Omnis Analogia Claudet
by Dorothy Irvin
from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 271-277.
republished on our website with the necessary permissions
(Dorothy Irvin received her M.A. from Duquesne University and her Dr. Theol. in Old Testament studies at the University of Tuebingen in West Germany. She was taught at such institutions as the University of Detroit, the University of Dayton, and Tuebingen. Book review editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, she was the author of the Mytharion.)
This section of the Declaration argues that since the Old Testament compares the divine-human relationship to a marriage, in which God is the male partner and the people of ancient Israel and Judah the female partner, the person exercising the eucharistic ministry in modern times must be a man and not a woman. The point is that the priest at Mass necessarily acts within the framework of this particular Old Testament analogy (rather than any of the others) and that the comparison binds us to fulfill certain of its features literally. Old Testament texts called on for support are the Song of Songs, Hosea 1-3, and Jeremiah 2.
When we sit down to read verses from the Song of Songs out of a bound volume, we cannot understand them unless we are aware of the circumstances in which they had their original use. They may seem to us strange, or lovely, or whatever, but what we really need to know is how they seemed and what they meant to the people who composed and used them as live music before they underwent their re-use in church history—that re-use which introduced a new understanding of them as an analogy of Christ and the Church, and, lastly and most strangely, as an argument against ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood.
There is nothing in Canticles about the Catholic priesthood, or about the ordination of women, or about Christ or about the Church, or about the marriage-relationship of Christ and the Church. Also, there is nothing in this book of the Bible about a marriage relationship of God to his people, Judah and Israel. Canticles and Esther have been pointed out as the only books of the Hebrew Bible that do not mention God. This has a corollary; the other books do mention God. They mention him generically as Elohim, and by name as Yahweh, El Shaddai, Yahweh of the Armies, El the God of Israel, etc. In short, when they want to talk about God, they know how to do it, and respect for the text demands that we not suppose that they really mean to mention God when they don’t. What the text does not say cannot be equated with what it says.
With this caution in mind, let us approach the question of the original use and significance of this remarkable collection of songs. Without at this point excluding the use of analogy in exegesis, we can at least try to ascertain to what extent later analogical re-understanding is in accord with the meaning of the text itself. It should scarcely be necessary to mention that analogies built from Scripture do not have the significance of Scripture itself.
There is, it should be briefly noted, a train of thought in the Old Testament which does not present Yahweh as specifically male. The masculine form of verbs is used with the divine proper name, because verbs in Hebrew have gender; still, the feminine or non-sexual images used to describe God’s deeds, as well as the pronounced absence of a female consort, are points which speak in favor of there having been a vivid sense, in the Old Testament period, that the human categories of male and female were inappropriate for God. Over against this train of thought was the image that God was masculine and people feminine, and that their relationship could be thought of as a marriage relationship, this being one of the commonest and most easily understood examples of an unequal alliance for mutual benefit. But this is not the only such image used in the Old Testament to describe the relationship between God and people; others are the covenant or treaty image (principally in Genesis and Exodus, also elsewhere), the mother-child image (Is 66:12-13), the shepherd-sheep image (Ps 23 and elsewhere), and the farmer-vineyard image (Is 2 and elsewhere). An understanding of these relationships is necessary for understanding what sort of God-people relationship is being envisioned.
It has not escaped the notice of the vast majority of Scripture scholars throughout the ages that the songs of the book of Canticles are love-songs, picturing with beauty and detail the amorous relationships of a woman and a man. A certain embarrassment arising from this recognition has lain at the bottom of the brisk preference for an analogous, rather than a literal, understanding of the text, and has impeded thc attempt to reach, before going onto further application, a good understanding of the text’s frst meaning. But the lack of understanding of this text is not to be blamed entirely on prudishness, for in fact only with modern historical and anthropological study has it become possible to be aware of the depth and seriousness of the cultural differences separating us from our Scriptures, and the Bible is very much a product of the ancient Near Eastern culture.
