Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. From ‘Feminist Interpretation of the Bible’

Every Two Minutes:
Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
From Feminist Interpretation of the Bible
Edited by Letty M Russell
Westminster Press, Philadelphia 1985

All day long, every day, women are verbally intimidated, battered, injured, and killed by the men they live with. If, as Susan Brown-miller has said, “rapists are the shock troops of patriarchy,” then batterers are the army of occupation. This chapter is concerned with the way in which this climate of violence that touches women’s lives affects biblical interpretations.

All women live with male violence. A survey conducted by the National Division of the United Methodist Church’s Program of Ministries with Women in Crisis in 1980 and 1981 indicates that one in every twenty-seven United Methodist women had been raped, one in every thirteen had been physically abused by her husband, one in every four had been verbally or emotionally abused. Of the respondents, both male and female, one in nine knew of a close friend or relative who had been raped, one in six knew of physical abuse, one in five knew of emotional abuse.(1)

While the authors are aware of the limitations of their survey, as a random sampling of Protestants the survey seems to indicate that even scratching the surface of women’s lives reveals the daily presence of violence.

The authors also observed, “Denial runs deep.” Their report has met with “disbelief and an amazing capacity to rationalize the findings.”(2) Denial is the way to the continuation of the abuse of women. Consciousness of the violence against women with which we all live every day is the beginning of its end.

A feminist biblical interpretation must have this consciousness at its center. The Christian scriptures are inextricably interwoven with this history of the belief systems which support the view of women as scapegoats. In Violence Against Women, Emerson and Russell Dobash have a chapter on the relationship of biblical material to the problem of spouse abuse, in which they call women “the appropriate victim.” They believe this problem requires intensive examination of history for the structures that support the legitimization of wife as victim.

The seeds of wife beating lie in the subordination of females and in their subjection to male authority and control. This relationship between women and men has been institutionalized in the structure of the patriarchal family and is supported by the economic and political institutions and by a belief system, including a religious one, that makes such relationships seem natural, morally just, sacred.(3)

There is apparent division over the question of whether the location of the authority (warrant, cause, justification) of a feminist interpretation of the Bible is in the text or in women’s experience. I believe it is impossible to make this distinction with any clarity because women’s experience in Western culture has been shaped by the biblical materials, and the biblical materials were shaped by a patriarchal culture.

Following a presentation I gave on the Bible and battered women in New York in October 1982, one member of the audience raised the question, “Why deal with the Bible at all?” But as anyone who works with abused women knows, this is not an option. Battered women frequently bring their religious beliefs to the process of working through a battering relationship. Phone calls to shelters often begin with the phrase, “I’m a Bible-believing Christian, but …” We begin to develop a feminist interpretation because the Bible is a part of the fabric of the oppression of battered women.

In the early 1970s I became involved as a pastor counseling abused women. I received calls from some women who were experiencing abuse but were reluctant to try to change their situation because they had been told the teaching of the Bible prohibited their protest. I organized Bible studies with some of these women, and I have continued this work in several locations. Many of the examples that follow are from such groups.

Feminist Method

A feminist method does not always come first chronologically. In Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s landmark work In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins, method appears first in the volume, but it does not come first in the development of her thought. It was living with the texts themselves in the midst of the contemporary women’s movement that shaped her method of investigation. Precisely because it is a method of investigation, it is a process for discovery of what has been hidden.

Moreover, a history of the use of biblical materials must become a part of the interpretation. John Cobb has noted that critical study recognizes, and indeed emphasizes, the socio-historical context in which the text functioned in the earlychurch.(4) Feminist biblical interpretation has added a recognition of the patriarchal context in which the text functioned. But the text is still functioning, so to speak, and the patriarchal view that formed part of the formulation of the text is in turn supporting and supported by the text. All that history must become part of a feminist interpretation of the Bible.

Likewise, the origin of women’s suspicions of the biblical interpretation of their situation is both the text and their life experience. Method emerges in this process of interrogation between text and experience. The key is that this process of interrogation proceeds over time.

