I enjoy reading the Bible for prayer and reflection, and often turn to its texts for reference and for inspiration when I’m working on a new manuscript or revising a work in progress. Two copies of Kristin Swenson’s BIBLE BABEL are shelved within easy reach – one in my office, the other in our family library – because her book is a friendly, insightful companion for deeper study. Who better than Dr. Swenson, then, to explore the roles and portrayals of women in the Bible? – Gigi
Gigi Amateau: Kristin, you wrote BIBLE BABEL in such a conversational, engaging style! In it, you suggest that the Bible endures because it invites readers to bring their own family histories, faith traditions, and cultural experiences to the texts. So, the Bible itself doesn’t change but people are always changing?
Kristin Swenson: Thank you, Gigi, for inviting me to chat like this! It’s impossible to exhaust possibilities for talking about — and with — the Bible. Certainly part of that is because the qualities that inform our interpretations — what we know and think and believe — are dynamic. Plus, the Bible is constantly in conversation with our culture not only on political issues (for which people use the Bible to argue both sides!) but also in creative endeavors — art, music, literature… Anyway, I’m delighted that you’ve enjoyed BIBLE BABEL and find it to be helpful. There are so many books out there about the Bible. I wanted to do something different: give people the kind of information that they could use to make sense of the Bible for themselves with the benefit of what I’ve had the opportunity to learn and without an overlay of prescriptive interpretation (or belittling faith, on the other hand).
GA: Well, let me own my agenda for our conversation about the Bible today. You know, it seems like biblical texts pay a lot of attention to women’s wombs, fertility, infertility, and sexual behaviors. Is it accurate to say that, for the most part, the Bible represents a patriarchal perspective? And, if that’s true, can we and how can we interpret the texts differently?
KS: The Bible reflects the patriarchal cultures and contexts in which it was born and grew up. It can’t help it. So, yes, women are seldom characters as defining as their male counterparts, and their roles are far more circumscribed. Accepting that fact can actually be liberating, though. We don’t have to try so hard to make the texts do what we wish they would. That said, there are some remarkable and intriguing women scattered about — “the mother of all living” — Eve, for one. Deborah was in charge of Israel, and Esther saved the Jews. Mary of Magdala… oh, we’ll get to her later!
And, look at Eve — she’s smart. She actually thinks and engages in debate when confronted by the serpent in the garden. (Adam? “He took and ate” — just like a guy.) Or take Tamar in Genesis (gosh, I can’t get out of the first book!). She plays the prostitute in order to get her father-in-law to do the right thing… and in the dramatic moment of revelation, he admits that she was more right than he.
In thinking about women in the Bible, it’s important always to remember that the texts came out of real historical circumstances and through real human hands, no matter how God was involved. Once we accept that, I think we’re in a position better to ask what is and isn’t said about women, how the little that we may hear fits or doesn’t with whatever we might know about expectations from that time, and then how we might identify with or challenge the stories, laws, and images of women we find.
GA: This week, the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women will convene in New York. Ending violence against women is the main theme of this international gathering. People often interpret the Bible as authorizing and even encouraging violence against women and unequal treatment of women at home, in society, and in faith communities. But, the Bible often contradicts itself. So, is it possible to interpret the Bible as a herald for the fair, just, and equal treatment of women?
KS: Ok, that’s a HUGE question. I love it, and you’ve got the answers tucked right in there. So I say yes!… But.
To your question most directly: It’s up to the individual today reading and wrestling with the texts how she thinks about their bearing on her own understanding or person. I urge people to learn as much about the texts as they can, and to use their heart, too. Any interpretation that leads to a dehumanizing attitude toward oneself or others should be abandoned absolutely. There are many really ugly texts and ideas in the Bible. I don’t suggest we get rid of them. On the contrary, I think their value may be precisely in how they demand us to argue against them.
When read without any knowledge of the Bible’s development, its original languages, or the cultural milieus out of which it developed and over such a long period of time, it’s easy to issue absolute judgments about particular texts. Paradoxical, but true. The less one knows about the Bible, the easier it is to think one knows exactly what it says. And from there, to lay it on other people. By contrast, once one starts to hear the Bible’s many voices (yes, some quite contradictory) and to get a feel for its historical contexts,… once one stands in awe of this multi-faceted, time-transcending anthology of ancient texts, then it’s hard to use the Bible to beat up on other people, animals, or the planet.
