from Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible
by Henry Rouse
Edited by Sandra Glahn
I grew up in the 1970s. We didn’t have smartphones, text messaging, emails, or the Internet. But we had color TV, and we watched Happy Days. Life was good. I started using Brylcreem when I was fourteen, had my sights set on a black leather jacket, and “The Fonz” was my hero. You remember Fonzie, right? Blue jeans, leather jacket, motorcycle—he was cool, slick, and tough. All the guys wanted to be like him, and all the girls wanted to be with him. Everything he did was great. He saved females in trouble, rescued nerds from bikers, and taught us all lessons about working hard, respecting our parents, and being cool. Fonzie had only one problem: He could never admit he was wrong. He knew when he was wrong, and he would try to admit it, but he just couldn’t say the words. “I was wr-wr-wr-wr . . . I was wr-wr-wr-wr . . . I was not exactly right.”
Like Fonzie, most of us find it hard to say, “I was wr-wr-wrong.” It’s hard to admit to my kids when I get angry and I need their forgiveness. It’s hard to confess to my wife that I forgot that important thing because I failed to pay attention. I don’t like being wrong, and I don’t like admitting it. It makes me feel weak. And it assaults my pride. And if I admit I’m wrong in one area, in how many other areas have I been wrong? My own self-delusions of intelligence and superiority come crumbling down. So, I prefer to protest, shift the blame, excuse, and rebut—just let me keep my pride intact.
What does this have to do with hermeneutics and women in the Bible? A lot. What if I’ve been wrong about a lot of Bible stories? Seriously, what if I, what if you, have been wrong? What if some of our views about certain women in the Bible are mistaken? What if the conclusions we have drawn from these faulty views are misguided? And what if these misguided conclusions have led us to poor applications? Would you and I be prepared to admit we were wrong? Would we be willing to confront ourselves in the mirror and be really honest? Or are we just like Fonzie—too tough and too cool ever to admit that we could be wr-wr-wr-wr . . . not exactly right?
Before we go any further, I want to be really frank. This is not some book written by theologically liberal, wannabe scholars attempting to be politically correct or manipulating the text in order to be culturally relevant. The contributors to this book love God’s Word. And we don’t see our task as reinterpreting the text to make it more relevant or more acceptable than it already is—as if that were possible. Our goal is simply to study it and make sure we are being faithful to it. We are not questioning the inspiration, inerrancy, or infallibility of the Scriptures. We are, however, questioning the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of our human interpretation of them. I say these things because often those who challenge us to revisit some of the texts we’ll explore in this work get accused of having a low view of Scripture. But as I said, the issue here is not one of inspiration but of interpretation.
Indeed, each one of the contributors to this book believes that Scripture is God’s revelation of himself, his work, and his plans for humanity. Being divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, the original text is authoritative, reliable, and useful in all that it teaches. And any view that treats it as less than this, we believe, diminishes its authority, reliability, and usefulness in the affairs of human life. It is the very Word of God.
Not only are the Scriptures God-breathed, we believe, but they also consist of writing. Of all the means of communication God could have used, he chose to inspire human authors to write. He could have used a DVD (Divine Video Disk) series with episodes from every era of biblical history—a holographic projection, perhaps, with messages from Adam and Eve, Abraham, Ruth, Peter, Paul, and Mary. Yet God chose to use human beings with all their faults and failures, personalities and problems, backgrounds and baggage. And he moved them to write. So the Word that we have is the written Word. It’s divine in its source, absolutely; but it’s also literature. And as it is a work of literature, we must—and this is critical—discuss and study it as literature without diminishing its divine origin.
Our motives in studying are also essential. As the late Dr. Howard Hendricks used to warn, study of the Bible is not meant to make us smarter sinners. We are not increasing knowledge of the text or correcting faulty understanding so we can wow our friends with great dinner conversations, impress ourselves with the abundance of our theological knowledge, or make us critics about everyone else’s misguided efforts. The goal of our instruction is love (1 Tim. 1:5), the per- sonification of which is Jesus Christ. Conformity to his image is our goal. And the bearing of God’s image is not solely for our own benefit. We are meant to be light to others in order to bring them to know God (Isa. 49:6, Matt. 5:14–16). It is our belief that a more accurate understanding of how the Scriptures present women in the text will help tear down walls of misogyny that have stood as barriers between people and the God who inspired the Word.
