Is God A Misogynist? God Forbid.
Last month, I left a church community that I love. It was both difficult and easy to do. Difficult because NYC has been rough for me and at this church I finally felt like I had community and a place where I belonged. Easy because it became apparent that I didn’t actually belong and needed to be up out.
Much like in romance, when you’re thirsting for community, the lure of wonderful people who are nice to you can seem like enough. I eagerly joined after a few months because everyone was so nice! Instead of deeply investigating, I took phrases like “a new way to do church” and “a commitment to social justice” to mean what I needed them to mean as a Black woman: an end to church-sponsored misogynoir (misogyny targeted at Black women).
It never occurred to me that a church with “social justice” in the vision wouldn’t be against misogyny, even as the pastoral staff had no women on it. “It’s a new church,” I reasoned like a woman who’d begun dating again after a dry spell. “I can work with this.”
And I did try to work with it for over a year. I volunteered, I paid tithes, I was active in two community groups, I reviewed and gave feedback on a sermon…I was all in! Until it became clear that women being in positions of actual power in the church was a question best answered by Timothy and Titus. The “new way to do church,” started to feel a lot like the old way.
At the time I found out that it was debatable whether God wanted to use women as pastors and elders in the church, I was pitching with another sister an idea for a spirituality workshop. I’d taken 2.5 hours off of work to pitch and discuss this idea. And while it seemed possible that I could lead a Bible study workshop (after some training and at some point in the far future) as a woman and I could plan and organize and otherwise pour my emotional labor into the church, I could not, if called by God, be a pastor or an elder in that same church.
The door wasn’t completely closed, however. “Ongoing discussions,” were needed to see if women could be in power at the church where they do a great chunk of the labor. I had flashbacks of my last relationship. “I see why you want to be considered a human being with feelings that are as valid as mine, but I’m not really ready to accept your feelings as equally valid, but let’s have ‘ongoing discussions’ about it.” Nah.
“Nice” wasn’t enough. In fact, discriminating against women isn’t nice at all. Like I said, I had to be up out.
But it was devastating for me. How could the church I loved, a church who loved me still be willing to discriminate against women in 2016? I was relieved to find that there are plenty of NYC churches who don’t discriminate and who love and affirm everybody. But my relief was short-lived.
This past week, I was preparing a simple assignment for work and stumbled across Numbers 12, the story of Miriam’s punishment.
Miriam and Aaron are pretty miffed with Moses for marrying a woman they didn’t think he should marry. They go out to the people and speak against Moses for marrying this woman. God gets upset and calls all 3 of them into the Tent of Meeting, chastises Aaron and Miriam for speaking against God’s prophet Moses. “The anger of the Lord burned against them,” the text says, and God left them. When Miriam and Aaron left the tent, guess who was punished? Miriam! Her “skin was leprous—it became as white as snow.”
Here’s my favorite part: “Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease, and he said to Moses, ‘Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed.'” LOL. Men are a trip. Miriam’s the one with the skin disease, Miriam’s the one who has been punished, but somehow her punishment is “just like Aaron also being punished.” NAH!
So here’s where I reached my breaking point. (Numbers 12:13-15):
13 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “Please, God, heal her!”
14 The Lord replied to Moses, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back.” 15 So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back.
If you’ve ever been a woman reading the Bible, you might understand my frustration. There are a lot of things in the Bible that I’ve learned to deal with or explain away. The misogyny of Paul and the misogyny of Solomon and his harmful letters to his son about the nature of women being chief among them. My former pastor said that the Bible is not instructions for life because it’s not about us! It’s about telling us who God is. (Of course, that church was using Timothy and Titus to instruct women’s lives on whether we could be pastors/elders, but I digress). But Numbers 12 isn’t about men being misogynistic jerks. Numbers 12 is all God. God punishes Miriam alone. God admits to spitting in her face! God tells the people to banish Miriam outside the city for 7 days and to shame her and spare Aaron. God is…a misogynist?!
It was too much. It was too untrue. My God loves me, desires me to be free from all oppression. My God would never spit in my face…right?! No wonder men treat women the way they do…it’s right there in the Bible that God did it first! No wonder men can’t really love women as equal people, God doesn’t love me as an equal person, either. I was in complete distress.
I no longer had a church, I no longer had a pastor, so I ran to my co-worker, almost in tears. She let me borrow her copy of The Inclusive Bible, which is a Bible translation that removes sexist language from the Bible and provides commentary to help readers separate misogynistic culture from what principles we should know.
But Numbers 12 still had the same result when I read it; the language wasn’t the sexist part, it was God’s action! So my sweet co-worker went a step further and contacted her Bible study teacher Lizzie who gave me this amazing insight:
First, Brooke, please know that you are not alone! You stand with so many faithful readers across time who have found objection to this portrayal of women, of priesthood, of justice and of God. Numbers 12 is notoriously “difficult.” An important side note is that this passage raises issues around race as well as gender (but that’s a discussion for another time).