GA: Then let’s examine how the Bible values and celebrates women and acknowledges the roles of women as economic, political, social, and spiritual leaders in the world. There are lots of famous and infamous wives, mothers, lovers, sisters, and daughters in the Bible. And, the Bible also gives us stories about women as rulers, warriors, prophets, preachers, and merchants. What are some of the most interesting roles that women assume in the Bible?
KS: I’d have to say Deborah’s role — judge, which at that time was the person in charge of the community logistically and spiritually, not simply a court-of-law type judge. Then there are all those women who supported Jesus’ ministry with social and financial support. I wonder if they thought about what they’d wear and if the house were clean enough before people came over? I bet they did, even as they debated the radical notions he proposed and contemplated the poetry of theological possibility.
GA: Of biblical women, who are the unsung heroes (or sheroes!)? Who should we know more about?
KS: I like the rebels and outsiders — Eve, Delilah, Jael, Hagar; Ruth is a sweetie, and you’ve got to hand it to poor fertile Leah. Oh, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus — there’s some she-ro-ism, for you! And Zipporah, Moses’ wife, saving him from some divine mania? Weird story. An obscure gal in a hilarious story is Samson’s mother. And Mary from Magdala really must have been someone. I’d love to have dinner with her.
GA: Yes, my favorite woman in the Bible is Mary Magdalene! Or Mary of Magdala, as you describe her in BIBLE BABEL. I love how she was a true companion, even a leader among the disciples of Jesus. To me, the Gospel of Luke even suggests that this Mary had her own financial means, right? So then, how did this whole thing get started that my girl, Mary, was a prostitute? Is it because of that reference also in Luke that Jesus cast out seven demons from her?
KS: You picked a good one! She’s amazing. Mary Magdalene (so named because she came from the town of Magdala, not because of some family name) is a super intriguing character. In a community where seeing the risen Christ was grounds for leadership, she is described in two gospels as being the first, alone, to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared. What’s more, we can be more confident about her historicity than about any other woman’s in the New Testament because unlike any other, she appears consistently in all of the four gospels and does so in the moments that are most significant to the religion defined as Christianity — the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Given all that, it’s ironic that there’s so much confusion about her. We can blame a seventh century pope for starting it with a sermon equating her with Mary of Bethany and then adding the unnamed prostitute to her profile. It didn’t take long for the anonymous woman caught in adultery to get loaded on. The result is a quite different portrait of Mary Magdalene than the biblical one. It’s possible that the brief identification in Mark and Luke to Mary as the one from whom Jesus cast seven demons may have contributed to the confusion; but demon possession in the ancient world was more associated with illness than with moral failing. Casting out demons was an act of healing, in other words (not so much correcting aberrant behavior). So what was wrong with her — fibromyalgia, depression, Tourette’s, epilepsy, migraines? Who knows? And there’s no detail for the reference — no story of the exorcism, just a little identifying detail, like having red hair, and only in Mark and Luke.
Kristin M. Swenson, Ph.D. is visiting associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author of BIBLE BABEL: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (Harper, 2010) and of Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness (Baylor University Press, 2005). She co-authored a book about the academic study of religion and has translated Hebrew Bible books for the multi-volume, multi-media project The Voice. Besides academic publications and presentations, Swenson has written for The Christian Century, The Huffington Post, Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, and a variety of news outlets. She is presently working on a historical novel set in ancient Babylon and Persia. Her website is www.kristinswenson.com.
Gigi Amateau‘s first book for young adults, CLAIMING GEORGIA TATE, was published by Candlewick Press in 2005. That title was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age and hailed by author Judy Blume: “It’s rare and exciting to discover a talented new writer like Gigi Amateau.” The Wall Street Journal called the book “an ambitious push into the young adult market.” She is also the author of A CERTAIN STRAIN OF PECULIAR, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, and CHANCEY OF THE MAURY RIVER, A William Allen White Masters list title for grades 3-5. COME AUGUST, COME FREEDOM, her first work of historical fiction, was published also by Candlewick Press in 2012. Her website is www.gigiamateau.com.