Wednesday, September 12, 2007

women in the bible

I'm taking, surrogately through my husband, an undergrad course called "Women in the Bible." Actually I'm just trying to do all the reading, but I'm not going to class. The fact that he chose to take the course is one of the many reasons I love him! =)

Anyway, tonight I was reading a chapter froma book by a professor from my school (not the one this class is at) named Katharine Doob Sakenfeld entitled: "Just Wives? Stories of Power and Survival in the Old Testament and Today." The chapter is on Sarah and Hagar, Abraham's wife and servant, in Genesis 16-19. This is an important story for scholars looking at biblical texts from a female perspective, because, as Sakenfeld points out, it's the first place in the Bible where God (or God's angel) speaks directly to a woman, and even promises her something. God speaks first to Hagar, surprising as that may seem to those of us of Judeo-Christian heritage (although not to those who are Muslim). God promises Hagar the same thing God promised Abraham: descendants so numerous they can't be counted.

But Hagar's position isn't really one to be envied--she's a slave who's forced to bear a child for her master, and this causes jealousy and tension between herself and her mistress, Sarah, who cannot (yet) conceive a child for Abraham. Sarah "deals with her harshly," Hagar runs away and God sends her back, then she is sent away and God provides water for her and her baby in the wilderness.

What's interesting is the power dynamic between these two women. They are set up against each other because of the culture in which they live, and the status each is given based on her ability to bear male children. They aren't able to work together against injustice and imbalance of power because they are set against one another.

Sakenfeld suggests this is similar to our situation today. Many womanist scholars (African-American feminists who suggest that "feminist" scholars are just as bad as androcentric scholars because they only see "feminism" from the perspective of relatively well-off white women and project their view as coming from all women) have picked up on the character of Hagar, who shares their history of slavery and of being the second woman. They see white feminist scholars siding with Sarah, who may be oppressed by the fact that her status is based on her ability to bear male children, but who is treated well and loved by her husband and has wealth and power much greater than that of her slave, Hagar.

I've always (as long as I've known about it) been a proponent of liberation theology, but Sakenfeld points to womanist theologian Delores Williams, who suggests that it's important for Hagar to return to her mistress not because it's liberating, but because she has to focus first on survival for herself and her child. She'll be well taken care of in Abraham's entourage, and would have a very difficult time out in the wilderness by herself, or even in a commercial center. Sakenfeld says of Williams' work, "Rather than focus primarily or initially on liberation, however, as do many white feminists, black male theologians, and indeed other womanist theologians, Williams identifies survival and quality of life as her key themes" (p 21). Although we can see the theme of liberation running through the pages of the Bible, God doesn't always liberate those who are oppressed.

I think this is a really important point. One problem with liberation theology is that if we assume that God wants to liberate all those who are faithful to God, when liberation doesn't come we are faced with difficult questions. Am I not faithful enough? Does God desire my liberation but is powerless to do anything about it? Is God not really a God who desires liberation?

These are tough questions, since injustice and oppression are so entrenched in our world. Why are some liberated and others not? I don't have answers. But at least this womanist perspective is realistic enough to show that although God may desire our liberation from oppression, sometimes we don't even have the energy or the ability to focus on anything beyond basic survival. This is something most theologians need to take heed of, because most of us, having recourse to such advanced education, are not generally in need of basic necessities. Most of us are not faced with situations where we can't focus on the bigger picture because all we can see is our need for shelter and a meal.

Sakenfeld cautions those of us in this situation, however:

"For those of us in a position of relative power and privilege, the danger is that a theology of survival may lull us back into the Sarah role. We may be temtped to continue in personal and systemic behaviors that perpetuate oppression, looking only to our own existence and not seeking to identify and participate in God's liberating action on behalf of others. The angel of God directed Hagar toward survival, but our discomfort with that command requires us to work for liberation." (22)

1 comment:

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

What I think these modern "womanist" scholars are doing, in re-interpreting the story of Sarah and Hagar, is imposing modern, very individualistic ideas of what "liberation" is, on a text that wasn't concerned about such things at all.

Yes, the Old Testament is concerned about "liberation". But the "liberation" it is concerned about is not the liberation of individuals as individuals to do what they please. It is the liberation of the people of Jacob, the people of Israel, as a people, a collective body, to serve and obey God as He commands.

Thus the people of Israel were "liberated" from Egypt only to wander, in some suffering, in the wilderness for years and years, basically because God wanted them to learn to turn to Him, and to learn to work as an obedient and unified people, and He wasn't going to let them into the Promised Land until they'd learned those lessons.

I think the "womanist" scholars are imposing expectations on the text which have nothing to do with the actual values of the Jud├Žo-Christian religion. This may be painful, even offensive to some people's ears. But I think it's true. Judaism and Christianity are not about the freedom to do what I want, or to get the material happiness that I think I deserve. They are about being willing to obey God, and being willing to suffer in the practice of such obedience, for the love of Him and the joy of union with Him. The only freedom they are really concerned with is the freedom to follow that path.