it is the mothers who raise them, along with the help of private nurses.
The cost for being biblically illiterate is high – we must know the Scriptures inside out in order to understand its nuances and fine points and purposes of emphasis. This is why we need to be thorough in defining all contexts according to how the Bible presents them. Not so the hermeneutics of suspicion, which only uses context to the extent that it serves its presuppositions. This leads to a biblical illiteracy that is worse than biblical ignorance – partial knowledge can be far more destructive than no knowledge. The anti-merismus of knowing the part without knowing how its fits into the whole leads to much error.
Thus, the text in 2 Samuel 13 has no purpose to emphasize the relationship between Tamar and her father. Its emphasis is to show the family divisions as they begin to emerge and fulfill Nathan’s prophecy. David is going to reap the fruit of his sin – he has forsaken the power to live in the light, and his secret sins are now going to be made public. David repents of his sin, and his life is spared, but the fruit of his sins will still come to pass – the ethics of choice is in force. And one reason is that since David imitated pagan kings in the power to take, he has mocked the power to give in the sight of God’s enemies, empowering them psychologically to show contempt to the true God; and this enables Absalom to also show contempt for his father later in the matter of Amnon and Tamar. Judgment begins with the household of God.
David should have been suspicious about Amnon’s request to begin with – it was tailor-made for Amnon to ask his servants to leave him alone with Tamar in the bedroom. Perhaps David assumed that the presence of others in the household provided a safe place for Tamar, and the assumption that since she was his sister, Amnon had no ill intentions. As well, it shows David’s distance from his son Amnon’s character, something Jonadab perceived in specific, but for which Trible may assume the opposite in her diagnosis of favoritism.
Thus, David’s real sin toward Tamar is that he is unwilling to take courage and rebuke the son of his first wife. He fears the division it would cause, knowing division will come as Nathan prophesied. Yet as the city of Nineveh averted Jonah’s prophesied judgment by repenting of its sins, perhaps David could have averted Nathan’s prophesied judgment, had he confronted his deeper sins head on. David as an adulterer and murderer has been reproved, and he does not condone Amnon the rapist, as Trible argues. He was angry with Amnon, loving him as his firstborn son, because he saw his own sins reflected in him, and probably did not feel he had the power and moral authority to confront him. David, who had arranged a murder to cover his own sin of adultery, was now faced with a son who was guilty simultaneously of rape and incest – against one of David’s daughters.
David likely assumed a confrontation with Amnon would have hastened the prophesied divisions, and thus his own moral sin greatly weakens his moral authority and courage to confront sin in others, especially among his sons. Sin becomes so complex, and we get lost in its complexities apart from God’s grace. David was lost in such complexities and intrigues. In terms of the order of creation, to which the polygamous practices of royalty had blinded him in his day – he did not exercise the power to give in the first place by being the husband of but one wife, and thus he fathered children with split allegiances because of different mothers. And he thus did not exercise the power to give toward his daughter Tamar, perhaps assuaging his weakened conscience in that Absalom was doing justice by Tamar in providing for her in his own home.
The prophecy of Nathan about David’s household’s descending into intramural warfare reflects the reversal of the God, life. choice, sex order of creation. David’s adultery and murderous cover-up leads eventually to Absalom’s rebellion and taking of David’s wives, and the death of many of his own family line. Amnon’s incestuous rape of Tamar precipitates it further, just as the rape of Dinah, as intrinsic violence, leads to great bloodshed (Genesis 34).
So whereas Trible sees much male chauvinism at play, she does not see the biblical understanding of its source, the biblical denunciation of it, and the biblical plan to redeem us from its scourge. The hermeneutics of suspicion by definition is also jaundiced in its view, because it only focuses on the evil of men against women. And when women act sinfully, as with Sarai, she glosses it over. The Bible is candid across the board – it diagnoses the sin of men against women, of women against men, of men against men and women against women. The category treated the most is the sin of men against men, and whether men sin against other men or against women, it is all a rejection of the biblical starting point of the power to give in the order of creation. Thus, the church needs to be careful to heed the critiques of women such as Phyllis Trible, and we who are men need to faithfully exercise the power to give to all women, in appropriate relationships which honor covenantal marriage as the foundation for a healthy society.
In an aside in this text, it is interesting to note that Tamar is described as a “beautiful” woman, and that she is dressed in a “richly ornamented” robe. Beauty and adornment are consistent with true femininity. And as well, this story presents Tamar as an intelligent, honorable and gracious woman. Even in the face of her potential violation and disgrace, as she is later driven out of his room, it is done so in a manner for Amnon to signal that Tamar was the seductress – she speaks out of her concern, and she also seeks to redeem Amnon ahead of time by noting that he should marry her (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23-29 where a violated/raped virgin is to be married, even though Leviticus 18:9,11; 20:17 forbid such incest – Tamar is seeking escape in her desperation). She speaks in the hope that he will not be reduced to a “wicked fool.” And indeed, she is proven right as his sin comes to haunt him by the sin of his brother.
