Today black women in the United States and perhaps some of our allies are wearing geles, traditional West African head wraps like those worn in Nigeria to call attention to the hundreds of our daughters, kidnapped and sold like the Israelite daughters at Shiloh more than three thousand years ago. Some folk still have not figured out that women and girls are neither property nor breeding stock. I often refer to that kind of thinking as Iron Age theology. In truth, all Iron Age theology is not so heinous. There are powerful, vibrant transformative religious communities in the world, including this one because of Iron Age theology. The Torah which we study offers some of the best and worst of the theology of our ancestors.
Among the worst is the reduction of girls and women to salable objects. There is renewed focus on the trafficking of women and girls (and boys and men) in sex-service industries. But as the world was horribly reminded on the 16th of April, girls have been stolen and sold into marriage for thousands of years. This story is particularly heinous to me as the descendant of trafficked peoples. The mothers of my people, were raped and bred like cattle.
To my horror as a Christian, my own scriptures commend the abduction and rape of women and girls as war booty. Nothing has caused me to wrestle with God, scripture and my understanding of the authority of scripture than the sanctioned abuse and marginalization of women in the scripture. My recent post on rape marriage in the scriptures in light of the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schools girls can be found here at Religion Dispatches.
In 2oo8 I wrote about the problematic notion of biblical marriage, polygamy, rape and incest being overlooked to invoke biblical authority on heterosexual unions to the exclusion of all others without acknowledging the reality of all forms of marriage acceptable according to the text:
Rape-marriage was a socially acceptable conjugal union in the worldview of the authors and editors of the biblical text and endures to this day in some parts of the world. While there are less vicious forms of biblical marriage, the construct cannot be invoked without sanctifying the abduction and rape of teen and pre-teen girls.
The ongoing abduction of girls and women in Ethiopia in Christian and Muslim communities and the abduction of as many as 70,000 women and girls by Hindu and Muslim communities during the partition of Pakistan from India that this on-going savagery transcends time, culture, and scripture. And there are accounts of Buddist citizens of Burma/Myanmar and Hmong Vietnamese in the U.S. abducting brides according to their ancestral traditions.
Today, there are contemporary prophetic voices crying out against the continued deployment of biblical marriage as normative social and religious construct. Challenging religious leaders or would-be religious leaders about what kinds of unions are divinely sanctioned, even biblical, is dangerous subversive work. They may call you names, they may even invoke the name of God, but your name will be written in the book of life and will never be forgotten.
It is well past time for all of us to raise our voices.
Will you use all of your resources to bring pressure to bear on our government and the Nigerian government to pursue and rescue the nearly 300 abducted Nigerian schoolgirls and to provide safe haven for them if and when they are rescued?
Listen to the recording (mp3 file)
Hosea 11:3 I, I taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
yet they did not know that I healed them.
4 I pulled them along with humane restraint,
with ties of love.
And I was to them
like those who lift babies to their cheeks,
I reached to them and fed them.
Let us pray: In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.
For the last few years I have been engaging in the work of public theology in social media. I do so because I am often frustrated with and disgusted by the misrepresentations of my God and my scriptures in the public square. I am an evangelical Episcopalian, like our Archbishop of Canterbury who is so evangelical he speaks in tongues; I want to share the love of God in and through the scriptures. I’m active on social media in part because I want people to know the loving faithful God of Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament – and all the books in between – and not just a few carefully curated verses reflecting Iron Age, flat-earth theology.
This morning’s First Lesson holds one of my favorite images of God, that I’d like to share with you and with the world, one whom I’m in desperate need of, a tender, loving, mothering God. I don’t know about you, but this has been a summer of sorrows, for me and for people about whom I care. It has been sorrowful for people in our neighborhoods, nation and around the world. It has been sorrowful for people who look like me and my little brother and my nephews. Sometimes random tragedies and natural disasters leave sorrow in their wake. But all too often sorrow is caused by human beings, intentionally inflicting great harm and pain on other people.
Hosea may seem like a strange place in which to find a tender loving mothering God, especially if you heard or read last week’s First Lesson option from Hosea chapter 1. Hosea claims God told him to marry a woman of prostitution. I say “claims” because, come on… We’re trained to hear these texts religiously which is not always a good thing. Imagine if your rector came back and said God told him to marry a porn star and his next sermon series will be based on their children so he needs to get busy making those babies and is doing all of this as a sermon example so you can see God in him and in his wife who’s going to go back to her porn-making ways and eventually he’s going to have to buy out her contract. I can’t say Hosea didn’t hear the voice of God. I can say the story provides us an opportunity to explore how we know what we are hearing, thinking or imagining is or is not the voice of God. But that was last week.
