Invisible women and the God who sees

Since this morning’s “Biblical Family of the Day” post involved the story of the rape of Dinah from Genesis 34, here’s a bit more on that passage from a recent discussion by Lauren Tuchman at State of Formation, “The Presence and Absence of Women: Reflections Upon the Rape of Dinah“:

Every year as I read this parsha, I am struck by Dinah’s total silence. The narrative surrounding her rape by Shechem is told strictly through the perspective of her father and brothers, Shimon and Levi who, upon receiving word of Dinah’s rape, exact violent revenge against all of the male inhabitants of the city.

… Dinah’s complete absence and lack of human agency in this narrative I find deeply troubling. Far too frequently, women and their experiences are rendered completely invisible in our sacred texts. We hear of Shimon and Levi’s violent anguish, but what of Dinah’s?

… What I find all the more troubling is the fact that if Dinah was indeed raped, as the pshat–or simple meaning of the text clearly conveys, her experience is invisible, and the only thing that seems to matter here is her familial honor. Feminist Biblical commentary has done much to give the voiceless women in our sacred texts a hearing. Although we can never know how Dinah felt, we can, through feminist hermeneutics and Midrash, seek to uncover and recover that lost strand in our tradition, making Torah all the richer.

What Tuchman says here about Dinah, and the title of her post — “The Presence and Absence of Women” — seems to apply to many of the horrifying biblical passages we’ve looked at here in that “Biblical Family” series.

“Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness,” by Gustave Dore

Think of those 10 women shut away after being used in the conflict between Absalom and David. Or of all those other unnamed concubines and female slaves. Or even Vashti. She was a queen when we first meet her in that story, but what became of her after that? Over and over, as Tuchman says of Dinah, their “experience is invisible.”

One partial and strange exception to that is the story of Hagar, the slave of Abraham’s wife, Sarah.

The Registered Runaway has a thoughtful discussion of the story of Hagar in the book of Genesis. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say the stories of Hagar, since those passages in Genesis seem cobbled together from different storytellers with very different views of what Hagar’s story means.

RR writes:

Hagar was an Egyptian. A slave to Sarah while [she and] Abraham stayed in Pharoah’s palace. When the two got the boot out of Egypt, Hagar was packed up like luggage and carted along with them. Away from everyone and everything she ever knew.

She was a minority in every sense of the word. Her gender, race, nationality and social status put her in the bottom of the barrel. Nothing more than a means to an end. Something to be traded, used and discarded. Born to be little so her master could be great, her existence nothing more than a sad roll of the dice.

Hagar is another of the many women in the Bible who is misused, mistreated and disregarded by the righteous heroes of the story. But unlike with Dinah or those many nameless just-a-concubine women in those other stories, Hagar’s experience is not wholly invisible. We get to see her experience and her perspective, even when it makes Abraham and Sarah look bad.

Hagar’s story includes a familiar motif — flight into the wilderness, abandonment and despair, followed by divine visitation and the promise of a blessed future. That same motif is seen in the stories of Abraham, Jacob, David and Elijah, but here it centers on a Gentile slave woman.

You are the God who sees me,” Hagar says. The God who sees me.

Did Dinah ever say that? Or those royal concubines locked up after being used by the king and the prince?

Could they say that? The stories we have of them don’t suggest it’s true. Their experience is invisible in these stories, and if we judge only by these stories without the kind of “feminist hermeneutics and Midrash” Tuchman calls for, then it seems as if their experience was invisible even to God.

RR continues:

What stands out is how this story is told. Or rather not told. … Church history has traditionally trashed Hagar as an example of the sinful. Of the fallen. And within the same breath, they say Sarah is an example of the heavenly. Augustine compares Hagar to the city of the Earth and Sarah the city of Heaven. Aquinas separates the children of Sarah and Hagar into the “redeemed” and the “unredeemed.”

But God saw Hagar, even if we refuse to look.

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  • P J Evans

    That was later. Easter morning,the women went to the tomb to wash and wrap the body for burial. They were wondering how they’d move the stone – but it was open, and empty, and there was an angel there. No men around at all.

