Saturday, May 24, 2008

Aligning with Patriarchy

Recently, a female pastor I much admire made the following statement about her role in the denomination she plays a part: "By aligning myself with X (denomination) I am aligning myself with patriarchy." Immediately I thought of my own role, in my own patriarchally structured denomination and I took a sharp breath. It's not that inroads are not being made for women. It's not that female pastors are no longer allowed. But the fact is it is a system shaped, for the most part, by white men. There are not women in the highest of leadership ranks in the denominational structure. Therefore, any change a woman might bring to these denominations requires first aligning oneself with a system that was against the full expression of our gifts and callings from the get-go, and still has not embraced them fully. Eek.

My pastor friend went on to muse on narrative theology: We believe scripture is divinely inspired, but what does it mean that most of scripture is written through the lense of patriarchy, through a lense that makes the males the central figures, the figures of our attention and compassion even when they so wrongly deserve it?

A case in point. The story of the unnamed concubine from Bethlehem was highlighted for me this week*. A master and his concubine are the main characters*. Either the concubine "played the harlot" or "she became angry with" the master (depends on the translation) and she left him and returned to her father's house. The master goes after her to "speak to her heart, to bring her back." But when he gets there he speaks not to the concubine, but instead hangs with his "father in law" and drinks and eats for days and generally has a party. Then he saddles up, with concubine (who has been given no more speech in the story thus far, and whose heart has not been spoken to) and prepares to go against the father's warning that is not safe to travel at night.

On the journey, the master, his servant, and teh concubine find themselves invited to the home of an old man to stay for the night. At the house, the travelers "are enjoying themselves to their heart". In the middle of the party the men of Gibeah pound on the door and demand to "know" the male guest (the master) who is staying at the old man's house. The old man refuses the men, telling them not to act wickedly, and then says, "Look now, my daughter the virgin and his concubine. Let me bring them out. Ravish them, and do to them the good in your eyes."

Without any other action, the master (same man who followed her to her father's house with plans to speak to her heart) seizes his concubine and shoves her out of the house. She is raped repeatedly and tortured all night until morning. In the morning, her master leaves the house to be on his journey and is confronted with the victim. She has crawled to the doorway of the house and has her hand upon the threshhold. "Arise and let us be going," he tells her. "But there was no answer." Was she dead? The Greek Bible says she was. The Hebrew text is silent, leaving that open for interpretation. At any rate, the master puts her on his donkey and takes her home. When he gets home he "took the knife and he seized his concubine. He cut her, limb from limb, into twelve pieces and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel." It's unclear whether the master has actually murdered her, but he sends her body parts throughout Israel asking the peopel to take note of what the Benjaminite men did to her. Israel convenes. The master gives account of his story, failing to mention he pushed her out of the house to be raped and tortured. The tribes of Israel demand Benjaminites give up the wicked men who did this to the concubine. They refuse. The other tribes attack Benjamin. 25,000 Benjaminites die in a day. Not a single woman, child or beast survives. Only 600 men escape to the wilderness. However, the rest of the tribes cannot handle the idea of "there [being] one tribe lacking in Israel." Those men need to procreate! But they are not going to give their own women to the Benjaminites. So, the attack another town that wasn't part of the battle, murding all of its inhabitants except 400 young virgins, whom they give to Benjaminites. Well, that isnt' enough women for 600 Benjaminites so the men of Israel decide its okay to abduct 200 virgin daughters who dance in the festival of YHWH.

As Phyllis Trible says in her book Texts of Terrors, "In total the rape of one has become the rape of six hundred....the story of the concubine justifies the expansion of violence against women. What these men claim to abhor, they have reenacted with vengeance. They have captured, betrayed, raped, and scattered 400 virgins of Jabesh-gilead and two hundred daughters of Shiloh. Furthermore, they have tortured and murdered all the women of Benjamin and all the married women of Jabesh-gilead. Israelites males have dimembered the corporate body of Israelite females."

What this story underscores for me is that women were property. The outrage of the master and the tribes of Israel is not at the human rights violation of the concubine. It is rather, at the desecration of property. And an eye for an eye, right? or an eye for thousands of eyes? The men go out and seek their vengeance, committing human rights violation upon human rights violations.

Could we read this story a million times, "through the lense of patriarchy," as my friend asked, and never get it? In other words, could our attention be so focused on the actions, the battles, the "victories" of "God's elect" that we do not see the woman whose body, as Trible suggests, "was broken and given to many"?

