Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for October, 2017

The Forehead of a Whore


#MeToo. I am one of the many, many women who have been targeted, touched, sexually harassed or assaulted and lived to tell the tale. But all of us did not survive our attackers. We were exposed to that which we did not want to see or touch, forced to experience that to which we did not consent. We were at home in our beds, at school in the bathroom, in the doctor’s office under sedation, walking home, at a trusted friend’s apartment, in the arms of a lover, on our grandfather’s lap, at work and at church.

And when we mustered up the strength to tell, they asked: What were you wearing? What were you doing there/with him/that late? Didn’t you have sex with him or someone else earlier that day/week/year?

As a biblical scholar, what I hear them saying, those folks who ask why you didn’t tell then don’t believe you when you do, what I hear them saying is: You have the forehead of a whore.

Have you ever noticed that Israel and Judah become female when the prophets want to use sexualized rhetoric to shame and verbally batter them? On the one hand it’s: out of Egypt have I called my son (Hosea 11:1), and on the other: You have polluted the land with your whoring (here in Jeremiah 3). It is: I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob, (Mic 2:12), and: a spirit of whoredom has led my people astray, (Hos 4:12). There is: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? (Hos 11:18) And then there is: you have the forehead of a whore and you refuse to be ashamed.

When we talk about the rape culture that permeates every facet of our society—and we need to talk about it—we also need to talk about the rape culture that permeates the text we hold sacred and acknowledge that every sexist and misogynistic reading of scripture is not merely a matter of poor biblical interpretation. Sometimes the trouble is in the text itself. But I believe in a God, who though she can be found in, and is revealed by the text, is not limited to or by the text and its limitations. I believe in a God who transcends the text and is not revealed in literal or literary rape rhetoric.

I also believe Jeremiah’s preaching would benefit if he had a womanist conversation partner. A womanist is a black woman whose feminism is so rich, deep, thick, broad, and wide, it moves beyond the mere self-interest of paler feminisms to embrace the wellbeing of the whole community. Womanism is brash, bold, and brazen—like the forehead of a whore. Womanism is womanish and talks back—with a hand upon her hip. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to be so womanist, so womanish, that I’m going to talk back to Jeremiah this morning. And I just believe that the God who answered Rebekah’s prayer when she thought her pregnancy was going to kill her can bear the weight of critical reflection. It’s a mighty poor excuse for a god that cannot bear scrutiny.

So let us take a womanist walk through the text together. In our lesson today, Jeremiah is speaking out of his culture and identity. He is saying: In my day, men don’t take a woman back whom they have divorced, and even those who would, will not if she has moved on to someone else. But I am here to tell you this morning that God will take us back no matter where we have gone, what we have done, or what has been done to us.

Jeremiah is saying a woman who has moved on is polluted. But I am here to tell you what our ancestors passed down because womanist wisdom is motherwit and ancestral wisdom: the love of God reaches from the uttermost to the gutter-most. Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, to keep God’s from loving you.

In Jeremiah’s sermonic analogy, the woman like—some in his congregation and perhaps in this one—was put out. We know that because women in ancient Israel didn’t have the ability to divorce. They were divorced. And now that she has moved on and picked up the pieces of her life the best way she knows how, he wants to call her out of her name. You know black women don’t stand for that.

Abandoned black women have been making a way out of no way while being called out of our names for more than four hundred years on this continent. And even if some daughter of God chooses a strategy for survival that does not represent the best God has in store for her, she is still never separate from the love or faithfulness of God.

Jeremiah’s analogy doesn’t hold water with me because doesn’t break God’s promises, commitments or covenants. God has never divorced or abandoned God’s people. But God’s people have been hurt, on God’s watch. Israel and Judah fell. Their people were enslaved by one regime after another, defeated, deported, disbanded, diasporized. Their daughters subject to all the violence Jeremiah uses in his sermon. We too have been harmed. Our people were subject to the same depredations.