So how do we handle the text? How we study Scripture, the process we use to understand it, is hermeneutics. And part of the challenge in understanding Scripture is that people use different hermeneutics. Rather than going into an extended discussion of various methods, however, we will simply outline the method used by the authors of this book.
As we approach Holy Writ, there are certain literary rules we follow to interpret it accurately, understanding writing as a science, an art, and a practice that requires the help of the Holy Spirit. Yet to call it an “art” is not to suggest that we interpret Scripture as we would an abstract painting or sculpture, in which authorial intent often matters little. Hermeneutics is the craft of using well the laws of interpretation, and doing so in the context of community.
That community can involve our brothers and sisters in the faith from past eras. But it also includes men; women; Aussies (like me); Palestinians (like Dr. Maalouf, who wrote the chapter on Hagar); Californians (like Dr. Pierce, who wrote the chapter on Deborah); transplanted Americans living in Scotland (such as Ms. McKirland, who wrote on Huldah); Chicagoans (like Drs. Cohick and Peeler, who wrote about the Samaritan woman and Junia); African-American New Yorkers (like Ms. Stevens, who wrote the chapter on Vashti); an expert on Latino discipleship (like Ms. Zazueta, who wrote on Mary Magdalene); and all number of combinations. The more eyes and perspectives on the text, the better. Belonging to Christ means becoming a member of a body with many parts. Yet pop Christianity has sold us an individualistic view of spirituality. We can have any version of the Bible we like. We can have it downloaded and read to us on our smartphones. We can “do church” online. We can worship alone. We can tithe online. We can listen to the best preachers in the comfort of our own living rooms at a time that suits us. We can even grab our two best mates and “do communion” on Saturday night before the big game. Do you see a problem with this picture? It’s not that any one of these things breaks with church tradition, or even violates Scripture. Rather, it’s that the combined effect can lead to an individualistic Christianity that is not biblical Christianity. The church, the body of Christ, is a community. And while we are told to pray in our closets (Matt. 6:6), we do our theology, our hermeneutics, in community.
So how do we eliminate the guesswork and arrive at a faithful interpretation of Scripture? I suggest six questions to ask every time we approach the text. These will give us a sound basis for interpretation and application.
SIX QUESTIONS WE BRING TO THE TEXT
What does the text actually say?
It is critical that the first step in biblical interpretation is knowing exactly what we are looking at. We all come to the text with baggage and preconceived ideas. Often, we’ve already heard sermons, memorized verses, and read devotional books on the passage at hand. So we may think we know what it means as soon as we read it. But we must stop and ask, “What does the text actually say?”
What do I observe in and about the text?
We begin with genre. Historical narrative differs significantly from poetry, which differs significantly from apocalyptic literature. Authors use different genres and styles to convey different messages. If I want to tell my wife how much she means to me, I might use poetry to get my point across. I could write, “I would swim the seven seas for you.” If I do so, I’m not lying, but she knows it’s impossible, and I hate swimming. Yet the message of the poem is true. I’m saying that I love her and would do whatever I could to bring her happiness. Genre matters.
We also pay attention to the details of the passage. We consider all the words that the Spirit inspired the authors to use, and we look at how the authors have put together those words to form phrases and sentences. We’re not just looking for a general vibe of the passage. We’re not jumping to conclusions. We take time to notice the grammar and structure. What are the key nouns and verbs? How does the author use them in the sentence? How do the words relate to one another? We identify words that require extra study, perhaps because they are unusual or unfamiliar. We observe whether the words are being used in a literal sense (e.g., water in a lake), illustratively (e.g., lake of fire), or perhaps in a figure of speech (“come hell or high water”). We look for words that the author seems to be emphasizing, often by repetition, such as the word “sent” in the David-and-Bathsheba story.
Something else we observe is the context of the passage. Every word, sentence, and paragraph sits within a greater context. Each chapter exists within a book, and each book exists within the context of the whole Bible. Whenever we take a verse out of its context and turn it into a greeting-card saying or bumper- sticker proverb, we are in danger of ignoring the context and missing the truth.