The discovery and translation of ancient law collections, as well as of the actual documents of many marriages in ancient Near Eastern lands, have clarified and explained much of the Old Testament information about marriage. Another aid has been the customs of the present Arab inhabitants of Bible lands. Whether Christian or Moslem, their culture remains in many respects similar to that of the Old Testament world.
Study of these sources has made it possible to describe marriage in Old Testament times as follows:
The basis of marriage was the use of land to provide a livelihood, either as farm or pasture. Men were the landowners and land inheritors; however, they needcd to marry, in order to have someone to do their farm work (a man’s status rose as he worked less: Prov. 31, especially verse 23) and in order to beget a male heir. Women did not ordinarily inherit, so that their only claim on the land which furnished them with sustenance was through a husband, or after his death, a son. Marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom, who worked out the bride price, the status of the wife (whether as principal wife, second wife, concubine, etc.) and the status of her children (whether her son would be an heir or not). The marriage was celebrated at a large gathering of both families, and generally included the elements of final payment, new or best clothes, a gathering of women exclusively at which the bride was dressed and thc women danced and sang certain traditional songs about love and marriage, then entry into the house of the groom’s parents or groom, a feast, with thc men eating first and the women separately later (compare thc feast in Esther 1:9). Thereafter thc bride was expected to do most of the work in her new household, under the direction of her mother-in-law, and to produce an heir. She also wanted to produce an heir, as this event would continue her claim to support after the death of her husband, and as otherwise she was in danger of being divorced. If divorced, she had no land to live on, no place for a house, no land to grow food on or pasture animals on, in fact no animals to pasture. She did not own grain or wool or any commodity, and she was cut off from the benefit of any improvement she might have made on her husband’s property. At best she could go out as a day-laborer or sell herself as a bondservant, with no protection for sickness or old age, when she would be unable to work.
It is in this cruel and ugly context that the divorce threats of the prophets and the forbearance of Yahweh in Hosea and Jeremiah 2 are to be understood. The prophets want to point out how destitute the people will be if their God divorces them, how they will lack even the necessities of life. These passages were undoubtedly more effective arguments when they were frst composed than they are today, because the utter destitution of the divorced woman has to some extent been ameliorated since. However, the prophets are simply using a sociological fact that everyone was familiar with to illustrate the patience of God; God’s goodness is the point they want to make.
The dependence of the married woman on the good-will of her husband was a fact of life that the prophets could count on being common knowledge. Ancient Judaism never set up binding norms about the reasons for which men could divorce their wives, and as far as we can tell, it remained very much a matter of his personal wish, influenced at one end of the scale by his dissatisfaction if the wife were not pretty, did not produce an heir, or did not work hard enough, and at the other by his inability to purchase an addition or replacement.
Therefore the women’s principal concern was to preserve the love of their husbands; thus they hoped to avoid starvation and destitution. The fact that most of the songs in Canticles are sung from a woman’s point of view praising her own beauty and describing the love she receives, has struck some commentators. The reason for this lies in the social setting of the Songs, that little-known feature of the wedding which was the women’s gathering. Until recently, not much was known about the women’s gathering, because men are strictly excluded from it. Modern anthropologists who are women have turned up much information about women’s cultures which was hitherto unknown. The principal concern of a woman on her wedding day was that she be loved and able to maintain her place; this was her hope and the hope of other women for her, which was expressed in the songs sung among women at her wedding.
Old Testament references to women as creators and transmitters of the literary culture of that period are numerous (2 Sm 19:35; 2 Chr 35:25; Is 23:15; Eccl 2:8; Zeph 3:14; Zach 2:10). They are said to sing ballad-type songs (Ex 15:20; Jd 5:1;12) about important legendary events; religious songs are part of their repertory (Ezra 2:65 and the parallel passage Neh 7:67) and they preserve proverb-like songs (I Sm 15:6-7) as well as carry on the tradition of prophetic oracle song (Is 5). We know little about authorship of ancient Near Eastern writings; most works are anonymous. There is one Sumerian hymn which we know to have been composed by a woman, and other examples of women’s literacy are known. (The attribution to Solomon, Canticles 1:1, is not thought to be a serious claim to authorship, as such claims, when they occur, have a different form and appear, together with title of the work, in the colophon, at the end). The exclamations addressed in Canticles to other members of the group, “O daughters of Jerusalem,” and the references to the mother-daughter relationship—not common in the rest of the Old Testament—both indicate the setting of these songs in a women’s group and in a women’s literary tradition.
