Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “me too

Michal: Redux and Remix

For those of you who are interested in sermon craft, here is the revised form of my Michal sermon, Why Michael Rightly Despised David, edited for my Episcopal parish. The long form was preached at a WomanPreach event.

Let us pray: In the name of the God who declares we are all worthy of love. Amen.

 Our first lesson proclaims: Michal despised David in her heart. A text without a context is a pretext. There is context to be found, but not in the snippings of the lectionary. Michal despised David in her heart. And she had every reason to do so. It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical texts telling their stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. This is the whole point of the Me Too movement: Listen to women, believe us. Believe us about assault and harassment, believe us about discrimination and underrepresentation and overwork and underpay, and believe us when we say the Church’s fixation on masculine language and imagery for God is harmful to us.

We are wrestling with this as a Church. Soon we will wrestle more intently with the language we use in prayer. While we wait to wrestle with the prayerbook we will explore a wider range of language for God, and perhaps, one day, we will revisit our lectionary. (Notice today Michal is paired with Herodias, two allegedly bad women pitted against the men that everybody knows are the real heroes of the story.) That’s actually my next book project, a woman centered lectionary which will ask “what does it look like to tell the good news through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture and often set up to represent bad news.” The story of Michal is one of those stories for me. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

We love royalty in this country, particularly now that we are couple hundred years away from it and no longer subject to it. Now we romanticize it and fantasize about it, and some apply those fantasies to royal characters in the biblical texts. Many of us also learned from an early age who the heroes were or were supposed to be in biblical stories. Our forbears built this nation and brutally reorganized the world on reading strategies like these: cowboys and Indians as the new Canaanites and Israelites, enslavers and enslaved, and subordination of women to men and in each pairing certainty on whose side God was supposed to be.

Along the way we’ve begun to ask questions of the texts just as we asked questions about the world we inherited along with the responsibility to shape it for those who follow. Scripture is our heritage and it been both badly exploited and underutilized. One of the most important questions we can ask of scripture is what am I missing by reading as I have always read? Whose voice is missing or ignored? Many have read the text with and as David–that’s why our lectionary is set up for us to read his story through the summer–but few have read from the perspective of Michal, his first wife, Saul’s youngest daughter. We’re going to talk about Michal and how and why she came to despise David and in so doing we shall see that pink princess fantasies don’t belong anywhere near the biblical texts.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it seems it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creation and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaim God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love on his own, let alone Michal’s.

Michael is the only woman in scripture said to love a man who is not her son. She loved David. And David loved Jonathan, and apparently himself. She may have been in love with him already when she watched him become engaged to her older sister first. How she would have rejoiced when her father called it off. How high her hopes would have been when her father offered her to him. What might she have thought of the cost? Reading from the margins means we can’t look at the brideprice of one hundred Philistine foreskins as the mighty act of a great warrior as we might have once. Now we stop and remember that this represents the murder and mutilation of human beings as beloved by God as we are. We stop and proclaim the good news that no one is disposable; no one is beyond God’s love. And we are to love neighbor and stranger, even in a time of war.

Michal was used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. He left her behind to suffer the consequences at the hands of her increasingly violent father. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him in spite of having abandoned her, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David, the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And when he did, it was with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her, forcing her to live in isolation as he married and fathered again and again and again–nine women plus Saul’s leftover wives plus two more groups of unnamed, uncounted women and their children. (Learn more about Michal and other royal women in Womanist Midrash.)

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. I imagine she would have heard the news every time David married another woman and fathered a child and by this point in the story there would be many. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have even been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back abandoning her to a living widowhood.

Michal’s childlessness is an opportunity to discuss something else the Church doesn’t do well with, unwanted childlessness, infertility, and miscarriages. It’s not all the Church’s fault. The bible is incredibly unhelpful here claiming God gives and withholds children to reward and punish. That is clearly how our forbears thought but we are not limited to their theology any more than we are limited to their knowledge of reproductive biology–in which men plant seeds that are miniature people into women who like good and bad soil are fertile or barren, contributing nothing to the child.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies, and live births. But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women, miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. Our task as faithful interpreters is to bridge the gaps between the text and the world with the good news that God does not toy with us but holds in in our brokenness and heartbreak.

I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did. To say nothing of the heartbreak men experience but society tells them they’re not entitled to feel as real men. Longing for children or intimacy is limited by gender or orientation. Heartbreak, betrayal, and abandonment are not the sole province of women. And no matter what some of us may say in sorrow or anger, they are not all the fault of men. And not all heartbreak is romantic. Parents can wound as deeply as partners. Loss of employment and financial losses can be devastating. I dare say all of us have been brokenhearted, abandoned, or betrayed by someone or something beyond our control, beyond fixing, with which we simply have to live.

