Message 58, “Life Lessons from Women in the Bible”, 5-22-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

One day in the Garden of Eden, woman called out to God and complained of her boredom.  “I love the beautiful garden, the flowers, trees and animals but there is nobody to talk to except for a funny snake.  I don’t know what to do with myself.”  “Well Eve,” said God, “I have a solution for you!  I will create man for you as a companion.  He won’t be as smart as you but he’ll be bigger and a bit stronger so he can help you here in the garden.  He’ll talk to you, but not as much as you might want and he will revel in silly things like kicking a ball and fighting.  He will also need your advice on lots of things but, overall, he will be a friend and a companion.”  “OK,” said Eve.  “Man sounds pretty good.  What is the catch, though, God?”  “Well,” said God, “man will be arrogant and self-admiring so you will have to let him think that I created him first.  Just remember, it’s our secret…………..woman to woman!”

It is sad to say, but such a story is wishful thinking.  As the real Bible story goes, man was created first, then Eve.  And, depending on which account you follow, either that in the first chapter of Genesis or that of the second, woman was created out of the side of Adam – supposedly to symbolize how the female is to be a helper and so-called side-kick to man.

But that issue speaks to a larger point about the Bible and other faith Scriptures as well.  They are open to multiple interpretations none of which, I believe, should be considered definitive or absolute.  As with all works of literature and history, we have to use our own reason and applied knowledge to find meaning and truth in the Bible.

For centuries, the interpretation of Eve and other women in the Bible has been unflattering.  And that was mostly done by men.  Indeed, it is Eve who has long been considered the one responsible for the entry of sin into our world.  The Bible story regarding the Fall goes as follows, “Now the snake was the most clever of all the wild animals that God had made. One day the snake said to the woman, “Did God really say that you must not eat fruit from any tree in the garden?”  The woman answered the snake, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden. But God told us, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden. You must not even touch it, or you will die.’ ” But the snake said to the woman, “You will not die. God knows that if you eat the fruit from that tree, you will learn about good and evil and you will be like God! The woman saw that the tree was beautiful, that its fruit was good to eat, and that it would make her wise. So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of the fruit to her husband who was with her, and he ate it.  Then, it was as if their eyes were opened. They realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made something to cover themselves.”

The story, which I believe is myth, was partially borrowed from other ancient cultures by Jews writing around 500 BCE to explain where humanity came from.  It is a straightforward and relatively simple story.  Eve, acting as any reasonable person, wanted to acquire wisdom for herself and she offered the same to Adam.  She was a free thinker who determined that the serpent’s words had resonance – I have a God-given brain capable of knowing good and evil.  Adam, however, simply accepted and ate the apple.  No conniving and no female seduction is evident in the Scripture words.  “Here, try this.”  OK!  In many respects, Adam comes off looking a bit dumb – he does not question Eve or the apple given to him.  He simply takes and eats.

But thousands of theologians have looked at the same story and interpreted something sinister in Eve’s actions.  She was the weak one who was capable of being tempted and tricked.  Further, according to such theology, she then seduced Adam with her female allure to get him to eat.  Why else would intelligent man eat the apple without question or protest.  In other words, Eve – as the symbolic ancestor of all future women – was easily tricked and tempted.  Satan did not dare go after man – he was too smart and obedient!!  But then Eve used her female skills – in all of her nakedness – to get Adam to also eat.  Eve is not much better than Satan – in this view – she is a temptress!  Look at these famous images of the fall – both created by men but reflective of longstanding views of the Fall…

The first, by Albrect Durer, shows Eve with a slight smile as she seductively takes the apple from the serpent and offers it to Adam.  He, though, is so smitten and overwhelmed with her wily charms that he does not even care about the apple – he is interested in one thing only as he suggestively reaches out toward Eve.  While the image also implies a sexual nature to all forms of temptation, it is Eve who is almost in collusion with Satan in tricking Adam into eating the apple – all through sex and seduction.

The second image suggests the same – and this is a much more famous painting by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel.  Again, looking to the left of the image, Eve takes the apple, but look at her highly suggestive position in regards to Adam.  The implied message from the painting, as I interpret it, is that Eve seduced and tricked Adam into sin.  It is all her fault.  It is all the fault of women.  We must be wary of their false, manipulative and evil ways according to such theology.  Men must learn from this in order to control women in their weakness and propensity to be tempted and then a tempter.  I know this is only my interpretation of these images but century’s old theology holds Eve primarily responsible for the fall of humanity.  This, I believe, led directly to religious and cultural control of women.