Jeremiah here is like a lot of folk who want to know what you did that made it possible for this catastrophe to happen to you. He sounds almost like a prosperity preacher. He asks with no pastoral presence whatsoever, where have you not been violated? Jeremiah is confusing sex and rape and blaming the cast off woman for what has happened to her in his own metaphor. For Jeremiah, like some folk in our time, being raped makes you a whore. In verse 2, the word shugalt’ is passive. (The root שגל means abducted and ravaged.) It means to have been violated. You didn’t do it; it was done to you. There is no preposition indicating participation, no “with,”  no consent. When Isaiah uses the same word the text says, “ravished,” (Isa 13:16); in Zechariah (14:2) it is “raped.” The reason some women and men can’t stand up and say #MeToo is some folk will blame them for their own rape thinking and saying: You have the forehead of a whore.

Bishop Yvette Flunder taught us that as preachers and theologians the prophets and epistle-writing apostles are our colleagues and we can respectfully disagree with them. I say to Jeremiah what I would say to any preacher, male or female, ancient or contemporary, you don’t have to sexualize, brutalize, or slut-shame women to call the people back to the God who loves them more parent or partner. Your prophetic vocabulary is too rich to be limited to that misanthropic trope. You can do better. You need to do better. God’s people deserve better. And God requires better of you. Stop being petty Jeremiah. Jealous ex doesn’t look good on God. God is bigger than that.

Some might say that’s just the way it was or everybody spoke like that back then. After all we’re talking about the Iron Age, not the most progressive of times. Well I’m here to tell you that the prophets Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Nathan, Gad, Iddo, Elijah, Elisha, Obadiah, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi never once fixed their lips to pass off their pornotropic fantasies as the word of God. Jesus never used that language, perhaps because that’s how some folk talked about his mama.

Not all prophets use the specter of rape as God’s punishment for sin. Not all prophets call God’s people whores. But Jeremiah did and he wasn’t alone; Isaiah and Ezekiel, Hosea and Nahum fall into what I call homiletical heresy. Out of one side of their mouths they proclaim Israel and Judah are God’s beloved daughters. On the other side of their mouths, or perhaps talking out of their necks, when Israel and Judah fall and fail as do all finite and frail human beings and institutions, they suddenly become these brazen whores who deserve to be beaten and raped because that’s what you do when you catch your woman cheating on you, in their world view which is not mine, nor is it God’s, in spite of what texts like these say. The very idea is rooted in the sanctification of physical and sexual domestic violence.

The Dean of womanist biblical interpretation, the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems taught us why the prophets use such language, (in Battered Love). They did the best they knew if not the best they could. They used what they saw in their world and in themselves, and recounted a God who looked more like an Iron Age warrior king bigger and badder than the one next door than a God whose grace and mercy are sufficient and unmerited. They used human relational paradigms to describe their relationship with God but humans and our institutions are fatally flawed. Humans can turn any relationship, system or institution designed for love and nurture, caring, companionship, and mutual support, liberation and justice, into violent abusive parodies of their intended purpose. All of the models Israel has given us are flawed because they are human as we are human.

We say God is the righteous judge of all flesh. But we know that justice is not blind. She sees skin color and bank balances and perverts justice accordingly. We know that judges are partial and though we may say that God is not, we like Israel expect God to judge in our favor whether we are right or wrong.

We say God is our parent, some say father; some say mother. Our ancestors said God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. But sadly we know mother and father are not always pillars of safety and security. They can be violent, abusive, and emotionally crippling. The scriptures portray God as loving father but also one who rages against his children. And like any other Iron Age male in the bible God is invested in controlling the sexual purity of women whose value is tied up in their virginity, ability to make babies, and the degree to which they were under male control. Interestingly, when the scriptures portray God as mother she is not as violent.

We have been taught to say God is king but kings in the ancient world were warlords who secured their thrones with the broken and battered bodies of their enemies, often killing their wives and children.

We have been taught to say God is lord and master but those are slaveholding terms. And slaves in the ancient world as in our own ancestry were used like beasts of burden, maimed, raped, sold, and killed with neither thought nor consequence. Even when lord becomes a title of nobility it still rests on the notion of some human beings lorded over others.

