Does anyone remember Isaac? You know; the one who went hiking with his dad and almost ended up as a spit roast? Or perhaps you remember Samson, that great warrior poet who, having decimated a thousand armed men with a donkey’s jawbone, once quipped “With an ass’ jawbone I have made asses of them” (Judges 15.16). Less memorable perhaps is Samuel - the boy who heard voices in his sleep and eventually oversaw Israel’s decline from theocracy (the rule of God) to monarchy (the rule of man).
What do these three biblical heroes have in common, I hear you ask? The answer: all three were born of barren (that is, infertile) mothers. The lives of all three figures are preceded by the following sequence of events:
- Mother is barren;
- Mother/Father cries out to God;
- God “opens up” the Mother’s womb;
- An heroic figure is born.
On a purely literary level, “barrenness” is a remarkably shrewd narrative mechanism which only heightens the importance of each hero’s birth. God himself superintends the child’s passage into the world, opening the mother’s womb and thus signalling that the coming child will be special. On another level however, the notion of barrenness reveals a rather disturbing trend throughout the biblical text which leads me to think that perhaps God hates women.
Consider the fact that infertile/impotent men are curiously absent from the Bible. Women can be barren, but the stresses of shepherding, tribal warfare and goat-hair undergarments are apparently not sufficient to cause male impotence. When it comes to matters of childbirth, fault lies entirely with the woman it seems.
Given that childbirth is one of the few activities which can grant women some semblance of “honour” in the biblical world, the idea of barrenness seems especially cruel. Throughout the biblical history honour is typically the domain of men. It is men who go to war, men who fight other men for the spoils of victory and men who have the capacity to increase or decrease their honour (or social status) through displays of physical prowess. For women, there remains a lesser kind of honour - namely, acting as the vessel through which a patriarch can extend his own honour by means of healthy male heirs.
By “closing up” the woman’s womb, God effectively takes charge of the baby-making apparatus. He thus exercises a monopoly on the birthing of heroic figures and steals from the woman her chance to attain honour in the eyes of her peers. When the hero-child is born, it is God who is praised for the miraculous birth, not the mother who has lovingly housed the babe for nine months and suffered the trauma of childbirth.
Now consider the creation stories in the book of Genesis. God creates Adam first and then Eve is created as an afterthought (a “helper” to ease the workload). In fact, the text is so bold as to suggest that Eve actually came from Adam - derived from the proverbial rib. Thus, according to the biblical account, man gave birth to woman.
It has been suggested by some that the Bible is far too polyvalent or multifaceted to be judged as overtly misogynistic - that is it the interpreter who twists the text into a misogynistic form. But you can’t seriously tell me that parading animals in front of Adam so that he can find a suitable “helper” and then creating Eve as the last in the line, is not just a smidgen misogynistic. Let’s not forget here that the Christian God is overtly male in form and temperament. The biblical text itself was penned, edited and compiled by men, and for men. If misogyny is classed as the hatred of women, perhaps it is inaccurate to say that the biblical God is a misogynist. God does not display hatred towards women; he seems oblivious to them altogether.
Little wonder then that women have been relegated to obscurity throughout the Church’s long and tumultuous history. Only recently have they begun to reclaim ground. Yet the question must be asked, can the Christian edifice, with its male-centric textual heritage, be redeemed for a modern, “enlightened” audience? Can women reclaim their rightful place in a religious institution which is structurally biased towards the silencing of feminine voices?
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