The church should be sorry for what we tell women about the Old Testament: scholar

The church needs to say sorry to women, says London-based theologian Mary J. Evans.

“The problem is that in some Christian contexts, women are treated as only being there to create children or as a temptation. It’s appalling. Scripture does not say that, ever,” she told Eternity while in Sydney to speak at the invitation of Anglican Deaconess Ministries (ADM).

Evans says many Christians continue to read the Bible with patriarchal glasses. In writing her commentaries on biblical books including Judges, Ruth and both books of Samuel, she has set out to correct a major gap in biblical interpretation: “most commentaries are written by white, classically educated men.”

“We must change our glasses,” she says. “Because the filter is distorting [how we view women].”

Evans argues that changing those glasses is the church’s responsibility, “and the church has failed.”

“We need to say sorry. We need to say, ‘we have seen you treated in ways that are so negative and we haven’t done anything about it, and we’ve even reinforced it. Not [necessarily] because of sexual abuse, but because we have treated you in ways that implied you weren’t people. Because we write articles in biblical dictionaries on women, but not on men, which suggest women are ‘topics’ and not that the Bible is for them, too.”

“We have treated you in ways that implied you weren’t people.” – Mary J. Evans

Evans offers an example in the Old Testament of a story she believes is often skipped over because of the “filtered glasses” of male biblical interpretation – Samson’s mother.

“We don’t read things like in Judges 13, where you have a lovely story of an angel coming and talking to the woman [Samson’s mother], while she’s on her own.”

In the story, Samson’s mother isn’t named but referred to as the “wife of Manoah”. An angel appears to her and tells her that, though she is childless, she will have a son, and gives her instructions. When she tells her husband of the angel’s message, the husband prays that the angel will appear again to tell them both what they are to do.

“The text says, in answer to his prayer, the angel comes back to the woman … again when she’s on her own. And the husband comes and asks the angel, who says, ‘I’ve already told your wife.’

“Now, all the earlier commentaries would say, ‘here is evidence of the fact that women’s testimonies weren’t regarded.’ Not one of them says that God and the angels didn’t share that view. But the text says that!”

“The husband comes and asks the angel, who says, ‘I’ve already told your wife.’” – Mary J. Evans

Evans says the Old Testament gets a bad rap when it comes to women’s stories. “We think there’s Ruth and Esther. And then there’s the awful stories of rape or kidnapping. It’s because we’re not told about the others. People have no idea.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t have the awful things – you do. But there are other things [in the Old Testament] that you haven’t been told about.”

Take Hagar in the book of Genesis, for example. Hagar was a slave, given to Abraham by his barren wife, Sarah, as a concubine so that Abraham could have descendants.

“Hagar was a nobody: a slave, an Egyptian, a foreigner. And you can see that. She’s not once called by Abraham or Sarah by her name. She runs away and the first thing God says is call her Hagar. Society saw her as a nobody. But God didn’t.”

“Society saw her as a nobody. But God didn’t.” – Mary J. Evans

Evans emphasises her belief that the Old Testament presents women as individuals who are important to God, and says even the “terrible accounts” of rape in the Old Testament have something to say to women today, particularly in light of the #metoo movement.

“Take David’s daughter, Tamar, who was raped [in 2 Samuel]. It’s appalling. There’s no good side. No upside. It was awful. She was treated as nothing. And the response from David was ineffectual. She was #metoo to the total extent.

“The light in that story for me is the fact that the text clearly presents the awfulness of it. And that the writer presents Tamar as an individual; a person. She is presented as generous, hopeful, the most eligible person in the country. And then as desperate, devastated, destroyed.

“Turning Tamar into an individual and acknowledging her pain to me has something to say about the #metoo movement today. Not that it’s not awful, what has happened. But that it is presented and recognised as awful. That this is not the way it is supposed to be. Scripture is realistic about the awfulness.”

“The way women were treated is actually seen as the epitome of the awfulness of society.” – Mary J. Evans

Just as in real life, Evans believes it is important to ask “Why are we being told this?” when it comes to interpreting accounts in the Old Testament.

“There is remarkable insight, particularly in the narratives in the Old Testament, once you ask, ‘What are we supposed to do with this account?’ and ‘Should this have happened?’ Event and account are not the same thing. But we have often assumed that it is the ‘event’ that is what counts. We think, ‘this happened, I believe it is what happened, end of story.  We need to look again.”

“The Book of Judges, for example, is an awful book. Some people try to pretend that it’s not. But we sanitise it. Go and read it again. It’s awful. But I think Judges was written to explicitly say, ‘This is not how it was meant to be.’ And when you come to the passages of women being raped or kidnapped – just terrible stuff – but accept that the writer is presenting a view of society that was not how it was meant to be, then the way women were treated is actually seen as the epitome of the awfulness of society.”