Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “biblical marriage

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.+


How Deep Is Your Love

Photo Icon of Rebekah by James Lewis

Let us pray: God of love, teach us to love as you love. Amen.

The Bee Gees, Dru Hill, Calvin Harris, and a few folk I’ve never heard of have all asked, “How deep is your love.” If they were to ask the biblical characters, more often than not the answer might seem be, “not very deep.” In some cases, downright superficial, in others, plumb shallow. It is something of a virtue that the faults and failings of our biblical ancestors are on full display in the sacred pages, lest we think we must reach unattainable perfection before God will have anything to do with us.

Many of the stories in Genesis are etiological; they are the way the Israelites explained how and why things were the way they were. And whatever one wants to make of these accounts of pre-history, there is something about many of the relational and familial stories that ring true. How many of us, when it comes to our own family stories, tell a sanitized version of our history even though plenty of folk know the full story? That happens in the bible too, in today’s lesson. It is, perhaps, familiar but do we know, do we tell, the full story? [Gen 25:19ff]

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac…

Actually, (what had happened was more like…): These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son with his sister Sarah after he raped her slave Hagar at her suggestion and fathered a son Ishmael who he sent into the desert to die with his mother. We need to tell that story. All of it. Because it has shaped our story here in the Americas and impacted the rest of the world. We need to tell the story that Abraham did not love his children the same. Even though God made him incredibly wealthy, he did not provide for all of his children. He gave “gifts” to Ishmael and his children with his last wife but gave Isaac everything he had.

Tell that story. Tell the full story.

Last weekend over the 4th of July holiday many celebrated American independence without telling the full story. They skipped over or rushed through the parts in the Declaration of Independence that called Native Americans “savages” and objected to slaves seeking to liberate themselves. When they read, “all men are created equal” they didn’t acknowledge that didn’t apply to black folk or white women folk. They didn’t tell the whole story. The founders of this nation including a quarter of our presidents and a fair number of Supreme Court justices held other human beings in slavery and justified it using scriptures like God’s blessing of Abraham with wealth that included slaves.

And when over this last weekend the room was uncovered in which Thomas Jefferson kept and raped Sally Hemmings, the 14 year-old girl he enslaved, many news outlets referred to her as his mistress. (Sally, the sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha, was herself likely the product of rape.) The version of the story that is told is not like the version of the story that Sally and other enslaved girls and women lived; they had no legal capacity to consent and disobedience was punishable by death. Though some will say Jefferson loved Hemmings, he refused to free her ensuring that she would remain a slave and that her children—his children—would be born in slavery. His love for humanity had its limits. How deep is your love?

… Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah…

… Isaac was forty years old when he married his cousin Rebekah because his family married within their own family like his uncle Nahor who married his niece Milcah who gave birth to the man who would become Isaac’s father-in-law, which may help explain Isaac’s own incestuous parents Sarah and Abraham. We should stop sanitizing these stories, and stop reading them uncritically, especially in the church.

Isaac prayed to the Holy One for his wife, because she was barren; and the Holy One granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

Isaac assumed like all men in the Stone Age and some now that only women could be infertile. And by infertile they meant like inhospitable soil; they didn’t know that women contributed anything two children other than space to grow.

“Genesis 25:26 states that Isaac is sixty when the twins are born; he was forty when he married Rebekah. That means that Rebekah lived with her infertility for twenty years…Yet the text never mentions Isaac taking another woman or fathering children with anyone else.” Tell the story that you don’t have to reproduce the dysfunction with which you were raised. Isaac’s love for Rebekah stands out in the biblical text and even in his own family. Tell that story.

The children struggled together within Rebekah; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Holy One. And the Holy One said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’’

To these cousins, Rebekah and Isaac whose love was deep, twins were born after a period of infertility. And they loved their children, just not equally. How deep is your love?

Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game…

Isaac loved his son Esau because he was a hunter and he loved fresh meat. He loved his son because of what he did for him. But did he love him before he could do anything for him? I know folk—and you may too—who only love folk for what they do for them, and that includes their children and family

…but Rebekah loved Jacob…

Isaac loved one son and Rebekah loved the other. The boys were rivals from the womb and rivals in the womb. They were rivals for their parents’ love before Esau threw away his birthright. How deep is your love? Is it deep enough that you don’t have to ration it? Or perhaps better, how uneven is your love? It is an unhappy truth that we don’t love all of our dear ones the same. Some love one child more than another. Some love their children more than their spouse. Some don’t love one or more of their children at all.