Thc Palestine (formerly Rockefeller) Museum in Jerusalem exhibits several statuettes of women musicians dating from the Iron Age, the pre-exilic period of the Old Testament. One of these plays a double-flute; another plays a stringed instrument which looks a little like a guitar. Comparative material indicates that the stringed instrument was used to accompany not only singing from memory, but, more particularly, oral composition. Thus archaeological material may support textual material in pointing to women as composers and writers of portions of the Old Testament text.
In evaluating the Sitz-im-Leben of Canticles, we are up against the startling fact that it is extremely unlikely that men could have heard or recorded these songs, being excluded from the gathering in which they had their origin and purpose. Thus the Song of Songs is more likely than anything else already investigated to be women’s written contribution to the Old Testament.
A further point should also be clear now; Canticles does not mention God, and is not about a marriage of God and people.
To return to the question of analogy, let us try to fmd the point at which every analogy, pushed and driven too hard, begins to limp. Two kinds of analogy related to Scripture study may be recognized: 1) the use of analogy within the text of the Old Testament itself, and 2) later attempts to understand Scripture by setting up an analogue to some passage or concept in the text, and using that analogue to get the meaning of the difficult passage.
The second type of analogy is not really a part of the Scriptures. It is a method of Scripture study, extremely popular in the Middle Ages in Europe, but going back, as far as we can name its sources, to Philo and the Jewish study of the Old Testament under the influence of the Hellenistic culture. It is not seriously used any longer as an attempt to understand the Bible, in part because its analogies are drawn in from outside the Bible and were not intended by the text itself, and in part because it has a tendency to let the analogy replace and predominate over the primary sense of Scripture; in fact, that is the purpose for which it was developed. However, in the many centuries in which people had nothing better to use than analogy, many of these secondary, extra-biblical comparisons became well known; sometimes it is hard to remember that they themselves are not really in the text of the Bible, so accustomed are we to calling them to mind at particular places.
The marriage relationship of God and people in Canticles is one example of an analogy that is not there.
But if these additions have become consecrated by usage, they have never become consecrated by inclusion in the text of the Bible. No Scripture scholar today would defend the allegorical method as a tool for beginning Scripture students, or anyone else, to use; however it can still turn up as a weapon.
The Declaration follows the idea of the God-people marriage from Hosea, Jeremiah (and Canticles!) through the New Testament, where, according to the Declaration, it is replaced by the image of Christ as thc bridegroom and the Church as the bride. This is why the priest at Mass always has to be a male. Let us ask seriously, Is the Church spoken of as the Bride of Christ in the New Testament? The texts usually quoted in support of this idea are Mt 9:14-15 and parallel passages, Mt 25:1-13, Rev 19 and 21, 2 Cor l l:l4, and perhaps John 3:25-30.
Although the Gospel passages referred to use the image of a wedding, the relationship spoken of is not that of the bride and groom. In Mt 9:14-15 (and the parallel passages Mk 2:18-20 and Lk 5:33-35) it is the relationship of the bridegroom and wedding guests which is used to explain why Jesus and his disciples do not fast. In Mt 25:1-3 the sudden coming of the end time is likened to the wise and foolish virgins whose job was to greet the bridegroom at the wedding. His relationship to the bride, or who the bride might be, is not spoken of. A proverb about a bride and groom, whose original meaning is not clear, is used in a discussion about purifying to describe the significance of John the Baptist after the public appearance of Jesus in John 3:25-30.