*through reading Phyllis Trible's Text of Terrors
*the following story comes from Judges 19-21


wit4life said...

These detestable things I think underscore not so much patriarchy, though that is a factor, but more so, what happens God is not king, and his law is not followed. The pinnacle of the Sinai Treaty in it's chaistic structure has at its center piece, not the worship of God, not purification, not patriarchy whatsoever, not anything you might think. The main point of the contract with Israel that reveals the heart and nature of God, and the point men and women should hold on to is --treat foreign, poor, widow, women with great kindness.-- God's special provision for them, the centerpiece no less, in the law slaps in the face of culture patriarchy with it's abusive tendencies.

This wretched story and others illustrate that God is still merciful to awful people. Witness God protecting Cain, the first murderer. Cain was wrong, but God showed mercy. The story is not a "how to" or a stamp of approval, it is baffling. It shows that God, sometimes shows incredible mercy.

I have no fondness for the awful judges story. I would like to think it is greatly embellished. Or maybe God spared her from a worse fate. The Bible is utterly unique in ancient Middle Eastern literature. Women were rarely mentioned, but only in the bible were they main characters, and even heroes. God pairs women purposefully was his love, Israel, the underdog, in stories and shows how they indeed triumph, save their people, have children (which is in those times a thing of greatness) mother great nations, kill generals, save spies, and more.

No other ancient literature features women anything remotely like the Bible. It was "feminist" millennia before it's time.

Not sure if that's the lens you've heard about, but thought some culture stuff you may have not heard.
God is not a man.

heather weber said...

Hi there, thanks for the alternate lense recap =) I do understand that Jesus was a radical when it came to his treatment of women, that there are so many stories of women of strength and courage and that God is on the side of justice.

I think my thoughts and questions have more to do with the silence of God in stories like the concubine's--the silence of God and the silence of the narrator, the fact that she was unnamed. What does that silence mean, especially in a book included in a religious canon? We've all, I'm sure, experienced what seemed like the silence of God in many of the most wretched personal and global stories. But what does it mean when there's no indictment within the scriptural story itself? If one took scripture as a whole, I agree an indictment of the behavior of the men in the Judges story would be found, but I think about the writer of Judges and wonder...was he writing through a lense of patriarchy? Did he not "see" the woman? And if he did not "see" her, how has that encouraged the dominant interpreting culture at large to also not "see" women, their stories and their frequent powerlessness?

I've been really moved by Phylis Trible's Texts of Terror this week. It really is a theological exploration of four stories of female biblical characters who face terror of various kinds. Trible explores the moments when it appears YHWH sanctions the injustice, or "opposes" the victimized woman, and moments where YHWH is silent in the story. I"m still pondering what it all means, and I"m sure will never wrap my mind around it. If anything, I think paying attention to these stories and asking questions serves as a worthwhile memorial to the lives of these women.

wit4life said...

I suppose it is all perspective when it comes to, as you say, silence. I think if God were actually silent, the stories wouldn't be in there at all.

Or, it may be that we could be imposing our cultural bias that the woman should have a name to be honored, maybe she has been saved shame with anonymity. The culture would try to spare her shame and honor her in that way. Our culture modern Western ways taint our reading of ancient texts. Also I disagree a bit about indictment. The indictment comes in the law of Moses, which is quite clear, and very protective of women. Light years ahead of any ancients laws for women in those times. This scripture is part of the whole. It would be painfully obvious to any Jew who heard Judges read. (They mostly heard the Scriptures then.)

Your posts (all of them) are thoughtful and thought-provoking on the matter. I don't think we have all the answers, clear cut, to this one. It's a tough passage. Perhaps the Bible primarily reveals a difficult narrative, and a good God of messy grace, but not the intricacies enough to satisfy us from the tale (until/unless we dig further culturally), especially as we read back into it from wholly different and non Semitic era.

I like how you think : )

I think we agree that it's important to remember how much God honors the innocent. This is the nature and heart of God.

Peace to you sister.

heather weber said...

hey wit4life, interesting questions you bring up about what honor and shame mean in that culture. I'd be interested to glean more info on the subject, and I'm totally willing to admit to the possibility my own cultural assumptions preclude my seeing a relative "good" in the stories/writing of.

Thanks for your comments and discussion. Peace, back atcha.