We have been taught to say God is husband but it is in the role of husband that the prophets who proclaim liberation also proclaim words of violence rooted in violence against women and call it the word of God.

You have the forehead of a whore…

Jeremiah heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of his culture. From our perch in this century we see and hear differently through our own vernacular. I know it seem like I’ve been rough on Jeremiah. But I’m not giving up on him anymore than I’m giving up on any other passage in the bible that fails to live up to or into God’s liberating love. I’m just going to follow the example of Jesus who said, you have seen it written, but I say unto you…

You have seen it written, “You have the forehead of a whore.” But I say unto you:

You have the forehead of the kind of woman some men, especially religious men like Jeremiah, will call a whore. You have the forehead of a woman who will make her own decisions about her body and sexuality. You have the forehead of a woman who will decide for herself whether or when to have children. You have the forehead of a woman who will not submit to male domination in or out of the sacred texts. You have the forehead of a woman who will resist theology and biblical interpretation that does not affirm who you are, who and how you love, or who God created you to be. You have the forehead of a woman whom men will call a whore to put you in your place. You have the forehead of a woman who is unbought and unbosssed. You have the forehead of a woman who has survived rape and sexual assault and domestic violence. You have the forehead of a woman who has been blamed for the violence others visited upon her person and you brazenly rejected it.

You are brazen in your womanishness. You brazenly talk back to the text and its God. You brazenly talk back to Jeremiah and say you can miss me with that whore talk. And you can tell him: But I’m with you on the God who calls backsliders (משבה) and backstabbers (בגודה) to faithfulness. I’m down with the God who says, I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful. And yes, you can have it both ways. You don’t have to subject yourself to Iron Age brutality or theology to turn to the God Jeremiah burdens with the biases of his culture.

At the end of our lesson God promises to give her people shepherds after her own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. In Jeremiah’s context, that meant restoring the monarchy, but those days are long gone. In our time shepherds are priests, preachers, and pastors, not presidents or potentates.

Through Jeremiah who has survived this womanist critique, God promises to send us shepherds who will feed us with knowledge and understanding. I know there are some shepherds out there preaching like it’s still the Iron Age, talking about women and our bodies like we’re everything but daughters of God. But when God sends the shepherd, her heart will be patterned after God’s heart and she will leave you with knowledge not shame, understanding, not name-calling.

Then we can create a world where all men teach other men and boys not to rape, where there are no women or men, girls or boys who are violated or violate another’s body or consent. Then we will stop equating rape with sex. Then we will stop punishing women for being raped or having sex. Then we will hear women and men who say #MeToo. Then we will be empowered to use the richness of our theological imaginations to name God in ways that don’t hurt or harm.

Jewish poet Ruth Brin, (A Woman’s Meditation), put it this way:
When men were children, they thought of God as a father; When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master; 
When men were subjects, they thought of God as a king. 
But I am a woman come not a slave, not a subject, not a child who longs for God as father or mother. I might imagine God as a teacher or friend, but those images, like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now. God is the force of motion and light in the universe; 
God is the strength of life on our planet; God is the power moving us to do good; God is the source of love springing up in us. 
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.

No one has the right to call you a whore to put you in the place they think you belong. But if they do, tell them: I have the forehead of a whore and I am not ashamed.

Jeremiah 3:1 Look here! If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?
Would not such a land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers; would you return to me, says the Holy One.
2 Lift your eyes upon the bare heights, and see! Where have you not been violated?
By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness.
3 So, rain showers have been withheld, and the late rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed.
4 Have you not just now called to me, “My Father, you are the companion of my youth!
5 Will God be angry forever, will God rage for eternity?”
This is how you have spoken, but you have done all the evil you could.
6 The Holy One said to me in the days of King Josiah, “Have you seen what backsliding Israel did, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and whored there? 7 I said, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return, and her backstabbing sister Judah saw it. 8 Surely I saw it; for because of all the adulteries backsliding Israel committed, I put her out and gave her a divorce decree; yet her backstabbing sister Judah did not fear, so she also went and whored. 9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and wood. 10 Yet for all this her backstabbing sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in deceit,” says the Holy One.
11   Then the Holy One said to me, “Backsliding Israel has shown herself less guilty than backstabbing Judah. 12 Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say:
Turn back, backsliding Israel, says the Holy One.
I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful, says the Holy One; I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the Holy One your God,
and there are paths to you for strangers scattered under every green tree, 
and my voice you all have not obeyed, says the Holy One.
14 Return, O backsliding children, says the Holy One,
for I am your master; I will take you all, 
one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you all to Zion.
15 And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.

