The Bible is arguably the world’s best-known book. Ironically, perhaps because it is so familiar – directly and indirectly – to so many people. However, it also may be one of the world’s lease understood literary productions. Biblical scholarship, which seeks to understand the origin, content, historical context, and literary strategies of the Bible, is a well-developed, centuries-old discipline. Yet the discoveries of biblical scholarship over the past two centuries, which may constitute revolutionary contributions to Western intellectual history from theories of Marx, Darwin and Freud, continues to have relatively no impact on the general public. Most people today approach scriptural texts pre-critically, in much the same way that they have for the past two millennia.
Although women have been reading the Bible with sensitivity to issues of sex (biologically determined) and gender (culturally constructed) for centuries, they have not always done so with the critical awareness that characterizes contemporary feminism. The roots of feminist biblical interpretation lie ultimately in the European Enlightenment and in the United States in the nineteenth-century women’s suffrage movement, which overlapped in some instances with the struggle to emancipate slaves. The Grimke sisters, for example, were abolitionists who were drawn into the women’s rights movement as a result of male opposition to their outspoken views. They were criticized for stepping outside of the proper place by speaking in public, especially to mixed groups (groups composed of both women and men).
Opponents of women’s suffrage used the Bible as ammunition. They understood the Garden of Eden story to say that Eve was created from Adam’s rib and they took this as a sign that women were secondary to men. For them, Eve’s leading role in eating the forbidden fruit and offering it to Adam signified women’s evil nature. In the early nineteenth century some women, mainly white Protestants, responded with their own counter-readings. Judith Sargent Murray used metaphorical interpretations of the Eve and Adam story in her arguments for women’s suffrage. Lucy Stone was determined to learn the biblical languages because she believed that the Scriptures, if properly translated, would support women’s rights. In 1843, she went to Oberlin, the first American college to admit women along with men, to study Hebrew and Greek.
Black women, such as Sojourner Truth and Anna Julia Cooper – who entered the struggle for women’s rights after the emancipation of slaves – and Jarena Lee, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal church in the 1830’s and 1840’s, were also reading the Bible in new ways and using Biblical interpretations to buttress their pro-women arguments.
Not all early feminists believed that the Bible, if rightly interpreted, could support their struggle. For example, Matilda Joslyn Gage became convinced that Christianity had degraded women in a variety of ways, especially with the use of the Eve and Adam story, its (Roman Catholic) canon law and its advocacy of celibacy. In 1893, she published The Original Expose of Male Collaboration Against the Female Sex.
At about the same time, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the most prominent suffragists, led the effort to compile The Woman’s Bible in order to interpret the Bible in a way that affirmed women’s full humanity and thus to combat the interpretations used by men to hold women back. Like Gage, she believed that the story of Eve and Adam was the most problematic biblical text and that feminist interpretation could not solve all the problems. The contributors of the The Women’s Bible (including Stanton herself) were not trained biblical scholars and were unable to use the then new methods of higher criticism. The Women’s Bible also contains numerous anti-Jewish comments, reflecting views prevalent in nineteenth-century Christianity. Nevertheless, it was a serious effort and in some ways foreshadowed approaches that have emerged nearly a century later.
However, I believe that the problematic biblical text of the story of Eve and Adam is a direct result of individuals continuing to interpret the biblical text through a flesh lens. We continue to read the text through the lens of our biological makeup instead of pushing ourselves to read the text through a spiritual lens. What would happen to one’s understanding of spiritual behavior within the Eve and Adam story if the male and female biological constraints within the text were removed?
Starting January 2014, I will be reinterpreting some of the most well-known biblical stories and through a spiritual lens and removing the biological constraints within them. If you would like to read those articles in 2014, they can only be found at www.mytheism.com. Until then, here at the Examiner, I will be introducing to you some of the best-known and least-known biologically female characters within the biblical text to help better familiarize yourself with their stories.
My work here is not to directly support and uplift women’s full humanity. My effort here is to bring to awareness our full spiritual potential freed from our biological differences. As one of my great mentors once said, we are not humans on a spiritual journey. We are spirits on a human journey. If that is so, then let’s see what the spirits, not the biological characters, are doing within the biblical text.
My work here at the Examiner will continue with my next article introducing you to Abigail, who is presented to us in 1 Samuel 25. Each article thereafter, I will bring to attention another female character. I will end my series with Zipporah, whose name is found within Exodus. Then, I will continue my work reinterpreting biblical texts through a spiritual lens to show that, when we remove the biological limitations, the stories themselves bring to light an understanding of momentous proportions.
To be continued......Stay tuned for subsequent articles that will bring to light additional forgotten biblical passages and many inspiring women within scripture.
To your success