Work with abused women is a process of support in which women who are physically safe, perhaps for the first time in many years, find self-esteem through affirmations of the gifts of women, through taking control of their lives, and through claiming their anger and finding in that anger a source of strength to act and to change. This process takes time. It cannot happen overnight.

Likewise, the development of a feminist method of biblical interpretation takes time. In Western philosophy, thought has been deemed a timeless, eternal absolute. But if that were the case, nothing new would ever emerge from human consciousness, because it would have to emerge full-blown. Plato wrestled with this problem in the Meno and decided that the way we come to know anything new is by remembering it from a formerly perfect state of knowledge before birth. Today we follow an investigative, scientific model of deduction, which holds that thoughts proceed from first principles toward a logical conclusion. This is the grip of positivism, which has held us in obeisance to science for more than two centuries.

In fact, it appears more likely that we think by analogy. When we want to ask about the unknown, we ask, “What is it like?” We learn something new both from the similarity and from the dissimilarity. The tension of the dissimilarity probes us to ask again. Thought moves by analogy and it moves through time. We have to live with something for a while before we can move on.

Over time, women come to varying levels of interpretation of biblical materials. Each of these levels is possible with the whole corpus, and all are necessary in order to deal with the varying attitudes toward women within the Bible.

The Liberation in the Text: Finding Self-esteem

The support given by programs and shelters is essential so that an abused woman can begin to see her life in a new way. Through her research, Lenore Walker has described the battered woman as follows:

1. Has low self-esteem.

2. Believes all the myths about battering relationships.

3. Is a traditionalist about the home, with strong beliefs in family unity and the prescribed feminine sex-role stereotype.

4. Accepts responsibility for the batterer’s actions.

5. Suffers from guilt, yet denies the terror and anger she feels.

6. Presents a passive face to the world but has the strength to manipulate her environment enough to prevent further violence.

7. Has severe stress reactions, with psychophysiological complaints.

8. Uses sex as a way to establish intimacy.

9. Believes no one will be able to help her resolve her predicament except herself.(5)

Abused women who receive support begin to learn that they have self-worth and to experience their anger as legitimate. Yet these women believe what they have been taught the Bible says about their situations: that women are inferior in status before husband and God and deserving of a life of pain. One woman said, “God punished women more” (see Gen. 3:16) ,

Frequently, women with strong religious backgrounds have the most difficulty in accepting that the violence against them is wrong. They believe what they have been taught, that resistance to this injustice is unbiblical and unchristian. Christian women are supposed to be meek, and claiming rights for oneself is committing the sin of pride. But as soon as battered women who hold rigidly traditional religious beliefs begin to develop an ideological suspicion that this violence against them is wrong, they react against it.

In workshops for persons who work with abused women, I have found that most social workers, therapists, and shelter personnel view religious beliefs as uniformly reinforcing passivity and tend to view religion, both traditional Christianity and Judaism, as an obstacle to a woman’s successful handling of abuse. Unfortunately, theyalso say that many strongly religious women cease attending shelters and groups for abused women when these beliefs are attacked.

For women whose religious beliefs include extremely literal interpretations of the Bible as the norm, no authority except that of the Bible itself can challenge the image contained in these texts of woman as silent, subordinate, bearing her children in pain, and subject to the absolute authority of her husband . Yet in Bible study groups, these women can learn that the scriptures are much more on their side than they dared hope. They can become suspicious of a biblical exegesis that is a power play used against them. The process of critical interpretation is often painful and wrenching, because new ways of looking at the Bible have to be learned. But it is also affirming, because one is telling abused women, “You have a right both to your religious beliefs and to your self-esteem.”

The core insight with which to begin such a process of interpretive suspicion is that the Bible is written from the perspective of the powerless.(6) The people of Israel, God’s chosen, are a ragged band of runaway slaves. God, by identifying this people as chosen, is revealed as a God who sides with those who are out of power. It may be that to be out of power is a continuing metaphor in scripture for those who are especially valued by God.