To all of us who like Michal have been brokenhearted saints at one time or another, God is Immanuel. God is Immanuel to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. A God who loves even David, though perhaps in spite of rather than because of. We are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about or include in Eucharistic prayers, saints like you and me.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you, whether you are a Michal or a David. God’s love is for you. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and may not want. Amen.


Why Michal Rightly Despised David

2 Samuel 6:16 As the ark of the Holy God came into the city of David, Michal bat Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Holy God; and she despised him in her heart… 23 And Michal bat Saul had no child to the day of her death.

I heard a voice say preach Michal’s story. Preach the story of a woman who loved a man who didn’t love her. Preach the story of a woman who never had children and died alone. Preach the story of a woman who loved a man of God who had other women and chose all of them over her. Preach the story of a woman who got left holding the bag when she helped the man she loved break out. Preach the story of a woman who got passed around from man to man by another man. Preach the story of a woman locked up and abandoned by the man she had risked everything for. Preach the story of a woman who found someone who loved her after everything she had been through and had that man and his love by the man she had once loved who never loved her. Preach the story of a woman who doesn’t get a happy ending in the bible. Preach that. But nobody wants to hear that.

In the bible, barren women get miraculous conceptions, pregnancies and live births. But not always. When people call the roll of barren or otherwise childless women for whom God provides children of their own flesh: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, the woman from Shunem – though she wasn’t asking for a child and Elizabeth they forget about Michal.

The psalmist (113:9) says: God gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. 

Wisdom (3:13) says: …blessed is the barren womanwho is undefiled, who has not entered into a sinful union; she will have fruit when God examines souls.

But in this world in which the bible is enshrined, the miracles are few and far between. Some, few women miraculously conceive against the odds. The overwhelming majority do not. God does not plant a little patriarch or savior in their womb. It’s not like the bible stories in this world in which the bible has become scripture. But we speak as though it is. Perhaps you’ve heard it. In the mostly black Christian circles in which I was formed and continue to seek my soul’s nurture I hear women spoken of with reference to their wombs, our wombs, my womb. Sometimes there’ll be an acknowledgement of those who cannot or do not choose to have children in a line, a single sentence. But here’s what they do not say:

Some of us were born with broken wombs. Some of us were born with dead wombs. Some of us were born without our wombs. Some of us have been attacked by our wombs for as long as we can remember. Some of our wombs were broken into, raped and scraped into inhospitality and infertility when were too young for our wombs to recover. Some of us have wombs that cannot or will not hold onto life – and we have tried, cried, paid and prayed for womb-life. Our wombs trickle, leak and squeeze – in heart and flesh rending pulses – the life out our wombs. Our wombs bleed when they should not, not a cleansing, healing flow but a chunky, membranous crimson, tide running down our legs, staining our clothes, soiling our sheets, embarrassing and humiliating us in public and private with our partners. Our wombs do not bleed when they should. They do not bleed because we have nothing to nurture with its rich blood. Our wombs don’t bother to bleed because they know we have no eggs, no ovaries or we ovaries and eggs that are not worth its blood. Some of our wombs hurt so much that they must be taken from us and no matter how much they hurt us we don’t want to let them go.

Some of our wombs hurt because they have been taken away from us and ache for the children they will never bear. Some of our wombs hurt because the life we have given has been snatched away. Some of our wombs hurt because death came for our child and we had to carry that dead body in our body to term and push it into the world in a grotesque parody of the birth we had planned. Some of our wombs hurt because the child we birthed didn’t survive the birthing. She didn’t last the day, the night. He didn’t live a week, a month, a year. Some of our wombs hurt because we can never accept out child’s death at any age. Some of our wombs hurt because they were perfectly healthy and desperately empty having never found anyone to love or be loved by.

I’m telling the story of Michal and her lonely, empty, abandoned womb. For a moment I’m going to do what I argue against, reduce a woman to a hunk of meat, tie her identity to whether or not her body has performed the herteonormative act to which it has been reduced in patriarchy. Michal is a supporting character in David’s story. The story isn’t about her. It’s not interested in her well-being or whether she has her own relationship to God.

Now, some blame Michal for telling David about himself. This is dangerously close to victim blaming. We have been so conditioned to read with David and to read against women that many of us miss that Michal was telling the truth about him. David was dancing before his Lord but he was also dancing for the servingslavewomen: by the women of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor. In other words, they like it and I know it. Yes, Michal despised him in her heart and she had every reason to do so.

Michal had been used by her father to trap David and used by David to escape the trap. Her father used her body to punish David, giving her to another man as his wife – still married to David in the eyes of the law and in her heart, probably still in love with him, now she has to sleep with the strange new man her father has given her body to. How she must have longed for David the swashbuckling hero and rebel bandit to come to her rescue. And then he did, with two other women in tow.