 
Translation by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.+


The Bull in the Church Isn’t Idolatry

 

 

 

Exodus 32:1-14

Moses came down from the mountain where he experienced the glory of God face to face to discover that there was some bull in the Israelite community. They were worshipping bull at the foot of God’s holy mountain. They had their bull all up in God’s face when they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

            We have our own bull in the church. Who are the idol-makers in the church? There’s a lot of bull in the church. And we know better. We have three thousand years of faith stories to tell us who God is. And we have more than these sacred stories our ancestors passed down. We have our experiences of and with God. We have what our eyes have seen. We know who God is and we know there is no substitute for God. We have no excuse for bowing down before that which we know is not God.

            And at the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for the Israelites here. Really. I know the bull is problematic, but there is more to the story. They had stories of God. And they had their ancestors’ experiences of God. And they had their own hard experiences. They were enslaved for centuries. Elders watched their children and grandchildren be born into the same brutal estate in which they would die, dreaming of but never seeing freedom. We don’t always get our prayers answered, for us, in our generation. Sometimes the beneficiaries of our prayers are the next generation, people we may not even get to meet. For every Israelite who marched out with Moses there were entire families dead and buried who did not live to see that day. God did not save them. God did not free them. Some of them surely gave up on God who seemed to have given up on them.

            And then this man Moses came along. He was one of them but he didn’t share their fate. He didn’t live under the lash. He wasn’t kept hungry enough to work but not full enough to rise up. But living like a prince wasn’t good enough for him; he threw away the good life and ran off to have one adventure after another. And now, here he is saying the God of your ancestors, our ancestors, spoke to me. Oh, he had signs and wonders, but so did Pharaoh’s magicians.

            Somehow he convinced Pharaoh to let the people go. Maybe it was the power of God. Surely God opened the waters like that. But why didn’t the pillar of cloud and fire take them straight to freedom, blazing a path across the desert? Was God lost? Because Moses sure was. They should have been able to cross the Sinai desert in eleven days. Even going to Mt. Sinai first should have not even taken a month. Yet it would take them forty years, walking over their own footsteps, passing under Canaan then crossing the river from the other side. Two months into the journey they ran out of food, (Ex 16). They ate up their few provisions, went hungry and thirsty, and the solution was hitting a rock (Ex 17:1-7), scraping up something that was probably an insect by-product, and happening across the occasional flock of quails. They are hungry and frightened. They had just escaped slavery and no one knew how long that would last. The world’s greatest army is on their track.

            Along the way they were attacked by the Amalekites who were supposed to be their kinfolk, (Ex 17:8). Moses didn’t lead them to freedom. He led them in circles, to hunger, thirst, and war. Then there was the gossip about Moses. He sent his wife packing and her father publically brought her back to him, (Ex 18:2). Maybe he got lost because he was preoccupied. All of that in the first three months, (Ex 19:1).

            But then again, there was that moment at Sinai when they saw a mountain that was not a volcano on fire, and they heard thunder and trumpets from heaven playing a duet while lightning danced a solo. They heard God declaim the Ten Commandments for themselves. They stayed in that place, in sight of the mountain that quaked and smoked for a long time. While Moses and God discussed the fine points of nation and community building and worship and liturgy they were on their own. In the inhospitable desert. No closer to freedom.