Several types of texts have proved especially helpful to abused women. The theme of God’s care for widows and orphans can be helpful in demonstrating that those who are oppressed by societal structures are especially dear to God. A widow in Israel was effectually without economic support and a nonperson in the eyes of that society. The children of a widow, because they lacked this economic support, were considered orphans. God’s judgment on those who would afflict any woman or child was especially severe (Ex. 22:2-24).

Yet this does not mean that the impoverished condition of widows and orphans is legitimated because of God’s care. God’s identification with the oppressed helps them to value themselves as God values them and to recognize that their oppression is unjust. God does not want meek acceptance of oppression.

In Liberation Preaching, Justo and Catherine Gonzalez note, “God seems to choose those who have been made to feel like outcasts and then gives them a new sense of self-worth, God vindicates them in the eyes of their former oppressors.”(7) This theme of the vindication of the powerless is a constant one in the Hebrew scriptures (see 1 Sam. 2:1-10). It is to be contrasted with the sinful arrogance of the powerful, who believe themselves secure in their own strength (see Psalm 73),

It is essential to see that the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth continued this identification of the chosen of God with the poor. Jesus announced his ministry as one who proclaimed “release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-20).

Jesus included women in his ministry and ministered to their distress, both spiritual and socioeconomic. The striking amount of biblical material that recounts Jesus’ special regard for women, despite androcentric reaction, was the beginning point for the development of a feminist interpretation of the Bible.

Examples of Jesus’ care for women are seen in the story of the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4; 15:8-10), the forgiveness of the prostitute who has faith (Mark 14:3-9), the healing of the woman with the bloody flux (Luke 8:43-48), and the defense of Mary’s right to discipleship (John 4:16-30) [57, 58].

Raymond E. Brown has entertained the idea that the crucial role women play in discipleship and apostolic witness is evidence of female leadership in the Johannine community. Jesus’ public ministry begins and ends with a story about women: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. Several times, stories of the discipleship of women and that of men are paired: The faithfulness of Nicodemus is paired with the insight of the Samaritan woman; the christological confession of Peter is paralleled by that of Martha. Women’s roles in the Fourth Gospel placed them as intimate disciples, those whom Jesus loved (Martha and Mary)

In researching the evidence of the Fourth Gospel, one is still surprised to see to what extent in the Johannine community women and men were already on an equal level in the Good Shepherd. This seems to have been a community where in the things that really mattered in the following of Christ there was no difference between male and female—a Pauline dream (Gal. 3:28) that was not completely realized in the Pauline communities.(8)

Yet the text with which many abused women find the most identification is John 7:53—8:11. Jesus’ defense of the woman who would have been stoned (abused) for adultery, omitted in many manuscripts, including the earliest ones, appears to be an authentic incident in the life of Jesus. Some interpreters have argued that this pericope was not originally part of the Gospel of John. Yet the extraordinary position of women in this Gospel may be a reason for its later inclusion.

Whether or not the woman has already been tried, she is on the verge of execution, having been caught in the act of adultery. Adultery for Jewish women could consist merely in speaking to a male alone. Her crime is not specified beyond that text. But somehow she has transgressed patriarchal grounds

Textual interpretation usually overlooks the woman’s situation and stresses that the scribes and Pharisees wanted to put Jesus to the test and were looking for grounds on which to accuse him.(9) But women who have suffered physical violence hear that whatever human law or custom may legitimate violence against women, it cannot stand face to face with the revelation of God’s affirmation of all humanity. Many abused women would echo the joy of the woman who exclaimed, “That’s right! He [Jesus] broke the law for her!”

Liberation of the Text: Taking Control

Some biblical material that appears not to address women, or even appears hostile to them, can be reworked to bring out liberating themes for abused women. The opinion of women that prevailing androcentric interpretation of the Bible is wrong, coupled with the emphasis in a major portion of the biblical materials themselves on God’s identification with the oppressed, creates critical interpretation. Consciousness-raising for these women has provided the essential catalyst: the insight that women are included in the category of the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast. Moving from that critical standpoint, women can begin to examine and reinterpret these texts, imagining new relationships between the texts and their experience.

