by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Whenever I see comments like “God hates feminism,” I cringe. I cringe, because hidden behind these statements I hear privilege and power. What I also hear, scratching the surface, is fear and woundedness embedded in cycles of violence. Some of that violence has been perpetuated in families, modelling particular ways of relating. Some of that violence has also been modeled by the church.
What first jumps to mind is the image of an abusive husband, lording power over his partner. Perhaps he does this because it’s all he’s ever known. It was modeled for him. At church. At home. Throughout his culture. When I hear vitriolic insanity spit scathingly at women from the pulpit, or I see its effects on the women I know, I both wince and wonder:
1) What is your experience of God? Is it loving? Is it abusive?
2) What is your experience of human relationships? Is it loving? Is it abusive?
Starting with the story of an abusive god who continually browbeats, intimidates and abuses his bride, where else are you going to end up? What else are you going to do but perpetuate the cycle of violence in your own relationships?
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. - Ephesians 5:22-24
If you, the husband, read Ephesians 5 with an abusive god ominously looming in the background, how then will you live? Will you treat your wife with mutuality and respect? Will you treat her as bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh? Together, are you one? Or are you one over and against the other? Will you, like your overbearing, violent god wait for the first opportunity to catch her in some act that doesn’t live up to your impossible standards?
Is she the Proverbs 31 woman you were promised? And how do you respond when she doesn’t live up?
In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans shares an email from Ahava, an Orthodox Jewish woman who pushes back on the impossible standards of Proverbs 31:
Here’s the thing: Christians seem to think because all the Bible is inspired, all of it should be taken literally. Jews don’t do this. Even though we take the Torah literally (all 613 commandments!) the rest is seen differently, as a way of understanding Our Creator, rather than direct commands.
Take Proverbs 31, for example. I get called an eshet chayil (a valorous woman) all the time. Make your own challah instead of buying? Eshet chayil! Work to earn some extra money for the family? Eshet chayil! Make balloon animals for the kids at shul? Eshet chayil!
Every week at the Shabbat table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me. It’s special, because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way. I bet you do as well.
Held Evans goes on to say:
Sure enough, in Jewish culture it is not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men. Husbands commit each line of the poem to memory, so they can recite it to their wives at the Sabbath meal, usually in song.
In the Christian scriptures, from beginning to end, we hear the story of a God of grace and mercy who gives self-sacrificially. This is the same God who repeatedly renews covenant with a people who continually demonstrate infidelity in big and small things. Time and again, God’s people break covenant. Time and again, God re-enters relationship with them.
But the entire scriptural narrative is not sweetness and light. God’s relationship to God’s people is not cut and dry positive. There’s this thing called the flood, for example. And later on, there’s the story of the prophet Hosea:
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ – Hosea 1:1-2
If the way in which God relates to God’s people is as to a whore, how do we square that with the eshet chayil of Proverbs 31? And how does it intersect with an understanding of prostitution not rooted in personal choice, but systemic oppression?