            No one had seen Moses in days, weeks, or even longer. According to Exodus 24:18 Moses was with God for forty days and forty nights which is the Hebrew equivalent of a month of Sundays. God and Moses promised the people a land flowing with milk and honey but they are still here in the desert and as our lesson says, no one knew what happened to Moses, if he was alive or dead on that mountain. They gave up on him, and God.

            We can say what they woulda, shoulda, oughta do. But we have our own bull. Our idols are not statues or icons—though sometimes the liturgy can be an idol in the Episcopal Church. The bull we worship is whiteness and patriarchy and sexism and guns and money and fame and power and sex and our imaginations about how it used to never be and never will be again… We worship other people’s opinions and their possessions and our own. We worship people who don’t love us or even respect us. We devote our time, our money, our resources, our passion to everyone and everything but God, sometimes. Sometimes. American bull has become the church’s bull. We worship anthems and flags idolizing patriotism, sometimes even in church. And yet none of these things, like Israel’s bull is inherently evil. It is our worship of them. Prioritizing them over God and God’s priorities, the flourishing and wellbeing of God’s children, starting with the least, the last and the lost.

            Now Aaron and the guys built this bull trying to connect to the One who had brought them this far. They weren’t really looking for another God. They just didn’t know how to be in relationship with the God who seemed so distant even though they were at the foot of God’s mountain. They had become so dependent on Moses they didn’t think they could speak to or hear from God without him. Aaron had already been ordained a priest, (Ex 28:41). It’s safe to say he failed his first parish assignment. And where was the prophet Miriam? The text says Aaron sent the men to rip out, פרק, not just take off, the earrings of their wives, daughters, and sons. (The rabbis read this to mean that Miriam and the other women fought them but lost.)

            Then God, God starting snorting just like a bull. There’s a reason the Israelites so often identified God as a bull. In the old written language before the more familiar Hebrew letters, the first sign in the word God was an image of a bull. And when the text talks about God’s wrath burning hot, the literal expression is God’s nose or nostrils, just like a bull. God is so angry, smoke is pouring out of God’s nostrils. Add to that, in the text, God is rather bull headed. Moses has to talk God out of killing the Israelites by shaming God. The Egyptians are already talking bad about you, what with the killing of the first-born and all. If you kill your own people, you’ll never live it down!

            Then God changes God’s mind. Moses reminds God of God’s promises, at the same time reminding the people. I love that Moses prayed for people who were flat out wrong. He fully expected God to redeem and liberate people who were flawed and had already failed to live up to God’s expectation, because a God that expects perfection is an idol. God and Moses show the people that God hears and responds and that good prayer is sometimes giving God a piece of your mind. A God who can’t take it is an idol, not worth our worship.

            False constructions of god are sculpted out of more than color and shape. For some, god is the only one who hates the folk they love to hate more than they do. God is more than our symbols, images, and language.

            I don’t claim to know what God looks like. But I know who God is. God is a pillar of smoke by day and tower of fire by night. God is a rock in a weary land. God is mother to the motherless and a father the fatherless. God is the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies. God is an outstretched wing and a strong right arm. God is shepherd and sacrificial lamb. God is a still, small voice and the sound of roaring thunder.

            In the Psalm, (106:1-6, 19-23), God is the one who is worthy of all or praise, whose witness is passed down from generation to generation. In the Epistle, (Philippians 4:1-9), God is the one who builds bridges between broken hearts, mending the relationship between Euodia and Syntyche. And God is the one who called those women to peach and pastor. And in the Gospel, (Matthew 22:1-14), God is the one who welcomes all to the table, both good and bad.

            God is Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. God is the Author, the Word and the Translator. God is Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver. God is Majesty, Mercy and Mystery. God is Divine Love, the Eternal Beloved, and the Faithful Lover. God is. God is beyond all language and imagination.

            A God who is anything less than Life, Liberation and, Love is an idol and that is some bull. The Israelites would continue to build bulls, some as God and some as thrones for God. We are not much different. Who are the idol-makers in the church? Who is bringing bull into the church? And perhaps more importantly, how do we clean it up?

In the Name of God, Potter, Vessel, and Holy Fire. Amen.