An especially useful text is Luke 9:1-5, which ends, “And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave [there] shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” One of the crucial issues for abused women is the psychological and physical intimidation they experience, which prevents them from leaving. Shelters and safe houses can begin to help with the fear of destitution and further violence faced by a woman who contemplates leaving. But there are psychological factors as well, which include religious sanctions against a woman’s “breaking up the home.”

What kind of people are my children going to become, seeing us or hearing us live this way? Will my son abuse his wife or girlfriend as he’s seen his father do? Will my daughter live in fear and dread of every man she meets? For them, if not for me, I’ve got to do something. But instead, I stay, and stay, and stay for what seems like an eternal hell. I can’t see my way out. I’m fearful of losing family respect for my failed marriage, afraid of censure about my religious convictions, fearful of a terrible reputation with my own friends (the few who are left). Finally I become obsessedwith a fear of losing my respect formyself, and for my sanity—what’s left. of it.(10)

Because abused women experience themselves as out of control of their lives, part of working with them involves attempts to take control. One of the major obstacles to women’s hearing the permission to leave where they are not valued is that they do not identify themselves with the disciples.

Disciples are followers of Jesus who hear the Word and do it (Mark 8:34-35). By this definition, the Synoptic Gospels agree that women were among the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples, remaining at the foot of the cross even when others had fled. Jesus appeared first to women and commissioned them to tell of his resurrection, the central fact of the “good news,” to the other disciples (Matt. 28:10; Mark 16:7; Luke 24:8-9).

The Roman Catholic Church has emphasized the absence of women among the twelve as indicative of Jesus’ preference for male leadership.(11) While the New Testament authors are not uniformly in agreement on the role of the twelve, the theological function of the twelve is to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. In this way they provide a bridge between the Israelite past and the hoped-for future in which all Jews and Gentiles would be united as the People of God. The twelve thus have a largely symbolic role, not an administrative one, as evidenced by the fact that they were not replaced by the church after their deaths.(12)

Much of the New Testament material leads one to believe that the circle around Jesus was in fact quite fluid and did include women. Another title for Jesus’ followers throughout his ministry is apostles. Generally, the term “apostle” is thought to refer to the twelve, a point of view held by the framers of the Vatican Declaration. On the contrary: It is a much wider circle, according to some New Testament writers. Junia, considered a woman by John Chrysostom, is named by Paul as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7, niv). The “apostle” Paul, of course, was not a member of the twelve at all (see Gal. l:llff.).

It is therefore quite reasonable to decide that women were included in the most intimate circle around Jesus and that their inclusion was deliberate on his part. We begin to see how this text can be heard as addressing women. Power and authority are given to those who hear the Word of God and do it, the disciples. Women can claim this power and authority to heal their situation. One woman, reading the text in this way, remarked, “I thought that you always had to turn the other cheek.”

For too long we have neglected the healing and casting out of demons that occurs so frequently in biblical materials in favor of discussions focused solely around the miraculous. But for abused women, women who study the Bible with bloodied noses, bruised ribs, and broken limbs, healing has a concrete and immediate reference. Likewise, the demonic has a concrete reference for those who have experienced the cycle of violence that builds in the home of an abuser.(13)

Women are not named in scripture as among the twelve. But women can learn to imagine themselves in the text on the basis of other textual material that does affirm women (such as women’s discipleship) and on the basis of their own experience, which shows that they have been the ones to hear the Word of God and do it. This type of imagining challenges traditional interpretation, which has ignored women who are actually in the text or whose presence is implied by the text, and moves interpretation to a new level of engagement with the contemporary life of the church.

