Friday, May 29, 2009

Reflections on Numbers 5, Ephesians 5, and other (sexist) Bible texts

I approach the question of sexist language in scripture as a feminist Christian drawing on a particular Protestant understanding of Scripture and on a faith that I would characterize as liberal evangelical. I have chosen to accept this heritage, in critical appreciation, as a faith tradition that has prepared me for, and I believe, compelled me to my present understanding. . . . The aim of the Bible translator, in my view, should be to enable a modern audience to overhear an ancient conversation, rather than to hear itself addressed directly. . . . It is not the translator's duty to make her audience accept the author's message, or even identify themselves with the ancient audience, except in the sense that any literary work invites identification with its subjects. I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard. Much of an ancient work may remain enigmatic and uncomprehended because the experience and thought world of the ancient audience is foreign (as we recognized when we encounter such terms or usages as firmament, leprous houses, teraphim, or bride price).
--Phyllis A. Bird, “Translating Sexist Language as a Theological and Cultural Problem,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 42 (1988), pages 89, 91-92.


imagine if our Torah said this
how different our story would be

When can I run and play with the real rabbis?
--Rachel Barenblat, Velveteen Rabbi


In contrast, not opposition, to these studies [by George Ridout, J. P. Fokkelman, Kiyoshi K. Sacon, and S. Bar-Efrat on the rape of Tamar], I employ a feminist perspective so that hermeneutical emphases differ even when literary observations concur. . . .

Death and silence are not, however, the final words of the story [of this other text on another woman]. . . . At the beginning of the postscript, the narrator reemphasizes her barrenness. "Now she had not known a man" ([Judges] 11:38c). The next three words have been translated almost unanimously through the ages as, "and it became a custom in Israel" (11:39d). The verb in the clause is a feminine singular form of be or become. Since Hebrew has no neuter gender, such feminine forms may carry a neuter meaning so that the traditional reading, "it became," is certainly legitimate--but it may not be perceptive. Indeed, grammar, content, and context provide compelling reasons for departing from this translation. After all, the preceding clause has she as the subject of its verb: "Now she had not known a man." An independent feminine pronoun (hî') accents the subject. Similarly, the feminine grammatical gender of the verb become may refer to the daughter herself. Further, the term that is usually designated custom (ḥōq) can also mean tradition. The resulting translation would be, "She became a tradition in Israel."

In other words, the postscript reports an extraordinary development. Whereas the female who has never known a man is typically numbered among the unremembered, in the case of the daughter of Jephthah the usual does not happen. "Although she had not known a man, nevertheless she became a tradition in Israel." In a dramatic way this sentence alters, though it does not eliminate, the finality of Jephthah's faithless vow. The alteration comes through the faithfulness of the women of Israel, as the next line explains. "From year to year the daughters of Israel went to mourn for the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in the year" (11:4). The unnamed virgin child becomes a tradition in Israel because the women with whom she chose to spend her last days have not let her pass into oblivion. They have established a testimony: activities of mourning reiterated yearly in a special place. This they have done in rememberance of her (cf. 1 Cor. 11:24-25). The narrative postscript, then, shifts the focus of the story from vow to victim, from death to life, from oblivion to remembrance. Remarkably, this saga of faithlessness and sacrifice mitigates, though it does not dispel, its own tragedy through the mourning of women."
--Phyllis Trible, "Tamar: The Royal Rape of Wisdom" and "The Daughter of Jephthah: An Inhuman Sacrifice," Texts of Terror: Literary-feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, pages 75, 106-07


Jesus' discourse in parables, his statements of withdrawal from statement--of which the episode in which he writes in the dust and effaces his writing is the emblematic instance--give to linguistic verticality, to the containment of silence in language, a particular impetus. As do the constantly polysemic, stratified techniques of semantic motions in the Pauline Epistles. It is these parables and indirect communications, at once more internalized and open-ended than are the codes of classical rhetoric, which beget the seeming contradiction of enigmatic clarity, the "comprehendit imcomprehensible esse" celebrated in Anselm's Proslogion. In turn, from these dramatizations of manifold sense, evolve the instruments of allegory, of analogy, of simile, of tropes and concealments in Western literature (though here also there are obvious and indispensible classical sources). . . . even direct quotation is set alight by context (eg, when St.Paul cites Euripides). . . .
--George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, pages 75, 96


This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. If an excuse is needed (and perhaps it is) for writing such a book, my excuse would be something like this. It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.

In this book, then, I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the Psalms, with the hope that this might at any rate interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers. I am ‘comparing notes’, not presuming to instruct. . . .

He [Jesus] uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the "wisecrack". He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be ‘got up’ as if it were a ‘subject’. If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, ‘pinned down’. The attempt is (again I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.

Descending lower, we find a somewhat similar difficulty with St. Paul. I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian [albeit a formidable Jew]) that of lucidity and orderly exposition.
--C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, pages 1, 113


As feminist readers recognize the effects of their work and meet the criticisms of their analyses brought by feminists and non-feminists alike, our interpretive processes mature and expand. Today there are countless readings that could be labeled feminist, even as there are countless ways that the term has been and can be defined. The feminist choir no longer sounds the single note of white, Western, middle-class, Christian concerns; 'feminist biblical studies' is now a symphony. It acknowledges the different concerns social location and experience bring to interpretation and recognizes the tentativeness and partiality of each conclusion: no instrument alone is complete; no two musicians play the music alike. Feminist readers of Christian origins are so diverse in terms of approach (literary, historical, sociological, text-critical, ideological, cross-cultural...), focus (imagery, characterization, genre plot, Christology, ethics, politics, polemic...), hermeneutics (of suspicion, of recovery), identity (Womanist, Latina, African, Evangelical, lesbian, Jewish, Catholic...) and conclusions--namely, it is just like most biblical studies and indeed most academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences--that any single definition of what constitutes a 'feminist reading' is necessarily reified. . . .

What we discover is that the woman's words [of Matthew Chapter 15] are, in essence, a short lament psalm. Matthew has shaped her words to reflect the traditional, candid speech of Jews before their God.

The woman's words of address, petition, and complaint need no additional commentary. Verse 27, which I have labeled the motivation, deserves special attention, however. After the woman renews her address and petition in v.25, Jesus finally turns to answer her. His answer, however, is not to grant her request, but to provide a rationale for not granting it. In v. 23, he had told his disciples that his mission was only to Israel, and in v. 26 he reasserts that notion, this time in a more colloquial, proverbial idiom. Jews commonly used 'dogs' as an epithet for Gentiles, and Jesus may be quoting a maxim here. Whatever. . . . In response to the woman's unrelenting insistence, . . . Jesus' words give voice to what the woman's words have already demonstrated. . . . The text is neither a miracle story nor a saying of Jesus, but a story about robust faith that will not die, despite all odds against it. The vehicle Matthew uses to tell this story is Israel's lament psalm, the quintessential form of robust faith found in Scripture.
--Amy-Jill Levine, A Feminist Companion to Matthew, pages 14, 122-23


What Phyllis Bird said
(and what
Barenblat, Trible, Steiner, Lewis, and Levine said too
as I post up more translating of the translating of Numbers 5).
--J. K. Gayle

No comments: