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.

Comments

comments

37 comments

  • Bertha Beauman

    Sorry for your discomfort but you are right that God wanted to show you a path out of the tunnel into a greater light that others have rejected.
    Keep taking us on this path with you sister.

  • Emma Jordan-Simpson

    Thank you – I’ve read this twice. It’s hard for many women to leave their worship community for lots of reasons – and it sounds like, though you knew you had to, it was hard for you to, too. Praying for and with you. And I’m sharing this with a few other sisters who will be blessed by your grace and your story. Thank you again.

    • Thanks so much for reading and sharing Emma! It’s still hard, a month a later. I’m still Facebook friends with people from my church and I see their group pictures and think if I were just quieter, if I needed less, I could still be there too. I feel very isolated and people have to remind me that asking for the church to be safe for women is the right thing to do. Some people there I know feel the same way I do and I’m so grateful that they have the emotional energy to keep fighting the good fight from the inside. But it takes all my emotional energy to get through the intersection of racism and sexism during the week. I can’t deal by the time Sunday rolls around.

  • Aisha Karimah

    Enjoyed reading your blog. Offers much to consider. So relieved to see you reached the conclusion that God is NOT a misogynist oppressor. Continue to embrace the love of Jesus. God bless you !!

  • Leslie

    As a woman who reads the Bible closely, I understand your frustration. The piece of the puzzle you are missing is simply that it isn’t about discrimination or misogyny…on God’s part, Paul’s part or any other man’s part.

    God created order. Part of that order is the various authority structures that exist under Him (Rom 13:1-7)…which include governments, the family and the church. All authority exists for the provision and protection of those who live under it.

    Miriam was the ringleader and was punished. Aaron was a fool for following her…and from other incidents it is clear he was more of a follower than a leader. God made his choice clear. Moses was preferred over both. Miriam stepped out of the normal order (God is the head of man and man the head of woman) which is why Aaron was not punished (though he was shamed).

    She was afflicted with leprosy (Num 22:10)…and true to the law (Leviticus 13), she was shut up outside the camp, to prevent infecting others. Yes, it was punishment and shame. The people learned from it. The women were not to take the role of the man and grumble against the spiritual leaders.

    If we understand the OT from a point of provision and protection, the rest of the Law as well as the NT makes perfect sense.

    • Hi Leslie,
      It’s interesting that you think you’re providing some perspective about “God’s natural order” that I haven’t heard all my life. The trouble is, I can read for myself, and nothing in that text suggests Miriam was a “ring leader” and if this order is so “natural” why oh why do women get punished for anything at all? We’re such dingbats that need the “order” and “protection” of men, right, so why aren’t THEY punished for not keeping us on a tight enough leash? How do they both get to be the leaders AND escape accountability for not leading correctly? Fascinating! And super convenient…if you’re a man! God bless

      • Kim

        Hi Brooke,
        Like Leslie, I have understood that Miriam was the ringleader as well. Not stated, but by the order in which her name is written first. Much like in the NT Priscilla is written first indicating she was probably the one taking more of a lead. Paul and Silas, etc. It seems that when names are coupled together, the leader or oldest or prominence in relationship is listed first (we even do it typically when listing siblings, couples, friends, etc). So. As the ringleader she was punished. Like Aaron (and followers) were punished for the calf, Moses for hitting the rock (man. I struggle with THAT one) Achan and family.
        I am most definitely a woman. An a strong independent one. Who happens to be married to a very supportive and encouraging man. Yet, he is my protector and covering and I am grateful for him. We clash bc that’s what people do. Period. But when I have been at rock bottom he has covered me. Protected me. Prayed and fasted for me. I don’t feel as though I am missing out in that. We discuss decisions (big and small) and on a “good” day, I will defer to him 😏. I realize though (after years) that whether things go well or downhill -HE covers the weight of the decision. Our family will benefit or struggle as a result, but HE has to live with it. If you have ever made a decision you regret, you understand the weight of it. So to know that he made a decision to harm his wife and children, crushes him.
        As for pastoring, if God is calling you. He’ll show you where to be. I have been involved in ministry in various churches and organizations in various states. I have taught kids, teens, men and women. Directed some things, lead others, supported in others. Some places more open than others, some surprised me. But, in each place I’ve been
        able to do what God has gifted me to do in THAT place, regardless of what I’ve been titled. Again, more active in some places than others bc sometimes I just needed to sit down. My experience is sometimes it was easier and I was more influential if I didnt have the title. I could go home at night and rest.

        • Hi Kim,
          Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you’re in a relationship that works for you.
          My post is not about wanting a title for myself, it’s about discrimination against women.

  • Audrey

    Brooke,

    Yes! Yes! Yes! God is so hard to find sometimes, and your blog just explodes with God’s greatness and love. Thank You. As a queer woman, I spent many years struggling to remain within a church community which tried but still had lots of structural misogyny (and racism, homophobia, classism…)

    I guess I really just want to say you’re not alone. And thank you.

  • Awesome commentary. ..I recently used this passage in my book…and noted that the community couldn’t move during this time…they NEEDED Miriam…I also asked why Aaron couldn’t be the supporter/cheerleader for Miriam when she needed it.
    Love the digging!

    • Thanks, Katara! I am so glad that Lizzie the Bible study instructor pointed out that the community didn’t move without Miriam! I had completely overlooked that part and it was awesome to see that the community valued her and stood with her. That gave me some hope!