My point today, however, is not to beat the same drum that I did last week – that patriarchy is something that must be overcome.  My hope today is to point out the misleading theology and interpretations that call it sin to use reason, intelligence and rational thought to discern good and evil.  Indeed, as much as the Bible tells us that it is wrong to think of ourselves as like God or as little gods – as we just read from Scripture – I believe the exact opposite.  That is what the creative forces of the universe – or God – achieved in humanity….a species capable of using highly advanced brains and intelligence to discern, on our own, good from evil.  If that is to be like God, so be it.

Even if Eve tempted Adam – which I do not interpret the story to say – she was using evolutionary or God-given reasoning powers to think and act as her own free agent.  It is not sin to think.  It is sin, in my humble opinion, NOT to think and to blindly accept as fact that which we are told.  For many, that is the difference between religion and spirituality.  The former is human created based on human interpretation of ancient writings.  The latter is mysterious, unknown and transcendent stuff which beckons us to think, question and explore.

From Eve, we learn a lot.  She was not the mere handmaiden to Adam.  If she is to be credited with the fall of humanity, then we must at least give her due acknowledgement for the wit and ability it took to question God’s command – and to establish a morality that resonates today – free thinking and rationality.  We think therefore we are, to paraphrase the famous philosopher Descartes.  Indeed, Eve thought on her own, she proved her own existence as a person and she offers us such a life lesson.

One other female character from the Bible, whom I want to examine today, is Jezebel.  We all know the name but few know her Biblical story.  As a princess from Phoenicia, a coastal nation, she married the king of Northern Israel, Ahab, as a political move to unite an inland nation with one that had access to the sea.  Israel was a divided Kingdom around 600 to 500 BCE with the North having drifted, according to the Bible, toward apostasy and paganism.  Jezebel is blamed as a primary instigator of that.  The Bible story tells us that Jezebel induced King Ahab to convert from Judaism to the worship of Baal – a god of wine and fertility.  According to legend and the Bible, Baal worship involved the liberal drinking of wine and lots of sex – all done at Temples dedicated to him.  (Now that must have been one interesting church service!)  Eventually Elijah, the famous prophet who foreshadowed Jesus’ resurrection by ascending straight to heaven without dying, came to denounce King Ahab, Jezebel and the worship of Baal.  According to the Biblical story found in the book of Kings, a climactic scene resulted when Elijah confronts 450 prophets of Baal in a duel to see who could end a drought brought on by God.  With lots of shouting, singing and marching, the Baal prophets proved impotent thus indicating the fallacy of Baal.  Elijah and God bring back rain and thus prove Yahweh’s omnipotence.  King Ahab is killed, he is replaced by a successor named Jehu who then proceeds to kill Jezebel.  In a scene from which she earned her dark reputation, Jezebel – who is old at this point – takes time to apply makeup and mascara and to don her finest dresses when she learns Jehu is on his way to her.  Theologians describe her as a wanton woman inclined to seduction and disloyalty because they say she wanted to lure the new king with her charm.  Scripture says nothing of the sort.  Instead, her actions point to a woman determined to die in her own way, as a Queen and with her dignity intact.  She was thrown out a window and her body consumed by dogs.  But she did, indeed, die as a stately Queen in all of her finery.

This theological interpretation of Jezebel comes directly from that of Eve and other women in the Bible – as connivers and deceivers of good and decent men.  It was Jezebel who introduced belief in a pagan god and it was her who wantonly used sexual attractiveness to lure her unsuspecting husband and later King Jehu.  This interpretation of her – and strong women like her – remains even today.  Watch a more contemporary interpretation of a Jezebel-like woman and note the words used in the captions… (click on preceding link to watch video)

What we hopefully learn from Jezebel is that being strong, intelligent and disobedient to prevailing cultural or religious thought is actually a good thing.  While perhaps I went too far last week in describing an all dominant patriarchal culture – it is a telling commentary on our culture when a popular movie of the last century suggested independent woman like Bette Davis’ character should be whipped.  While the film was made in 1938, such a view of women has lasted thousands of years and still exists today in many areas of our world.  Sadly, our world is not free from patriarchy.

