Virgins, whores, and tricksters: how the Bible objectifies women, and what we can do about it ?

Based Genesis 29:15-28

You will all be familiar with soap operas. Initially first broadcast on radio, like The Archers, but soon appearing on television, like Coronation Street, the soap opera is an open ended narrative featuring multiple characters and overlapping story lines, typically portraying the usually overly dramatic lives and trials of otherwise ordinary people. And it is usually filled with moral scandal and sexual tension to keep us entertained.

While the soap opera is a very modern phenomenon, the story of Jacob’s family, including his ancestors and descendants, has all the elements of a typical soap opera.

 

Something I have learned through my current work, which is with a child protection agency, is that family dysfunction is often inter-generational. It would seem we cannot help but be affected by the decisions of our ancestors. In Jacob’s family, his grandfather Abram, later known as Abraham, engaged in deception, passing off his wife Sarai later known as Sarah, as his sister, with the result that the Egyptian Pharaoh had his way with her. Sarai would have had absolutely no say in this.

 

Later, when Sarai thought she would be childless, her slave girl Hagar was forced into a surrogacy arrangement, but Hagar and the child were later banished and left for dead. Then, when she finally had her own child, Isaac - Jacob’s father, Abraham nearly ended up sacrificing him, after hearing voices telling him to.

 

So Jacob did not have very good examples to draw on when it came to building happy families.

 

At his mother Rebekah’s instigation, Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of the blessing their father planned to bestow upon him. Jacob fled Esau’s rage, and ended up staying with his Uncle Laban, where he saw Rachel.

 

Initially, the story looked a little more hopeful than it did in earlier generations. While Sarai was initially defined by her capability of bearing children, Rachel was introduced to the story by her occupation – a keeper of sheep – and while she was described as beautiful, Jacob wanted to marry her, because he genuinely loved her. But just as the going looked good, Jacob’s Uncle Laban tricked his nephew into marrying his older daughter Leah, instead of her younger sister, whom Rachel he really wanted. Jacob thought he had worked seven years to win the hand Rachel, and now he would have to work another seven years.

 

Jacob’s family life would go on to be just as dysfunctional as that of his ancestors. Like Jacob’s grandmother, Rachel did not have children at first, while her sister Leah did, and the sisters forced their respective maids Zilpah and Bilhah to have children with Jacob for them to claim as their own, in a tit-for-ta repeat of the surrogacy arrangement Abram and Sarai had with Hagar. Jacob would end up having a favourite son, Joseph, which would lead to his brothers selling him into slavery out of jealousy. Which is another story altogether.

 

That was an extremely abridged retelling of the saga of Jacob’s family. It was pretty racy stuff, and most modern soap operas would seem quite time in comparison.

Thinking specifically of Laban tricking Jacob into marrying Leah, I find it difficult to feel sorry for Jacob, because of how had tricked Esau. But I know I really shouldn’t feel this way. Partly because it goes against the principles I aspire to live by. And partly because Jacobs’s deceitful behaviour was to some degree a product of his family

 

But Jacob is not the one who has been most badly treated here. He may not have got the wife he wanted first time around, but neither Leah nor Rachel seemed to have any say in the matter. Nor did Zilpah and Bilhah, when they were forced to became handmaids for their mistresses.

 

Women did not have much social status in the ancient world. Laban treating his daughters like chattels, whose primary value was in childbearing, was pretty standard for the day. And to be childless was very shameful for a woman. So it is very unlikely that Leah would have objected to being married off. Arranged marriages were the norm back them, as they still are in some cultures.

Being married would give Leah and Rachel some degree of security when their father died. But try to imagine how Leah must have felt, knowing that she was not wanted, being put in the position of tricking Jacob, and then having to live with his disappointment in her, counting down seven long years until he finally got to marry Rachel.

Being a compliant wife and mother gave her respectability. But women are not always presented in a very good light in the Bible, and that goes right back to the story of Adam and Eve, where Eve is blamed for bringing sin into the world. A cynical person – whose name escapes me – once said women in the Bible tended to be presented as either virgins or whores, and not much in between.

 

I do see this as being a bit extreme. But I also see where they are coming from. Yes, there are some women in the Bible who are presented as pure and virtuous and there are some women in the Bible who have a reputation. And then there are some women who are presented tricksters, like Jacob’s mother Rebekah, who put him up to cheating Esau.