Wil Gafney, a womanist theologian [and Bible scholar], points out that in Numbers 12:15 the people refuse to leave Miriam behind in her affliction; the congregation does not continue to the Promised Land until the ‘gathering of Miriam.’ (This is on page 85 of Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel by Wil Gafney.)
When I read verse 12:15 ( “Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted”) I see you, Brooke, as part of that congregation! You are standing by her!
Also, it’s good to remember that Mary the mother of Jesus was not actually named Mary Her name was Miriam! She was named for this powerful prophet. So “Mary’s” parents clearly wanted her to continue in her tradition too! You stand with some wonderful and powerful people in our faith ancestry when you stand with Miriam.
Many interpreters not only agree that it is unfair that Miriam is punished while Aaron is not they think the story is BS. They see in the discrepancy between Hebrew verbs and nouns that the story has been whitewashed in order to protect the priesthood! In the original tale, they believe, BOTH Aaron and Miriam are punished. But since Aaron is the source of authority for the men who wrote this version (Aaronide priests wrote certain texts in the Bible, and they claimed their authority by tracing their lineage to Aaron) they cannot allow Aaron to be portrayed as having a skin disease because that would make him “unpure” and not fit for priestly duties. (see p. 52 of Women’s Bible Commentary, expanded edition. Newsom and Ringe, eds.)
So, if church authorities are interpreting the passage by siding with the unfair punishment of Miriam, perhaps that’s about maintaining authority too. Not so surprising, right?
In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Beth Allpert Nakhai says plainly about this passage, “First of all, this reader is outraged.” She then goes on to say, “Upon reflection, though, this reader’s outrage is softened for there is much here that speaks to the power of women, even as it reflects unease about their authoritative voice…. At first, the story of snow-white Miriam seems a perfect example of a double standard, for God permits the brother independent thought but punishes the sister for the very same ideas and words. Still, the story is more than that, for it shows us how much all of Israel valued Miriam. Her brothers plead for her….And the people do not respond by abandoning this victim of God’s great anger. Rather they ‘did not march on until Miriam was readmitted’ seven days later, thus expressing their solidarity with the woman who in happier times led them in victory song and celebration.”
In Women’s Bible Commentary, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld writes about Numbers and in looking at this story of Miriam she writes that the unfairness of Miriam’s punishment is never erased, no matter what interpretations help us see the larger truth. She goes on to write, “The lineage of Miriam is a lineage of generations of women who have been rejected or humiliated for doing exactly the same thing as their male counterparts. But the larger biblical tradition presents us with another face of God, beyond the face of the One who puts Miriam out. That other is the face of God who stands close to and defends those on the ‘outside,’ a God who has likewise been rejected, put outside, by people who thought they knew best. The starkness of Numbers 12 must not be undercut, but Miriam outside the camp may point us not only to the painful arbitrariness of her situation but also, however indirectly and allusively, to the suffering of God.”
Thank you Brooke, for standing with this suffering too. But please know you are not alone in it! A large community both human and divine is gathered together.
I was so relieved to have this scholarly understanding of Miriam and these comfort-filling words from my co-worker’s teacher. I was so relieved to not feel alone! But most of all, this was confirmation. My God loves ME so incredibly that God sent me to my co-worker for comfort. My God loves ME so fiercely that God put it on my co-worker’s heart to reach out to her Bible study teacher on my behalf. God loves ME so much that Lizzie prepared this beautiful analysis to lift me from despair, to reveal God’s true nature to me: God loves ME, God loves ME, God loves ME!
And if I still didn’t get it, my boss insisted I interview an author about a book called Outlaw Christian. I read it and had one of the best interviews of my life with the author, Jacqueline A. Bussie (I’ll post it, soon!). What struck me most was Jacqueline’s quote: “In order to really follow Jesus, we must stop following laws that destroy life.”
Misogyny from the ancient Bible days destroyed life back then and it’s still destroying life right now in 2016. We don’t have to do it anymore.
Jesus empowered women. Jesus revealed Himself to women. Jesus used women repeatedly to prophesy in His name when He was on earth and even today. So if your masculinity, if your manhood, depends on you subjugating women, it isn’t Christian. It’s your misogynist ego.
Jesus came so that we could have life and life more abundantly. Jesus is life. Jesus is freedom. Jesus is love. So if our Christianity oppresses, if it destroys life, if it restricts freedom, if it puts up barriers to love, it isn’t Christianity at all.
I found my God, and my God is NOT a misogynist oppressor. My people aren’t either. Now, we just have to go find each other.