I don’t blame you if you tune out the news. I tend to do so most of the time. It’s as though my ears and my brain just can’t hear or absorb any more words. Anymore, it seems hard enough to sift through the headlines and sensationalist breaking news to find where the news actually is.
But if you were paying attention, perhaps you heard about the shooting. Another shooting. In the dark of night, in California, last weekend. Elliot Rodger killed six people before turning his gun on himself. Rodger leaves a legacy of angry You Tube videos and a 137-page manifesto, wherein he declares his hatred for all women, because he has been rejected over and over again in his overtures toward them. It is clear that he sought revenge because women he lusted after rejected him and denied his advances. Those who have read and commented, analyzed, his manifesto point out that, while his words are obsessive, and the product of an imbalanced mind, they call to question the patterns in our society, where beauty and strength receive recognition, and women are still regarded as prizes to be won. Those who are rejected, lonely, poor, outcast, are rendered invisible.
Buried even farther back (because it’s been over a month) in our news is the story of the Nigerian girls. In mid-April, approximately 276 girls were abducted from a Government Secondary School in Nigeria. The kidnappings were claimed by an Islamist jihadist group, Boko Haram. This is not the first time the group has perpetrated such crimes against children. They have been known to kidnap young girls – particularly from schools – because they do not believe they should be educated. So, they take them and use them as cooks and sex slaves. These kidnappings are just one piece of the story – so far Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed over 4,000 people this year. News broke earlier this week that the Nigerian government has located the missing girls, but cannot yet rescue them, because it is unsafe to use force.
Following last weekend’s shooting, the trending response on twitter – or one voice of it – argued that “Not All Men” are like that. It is true. Not all men are violent. Not all men are sexist. Not all men are abusers. And thank God for that.
And yet. Sexism and violence linked to sexism, and sex-related crimes are far too common. 1 in 3 women have experienced or will experience violence in their lifetime. The counter-response to “Not all Men” was in a hashtag “#yesallwomen” – because not all men are “like that,” but yes, all women understand the reality of sex-based violence. This internet response revealed the deep and pervasive sexism throughout our culture and the world.
Likewise, another hashtag, #yesallbiblicalwomen emerged – calling to mind the ways that the Bible often forgets, or our interpretation and translation, have manipulated, twisted, forgotten the stories of women throughout.
Part of why I wanted to read Proverbs 31 – or at least the part of the Proverb we all know so well – today is because we so often misunderstand it. We so often misunderstand much about the bible – not least of which is how the bible portrays women.
I remember hearing in college other females talk about how they wanted to be a “P-31 woman,” referring to Proverbs 31, which was essentially code for “a submissive and domesticated housewife.” With this association, it will surprise no one that I resisted anything related to Proverbs 31. Submissive and Domestic I am not. And so I threw the biblical baby out with the bath water, so to speak.
A couple of years ago, Rachel Held Evans, a popular Christian blogger took on the project of rediscovering, and exploring what exactly biblical womanhood is all about. The primary assumption she debunked is that there is only one specific definition or understanding of “biblical womanhood.”
The Bible depicts all kinds of women – good, bad, but mostly human just like all of us. It also depicts all kinds of men – good, bad, but mostly human just like all of us. The Bible does not show us only one way to be man or woman – but brings to light and life the myriad ways there are to be human – the reality that we are all broken. And we are all loved.
In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans spends a chapter delving into Proverbs 31. She discovered many things –some of the most important include:
The verses from Proverbs 31 we heard today are poetry. It’s meant to be read and understood as such – not as a job description for all womankind. Genre matters.
Second, the target audience for these verses is not women; it is men. Evans discovered that men would memorize the words of this Proverb in order to sing praise to the women in their lives – not to offer a requirement list around the home. These words were not read by women as a laundry list (pun intended) to keep their husbands happy. Evans further notes that, the only instructive verse is this one: “Praise her for all her hands have done.”
Third, the verses primarily are set up to celebrate valor. “A woman of valor who can find?” Valor isn’t about what but how. Therefore, it isn’t about completing a checklist, but doing whatever work you do with valor.
Rachel Held Evans’ work has reminded me – and been instructive for hosts of other men and women – that we still have work to do to understand what it means to see all persons as equal as God sees us.
We still have work to do to understand what the biblical portrayal of personhood. We still have work to do to understand the Bible as a text that has been interpreted and translated over millennia and demands our critical reading lest we rest on the comforts of mere surface reading.