The Liberation from the Text: Claiming Anger

Recently I have been conducting Bible study groups composed primarily of Catholic women over forty. Biblical material has not formed the religious framework for their acceptance of battering. Rather, it has been the church and its teaching about the role of women, divorce, and contraception that has provided religious legitimation for battering. Biblical study with these women has proceeded in a different manner because they did not regard the text as the primary religious authority in their lives. Rather, they were willing to enter into a suspicion of the many texts we examined that seemed to legitimize violence against women. These women found that they could not always trust the text or its traditional interpretations and that some of the texts are “harmful to their health”.

Ephesians 5:21-23 is a very difficult passage for abused women struggling to find self-respect and some control over their lives. A preliminary study of this passage modifies extreme misinterpretation by demonstrating that to be “subject” (v. 21) does not mean specifically subject to physical violence: “For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church” (v. 29). Husbands are admonished to love their wives “as their own bodies” (v. 28).

But physical violence is not the only form of abuse. Verbal intimidation, economic deprivation, and deliberate humiliation also characterize the violent relationship. One woman reported that her husband would deliberately keep her from arriving at family parties on time and then make her apologize to her relatives for being so late. This type of subjection appears compatible with the Ephesians passage, since only wives are admonished to “respect” their spouses.

Liberation from this text requires a recognition of its location within the biblical materials and of the function this particular emphasis in Ephesians played in the history of the church. In the pseudo-Pauline epistles, a shift away from the egalitarian ethos of the Jesus movement can be observed. Ephesians was written about the same time as Colossians, another epistle where the subjection of wives to husbands is emphasized. This is the first of the household duty codes, a series of exhortations to obedience in the households of the early Christian communities.

In Colossians 3:11, women are left out of the otherwise complete repetition of the baptismal formula of Galatians 3:28: “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and all in all.” “Neither male nor female” seems to belong to an earlier vision of human equality in Christ.

In Ephesians the household duty codes are limited to the relation of husbands and wives, combined with a theology of Christ and the church. This tends to reinforce the cultural notion of submission contained in the household duty codes with a theological legitimation of dominance and submission in the household of God. While the negative exhortation of Colossians (“Do not be harsh” to your wives) is softened (“Love” your wives), the inferior position of both wives and the church is cemented.

This is not the only pattern for divine-human relationships in the scripture. It is a pattern developed in response to social criticism of the newfound freedom of Christians, especially as this was reflected in the behavior of Christian wives and slaves. Other patterns exist, such as Galatians 3:28, and these can be drawn upon to critique patriarchal patterns such as Ephesians 5:21-23. The religious sanction in the household codes for the submission of women is a primary legitimation of wife abuse and must be challenged by women in order for them to gain some control over their own lives. A woman relates the traditional response of clergy:

Well, he spoke to both of us and he sat down for about an hour and he spoke about our financial situation and how having a child affected a marriage and things like that. Then he would bring in the vows of marriage—”to love, honor, and obey until death do us part.” And I argued on the point of obeying because I feel, I felt at that time, to obey, it’s all right in certain principles but you cannot obey all your life. I mean, if I asked him to stop gambling he would not obey me, but I have to obey all his rules. The minister would not talk about that fact.(14)

On the contrary, we must begin to talk about obedience and the role it has played in the cultural accommodation of religion to social mores, particularly to patriarchy. We must find strength to reject this notion of obedience to male authority in claiming our anger at the suffering that women have experienced in obedience.

A final text to consider within this rubric of liberation from the text involves a more subtle perception of the patriarchal violence against women that is in the biblical material. Genesis 2:21-24 is such a text.

Although Phyllis Trible has dealt with this text creatively in suggesting ways it can be understood as a basis of equality between woman and man, feminist interpretation must also recognize that the history of control of women’s bodies is at stake in this text and must become part of its interpretation.(15) In the development of patriarchy, a very important issue has been control of women’s abilities to procreate. The ability of women’s bodies to create life has resulted in awe, fear, and the desire to control this power. While Freud may have discovered penis envy, womb envy has also played a role in human history.