 

Most women in the Bible lived fairly ordinary lives ad fell between those extremes. But they still were second class citizens in in a man’s world. I have already mentioned how women were treated like chattels. Chastity before marriage was expected, but especially so for women, and this was primarily because virgins were worth much more when it came to bride bartering.

Summing up the ways in which women were objectified In Older Testament times, a good woman who knew her place was a virgin, then a compliant wife. But a rebellious woman would have been labelled as something morally dubious, like a whore, or maybe a trickster. So while there is some validity to the sharp delineation between virgin and whore, which I referred to earlier, it is overly simplistic. But nevertheless, these are ways in which women are objectified in the Older Testament.

 

By the time we got to Jesus’ day, women occupied such a lowly status that it would have been considered scandalous for a rabbi to greet a woman in public. Even his wife or daughter. And rabbis debated whether women even had souls.

However women played vital roles in Jesus ministry. It was women who witnessed the resurrection. And women played significant roles in the early Church, such as Phoebe, who St Paul referred to as a deacon. Unfortunately, as the Church became institutionalised, the place of these women in the narrative was watered down, and their significance was downplayed.

By this stage you might be wondering how I can say our scriptures can present women – and other people who were marginalised back in the day –   in a manner I find unacceptable, yet still believe our scriptures are our sacred texts we can turn to for divine inspiration and pronouncement of doctrine.

 

That is a very valid question. The Bible is a compilation of documents that were written, redacted, and edited by many people over many centuries. Some parts are more literal. But some parts are more allegorical, and to deny this is to deny Jesus taught with. Some parts are beautiful poetry. But some parts are violent, even horrific.

 

And some Bible stories – especially in the Older Testament – are so disturbing that theologian Phyllis Trible has coined a name for them: Texts of Terror. Which became the title of one of her books, in which she uses the tragic stories of four women in scripture to challenge the way women are objectified in the text.

My response is that the various documents that make up the Bible are all products of their time. They reflect the power structures of the day, and as I have hopefully made clear, all of the characters of the Bible lived in highly patriarchal societies.


Now I am not for a moment suggesting that this invalidates the legitimacy of the scriptures, but quite the opposite. Because if anything, this demonstrates the unjust nature of the world Jesus the Christ was born into. And for me, it highlights how he is good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberty for those who are oppressed.


But these ancient texts have to be considered in their cultural and historical contexts. It is only when we can understand they would have had specific meaning to those they were first written for, and they cannot simply be taken out of context and taken literally and at face value in today’s setting, that we can gain any real understanding of their deeper meaning.

 

As I was taught at theological college, we need to consider the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world in front of the text.

And when it comes to discerning what God might be saying to use through difficult texts, that may present women and other people who might be marginalised in a less than positive manner, we should use Jesus as our lens. And ask whether the text complies with his teaching.

Jesus certainly challenged the contemporary understanding of scripture. In the so-called Sermon on the Mount, there is a discourse which he kept saying, “You have heard it said….  But I say to you.”

 

He also always sided with the oppressed and the marginalised. Including women.

So to keep it simple, when we see a text that appears to objectify or badly present women or others, consider how it sits with Jesus’ fundamental commandment: to love God and love others.

 

And don’t be afraid to challenge people when they misuse scripture to harm or objectify others. It was not that long ago that scripture was misused to justify evils like slavery and apartheid. But scripture is still misused today to dismiss people who worship God differently from us and to condemn LGBTQIA people on the basis of how God created them.

 

This is how we deal with objectification.

 

We identify it.

 

We challenge it.

 

And we counter it.

 

Thinking back to the ancient soap opera of Jacob and his family, in particular the episode in which Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah, I still struggle to sympathise with Jacob. Partly because he arguably deserved payback for cheating Esau out of his birthright. But primarily because it was the women in the story who were most hard done by. Even though it was not presented this way.

Thousands of years later, the soap opera continues. Same storylines, different characters.

 

Someone pretends to be someone else on Neighbours. But if we judge them, we are also judging Leah.

 

A woman becomes a surrogate parent on Eastenders. But if we judge her, we are also judging Hagar and Zilpah and Bilhah.

 

And a teenage girl gets pregnant on Coronation Street. But if we judge her, we are also judging Mary, the mother of Jesus.

So who gets our sympathy today?

 

 

Darryl Ward
12 July 2020