Faith: The Bible is a perfectly human book
One of the hazards of being a lectionary preacher is that sometimes the lectionary hands you some bummer texts. I’ve been using the Narrative Lectionary this year, and this last week we got the story of Dinah in Genesis.
Other than the fact that people occasionally spell my name like hers, I’m not terribly fond of her story. Our translation is the PG version. “Humiliated” is a euphemism for lack of consent. We must think about what we do when the Bible throws us a scripture that we don’t like. If we don’t understand what scripture is and how to read it, this text, and others like it, can do a number on our faith.
Honestly, the Epistle text wasn’t much better. It’s 1 Corinthians 14, which among other things tells women to be silent in church. That’s hard to preach on if you’re a woman preacher. Though if you look at my study Bible and turn back three pages, you’ll find that Paul himself gives instructions on what women should wear when they lead worship. So, which is it — are we allowed to lead or are we supposed to be silent?
One of the things about scripture is that it requires us to understand what the Bible is and is not. Many people think that the biblical authors took dictation. They were sitting there, and God dictated the words. God inspired the scriptures, but they were also written by humans. They were filtered through culture, written to a specific culture, and depended on the understanding of people of that specific culture.
This all means that sometimes people came through in all our brokenness and sinfulness. Sometimes our messiness damages our calling to be loving and kind to one another. The story of Dinah and the ways in which her brothers take revenge and let their greed play out are part of that ugliness. The Bible is always a perfectly human book, and it lets us see us in our nastiness and evil. Understanding that helps us to understand ourselves better. We don’t have to run from it.
Even in 1 Corinthians, we see ourselves as struggling with culture. The women of Corinth, especially the priestesses of Aphrodite, may have had higher status than Old Testament women, but they were not loved, and they were not respected. Their bodies were used and abused by the men around them. That is at the back of this text.
At one time we thought synagogue worship was behind the text, but we think now it is about the ways in which women were abused by the temple cult of Aphrodite. Some people call it free love, but often these priestesses weren’t exactly given a choice about their profession. In these temples they were forcibly drugged to see visions and to perform their other sexy duties.
The tension between the Aphrodite-worship and the emerging Christian sect was part of the argument about hair style and covering in chapter 7. It is part of what is going on here, and part of what will be shown in the second letter to Corinth. We aren’t clear if the women were trying to engage in worship the only way they knew how, or if other members of the Christian community were trying to force them to engage in the practices against their will, but either way, Paul is trying to stop these practices.
These women weren’t allowed to recover their dignity. To give them the freedom of the Christian way, Paul was telling them to stop treating them like ecstatic, strung out temple figures who didn’t have the right to control their own tongues and their own bodies. Instead, they were to control both their own speech and their own bodies.
When Paul says, “be silent,” it is the context of prophesying and the speaking of tongues. It is amid things that came with what we now call trigger warnings for these women. It was not an absolute command, but an understanding that women had been forcibly drugged in the temples to perform. Now, they were given back the control that they had been denied. This completely changes the text. “Decently and in order” here means that all brothers and sisters are to be allowed freedom to choose, to act, and to be silent when and how they each choose.
For 400-plus years this country had the same problem, and so it is no wonder that we have trouble understanding these messy texts. We, like the First Century Christians and the men of Shechem, did not let our sisters, especially Black, Brown, and Native sisters (and brothers) control their own bodies and their own tongues. They were at the disposal of their owners and later the peonage system.
White women were also told to be silent, and their bodies were subject to the whims of their husbands. We have not yet learned that to judge the spirits rightly: To read scripture is to recognize both its messiness and our own. We have not yet learned to confess with the Jewish authors of the Old Testament or with Paul that we have not yet obtained a place where all is truly done with decency and order, where all have the freedom to choose speech or silence, to choose to act or refrain from acting, to control the use of their own bodies.
The Rev. Deana Armstrong is the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Craig.
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