Michal might have been content to live with David and his new wives, that was the way of kings and she was a king’s daughter. But David didn’t want her as a woman or a wife. He wanted her back as a possession. She was his and no one else could have her. He took her back and then he abandoned her. He failed to do for her what was commanded by the Torah; he failed to provide her with children. The text does not say that Michal was barren, that would mean she and David were having sex. It says she does not have a child, meaning that David did not give her one. David withheld himself, his body and his seed from her.

Michal had to watch as David impregnates Abigail and Ahinoam. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Maacah multiple times. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Haggith. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Abital. Michal watches as David passes her by and married and impregnates Eglah. All of these wives and their children are listed before Michal sees David cutting a fool. Is there any wonder she despised him in her heart? It may have been the first time she had seen him in person since he took her back. Michal will later have to watch as David passes her by and rapes and impregnates and then marries Bathsheba.

Is there a word from the God who loves David so much it doesn’t matter what he does to any body or their body for Michal? I maintain God is God of all creations and that includes the folk on the margins of the very scriptures that proclaims God’s love for David while demonstrating how deeply unworthy he was of that love, let alone Michal’s. Because I know Michal is not just a character in David’s story, that there are childless, lonely, hurting women, women longing for the love a man that will never love them and women who lost the one who did, I have to ask where is God for Michal? Is there a word for her?

I might have to go beyond the bible to find a word for her because the bible isn’t concerned about her. But I am. Michal, I have a word for you:

Michal, baby, you are not your womb. Your value is not in what it does or doesn’t do, what you do, don’t or can’t do with it.

Michal, baby, live. Live. Live with it. And live without him. Live with it when it hurts. And it will. You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt. Live with it. Live fully in joy and pain. Don’t let it cripple you. There are things you can’t do. There are things beyond your control. There are things you want that you’ll never have. Live with it. Live through it. And survive. You survived David; you can survive this.

The promise of God throughout all of scripture is Immanuel. If it is for anyone, it is for you. For you were despised and rejected men and deemed as one of no account. You were one from whom women and men hid their faces. God is with you, loving you through this life you didn’t choose and do not want.

There is a word from the Living, Loving God for you. It came through the poet who spoke for Isaiah and is numbered as the 54th chapter of that serial collaboration. It is written to Jerusalem after the Babylonian invasion slaughtered her children in the street and carried others off to Babylon to remake in their image. To comfort Jerusalem, Next-Gen-Isaiah draws on the image of a woman who never had children to lose. Lost in most translations is that the entire chapter is written in feminine grammar. Looking beneath and beyond the Jerusalem exile, I hear God speaking to Michal and all of the women whose wombs and hearts have been bruised, broken or broken in to.

Sing childless woman,
never-given-birth-woman;
Woman, break out a song and rejoice, woman,
never-in-labor-woman.
For more are the children of the devastated woman
than the children of the espoused woman,
says Yah.

Do not fear woman
for you will not be ashamed woman;
do not feel humiliated woman
for you will not be disgraced woman.
For the shame of your youth woman,
you will forget woman,
and the stigma of your widowhood, woman,
you will never remember, woman.

For your spouse woman,
is the One who made you woman.
Sovereign God of *Women Warriors
is God’s name.

And the Holy One of Israel
will redeem you woman ~
who is called God of all the earth.

For like a wife abandoned and abject in spirit ~
God has called you woman ~
For you were a rejected young bride,
says your God, woman.

For a brief space I abandoned you woman,
but in great mother-love I will gather you woman.

For a minute moment
I hid my face briefly from you woman.
But in eternally bonded love
I will mother-love you woman.
Your Redeemer, Woman, has spoken.

For the mountains may depart
and the hills may be shaken,
but my bonded love
will never be removed from you woman;
neither will my covenant of well-being
ever be shaken,
says God who **mother-loves you woman.

Afflicted woman,
stormy-weather-woman,
uncomforted woman,
Look! I will set your bones with
ornamentation city-woman
and lay your foundation in sapphires woman.

I will give you ruby sunshine woman
and for your openings woman,
jewel stones
and for your boundary woman,
precious stones.

In righteousness will you be established, woman;
you will be far from oppression woman
so you will not fear woman
from terror
for it will not come on you, woman.

No weapon formed against you woman,
will succeed,
and every tongue that rises against you
woman for judgment,
you will condemn woman.
This is the heritage of the servants of God
And their righteousness is from me,
An oracle of God.

This is good news for the ones who don’t get that happy ending in spite of how much you fast and pray: You didn’t get married. You didn’t have a child. Your child did die. You lost your job, you lost your home, you lost your wife. Your husband took his life. Your child is going to die in that prison. God has not removed that cancer from your body. You were raped; you were incested and those memories won’t just go away. You are living with stuff you can’t tell anyone about. And you need a word for your life as it is right now. This is good news for those saints they don’t write songs about. For those of you who have named it and claimed it but didn’t get it. It good news for you who couldn’t take back what the devil stole for you.

