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Woman in a Man's Book from 'Woman in a Man's Church' by Arlene Swidler

Woman in a Man’s Book

from Woman in a Man's Church pp. 29-44.
by Arlene Swidler
Published by Paulist Press, New York, 1972.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Hardly anybody today-either Christian or Jewish-can get very enthusiastic about a lecture or book on Women in the Bible. We don’t expect anything useful or pertinent to the twentieth century, and we usually discover our expectations were correct. Very few of the women presented in the Old Testament can serve as models to an independent woman today. There are the romantic stories of Susanna, Bath-Sheba, Delilah, and even Queen Esther, all of whom assumed importance simply because of their connection of one sort or another with men, and all of whom won this attention because of their physical beauty.

Women of a different sort-Deborah the Judge, for example-are not displayed for our Christian edification very often, and, in fact, are not given much visibility in the Bible itself. Deborah, “who used to sit under Deborah’s Palm between Ramah and Bethel in the highlands of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her to have their disputes decided," is a much less developed literary personality than her contemporary, Ruth.

Ruth is perhaps the Old Testament woman most often held up as a model. A whole book, albeit a very short one, is devoted to the story of this Moabite woman who, when widowed, decided to accompany her widowed mother-in-law Naomi back to Naomi’s home in Jerusalem. There, through her industry and intelligence, she finds a kinsman, Boaz, to marry her and thus legally continue her first husband’s family fine. Certainly there are worthwhile lessons to be drawn from the story-respect and love for one’s mother-in-law not the least-but basically Ruth is the epitome of the religious stereotype of the Good Woman; she is passive, hardworking, obedient, apparently unconcerned about greater issues. Perhaps this is why the passage proves popular at Catholic weddings.

There is one Old Testament passage, at the conclusion of the Book of Proverbs, which is often quoted as honoring women. It’s the description of the “valiant woman,” or, in one of the newer translations, the “perfect wife.” Here is a woman who accomplishes things, runs her household well, is admired by men. “She does her work with eager hands.” “She sets her mind on a field, then she buys it; with what her hands have earned she plants a vineyard.” “She weaves linen sheets and sells them, she supplies the merchant with sashes.” The passage concludes,

Charm is deceitful, and beauty empty; the woman who is wise is the one to praise. Give her a share in what her hands have worked for, and let her works tell her praises at the city gates.

Each Friday night as the Sabbath begins, the Jewish family gathers at the dinner table for blessings and the recitation of this passage by the husband. The ritual is often cited by Jews as an illustration of the respect Judaism shows its women, but some contemporary Jewish women are not impressed. As one of them said, “Just look at the opening line of the passage. ‘A perfect wife-who can find her?’ ”

We don’t have to be Bible scholars to analyze and evaluate the most-often quoted New Testament texts referring to the position of women in Christianity. In one adult education class on sexuality we decided on the spur of the moment to dispense with a lecture on the Biblical texts and just reproduce the important passages and let the group do its own analysis.

Our hunch was right. A good discussion got everyone thinking and we came up with almost all the important conclusions the scholars have been talking about. Here are the texts we used.

I Cor. 11, 7-16:

A man should certainly not cover his head, since he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory; but woman is the reflection of man’s glory. For man did not come from woman; no, woman came from man; and man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman was created for the sake of man. That is the argument for women’s covering their heads with a symbol of the authority over them ....

Ask yourselves if it is fitting for a woman to pray to God without a veil; and whether nature itself does not tell you that long hair on a man is nothing to be admired, while a woman, who was given her hair as a covering, thinks long hair her glory?

To anyone who might still want to argue: it is not the custom with us, nor in the churches of God.

