Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Contentious Women of the Old Testament

I keep a deck of Women in the Old Testament Knowledge Cards on my desk, and I like to shuffle through them from time to time. Some of the women depicted on the cards are familiar to me -- women like Rahab, Jezebel, and Deborah -- but many of them catch me by surprise. “Who is she?” I ask, as I look more closely at the stunning images on the cards, illustrated by Meinrad Craighead, an artist who was also a member of the Benedictine order, and is known for her portrayal of the divine feminine. I study the faces of Cozbi, Milcah, Asenath, and others. I flip the cards over one by one, and read about women whose names I forgot, whose names I never learned. Mothers, daughters, wives, concubines, and many women who go unnamed.

I flip through this deck of cards, and I am challenged by the stories of these Old Testament women’s faith, of their courage in a time when they had few resources of their own, when their bodies were possessed by others, their names irrelevant, their leadership all but left out of our sacred texts. I think it’s fair to say that we learn to model our faith after the men in the Old Testament, as portrayed in so many well known stories, told in Sunday school and preached from pulpits to young and old alike. Yet we learn little about the even the existence of so many of these women.

At other times, studying these cards, I’m frustrated and saddened by the violent witness of these stories, the wrath and punishment inflicted on women’s innocent bodies. It’s no wonder we avert our eyes. I study the women’s faces as Meinrad has depicted them -- strong and weak, joyful and sad, resilient and broken. Multifaceted. Human. Beautiful. I am disappointed that we don’t know more about them, that we don’t teach the passages that tell their stories, illuminating their history as a part of our history as the people of God. We look away from these women for many reasons. Fear, perhaps, of the complicated means by which they seized what power they could and used it as needed. Fear, also, about how to cope with the wreckage of those that could not seize power, and were instead the victims.

Too much ink has been spilled over other biblical texts which prescribe narrow, gender-specific ways for women to live, while stories of the complicated ways these actual women sought to be faithful simmer in the background. It may be easier to focus on virtuous ideal women than to cope with the tangled history of these other women in the Old Testament. Instead of particulars, we can be tempted to dwell on generalized depictions, such as the idea of the virtuous wife, the woman of valor, depicted in Proverbs 31, forgetting the women of valor living in the background throughout the canon. “A continuous dripping on a rainy day and a contentious wife are alike,” the author of Proverbs wrote earlier, “to restrain her is to restrain the wind or to grasp oil in the right hand” (Proverbs 27:15-16). I can’t help but wonder if contentious women and women of valor -- women with nerve, audacity, and boldness -- have more in common than we often notice.

To restrain her is to restrain the wind. Here in Proverbs 27, a verse meant to chastise, I find hope. I find encouragement. I find energy. For what were the women of the Old Testament if not contentious? Think of Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, who defied the king and kept vigil beside her sons’ bodies for months after they were brutally killed: “Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night” (2 Samuel 21:10). She stayed until the king finally relented and ensured a proper burial for them. Contentious, indeed -- and a symbol of love, grief, and loyalty. A vigil of such great length, fending off predators, embodies nothing if not determination. Restrain Rizpah? Never.

Think of Miriam, the first female prophet depicted in the Old Testament, sister of Moses and Aaron, aiding these men as they led God’s people out of Egypt. Presuming equality with Moses, along with Aaron, she asked, “Hasn’t [God] also spoken through us?” (Number 12:2). They both drew God’s anger for this presumption, but only Miriam was punished, inflicted with leprosy, put outside the camp. Miriam was contentious. But the people waited for her return to the camp before they moved on. Miriam was not forgotten.

Think, also, of Noah’s silent wife. Unnamed, but clearly present, the mother of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. “And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives…” as the phrase is repeated in Genesis 6. In this oft-told bible story, through this woman the world was re-created after the flood. In the text Noah’s wife never speaks, but surely someone cooked, fed, and cleaned during their forty day and forty night cruise? Noah’s wife, her children, all of the animals, indeed the whole world stand in witness to God’s promises alongside Noah. Had God saved Noah only the story would have a much different ending. If we do not pay attention to these silences, we miss the witness of women like Noah’s wife. We risk repeating the silence, restraining women’s voices in the present, closing our ears and shutting our eyes to women’s work, to women’s witness.

These women and their legacy, their courage and their complexity, cannot be restrained, not even by our unwillingness to cope with the darker passages of scripture. Though their lives were restrained in tangible ways in a time period where women had limited voice, our ability to illuminate their wisdom today, that all men and women can learn from it, is limited only by our own imaginations. As with more well-known passages of scripture, which preachers and teachers carefully exegete, considering the ways stories serve as both examples and warnings, some characters’ actions prescriptive and others failures, these lesser-known stories have much to teach us about precarious human life and God’s faithfulness throughout. These women and their contentious stories refuse to be limited by a small minded vision of who God calls and how we might answer. It is up to us to listen.

Reprinted with permission. Leader Magazine, (Spring 2016), MennoMedia.