HER(wo)maneutics: reading the Bible with female eyes

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“Mom, what’s a…eunuch?”

This wasn’t exactly the direction most bedtime devotionals take us, but I’m a believer in unschooling, teachable moments, and answering children’s questions with a frank, calm, honesty.   My ten-year-old daughter and I wound up talking together till way past her bedtime, and a lot of thinking and learning took place…for both of us.

Thanks to her father’s suggestion that she start on the book of Esther (one of only two books of the Bible actually named for women), we fell into deep waters pretty quickly in the first chapter alone.  I won’t detail all my footnote discourses, but ‘eunuch’ led to ‘harem’, ‘concubine’, and the sociopolitical structure of the Persian empire.  Sigh.  

I was at first disconcerted to realize that my ten-year-old daughter is getting her devotions filtered through the new lenses of Ronna Detrick and Rachel Held Evans, Christine Valters Paintner, Dana ReynoldsElisabeth Klein, Jennifer Louden, and even Sheri Tepper and Mary Oliver. Women of faith and intellect, who write, who think, who discourse, who stand for a new order of exegesis and scriptural truths…bringing a female and feminist perspective,  changing my patterns of thinking and challenging my own eisegesis!  

What was it that kept us talking so long, flowed out of my heart to hers, began working in my daughter’s mind as a basis for reading the stories of Scripture and soaking in its truths?   Did she come away with ‘men are bad (but God is good)’?  Was the message she took from the story of Esther  ‘female beauty has power’ or ‘use sex to get what you want’?  Was it ‘women should obey their husbands’ or ‘Xerxes was a drunken, abusive, narcissist’?   As Rachel puts it, some of the aspects of this story didn’t show up on the flannelgraphs in Sunday School.

Perhaps when you think of Queen Vashti, you have the picture of a haughty, defiant bitch – the prom queen type, who refused to come out of her room because of a zit in the wrong place.  But a bit more backstory and the social context lets us see that a hard-partying king was ordering her to display herself (some commentators believe this refers to her body, which he wanted to show off as his unique possession – with ONLY her royal crown as decor) in front of a huge group of well-lubricated men, not only the court and nobles whom she would have known, but outsiders, foreign envoys, and many more – entirely inappropriate.  And the penalty for refusing wouldn’t have been as trivial as missing a dance with the hottest boy in the school, either.  Like Esther, Vashti risked her relationship with the king – such as it was – , her position of favour, her royal status, and her life itself.

So rather than settling for the flannelgraph simplicity, the sweet pastoral Children’s Bible stories, and the binary ‘heroes and villains’ approach to teaching children about the Bible, I’m choosing the words of the text itself – in two or three different translations, to broaden perspective – and the most honest and raw contexts I can provide my daughter.  She gets to see how the living word works and changes men and women – not only the real, unvarnished, complex, troubled, authentic characters in the Bible, but the people around her – her father, mother, friends, family.  She learns that when we have difficulties, there is a great deal of wisdom to draw on…and endless power to access.

Instead of parroting and passing along the ugly old patriarchal interpretations and glowering punitive worldview of the doctrines I was raised in, I’m giving my daughter a much more open, loving, and egalitarian picture of God, of the Bible, of faith.  She is growing, learning, strengthening her discernment muscles.   She is learning to see and hear the stories of women, from a rich, feminine wisdom; learning how to develop hermeneutically; understanding what biases exist in both texts and readers; growing in faith instead of fear.

  Upon consideration, I’m no longer disconcerted – no, I’m delighted, enlightened, humbled and grateful. 

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