I Cor. 14, 26-35:

So, my dear brothers, what conclusion is to be drawn? At all your meetings, let everyone be ready with a psalm or a sermon or a revelation, or ready to use his gift of tongues or to give an interpretation; but it must always be for the common good. If there are people present with the gift of tongues, let only two or three, at the most, be allowed to use it, and only one at a time, and there must be someone to interpret. If there is no interpreter present, they must keep quiet in church and speak only to themselves and to God. As for prophets, let two or three of them speak, and the others attend to them. If one of the listeners receives a revelation, then the man who is already speaking should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn, so that everyone will learn something and everybody will be encouraged. Prophets can always control their prophetic spirits, since God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

As in all the churches of the saints, women are to remain quiet at meetings since they have no permission to speak; they must keep in the background as the Law itself lays it down. If they have any questions to ask, they should ask their husbands at home: it does not seem right for a woman to raise her voice at meetings.

I Tim. 2, 9-14:

Similarly, I direct that women are to wear suitable clothes and to be dressed quietly and modestly, without braided hair or gold and jewelry or expensive clothes; their adornment is to do the sort of good works that are proper for women who profess to be religious. During instruction, a woman should be quiet and respectful. I am not giving permission for a woman to teach or to tell a man what to do. A woman ought not to speak, because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin.

First of all, our people noticed that the passages were not consistent. Scholars today sometimes suggest that the second passage from I Cor. is an interpolation from the Letter to Timothy, and the internal discrepancy is then understandable. In any case it is clear that there is no overall agreement in the theory and practice in the New Testament itself, and it follows that there is no natural or moral law involved.

The first selection rules that women are to cover their heads when they pray aloud or prophesy; the second says that women are not to pray or prophesy aloud in the service at all. The third goes even farther and forbids women to teach or tell men what to do. Obviously the early Christian communities differed among themselves on the question.

Secondly, the reasons for the varying rules are about the same. Paul does present some other ideas in the first selection. He obviously believes it’s in the nature of things that men should keep their hair short and finally, in a note of exasperation, Look, this is the way it is.

But aside from these, each of the three passages refers back to the Old Testament. In I Cor. 11 the reason given for the ruling is that woman was created from and for the sake of man. In I Tim. we read that a woman ought not to speak because Adam was created first and Eve sinned first. This takes us all the way back to Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The third passage refers to the Law, another word for Torah, or the first five books of the Bible.

There are two versions of creation in the Bible, now generally agreed to come from two different sources. The first version, in the first chapter of Genesis, is the more theological. There we read, “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him. male and female he created them.”

In the second chapter of Genesis (which was actually written earlier than the first chapter) we find the whole Adam and Eve story, which most people now take as a “myth” or poetic way of explaining theological truths-in this case the teachings of the fatherhood of God and the fact that we are all one family. In this second chapter we read that Eve was created from Adam’s rib.

Our class also discovered that there are many aspects of this second creation story we cannot accept literally. Yahweh-God fashioned man from dust before he caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree, and only later did he fashion all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven, and last of all woman.

Yet St. Paul here uses only the second version of creation in Genesis. And unless we can accept the whole second story literally, we have no basis left within the Epistles themselves for believing the sections on women are anything more than customs.

Thirdly, we all agreed that when these statements on women are seen in context they are much less impressive. In I Cor. 14 the entire passage consists of rules to preserve order. But how many are followed today? What would a pastor do if everyone-or even every male-were ready with a psalm or a sermon or a revelation at Sunday Mass? And what priest who refuses to allow women lectors on the basis of I Tim. would station someone at the door to forbid women with braided hair or gold to enter?

Yet all these rules are presented as equals in the Bible. Why have we decided to keep some and ignore others?

Another interesting point is that, although these passages are used to bar women from the priesthood, they really deal only with women speaking out in the church, and nothing more. And on this particular issue the Church has already changed her practice, allowing women lectors and commentators.

But what impressed us most is the fact that in none of these passages, nor in any dealing with the male-dominated family structure, is there any reference to the teachings and practice of Jesus.


Actually, Jesus’ attitude toward women was completely unlike Paul’s or the strong tradition of the Old Testament. And it’s quite unlike the general attitude today. Jesus, in this matter like so many others, was unique.