God is Immanuel. And if God is Immanuel to anyone, God is Immanuel to Michal. God is Immanuel to Jerusalem, to Michal and to me. And to you. In our brokenness, in our wholeness, in our fullness, in our emptiness. God is with us. God is within us. God is and we are. Still here. Here and not alone. We are surrounded by the love of God that is greater than the failing love of friend, father or lover. In our places of isolation, abandonment, and self-exile we are held by the God who loves, heals, and restores, a God who is not swept away by romanticized readings of David and the despicable things he did to women. But we are held and loved by a God who chooses the weak, the vulnerable, the abused and mis-used.

It’s well past time to listen to the voices of women in the biblical text telling their Me Too stories about characters we have been taught to romanticize like certain now-fallen Hollywood idols. Michal despised David in her heart because he was despicable and I imagine God said, “I understand.”

 

[All translations of the biblical text are mine. In Isaiah 51 I used *Women-Warriors to highlight that צבאות is feminine plural and as a nod to some traditional rendering of angels as female, not to claim that the celestial beings are human or are gendered as we are. I translate רחם-love as **mother-love because the root also means womb.]

You can read more about Michal and the other women in David’s life in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and of the Throne.

Revised for preaching in an Episcopal congregation here. Originally preached at a WomanPreach event.


Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

You will conceive—in your womb—and you will give birth to a son… 

Annunciation Tryptich by the late Robert Moore of the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas where it hangs in Philadelphia PA.

 

Did the Blessed Virgin say, “me too”? There is a moment in the Annunciation story when an ordinary girl on the cusp of womanhood is approached by a powerful male figure who tells her what is going to happen to her body, in its most intimate spaces. (#MeToo is a collection of women’s stories acknowledging their experiences of sexual assault and harassment following very public claims against a number of media executives.)

Sit with me in this moment, this uncomfortable moment, before rushing to find proof of her consent, or argue that contemporary notions of consent do not apply to ancient texts, or God knew she’d say yes so it was prophetic, or contend that (human) gender does not apply to divine beings, Gabriel or God, and the Holy Spirit is feminine anyway. Hold those thoughts and just sit in the moment with this young woman.

Even in the Iron Age in an androcentric and patriarchal culture, she knows her body belongs to her. She doesn’t ask what her intended will say, what her father will say, what about the shame this would likely bring on her, her family, and their name. Instead she testifies to the integrity of her body under her control. In her question, “How can this be?” I hear, “Since I have not done and will not do what you are suggesting—just in case you are really here to defraud me and my intended—how will this thing work.” I see her withholding consent at this moment. She has questions and has not agreed to this, glorious messianic prophecy notwithstanding. Not yet. 

It is in this moment between “this is what you will do, what will happen to and in your body,” and submission to what she accepts as God’s will that I ask, Does Mary say, “me too”? Does she have a choice here? The narrative and world that produced it may well say no. That is what makes this a “me too” story to me.

Yet in a world which did not necessarily recognize her sole ownership of her body and did not understand our notions of consent and rape, this very young woman had the dignity, courage, and temerity to question a messenger of the Living God about what would happen to her body before giving her consent. That is important. That gets lost when we rush to her capitulation. Before Mary said, “yes,” she said, “wait a minute, explain this to me.”

After the holy messenger explains the mechanics of the conception that is to take place—he is still saying, “this will happen to you”—then and only then does she consent, using the problematic language of the text and her world, “Indeed, I am the woman-servant-slave of the Lord (a slaveholding title).” Mary’s submission is in the vernacular of slavery, as is much of the Gospel. The language of “servitude” is a misnomer in biblical translation; even though they were not necessarily enslaved in perpetuity, they were enslaved. And while enslaved had no right to protect the integrity of their bodies or control of their sexuality or reproduction. We often soften the language to “servant” particularly with reference to God but the language of slavery runs through the whole bible and is often found without critique on the lips of Jesus.

In this light, her consent is troubled and troubling: Let it be with me according to your word. Given what we know about power dynamics and hierarchy, (not to mention the needs of the narrative), how could she have said anything else? I think that there is not much difference between “overshadowed” and “overwhelmed.” I also remember Jeremiah saying God had *seduced and **overpowered him. (*Translated “enticed” in Jer 20:7, פתה means “seduced” in Ex 22:16; Deut 11:16; Judg 14:15. **The second verb חזק, is one of two primary terms for rape in the Hebrew Bible.)

Did the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary say, “me too?” Perhaps not. A close reading shows her presumably powerless in every way but sufficiently empowered to talk back to the emissary of God, determine for herself, and grant what consent she could no matter the power of the One asking. And yet in that moment after being told by someone else what would happen to her body, she became not just the Mother of God, but the holy sister to those of us who do say, “Me too.”

 

 


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.+