Now about this week… I’m guessing this is not the sermon you thought you were getting. Perhaps equally unexpected are the ways, plural, in which Hosea thought about and named God in what has become scripture for us. Whatever you make of the marry-and-impregnate-a-woman-who-sells-herself-and-will-return-to-selling-herself-so-you-will-have-to-buy-her-back-story of the beginning of the book, it paints a particular, familiar, traditional, image of God. God is Israel’s long-suffering, betrayed, jealous husband, who loves his – I said his – wife in spite of how she has treated him and will take her back. This image of God has its problems; God is often a violent, abusive husband in these Iron Age theological portraits, particularly in the prophets, which assume that jealous men beat their wives and have every right to do so, and worse.
We should be honest about the limitations and danger of that image and language. All of our language and imagery falls short when we speak of God, for human language is woefully inadequate for the task. Even our most familiar and beloved God-language can become an idol – that which is not God but which we treat as though it were. For some, masculine god-language is an idol; it is a limited, finite, incomplete articulation of who God is in and beyond the scriptures treated and worshipped as though it were God. God is not our language about God, even our most cherished and traditional language, father language, Trinitarian language, falls short of who God is. We need multiple images of God, more than one set of words, like Hosea. In most of Hosea God is Israel’s husband but in chapter 11 she is Israel’s mother.
God says: I, I taught Ephraim how to walk – using a double subject in Hebrew for emphasis. Imagine God holding out her fingers for her toddling child to grasp as he teeters and totters.
God says: I lifted them up in my arms. Imagine God holding her child in her arms, not just one, but all of them at the same time. No matter how many, no matter how wriggly, there is room in God’s lap for all of her children.
God says: I was to them like those who lift babies to their cheeks. The way I cared for them – the nation who is my child – was like when you hold a baby up to your face and rub his soft, plump little cheek against your own.
God says: I reached to them and fed them. I fed my babies as all mothers have from the founding of the world until some of you all figured out how to bottle milk. I nursed my babies at my own breast; I didn’t farm them out to a milk-nurse. The image of God as mother is older than Hosea and endures into the New Testament and earliest theology of the Church. Feminists didn’t start it; we are Janies-come-lately.
The Spirit who is always feminine in Hebrew and never male in any biblical text, was the mother hen of all creation in Genesis. In Exodus, at the founding of the nation, God gave birth to Israel becoming their mother. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means “narrow place.” It is a metaphor for the womb from whose violent contractions Israel was delivered. The passage through the Sea is the passage through the birth canal, complete with blood and water. In Numbers 11 while arguing with God, Moses complains that he did not give birth to Israel and is unable to nurse them and tells her – Moses uses a feminine pronoun for God – Moses tells her to nurse her own babies because he doesn’t have the equipment to do so. He then quits as God’s nanny but they make up and he goes back to work. Then God whips up a batch of chicken and biscuits for her ungrateful children. (That’s the manna and quails for the literalists among you.)
Deuteronomy 32:18 charges the ancient Israelites, and us: The Rock who gave birth to you, you have neglected; and you have forgotten the God who writhed in labor with you. 1 Peter 2:2 urges new Christians to desire the milk of the gospel; the gospel is mother’s milk and God is our mother. Julian of Norwich, that great mystic of the Church wrote of the motherhood and fatherhood of God and repeatedly of “Christ our Mother” who feeds us in the Sacrament from his own body as a mother from her breast.
Hosea preached of the tender mothering love of God as he preached about a second Exodus, a do-over. Anybody else want to turn back the hands of time and start over? Israel was going to get one, but it wouldn’t be like they thought. God wasn’t going to wave a magic wand and erase all of their problems and the consequences of their decisions, choices, actions and inactions. But God would accompany them on their journey, through and beyond their sorrows, no matter where they led or how long it took.
Hosea 11 with its tender portrait of Mother God has a tragic, reverse Exodus:
Hosea 11:5 …return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to repent.
6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their divisions,
devouring because of their schemes…
Israel will go back to Egypt. Juxtaposed with the Assyrian invasion and defeat of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Monarchy, resulting in the decimation of nine and a half of the twelve tribes, God announces that Israel – meaning the North, not the whole – will return to Egypt. This is unimaginable, going back to the place of slavery.
Perhaps it is not so unimaginable. Violence rages in our cities too, violence from a time we thought long past all. The legal right to kill based on your feelings, even when those feelings are rooted in racism. Are we going back in time? Perhaps not going back to the days of slavery, but are we going back to pre-Civil Rights, pre-Voting Rights Amendment America? Are we going back to the time when my daddy wore the uniform of the United States Army and didn’t have the right to vote? We can’t go back! Surely God won’t send us back there.