The idea that the Church is the bride of Christ can perhaps be traced to Rev 19 and 20, and 2 Cor 11:1-4. In the Revelation passages the Heavenly Jerusalem (not the Church) is pictured as the bride of God, and of the Lamb. In 2 Cor 11:1-4 the writer Paul speaks of himself as betrothing the Christians at Corinth to Christ rather than to another Jesus, or another spirit, or another gospel. He is rather dubious himself about whether this is a good image, and this may be the reason why he adds the idea of betrothal to a spirit or a gospel, to attenuate the idea of betrothal to Jesus, which he calls “a little bit of foolishness.” Would that it had remained in that status, and not been taken up for re-use in accordance with the wishes of the re-users, in some respects literally (Jesus was a male) and in some respects thoroughly disregarding the author’s intention. Paul wishes to urge the Corinthians to hold to orthodox belief; he is not here talking about the relative positions of men and women Christians in Church ministry.
The intention of the author is likewise important in the first type of analogy mentioned above. In the five examples already referred to, the relationship between God and people is described in terms of parties to a treaty, mother and child, husband and wife, shepherd and sheep, farmer and vineyard. These analogies are found within Scripture; they are properly understood by examining their elements in the light of the significance of such elements in the Old Testament culture (rather than in ours). Even within the Scriptures the analogy is built on. The possibility of God ceasing to fulfil his part of the obligation due to the people’s misbehavior is described in the terms of the original comparison—the tablets broken, the sheep scattered, the husband and wife divorced, the vineyard torn down. The Old Testament, it seems to me, is rather careful to avoid extension of the analogy to its ridiculous aspects. It does not, for example, ever bring in the thought that the shepherd’s ultimate purpose may be to butcher his sheep and eat or sell them. That would be inappropriate to what the analogy is trying to illustrate, and would destroy the acceptability and meaning of the comparison. Through all the imagery of God as husband and people as wife, it avoids thc question of their offspring (although this thought is primary in thc ancient oriental family relationship, as well as in the somewhat mythological image behind the Old Testament analogy). It uses the analogy only insofar as it is meaningful, and it is perhaps thc sobriety and restraint characterizing the composition of the Old Testament comparisons that makes it possible to use difficult images with memorable effectiveness.
The Declaration wishes to require the person playing the role of one of the parties in certain Old Testament analogies to possess certain, although of course not all, of the characteristics of the party whose role is being played, in particular, sex. In the Old Testament use of the analogies, is this requirement met?
Not all of the analogies used to describe the God-people relationship in the old Testament relationship have sex. The people, for example, can be compared to a vineyard, or to a group of animals, such as sheep. In these cases it is not clear which aspects might be insisted upon as necessary. This is the point at which the analogy limps; it has been carried beyond the point at which its meaning is helpful; and one feels that the user is being silly to insist further. the Old Testament itself does not go to such extremes.
Then there are cases in which the God-people relationship is described by images which do have sex. In Isaiah 66:12-13 God’s relationship to the people is compared to that of a mother with her child. God is pictured as carrying her child (in the persona of the people) on her lap and offering it a comforting suck. Must God’s role, God’s persona (to use the language of the Declaration), then be taken by a woman? In the Jeremiah marriage passages to which the declaration refers the husband is played by Yahweh and the wife by the priests, the rulers, and the prophets, as well as by group references with a decidedly masculine tendency, “your fathers,” “house of Jacob,” Israel as male slave, etc. Does this mean that only men can be Church members? To insist that the people playing the wife should be feminine might be more in line with the Declaration, but the Old Testament does not push the analogy that far.
To insist then that people in certain of these roles have the sex of the persona mentioned in the Bible is self-serving bias rather than respectful and attentive reading of the Scripture. This insistence is wrong as Scripture study It is also wrong because it is intended to deceive those who are uninformed (as is the Declaration’s insistence that there has never been an ordained ministry for women in the Church). It is intended to make people say, “Oh well, if Scripture says men can be ordained and women can’t, then of course we have nothing more to urge,” whereas in fact Scripture says almost nothing about the ordination of anybody.
One important aspect of this Declaration is that it comes at a time when our improved knowledge of Church history and improved understanding of early sources have made it possible to begin a new evaluation of texts and other sources relating to all ministry in the history of the Church The inadequate scholarship of the Declaration may act as a limitation to the historical study of men’s as well as women’s ministry.
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