  • Keith Ray

    Wow! This is so powerful. As a white clergy man I am so very thankful for your words and witness! One of my greatest joys as a lead pastor has been the welcoming of our first female pastor on our team and it has been a gift to the community, especially to the young women and girls who see God at work through her. Blessings to you!

  • Tameka

    I felt as though you wrote my story. I’m a seminary student attempting to prepare for ministry. Until very recently, my husband was the pastor of a church that I served faithfully in many different ways and thought I would be embraced as a minister. I was sadly mistaken and those conversations that destroy life began to surface. Ultimately, my husband and I made the difficult decision to leave a place that we love. This process has been very disturbing. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you, Tameka. I know how devastating it can be to leave a place you love. Prayers and blessings to you as you heal from that loss and move forward into the new place God is preparing for you!

  • Lynn

    Brooke – I love your heart for God and deep commitment to knowing the truth about Him and who you are in Him. Blessings on you in your authentic walk in the light of His presence.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful piece Brooke.

    And with regard to Leslie’s analysis on the basis of order, I’m not sure if that answers anything. Let’s suppose for a moment that she is right (and actually, I don’t suppose that, but still…) Aaron and Miriam mumble together about Moses’ choice of spouse and go and confront him. In Leslie’s scenario, Aaron, not Miriam, is in charge here and therefore must bear the greatest responsibility for the actions that the two of them take – that’s what leadership means, right? Taking responsibility for the decisions and therefore bearing the consequences when they go wrong? Yet it is Miriam that is punished! Leslie’s scenario makes God look worse, not better.

    I tend to agree with the commentators who spot the post editorial doctoring of the story to suit the imagined needs of the Aaronic priesthood. And the point you raise over Numbers 22 is not one that has occurred to me before; I am a man, after all, but I have had similar struggles. Over the years I have tried, with general success, to read the New Testament twice a year and the Old Testament once. A few years back, ploughing my way through Joshua for what? the twentieth or thirtieth time, I just had to stop. I couldn’t stand to read how God ordered yet another genocide. I read how Joshua was killing so many men women and children that he had a hard job fitting all the butchery into the time God had given him. So, God stopped the sun in order that the day would be longer and more babies could have their throats slit. It took me a while to come to terms with this, and in the end I could only do it by realising that these old words represented not the God who is the Lord and Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, but a projection on the part of that ancient group of petty tribes who later became Israel; that what Joshua was portraying was not eternal veracities about God but a primitive waypoint in the long evolution of our understanding of God.

    The God who called us all, men and women and all those indeterminate points in between, loves us and calls us Godward. Thanks for your reminder of this Brooke, and thanks for your perseverance for the truth despite the church’s continual hankering after an early, less complete stage of our spiritual development.

  • Megan

    Hi Brooke,

    Where in the bible does God allow man/woman to remove scripture and replace it with his/her own context to make one feel more “inclusive”? That’s dangerous territory. You’re suggesting that we treat the bible as an a la carte, ignoring the scriptures we find “offensive.” As a woman, I understand your frustrations towards inequality, however, how are we to discern which laws are ones that destroy life and which are not? That’s incredibly subjective and if we are going to go by just anyone’s standards then the whole bible should be up for interpretation for whether or not it’s “destructive.” Even C.S. Lewis stated if he were to choose any religion based upon what sounded good and sound, Christianity would be the last on his list. As a fellow Christian, I’m curious why you don’t believe if we are to follow Christ we need to believe the bible in its entirety, and not pick it apart as we see fit to match our own agendas and not God’s?

    • Hi Megan,
      I do not think that critical thinking is dangerous at all. I think not thinking is dangerous. I think having a personal relationship with God requires your spirit to be moved when you’re in God’s presence and for your spirit to be disturbed when something does not square with who God has repeatedly proven to you God is.
      I believe the Bible was written by men for other men to read–that’s just historical fact. In the same way you wouldn’t stone a child for being “disrespectful” or crucify a “criminal,” I hope you’re also interpreting the Bible in a way that gives life and doesn’t destroy it. Blessings,
      Brooke

  • Nikki

    Love your post!

  • I had never thought about the tension in this story before. Thanks for highlighting it. I’m sure I’ll be wrestling with it some more. But the closing point is the truth to stand in.

  • Kathryn

    Wonderful to read of your search for healing and clarification. The amount of misery and misogyny that these texts have caused just stymies me. Your pursuit of understanding is really heartening for so many of us.

  • Brenda Walker

    Hi Brooke,
    Powerful! What a confirmation. I recently left my mainline denominational church for the exact same reasons. I am glad you had someone to reach out to. It is extremely difficult after receiving theological education to go back to the same old biblical teachings that keeps anyone bound. I hate oppression with a passion. Oppression and legalism in the church kills! God drew me away from a very conservative, legalistic theological view to a loving non-discriminatory, non-judgmental, and non-divisive theological view of inclusivity. God shook up my world and shifted my theology for such a time as this. God promised to pour out God’s Spirit on All people. I have a very interesting story about my ups and downs in the ordination process in the church. Bottom-line, God ordained me, God encouraged me to further my theological education, God poured out God’s Spirit upon me and gave me a voice for this generation. Blessings to you, Brooke. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  • Brooke, I read this post–especially the section with the commentaries showing a hopeful side for Miriam–with hope growing in my own heart. Yes, I had read this passage before, and wondered about it. I am so grateful that there are now commentators and biblical scholars who have a wealth of interpretative understandings about these troubling passages.

    Thanks so much for pointing these excellent scholars out to me. Some I knew about . Several I did not. God’s blessings as you walk by God’s side. @chaplaineliza

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