Two Other Women
The third story Trible portrays is that of AN UNNAMED WOMAN: Concubine from Bethlehem. This is found in Judges 19, and the messianic inscription Trible give to her is:
“Her body was broken and given to many” (p. 64).
The fourth story is that of THE DAUGHTER OF JEPHTHAH: Virgin in Gilead. This is found in Judges 11, and the messianic inscription Trible gives to her is:
“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken her? (p. 92).
Hopefully I have applied the hermeneutics of creation, sin and redemption well enough in Trible’s first two “texts of terror,” so that any of us can walk through all the details of these last two texts with confidence – that we are able to understand what is at play as the Bible portrays a despicable act of cruelty of men against women, and a tragic act of evil by a father against his daughter. [In Chapter Fifteen I will look at the evil that occurs in Judges 19 when I look at the pansexual gang rapists it describes].
In Judges 11, there is a hard question that comes to the fore. Jephthah, as judge in Israel, sacrifices his virgin daughter because of a foolish vow he has made, and acts like a pagan who could not be released from a foolish vow. This followed his military victory where “the Spirit of Yahweh” came upon him to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Ammonites. In Hebrews 11:32-34, the writer lists various men of faith from the Old Testament:
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.
Why is Jephthah listed as a man of faith when he killed his own daughter to fulfill a foolish vow? (Or Barak who lost his honor to Jael because he wimped out in his leadership responsibilities? Or Samson in his folly with Delilah, or David with his sin of adultery and murder?) How was it that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah to lead Israel to victory? He vowed to Yahweh, before the battle, that if he won, he would then sacrifice to Yahweh, as a burnt offering, whatever came out of the door of his home to meet him upon his return. Perhaps Jephthah was thinking of an animal meeting him, but certainly it had to include the possibility of his wife or children, or even a house guest. Human sacrifice is the very epitome of pagan religion, and Jephthah does it in the name of Yahweh (!).
The Bible presents us this story as a manifestation of the reversal. Namely, we always need to be mindful that the biblical stories that follow the inauguration of human sin are displaying the reality of moth tamuth until sin is finally abolished in Revelation 20. Into the midst of human sin Yahweh initiates a patient redemptive strategy, piece by piece setting the stage for the Messiah. To set that stage, sin must be shown to be utterly sinful so that we will recognize our need for the Savior. So in the story of Jephthah we see Yahweh working through, and in spite of, a sinful man in a community that has been set apart to recognize the Messiah when he comes.
Again, if we understand the ethics of choice, we understand what is at play here. Jephthah, like the other men listed in Hebrews 11, had his depth of sin, and like the others “whose weakness was turned to strength” at pivotal points. He was the son of a prostitute, and socially shunned by his brothers and the rest of his clan – so again we see the fruit of the brokenness of marriage, of the reversal of the God, life, choice, sex paradigm. Weaknesses were turned to strength, and even Jephthah, as he advanced militarily against the Ammonites by the Spirit of God, still brought his sin into the middle of it – and remained a slave to a foolish vow by actually sacrificing his daughter. This “treasure [is] in jars of clay,” and in this example, we again see a sinful vessel in ugly and full profile. The fact that God can work with and through sinful people, and in spite of their greatest sins, is testimony to the balance between his sovereign power to give and the human experience of the ethics and power of informed choice. It is also testimony that any of us as sinners can be redeemed and used if we place our trust in God – the power to forgive for those who seek it. And as we grasp true redemption, we will be as far removed as possible from Jephthah’s evil act of chauvinistic folly.
Schüssler Fiorenza and Trible have exacting critiques of the Bible, and they can only be answered – fully, truthfully and humbly – if we are rooted in the power of only Genesis. As an endnote to their critiques, we can observe the July 2-9, 1997 issue of The Christian Century, a periodical read largely by mainline Protestant clergy who are mostly “liberal” in their theology. In a special section, five theologians are asked for their recommendations of what to read. In a modest list of books, included are Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her, which preceded Bread Not Stone, and Trible’s Texts of Terror. In other words, these two women theologians command high respect among those of liberal, and even moderate theological positions. They have great influence within this section of clergy, and this affects what is taught and preached in their churches. Schüssler Fiorenza and Trible offer the hardest questions I know of about the Bible’s view of women, and thus it is incumbent among us who embrace the power to love hard questions to give answer for the hope that is within us, for the trust we place in the Bible.