The reason I mentioned the hashtags earlier (though I know much of that is just gibberish to many of us) is that it has reminded me that there are so many names and voices of women in the Bible and part of our Christian heritage that have been silenced and forgotten. If I am being perfectly candid, I had to google more biblical women’s names and stories than I care to admit. I’d like to spend some time reading (or paraphrasing) some of the content from Twitter. I’d like to take the time to hear these names and stories out loud as a reminder of the work we have to do, and as a way to honor the women who are part of our family tree who have been neglected, abused, forgotten.
Because we know so few biblical women’s names…
But their stories matter…
And matter a great deal – Sarah, of whom God told Abraham, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.” She matters.
Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel birthed the covenant, but are left out of God’s name – God who is often referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It matters because of stories like Tamar’s – whose half-brother raped her, and her uncle helped him.
And because the Levite woman was offered up by her father for rape by his guests.
These stories matter because Laban thought so little of his daughter Leah, he tricked Jacob into marrying her, even though he really wanted to buy Rachel.
And when Hannah prayed differently she was judged and called a drunk.
Jepthah had the right to use his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, the story we heard earlier this morning.
These women matter; women like Hagar, alone, pregnant, in the desert, names God and finds faith, and yet is barely mentioned today. She named God, El-roi, asking, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?”
Because women saved the lives of countless Hebrew baby boys, and yet are often ignored in our preaching about the Exodus.
And because Miriam was more than a sister with one song – she was a prophet and a worship leader.
We need to tell stories like Esther’s, the queen who first had to win a beauty pageant first in order to have a platform from which to speak to prevent a genocide.
And Queen Vashti, whom Esther succeeds, is remembered as wicked and vain, rather than strong and powerful, when she refused to come and parade in front of the people, at the King’s drunken command.
We need to hear the voice that cries out in Ramah – to hear Rachel weeping for her children. And we need to hear God’s promise to turn her mourning into dancing.
The stories of women continue to matter in the New Testament record –
Jesus had four scandalous women in his family tree: Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba and Ruth.
Women were first at the crib, last at the cross.
Their stories are worth revisiting and reclaiming…
Because we consider Mary Magdalene a prostitute even though we don’t have evidence, but we fail to consider her an apostle even though we do have evidence.
We hear Jesus say of the woman who anointed him at Bethany that she would always be remembered, and yet we do not know her name. But we have heard her read story today – and heard how Jesus honored her.
The ways we understand biblical womanhood matter because Martha criticized Mary for sitting and listening to the end of the sermon, rather than get to the chores in the kitchen. And because we so quickly assume that Martha’s work is cooking and cleaning – women’s work.
It matters because the Samaritan woman having 5 husbands says less about her character than it does about the misogyny of her time and place.
We know that Jesus trusted a woman first to proclaim the resurrection and some churches still won’t let women preach – or even teach.
We need to hear these names: the name Junia. Paul calls her an apostle in Romans, but her names has been frequently re-translated as the masculine version, Junias.
And the stories and names of women have continued to matter in Christian history.
We call to mind the names of so many women in the past two millennia who were denied priesthood, but became Saints all the same. And other women who served the church without recognition.
Because women leaders in the church are treated as an anomaly, while the texts prohibiting women leaders are the anomaly in scripture.
Because women pastors are still referred to as women pastors, not simply pastors.
It matters as Christians that we speak up for women – that we listen to women’s voices – that we resist the culture of sexualized violence.
It matters because women are told not to let men treat them as objects, but so rarely do we teach with the same emphasis men the lesson that women are not toys.
Because we still have politicians who cling to lies that a woman’s reproductive system can resist rape: otherwise she was asking for it.
Because we still have politicians who believe that woman “ask” for rape.
Because we still so often teach our girls how not to get raped than teach our boys not to rape.
Rachel Held Evans notes that the way we talk about women in the church still matters, “Because the emails I get from women whose abuse was justified as “biblical submission” stopped surprising me 2 years ago.”
We tell these stories – we hear these names – to understand that biblical womanhood is about smartness, boldness, fearlessness; not about submission and being subdued. Biblical womanhood is really about biblical personhood.
We could continue this morning. Perhaps – and likely – what we have heard this morning is overwhelming. It is understandably more than we can absorb. But these names and these stories are worth naming and hearing again and again.
But here’s why else it matters – Because there is room for all of us in the Kingdom of God.
Because the Kingdom requires all of us. We are all called to full humanity – which also means seeking the full humanity of our neighbors, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free.
 Rachel Held Evans, http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/3-things-you-might-not-know-about-proverbs-31