Are we going back to a time when women didn’t have any control over our own bodies, medical or other decisions, couldn’t walk down the street without a male escort to avoid being seen as one of those women – the kind who can be taken off the street, used and abused and held for a decade? Well, maybe no one but the predators thinks that’s acceptable anymore but one in five women are raped and only three percent of rapes lead to convictions and rape victims and survivors still have to prove they were really raped. We’ve made so little progress here. We can’t go back! But it looks like we’re going anyway. For once we want Mama to say, “I will turn this car around…” But this time she won’t. Israel is going back to Egypt and we are backtracking too. But how far back are we going to go?
After four hundred years of bondage, it took the Israelites another forty years to reach Canaan, and everyone who started the journey with them did not make it. A whole generation died on the way, a whole generation of dreamers. American chattel slavery lasted four hundred sixty years. Its aftermath gave birth to generations of dreamers and their dreams; one dream marched on Washington fifty years ago this month. Will we let the fabric of their dreams be unraveled?
We have done so much since then, learned so much, built so much, changed so much. Are we going to lose it all? Civil Rights and women’s rights and the dignity of every human person, gay, straight, and crooked, cis, trans and in transition, able-bodied and varying abilities, documented and undocumented, wealthy, comfortable, struggling, working poor, deeply and desperately impoverished… I imagine Hosea’s congregation reflecting on their own history.
After leaving Egypt, the Israelites fought their way into Canaan, when they were not fighting the indigenous population who understandably objected to what they experienced as illegal immigration, they were fighting the land. We will continue to fight against the dreams of a new generation of dreamers? Are we willing to offer the stranger welcome to this nation built on bones and broken promises and the sad history of cutting off many of its First Nations from the same promises?
Now, the prophet says God will let the Assyrians invade them as they themselves invaded Canaan. Yet this is not an easy decision for God. God laments:
8 How can I give you away Ephraim? How can I hand you over Israel?
How can I make you like Admah, treat you like Zeboiim?
[cities destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah]
My heart turns within me; kindling my tenderness and heart together.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. No!
But you will go back to Egypt. God, we can’t go back there! We can’t go back in time here in America. But it looks like we too are going back to Egypt. And God promises us as God promised Israel, no matter what happens, no matter how bad it looks, no matter how bad it gets, not to destroy us, not to abandon us, to accompany us wherever we go and when necessary to bring us home, again and again.
But this time it will be different trip. We and Egypt have changed – and I’m not even talking about the most recent changes in Egypt. Those who go to Egypt as Hosea prophesies will not be enslaved; their former oppressors have become welcoming neighbors – for a while. Those who seek refuge in Egypt will be saved from Babylonian annihilation. More than one hundred and fifty years later, the prophet Jeremiah was forcibly taken to Egypt and he and an entire community of Jews escaped the Babylonian invasion. They built a thriving community in North Africa. They learned Greek and translated the scriptures. Many generations later that community welcomed the Holy Family into their midst when they too went back to Egypt in response to the dream of a new generation, giving new meaning to God’s words to Hosea: Out of Egypt have I called my son… And the gospel in which Hosea was quoted was written in Greek because of the influence of that community and their descendants.
Israel will be defeated by the Assyrians and deported to Egypt and to Assyria, but God will bring them home again, in a second Exodus.
Hosea 11:10 They shall follow the God Who Is Mother and Husband,
who roars like a lion; for when God roars–
God’s children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like a dove from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes,
says the Mothering God.
Sometimes we go back to go forward. And wherever we go, our Mothering God goes with us. That’s Iron Age theology that still works in the digital age. In the words of Ps 107:43, Let those who are wise give heed to these things…
May God the Mother and Father
of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,
Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,
Who took the tangled threads of their lives
And wove a tapestry of Redemption
In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret
Continue to weave the strands of your life
In the Divine design. Amen.
The festering scab of our rape epidemic has been ripped off (again), revealing the festering flesh underneath. Women and girls snatched off the street and held in chains for years as sex slaves; predators talking their way into the homes of struggling single mothers for access to their children; male soldiers and defense contractors raping their female and male fellow soldiers habitually and for sport with impunity; women, men, boys and girls trafficked around the world because they are cheaper and more profitable than drugs with lower overhead and fewer turf wars – and the demand is inexhaustible.
We are horrified by and seemingly inured to violence: sexual violence; domestic violence; gun violence. The sleeping behemoth of righteous indignation is shaking off its slumber as the parents of murdered children find allies in their fellow citizens and in some of their representatives to address one factor in the sea of madness, nearly unfettered access to guns including military grade weapons and high capacity magazines that can turn any shooting into a slaughter.
The consumption of women’s and girl’s bodies for the sex-power-rage gratification of men is prehistoric and perennial. It is biblical. But it is not godly. No longer “just” a tool of warring armies – although still very much so – the daily reduction of women of women and girls to tubes of flesh to which and for which some men will do anything is a horror that must be decried and ended.
We cannot legislate our way out of rape culture any more than we can out of gun culture, although legislation has an irreplaceable part to play in transforming our society that must not be abandoned or surrendered.