These parents of our faith are a hot mess. They are imperfect in their life and their loves. As are we.

It is long established tradition that we read biblical characters as moral exemplars. But an honest reading requires acknowledging when they are not worthy of our emulation, and digging deeper to find what is.

That may just be this: We are fragile and flawed. We are often stingy with our love and our love is often self-interested. And yet, God loves us. God works with us and through us in spite of our faults and failures. God chooses to be in relationship with us. God even chose to be one of us.

Our love is imperfect. And yet we do love, sometimes the best we can, sometimes the best we know how. But there are moments when our ability to love transcends our human limitations, when we give, share, sacrifice, risk, stand, tell the truth, and when necessary, die with or for someone else.

We are God’s handiwork and the capacity to love is part of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. True love, rooted in God’s love, is inexhaustible and self-fueled. A well that will never run dry. How deep is your love? If you are drawing from the reservoir of God’s love in you, it is endless. That love equips you to hear hard truths, tell the whole story and write a new story for the next generation. Amen.


We Have Already Redefined Marriage

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(Saints Serge and Bacchus being united by Christ in what many consider a same sex marriage. For more read John Boswell’s controversial and provocative Same-Sex Union in Pre-Modern Europe.)

I’d like to think that by now most folk know that biblical marriage includes rape, abduction, forced pregnancy and surrogacy and polygamy.

I’ve lectured and written on biblical marriage for a while now and I hear the same conversation engaged again and again and I find myself reflecting on the charge that human beings are changing marriage  – like that’s a new thing.

The biblical text bears witness to many ways in which humans have fundamentally changed what is called marriage and God’s response or in many cases, lack thereof.

The “one woman, one man” relationship of Eve and Adam becomes one man and two women in Genesis 4:19, one man and an untold number of prepubescent girl war captives in Numbers 31:18 and in many other texts, e.g. Deut. 21:10ff, Judges 21:10-14, 20ff. The evolution of polygamy (both consensual and forcible) as a human-initiated cultural practice in the scriptures is particularly striking because of God’s lack of condemnation, (and according to Deuteronomy, God’s sanction of abduction or rape-marriage during armed conflicts). God even gives David Saul’s wives (as a coronation present? in 2 Sam 12:8). It is also clear that when inviting individuals and their descendants into eternal covenant relationships with God, that God never required that the matriarchs and patriarchs revert to an Eve-Adam, monogamous pairing.

It appears that God has left it to humanity to decide who are appropriate intimate partners and under what circumstances. In other words, humans invented polygamy and God accepted it. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all accept(ed) polygamy as normative even with texts that in some cases that make its all-too-human innovation clear. The end of polygamy in the West is due more to Roman abhorrence of the practice than to any religious motives among Christians or Jews to get back to the original form of biblical marriage.

Even when Jesus teaches on divorce and refers to the Genesis account in Mt 19 and Mk 10 he does not go so far as to speak directly against polygamy.

While there are some claims that in some contexts polygamy was a culturally appropriate way to form households and families to provide for women and children that would otherwise be without support or resources in those cultures I do not find any merit in those arguments today. I recognize that some communities practice polygamy drawing on sacred texts, but in each broader tradition that I am aware of some portion of the same religious tradition rejects the practice.

The biblical account of Lamech in Gen 4:19 taking two women for himself just as he hit back hard against anyone who even slightly injured or offended him makes it clear that his women were status symbols in that narrative. An argument can be made that the first time humans men changed the definition marriage the ([slightly] more) egalitarian union of Eden became patriarchal and hierarchal. And the world did not end. If it had, perhaps we could have started over without patriarchy and misogyny.

Humanity has reconfigured marriage again and again – from women as property whose consent was not needed to a dizzying array of contemporary practices, some like interracial union in the US only recently legal – accounting for all of the variations would require a book.

By some accounts same gender unions were performed in the Church as far back as the first century. And the world kept spinning. In modernity Denmark legalized same sex marriages more than a quarter of a century ago. And the world keeps spinning.

Recognizing and consecrating same sex unions in civil and sacred discourse is neither new nor earth-shattering.