Over the centuries Christians, and most especially Catholics, have taken the attitude that Jesus is the model for men and Mary is the ideal for women. There is comparatively little about Mary in the Bible, and the promoters of Marian piety for women usually have in mind an image of a passive listener (“Be it done unto me according to thy word”-a beautiful example of the feminine mystique were it not that this is not a woman responding to a man but a human responding to God) and the silent, awed, eager follower of the Lord. (This conveniently ignores the story in Mark 3 that “When his relatives [his mother and brothers] heard of this, they set out to take charge of him, convinced he was out of his mind.”) -

The way of salvation Jesus had in mind for women was not essentially different than that for men. He was grateful to women who ministered to him-cooking, for example-but he recognized their particularly womanly work as a necessary part of life and not in itself a goal.

The story of Martha and Mary is a good example. As Luke tells us (10, 38-42):

“In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered: ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’ ”

It’s very easy to sympathize with Martha. The house has a special guest and she wants to make the occasion itself special. She rushes around to attend to details and see that everything is done properly. The situation is hecticshe is “distracted,” Luke says-and young sister Mary relaxes with the guests. Martha is probably mumbling to herself, “Who does she think she is, the Queen of Sheba?” She certainly must have been almost beside herself to draw everyone’s attention to her own inability to cope by complaining about her sister to the chief honored guest.

Jesus is sympathetic and calming. But his message is that all this housewifery and gracious-hostessing are not “needed.” Perhaps all the hustle and bustle was a distraction to Jesus and his followers as well as to Martha herself. Jesus declares that it is the interior life, the life of the spirit and the mind, that matters. Mary knows this; she has chosen the better part, and Jesus will not tell her to regress. Although Martha is left free to pursue the traditionally feminine goals, Jesus rejects her attempt to force another woman to conform. Not all Christians today would follow his lead in setting female priorities.

Luke tells another story in the next chapter.

“Now as he was speaking, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, ‘Happy the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked!’ But he replied, ‘Still happier those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ ”

As in the story of Martha and Mary, Jesus looks rather ungrateful at first glance. Again a woman is trying to please him, to respond to her awareness of his greatness, in a way typically feminine. Even today kindly women will say to a young man-less often to a young woman-who has achieved a goal, “My, your mother must be proud of you!”

But Jesus will have none of this. Although it must have been embarrassing for the woman, and Jesus was always careful to protect the oppressed, including women, he nevertheless felt he must correct her. His message is that people, both men and women, are to be valued according as they hear the word of God and keep it. No mother of the year in his scheme of things!

In Mark 3, when Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived at his home and asked for him, he looked around at those sitting in a circle about him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother." He made no distinction between men and women; they all gathered around him and worked toward the same goals.

Occasionally Jesus used women to carry his message-to teach and instruct in the real sense-to men as well as women. Despite all Paul’s orders to the contrary, the early Church found these women emissaries so credible that there sprang up a tradition that Martha and Mary became apostles to Provence.

The first example we might draw would be the story of Jesus visiting with the Samaritan woman at the well. (John 4, 5-42.) This in itself is surprising. The woman asks, “What? You are a Jew and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” and John tells us a bit later, “At this point the disciples returned, and were surprised to find him speaking to a woman.”

Jesus reveals himself to her as the Messiah, and she hurries back into the village to tell the people. There is a big turnout, and John says, “Many Samaritans of that town had believed in him on the strength of the woman’s testimony.”

All four of the Gospels tell us that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb, and Matthew and Mark relate that the women were then commissioned by the angels to tell the disciples. Matthew tells us that on the way from the tomb they met Jesus “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there."

There is no doubt that Jesus expected women as well as men to work toward the building up of the Christian community and to spread the Good News.

Christianity is not alone in moving from a more enlightened attitude of its founder to a more oppressive and literal legalism in its later adherents. Islam is another good example; it makes a good parallel because both Christianity and Islam-unlike Judaism and Hinduism, for example-were founded by a single man whose teachings-unlike those of the Buddha-were written down within a generation of his own life.