  • PatBannon

    I don’t think they’re necessary, either. But are they sufficient? How easy is it to implement a solution involving those things versus to implement a solution that relies on the absence of those things?

  • I don’t see your belief that humanity could become better as being markedly more justified than my belief in there being a purpose to the universe. And the very “Well, they had two thousand years to do it and they didn’t” claim you make as an argument against the necessity of christianity strikes me as an equally good argument against the possibility of improvement.

  • Humanity, overall, has become better in the past.  We have evidence for that, unlike our total lack of evidence for any “purpose to the universe.”  So it’s not unjustified to say that humanity could become better still in the future.  It’s a heckuva lot more justified than saying that supernatural beliefs are any kind of requirement for the betterment of humanity.

  • Darkrose

    If like Fred, you believe that the message of the bible, the entire message, is a message of love

    But what if I don’t believe that? What if I’m not sure? Am I just reading it wrong when I take away that women are devalued instead of loved in the stories of the Bible? Isn’t that kind of begging the question?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The Old Testament is for the people in power, mostly.

    The prophets got excised from the OT again, eh?

  • A few comments on some of the discussion in this thread.  I don’t think I could respond individually.
    vsm, the fact that Christians aren’t going away could, as easily, be a reason for the rest of us to stop using it.  The fact of the matter is that people who use the bible as a reference book of rules on that and how women are supposed to submit to men, that and how people without power are supposed to meekly submit to those with, that and how the only rightful way for the abused to escape abuse is to hope that God, in his own time, makes the abusor less abusive is all a good reason not to use the same reference book.

    Every time someone says that we should let he who is without sin cast the first stone, as though the words are wise strictly because it is Jesus that said them, then the next person who uses the same bible and the rules set up by the same God has you adding to their credibility.  “It is presented, in the bible, as good morality means it’s actually good morality.”  This is especially true being that Jesus himself spoke out against ignoring any of the law.  So, were I to say “God says that, as you do unto the least of these, you do unto Him,” I would be lending credibility to someone else who uses the same bible to say “Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live”.

    I said that Christianity, at least at first, was an improvement over what had come before.  And, yes, it was.  I’m willing to bet the stats leave less witch-hunts and heretic-burnings per year or per capita than human sacrifices were prior.  But, we do have, in my somewhat unhumble opinion, better ones.  Kant’s Categorical Imparitive (Every person is an ends unto themselves and it is immoral to treat any, in individual or in groups, as a means to an end), for instance.

    Ross, no you couldn’t say that every human institution of the last two thousand years has failed.  The Enlightenment brought methodological naturalism, which has, in terms of liberating people, making them more free and giving them better lives, has succeeded beyond dream.  Democracy, despite it not having the magical and simple power that W. Bush thought it would have over Iraq, has, through the hard, dirty work of reacting to constituants, improved life and liberated greatly.  And, one of the greatest tools of social change in the latter half of the twentieth century, passive resistence, didn’t come from Christianity but from Ghandi’s Hindi respect for all life.

    As far as the liberation of women through Christianity goes, let’s look over how their lives improved.  Were they given a voice equal to their husbands?  No.  Were they given the right to refuse an order that violated their conscience when given first by their father and/or later by their husband?  No.  The great liberation that Christianity promised to women, to the poor, to anybody who faced abuse at more powerful hands and with seemingly no escape was a liberation after death, be it after their own personal death or after the end of the entire world.

    Sure, one could say that, because of Christianity, the powerful felt more obligation unto the powerless.  And, that much was good.  But, that obligation was entirely voluntary, based on the compassion or the powerful or their fear of the more powerful.  If, for instance, an employer abused an employee, what option did the employee have to redress their situation?  Christianity provided only the option of waiting for three ghosts to advise the employer of the wrong.  And, while it was nice when the ghosts got to your particular abusive employer, it would have been nicer if you could have some option other than waiting for them to do their freakin’ job.

    So, I think it’s entirely legitimate to ask the question of whether, at today’s point in the history of human ethical evolution, sticking with Christianity does us much or any good.  And, I think it’s entirely unsurprising that I would believe that Christianity suffers, as a system of ethics, from being bound to the supernatural and obedience based morality.