What did this text mean to the original audience?
Next, we seek to put ourselves in the shoes of those who heard or read its words the first time. We seek to know why Moses wrote what he did to the Israelites, newly freed from Egypt and headed to Canaan. We want to understand what the Corinthians understood as they received their letters from Paul. We try to stand in the sandals of first-century persecuted believers as they heard the Gospel of Mark for the first time. This step is the heart of interpretation. What did the text mean to the original audience?
Often the text itself gives us clues. So we identify when the text was written and in what circumstances. We try to discover the author’s purpose in writing. And although the Bible was written for us, we have to understand that it wasn’t originally written to us. So discovering the author’s original intended meaning helps us better understand how it applies today.
We ask, “What particular situation or need caused the author to write these things to these people?” and “What response was the author looking for from the original recipients?” Knowing the answers to these questions helps us connect the dots to similar issues or situations that we might struggle with today. For example, we don’t concern ourselves with meat sacrificed to idols, as Paul did. But we do have concerns about causing weaker believers to violate their consciences—a timeless issue in Paul’s situation.
To discover the author’s intended meaning and how the original audience would have understood it, we look at background information. We study the text linguistically and literarily to discover how people wrote when the author wrote the text. How were certain words used, and what did they mean? What styles of writing were common? What metaphors and figures of speech were used then, and what did they mean?
We also study history and geography to understand what was going on in the specific places of the world of which the Bible speaks. Who was in political control? What was the economic situation? Which peoples held power and influence at the time? Did the topography or weather of a region affect the readers’ understanding?
Recognizing that every word of Scripture was written within a cultural context to people in a cultural context, we must take culture into account when interpreting the Bible. The culture of the author and audience significantly affected their understanding of what was written. Cultural background studies include explorations of what people believed, how they thought and communicated, what they did, how they lived their daily lives, and how they worked. Such studies cover categories such as politics, religion, economics, agriculture, social and familial habits, fashion, diet, architecture and art, to name a few.
In the past few decades, especially with the influx of more women into history departments and participating in archaeological studies, emphasis has expanded from political history to include more social history. What did people wear? What did they eat? What was the average life expectancy? Because so much of the New Testament relates to the lives of non-elites, Christians seeking a better understanding of cultural backgrounds have especially benefited from this development—and at a time when we can more easily communicate findings through electronic media.
What was the point?
A key task of hermeneutics is to understand the point the author was trying to make. When Paul spoke of “coverings” in 1 Corinthians 11, we seek to find out if he was primarily concerned with fashion trends or if what someone did with his or her hair had symbolic meaning. In the same way that an American wearing a ring on the fourth finger of the left hand has meaning, what did it mean for a Corinthian to wear his or her hair a certain way? Our background studies combine to help us determine the real point of the passage. As we take all this into account, perhaps we conclude that Paul was primarily concerned about husbands and wives showing respect to Christ and each other in the context of public worship.
What truths in this text are timelessly relevant?
Before we skip ahead to application and demand that men cut off ponytails and women wear hats to church, we ask, “What truths are timelessly relevant?” In asking this question of a passage, we are not seeking to ascertain what parts of the Bible are still relevant, as we believe the entire Word of God is relevant. What we are doing is taking the biblical truth and asking which applications from this passage are always relevant to all people. We want to know what truths apply regardless of when, where, and to whom they are applied. For example, Old Testament biblical law said a rapist had to marry his victim. Does this mean we advocate for criminal-victim marriages today? The practice, as envisioned for the original audience, was to make the one who violated a woman responsible for her lifelong care. The Bible has always stood for justice, but how that works itself out in different eras and places may change from culture to culture. The Scriptures are absolute truth; how we apply them has some fluidity.
How does the part fit the whole?
For a truth to be timeless and universal, it must be consistent with the entire teaching of Scripture. For example, the Bible is always consistent in the theological truth that husbands and wives should show respect for each other, even if the practical expression of that truth changes from one period to another. Consider that, at one time it was considered a mark of respect to rise from my seat whenever a woman entered the room. This was not always the way, and certainly is no longer practiced in the northern suburbs of South Australia. In fact, in some circles people view such practices as archaic, sexist, and disrespectful. Those of us who like the practice have to be careful that we don’t disrespect the very principle of respect by clinging to applications that are no longer valid.
