Thursday, February 8, 2018

Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible

Part 2 of an interview with Sandra Glahn,
Editor of Vindicating the Vixens



While many studies have been written about the women of the Bible, Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible (Kregel Academic) takes a different approach. The book has been on the heart and mind of editor Sandra Glahn for more than a decade. “While serving as editor-in-chief of Dallas Theological Seminary’s magazine for seventeen years, I became acquainted with the writing and research of men and women from a cross-section of multiple societies who brought perspectives to some biblical stories that seemed truer to the original than what is typically taught in the West,” she explains. “Then, as I studied history and ancient cultural backgrounds at the doctoral level, I ended up revisiting some of our western-influenced interpretations of circumstances such as marriage practices in the ancient Near East.”

Glahn and the international team of both male and female scholars challenge these superficial treatments and contend we have often missed what biblical authors intended to convey about notable women of Scripture. While the tendency has been to sexualize (as in the case of Bathsheba and Rahab), vilify (like Hagar and Tamar), and marginalize (the Virgin Mary, for example) them, Scripture speaks to God’s concern for their outsider status. The authors contend that by misinterpreting these women’s stories, we also run the risk of adopting a faulty view of God and His mission in the world. The writers hope to help recover God’s heart for the vulnerable, the powerless, and the outsider.

In approaching scripture, the contributors bring six questions to each text:

1.   What does the text actually say?
2.   What do I observe in and about the text?
3.   What did this text mean to the original audience?
4.   What was the point?
5.   What truths in this text are timelessly relevant?
6.   How does the part fit the whole?

Q: Would you share more about the backgrounds of the writers and the different approaches they had for writing about their respective woman from the Bible?

The sixteen writers who contributed each hold a high view of scripture and have at least one advanced degree in Bible and theology. They are a diverse group: men and women, complementarian and egalitarian, black, white, and Arab, and authors of books such as Discipleship for Hispanic Introverts. Some are from Dallas Theological Seminary where I teach, but we also have scholars from Biola, Wheaton, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to name a few. One lives in Australia. One is in Scotland. Not all are in the academy. They serve in a variety of roles. The authors’ varied backgrounds mean they each bring insights in the text that the majority culture in North America has often wrongly interpreted—and exported. As a result, the authors’ combined efforts provide a fresh look at the kindness of God and His heart for the vulnerable.

Q: Why is it important to re-examine what the Bible says about these women and challenge our traditional views of them?

First, because it’s time. There has been an explosion of information about backgrounds. The influx of women into history departments in the past sixty years added more of an emphasis on social history when political history had been “the thing.” The historical women we knew about previously made for a short list—such as Cleopatra or Livia. We certainly didn’t know much about everyday people, but that has changed. Now instead of explorations limited to empires and troop movements, social historians ask different questions. What was the average life expectancy? What were people’s thoughts on divorce? Did they cover their hair, and if so, when and why? Further, the internet and translation software has made it possible for scholars across the world to have access to each other and to sources living and dead.

Additionally, the makeup of the scholarship pool is much more diverse, and that has aided our understanding. Scholars from underrepresented groups looking at the Bible see what many in privileged positions have missed. They have brought to the text observations from a powerless perspective, which is the perspective of the typical person to whom Jesus ministered. The body of Christ is made up of many parts that need each other to function as a healthy whole, but we’ve missed out on what some of those parts have to offer. Hopefully this book helps broaden the conversation and deepen our understanding.

Q: Can you give examples of how some people tie the evil committed by the Bible’s so-called bad girls to something sexual when scripture states a different motivation?

In addition to the Samaritan woman and Bathsheba, another example is Tamar. The cultural gap between the modern West and her world is huge. In being impregnated by her widowed father-in-law, she was probably within her legal rights.

Centuries later, in the wedding blessing of Boaz and Ruth, Tamar is honored: “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah’” (Ruth 4:12). Both King David and his son Absalom named daughters “Tamar,” and significantly the first Tamar’s actions bring about a key change in Judah. Earlier he had sold his half-brother Joseph into slavery, but when he sees Tamar’s righteousness and his own hypocrisy when he seeks an honor killing for her immorality, something changes in him. The next time we see him in the Genesis narrative, this man who sold Joseph into slavery is offering his own life in exchange for that of Joseph’s little brother. In vindicating Tamar, we also come to see in Judah a changed man, too. 

Q: From a cultural standpoint, as modern Christians what do we misunderstand about the term “prostitute” as it applied to Tamar and Rahab? Do we wrongly assume the same about Mary Magdalene?

In the case of Tamar, the Gentile, she was not a prostitute. She posed as one once in an act of God’s covenant love to her deceased husbands. As for Rahab, she was indeed a professional sex worker before she believed and was spared. However, considering what we know today about human trafficking, I think it’s safe to assume she did not set out to aspire to harlotry as a career. Interestingly, Mary Magdalene is never described in these terms. The text says only that she was healed of seven demons, and if we study biblical references to “demons,” immorality is never mentioned in association with them. That is not to say sexual sin could not be included, but saying Mary Magdalene was immoral is embellishing the text.

Q: Were you surprised by anything you learned or viewed differently as the chapters of the book came into you from their respective writers?

Yes, in fact, two things stand out. First, that often in vindicating women, men are vindicated as well. Take the Tamar story, where we see a pivot point when Judah sees his own hypocrisy before we see him again offering his life for that of Benjamin, Joseph’s brother. In the story of Deborah, many—myself included—have seen Barak as a wimp. A fresh look at that story demonstrates that he respected Deborah and wanted her to accompany the army—no shame in that.

The other thing that came as a wonderful surprise was that as the authors helped us re-look at these select women, the writers did a good job of going one step further and asking what we were missing in the narratives by “vixenizing” the women found there. What emerged was a fresh look at the kindness of God and His heart for the vulnerable. Our Lord lends His ear to the powerless Hagar fleeing in the desert, the multi-widowed woman of Samaria, the multi-widowed Tamar, the powerless Caananite woman in Jericho—all the Gentile outsiders grafted into the genealogy of our Lord. His ear is bent to the humble, and that is a God I want to worship and follow.

Q: Profits from the sales of the book will go to benefit the work of the International Justice Mission. Could you tell us more about the work they do?

In much of the developing world, justice systems—police, prosecutors, judges, social workers—that should protect people from violence don’t. When a justice system doesn't work, people are more likely to become victims of crimes and less likely to receive help when victimized. When laws are unenforced, violent people abuse, exploit, and enslave others without consequence. Violence becomes commonplace. The International Justice Mission (IJM) works to fight systemic injustice and to assist the sexualized, vilified, and marginalized. The authors contributing to this book may not be able to go with IJM to back alleys and court rooms, but we can use our scholarship and our writing skills to support IJM in their work. That’s why we have agreed that all profits from this book will go to support the efforts of those who are vindicating the “vixens” in our time.   


Learn more at www.aspire2.com, and follow Dr. Glahn on Facebook (Aspire2) and Twitter (@sandraglahn).  



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