We are all encouraged, I hope, to question rigid religious dogma and to explore other paths to Divine truth.  Whether that Truth be supernatural or, instead, a scientific explanation, it is an unknown source of which any of us are only dimly aware.  Eve and Jezebel were willing to stand up to religious certainty and, while we may all chuckle at Jezebel’s worship of a fertility god, we can also marvel and worship, like her, at the creative or fertile forces still at work in the universe.

The ideal female character from the Bible, besides the virginal Mary, is often said to be Ruth – described in a Biblical book bearing her name.  The story is of a young woman from Moab who marries the son of a wealthy landowner from Israel who had moved to Moab to escape that nation’s drought.  When this landowner and his sons die, leaving Ruth and her sister – along with her mother-in-law Naomi – as widows, they must make a decision whether to return to Israel or remain in Moab.  Ruth’s sister chooses the latter but Ruth, with heartfelt loyalty, pledges her fidelity to Jewish Naomi by saying, “Where you go, I will go; your people shall be my people and your God my God.”

When they do return to Israel, Naomi and Ruth meet a distant relative of Naomi’s deceased husband.  According to ancient Jewish levirate law, a man was to always marry the widow of a relative in order to keep the deceased’s lineage alive.  Naomi declares herself too old to marry again but encourages Ruth to insinuate herself into Boaz’s life – the unsuspecting relative – so that he will marry her and thus preserve Naomi’s family line.  In a very sensual scene, Ruth joins Boaz on a wheat threshing floor and then lies down at his feet while he naps.  This, according to the custom, indicated betrothal and a willingness to obey and be a wife.  Boaz accepts Ruth as his wife, he buys the land of his deceased relative and the two eventually produce a male heir – who would be father to the legendary King David.  In reading the New Testament book of Matthew, we see that author, writing many hundreds of years later, added Ruth as an ancestor of Jesus – the only woman so named.  The humble, loyal, obedient foreign woman became a great-great-great-great, etc. grandmother to Jesus – the man the Bible says is the Son of God.

Theological interpretations of this story focus on Ruth’s ideal female virtues with an implicit contrast to Eve, Jezebel, Baathsheba, Mary Magdalene and other so called bad women of the Bible.  God will be faithful to those who are faithful, and women, especially, are called to be obedient.  They must check their inclinations to question prevailing religious orthodoxy and male authority with pure faith – in God and in the supposed goodness of men.

While I do not question women who choose to be wives and mothers, I hope as I said two weeks ago on Mother’s Day that such decisions are freely made and motivated by sincere desires.  Cultural coercion or mere compliance with prevailing thinking does not advance any of us.  Indeed, we all encourage that here at the Gathering.  Last week, it seems my message was either totally loved or completely disagreed with.  I don’t ever want to speak to an amen corner here.   Differing thoughts and viewpoints challenge our thinking – especially my own.

While time constraints will prevent us from having a talk back time today, I deeply value it and I want a free and respectful exchange of thoughts and ideas here.  We welcome dissent and voices of gentle and respectful disagreement.  In the process, we all learn.  While we can and should arrive at our own opinions, differences in religion, politics, love, life and general habits are wonderful – they make the world interesting and they help us grow.  Ruth, in her willing conformity to the religion and ways of her adopted family was not evil.  Her actions speak, however, of a woman inclined to not question or buck the prevailing trend.  Perhaps we should see her character as sincere in her willingness to accept a foreign God – but, if so, then we must also accept as sincere Jezebel’s decision to NOT accept such a God.  As I often say and as is a prevailing motto here at the Gathering, nobody and no religion has access to absolute Truth.  We may believe our ways are correct and that is good.  But we must be open to other truths and other paths to absolute Truth – whether that be God, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Confucius or a physics principle like Thermodynamics.  Let us explore with minds and hearts wide open.  Let us learn to embrace Eve for her brave defiance and willing questions.  Let us celebrate the strong and purposeful Jezebels of the world who chart their own course in life – adding to diversity and greater understanding for us all.

Let us always be people who value questions far more than absolute certainty.  Let us use the miraculous brains we have to explore and think about large questions like existence and meaning.  To paraphrase another verse from the Bible, faith without reason is shallow and a form of blind idolatry. The Bible characters of Eve, Jezebel and even Ruth point us to such a standard.

I wish you all peace and joy…..