This story is apparent in Genesis 2. A woman is born from a man in contrast to every other human birth. Perhaps, too, this interpretation of the first birth is also meant to symbolize control over woman’s abilities to make decisions about whether to bear a child. From an early period the church has attempted to curtail knowledge of contraception and abortion. Puritanical Protestants led a late-nineteenth-century campaign to pass laws making contraceptive knowledge a crime. The current “Right to Life” movement is ecumenical in that its adherents are both Catholics and Evangelical/ Fundamentalist Protestants. These movements are attacks on female autonomy, which threatens patriarchal power at its core.

A Maryland woman who was severely abused over many years told me that when she complained after some attacks that she had sustained injuries, her husband would retort that “your bones are my bones—-just like it says in the Bible.” Less explicit reinforcement of patterns of domination and submission that legitimate violence against women can be found in interpretations of this text. Walter Brueggemann argues in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly that this text “suggests nothing of the superiority of the male as is often suggested.” But Brueggemann correctly connects this text to marriage metaphors for divine-human relationship, such as “the Image of God and his [sic] bride Israel.”(16)He then rightly draws the important analogy between Genesis 2:18-23 and Ephesians 5:21-33:

The same imagery in Paul [Ephesians 5:21-23] is illuminated. The relation of Christ and his bride-church is grounded in a commonality of concern, loyalty, and responsibility which is pledged to endure through weakness and strength.(17)

But the metaphor of patriarchal marriage for divine-human relationship is not one of mutuality; it is an image of dominance and subordination in that cultural context. Likewise, tying marriage to the divine-human relationship clearly divinizes male superiority in that relationship,

Brueggemann’s interpretation of Genesis 2:18-23 illustrates the limits of a biblical interpretation that does not take a nuanced approach to the materials. There is much affirmation of women within the biblical materials, but grounds for violence against women exist as well, along with much material in between. This material has shaped cultural attitudes toward women. But contemporary experience also shapes our interpretation of the text [91, 92].

Feminist biblical interpretation for women who live with male violence is a healing process that develops over time. It involves claiming self-esteem, taking control, and owning one’s anger. Women’s relationships to biblical materials need to undergo the same type of healing process. As Adrienne Rich has observed, “We have lived with violence far too long.”(18)


1. Crisis: Women’s Experience and the Church’s Response. Final Report of a Crisis Survey of United Methodists, The United Methodist Church (March 1982), pp. 4-9.

2. Ibid.

3. R. Emerson Dobash and Russell Dobash, Violence Against Wives (Free Press, 1979), pp. 33-34. Italics added.

4. John B. Cobb, Jr., Process Theology as Political Theology (Westminster Press, 1982), p. 23.

5. Lenore E. Walker, The Battered Woman (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 31.

6. Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology (Orbis Books, 1976), p. 9.

7. Justo L. Gonzalez and Catherine G. Gonzalez, Liberation Preaching.

8. Raymond E. Brown, “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel,” Theological Studies 36:688-689 (1975), reprinted in Community of the Beloved Disciple (Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 183-198.

9. Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John (Seabury Press, 1980), p. 165.

10. Fleming, Stopping, pp. 73-74, quoted from Introduction to Battered Women: One Testimony (Southwest Community Mental Health Center, Columbus, Ohio). Italics added.

11. “Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Priesthood,” in Leonard and Arlene Swidler, eds., Women Priests: Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (Paulist Press, 1977).

12. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “The Twelve,” in Swidler and Swidler, Women Priests, p. 138.

13. Lenore Walker has identified a three-stage cycle to the violence in homes of batterers: the “tension-building stage,” the “acute battering incident,” the “kindness and contrite, loving behavior” stage. Walker notes that women who kill their abusers do so in stage three. The Battered Woman, pp. 55-70.

14. Dobash and Dobash, Violence Against Wives, p. 205.

15. Trible, God and the Rhetoric … pp. 95-102.

16. Walter Brueggemann, “Of the Same Flesh and Bone, Genesis 2:23a,”Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32:532 (1969).

17. Ibid., p. 541.

18. Adrienne Rich, “Natural Resources,” in her The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (W. W. Norton & Co., 1978), p. 185.

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