We are broken at the basic human level, but not not past the hope of repair. That is the irrepressible hope that dogs me, hounds me, stalks me. We have it within our capacity to change, ourselves and our world. We begin with what we tell ourselves about ourselves and each other. We continue by rejecting and correcting messages objectify and commodify people, women, girls, boys and men. We shine the light of day and the light of God on sexual violence in our homes, churches, temples, mosques, schools, military, and streets. We teach men and boys not to rape, that they have no right to the flesh of women and girls or boys and men. We stop blaming the victims of sexual violence for the crimes against others against them. We stop accepting rape and torture as the price of doing business or consequence of living in certain neighborhoods, countries or anywhere else in this world.
It is not enough for good men not to rape. It is not enough for people of faith to condemn atrocities after the fact. We must nurture human dignity in each child, each adult; teach and model manhood that is not based on conquest or dominion. The savages among us are savaging the illusion of civilization. No amount of digital technology can prevent the deployment of a weaponized penis yet technological advances and innovations further rape and trafficking. It is far past time to target men and boys and our rape-normative culture with messages of transformation. You are not savages. We will not be savaged.
The time has come for rape-culture to be buried in a grave from which it will never rise again.
Rape is at the forefront of our civil discourse in ways it has not been in my memory or experience: A young woman raped to the point of death in India has been the focus of international media. During the run up to the presidential election Rep. Todd Akin articulated his belief in legitimate and illegitimate rape as medical certainty proved by whether or not a woman conceived as evidence that women lie about being raped to get abortions. There were so many egregious GOP statements about rape that many conservative women and some men are horrified that their party has become lampooned as the "party of rape." But rape is not a Republican problem, an American problem, an Indian, Darfurian or Congolese problem. It is a human problem, and because many humans are religious, it is also a religious problem.
Rape is normative in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The texts in which women are raped are legion: Num 31:15-18; Deut 21:10-14; Judg 19:22-26. Shockingly, for many religious readers, God, Moses and the Torah call for the rape of women (and killing of their infants) as a normative practice in war. (I present at some length on sanctioned rape in the scriptures here.) Perhaps most shocking of all is that the God of the text – who for many readers is their God – uses the language of rape normatively to describe his [in this case I yield to tradition] justified punishment of Israel, positioning himself as the rapist of his errant and deserving wife. Dr. Kate Blanchard expresses the horror of the unsuspecting reader:
Quick – which famous religious personality voiced this angry tirade: “Remove your veil, take off the skirt, uncover the thigh… Your nakedness shall be uncovered, your shame will be seen; I will take vengeance”? Or this: “It is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up, and you suffer violence… I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen”? Or this: “She did not give up her whorings… in her youth men had lain with her and fondled her virgin bosom and poured out their lust upon her.Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, for whom she lusted. They uncovered her nakedness… and they killed her with the sword. Judgment was executed upon her, and she became a byword among women”?
Yep, you guessed it: The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Isaiah 47, Jeremiah 13, and Ezekiel 23). The translations of these shining examples of victim-blaming are clear enough, despite the old-fashioned language: I’m angry and you’re going to suffer for it. You deserve to be raped because of your sexual exploits. You’re a slut and it was just a matter of time till you suffered the consequences. Let this be a lesson to you and to all other uppity women.
Dr. Blanchard's blog, Rape is God's Problem Too, points to the ways assumptions about the right of males (human and divine) to do whatever they want to the bodies of women – no feminine divines here – especially in the name of "love" is deeply embedded in our civil and religious cultures.
How and why does it matter that rape-language is used in the bible for God? (It's just metaphorical, right?) In Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Anderson tells the story of a young woman, who when confronted with rape-narratives in her scriptures says, "This is the word of God. If it says slavery is okay, slavery is okay. If it says rape is okay, rape is okay." The authority of the bible – accorded and wielded – mean that biblical gender norms, however patriarchal, misogynistic and rapacious are presumed to divinely articulated and intended and not the product of an Iron Age patriarchal, misogynistic and rapacious society engaged in Stone Age theology.
What has helped me as a religious reader for whom these texts are scripture is understanding how and why this violent rhetoric was deployed. Seeing that language as a tool of persuasion and not a divine articulation of right relationships between women and men has been liberating for me. The Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems' classic exposition of the rhetoric of rape in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets ably demonstrates how the Hebrew prophets took the normative violence against women and turned it against men in ancient Israel casting them in the role of the sex-crazed disobedient wife whose physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband (God) is justified.
While we as women and men decry rape and rape culture in civil society, we must not neglect its roots in our sacred texts and the ways in which it contributes to theologies of the human person, gender and God. It is clear to me that biblical tradents were not able to envision a world in which rape was not normative. Fortunately, I can.