Instead of jumping straight to application after a quick reading of a biblical passage, we must understand the timeless truth behind a practice in order to make sure the practice lines up with that truth. Do you greet everyone with a holy kiss? Some do, but some don’t. The ones who don’t aren’t necessarily disobedient, even though the instruction to do so appears in the imperative.
Indeed, some may object at this point by saying, “Well, I just take the Bible literally!” But the reality is this: No, you don’t. Do you regularly invite strangers to use your guest room or couch (Heb. 13:2)? Have you followed Jesus’s command to sell all you have to give it to the poor so that you may have treasure in heaven (Luke 12:33)? Do you follow his command to wash others’ feet (John 13:14)?
No, we don’t take the Bible literally in a consistent manner. But we should take the Bible as literally as it was intended to be taken. We treat metaphors as metaphors, poetry as poetry, and narrative history as narrative history. We don’t turn poetry into narrative, apocalyptic passages into scientific treatises, nor read metaphors as real life. We don’t do that with any other piece of literature, nor should we do so with the Bible—special as it is.
THEY WERE SINNERS LIKE WE ARE
You would think after nearly two thousand years of studying the New Testament and even longer for the Old, we would have things worked out by now. Why isn’t what our forefathers and foremothers believed good enough for us? Assuming that they had it all right, that would be a fair deduction. But did our spiritual ancestors have everything right? Did the early church even get everything right? Faulty thinking revealed itself almost as soon as the church was born. Racism surfaced in Acts 6 with the controversy between the Hellenistic widows and the Hebrews. Did they not understand that all men and women were created equally in the image of God? It seems that the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write the book of Acts, in part, to demonstrate clearly that the gospel message was for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation. And that was not a new message. God told the Israelites that they were to be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), but many of them didn’t seem to get it then, either.
After the church was established, more problems arose. Paul had to get serious with the Galatian church, because they were turning away from grace and going back to legalistic Judaism. Didn’t they know that salvation was by grace through faith? Theological correction of the church’s biblical interpretation began early. And we’ve been doing so ever since, because in our humanity, we always have a way of messing things up.
The Reformation was probably the biggest reexamination of biblical interpretation in modern history. Protestant Christians affirm that a reexamination of the kind that Luther undertook was necessary and good. Because of Luther’s reexamination, we have a great appreciation for salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Hadn’t the church in the first fifteen centuries read Galatians? Of course they had. But somewhere along the way, the interpretation of many be- came faulty, which led to poor application. That was just one of the corrections that Luther brought by reexamining the biblical interpretation of the day.
Another more recent reexamination of biblical interpretation concerned slavery, segregation, and human rights. Slavery in the US was defended by some people’s biblical interpretation. Yet the very reexamination of this interpretation caused people to see anew that all human beings are equal and worthy of respect, regardless of the color of their skin or the nation in which they were born. Slavery wasn’t an issue fought entirely in the realm of biblical interpretation, but for a nation that held deeply religious views centered in the Bible, the interpretation of verses about slavery had great bearing on the eventual outcome.
We have always been reexamining our biblical interpretation, because we understand that every generation has its unique brands of blindness. For example, the medieval mystics might have starved themselves and deprived themselves of too much sleep, but they also prayed much more than most of us do. Additionally, we all come to the text with preconceived ideas, so it stands to reason that our biblical interpretation has some fallibility. Instead of fearing a re- examination, we should pursue a constant reexamination in order to challenge ourselves toward growth. The alternative is to assume we have it all figured out and cling to the status quo.
There are only two possible results of reexamination—and both are benefi- cial. Reexamination either confirms that something is right and strengthens our understanding and faith, or it points out where we have been wrong and enables us to correct our course, leading us closer to conformity with Christ. We can’t lose. But it might require us to change some of our views, confess our mistakes, and admit that we were wr-wr-wr-wr.… Can you say it? Wrong.
This post is adapted from Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bibleedited by Sandra Glahn. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
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Gain a greater understanding of gender in the Bible through the eyes of a diverse group of evangelical scholars who assert that Christians have missed the point of some scriptural stories by assuming the women in them were “bad girls.”
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