Christians like to think that the condition of women in Islam is immensely inferior to that in Christianity. Catholics especially have been brought up to believe that the Church has been responsible for most of the good things that have happened to women in the last two thousand years, though recent study and even facts have proved embarrassing. The Hindus and the Jews, both supposedly terribly benighted, have each a woman as prime minister, whereas when the West German government appointed an experienced career diplomat as its representative to the Vatican she was refused accreditation on the grounds that she was a woman.

Islam is supposedly the worst of all in its treatment of women, and the veil becomes the symbol of female subjection. But the fact is that the veil comes not from Mohammad’s day but some time later, and that it was borrowed from Christianity.

A contemporary Muslim woman scholar points out that the Koran granted many rights to women, including the right to choose her own husband to earn a living, to conduct business without the consent or even the knowledge of her husband or father, to retain her own maiden name. Things have moved downhill since the time of Mohammad, but such liberated thinking is amazing for the seventh century. Women in America today are in some states legally forbidden to go into business without the written consent of their husbands, and use of one’s own name, even where it is legally permissible in this country, can be made virtually impossible by bankers and businessmen. Our contemporary Christian culture has little to feel superior about where women are concerned.

Following are two views of the Old Testament.

Do they conflict?

Which do you agree with?

Compare them with contemporary Christianity

“The motivation for male domination over the female is intimately connected with the idea of paternity .... Power and property can be passed down through his sons and so clutched beyond the grave . . . . The male seed is of tremendous importance in the Old Testament, lines of male descent are recorded in great detail, generation by generation, and the woman is no more than a bearer of male children. . Since woman’s only function was procreation, the greatest curse possible was for her to be barren, and the greatest favour that Jehovah could bestow on her was to make her unexpectedly fruitful in her old age, as he did Sarah and Rachel." (Eva Figes, Patriarchal AttitudesStein and Day, 1970, pp. 38-41.)

“ ‘Marriage, I think,’ asserts Philip Wylie, ‘exists primarily for the procreation of children . . . . Kids are humanity’s main reason for existing.’ Even God was less patriarchal; according to His own statements, He made Eve primarily to keep Adam from being lonely (‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.’).” (Morton M. Hunt, Her Infinite Variety Harper & Row, 1962, pp. 173-4.)

“in many ways Jesus strove to communicate the notion of the equal dignity of women. In one sense that effort was capped by his parable of the woman who found the lost coin (Lk. 15:8 ff.), for here Jesus projected God in the image of a woman! Luke recorded that the despised tax-collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus, and consequently the Pharisees and scribes complained. Jesus, therefore, related three parables in a row, all of which depicted God’s being deeply concerned for that which was lost. The first story was of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to seek the one lost-the shepherd is God. The third parable is of the prodigal son-the father is God. The second story is of the woman who sought the lost coin-the woman is God! Jesus did not shrink from the notion of God as feminine.” (Leonard Swidler, “Jesus Was a Feminist,” Catholic World, Jan. 1971, p. 183.)

What do the images of God the Father and God the Mother suggest?

What is your personal reaction to the Christian Science form of prayer, “God, Our Father and Mother.. ?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of referring to God as Father and/or Mother?

How literally do children take the Fatherhood of God?

A Lebanese professor of Arabic Literature and Language writes that it is not Islam but Arab social customs which restrict women. She writes about woman in the Koran:

“1. God created man, both male and female. There is no clue that He created one before the other. He made them equal in creating them without distinction as to priority.

2. The Koran removed the insult that was attached to the female and the primal sin that blemished her in the story of creation. She was made equal to man, as both of them were tempted by the devil and each of them wronged himself. There is no reference to the fact that Eve tempted Adam or that she was the initiator of the temptation." (Thurayya A.F. Malhas, “The Moslem Arab Woman and Her Rights,” WORD Nov. 1971, p. 3,)

How important is Eve in our attitude toward women?

How would the Moslem attitude toward women differ from ours?

How many people take the second creation story literally? How many know that there are two creation stories?

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