About Women in the Bible
(c) Gerhard Altendorf 2006
Translation by Jochen Riess
A certain Mrs. Haberer has published an essay about biblical women under the heading “Liberation needs poetry”. Her central thesis runs like this: “One gets the impression that they” – i.e. the women – “had to suffer history, while men made it”. In other words: Abraham made history whereby Sarah suffered the history made by Abraham. How does Mrs. Haberer think it possible under such a presupposition ever to trace the biblical reality behind the tales? Any story – even if handed down only in fragments – needs to be understood before it can be told. It is of course much easier to use ancient stories as argument in support of a particular interpretation of history, which happens in the present case. But what is the purpose of the exercise?
For sure Sarah didn’t play a “role” as a housewife. To describe her in such terms serves an image of Abraham as “her husband” holding a position of respect, well established in his patriarchal community. However, it wouldn’t explain why he left his homeland plus property and security, why he, Abraham, became a nomad, following a promise and a call, having to wait for the children of promise. And Mrs. Sarah simply followed him because she was obedient, subservient, without emotional involvement, without information about the task ahead, without sharing this burden? It is simply too simple to describe this woman as remaining well behaved behind the curtain of their tent while her husband received visitors, have them sit down in front at the table under the trees, drinking beer with the angels and chatting with them about the children of promise. Really? The experience of angelic presence is protected and veiled by the biblical report. Did Sarah perhaps share her husbands experience while the angels were so close to him? Why couldn’t she help but laugh? Was it a laughter of scorn, of bitterness, of disappointment? After all she did accompany this man who kept waiting for the fulfilment of a promise, had continued to maintain him in his belief, backing him in his illusionary games of gazing at the stars and counting them, whereas she had known all the time as an experienced woman that desert and drought wouldn’t permit a child to be born. The man who owned a faith but little else wasn’t even able to father a normal child! Certainly a reason for laughter. Or had she perhaps been privileged to witness the secret of this mysterious encounter with the angels, had possibly become part of it, so that her laughter was more of an echo to a surplus of energies she felt emerging within her as a life-giving force, as suggested by her commentary after her son Isaac was born: “God has given me good reason to laugh and everybody who hears will laugh with me…Whoever would have told Abraham that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have born him a son for his old age”. (Gen 21; 6-7) There must have been more behind the conflict between Sarah and Hagar than the author would like to make us believe when she writes: “…It couldn’t but complicate the relationship between these two women…” No, it wasn’t just the normal European type of female rivalry. It was after all Sarah herself who told her husband: “You see that the Lord has not allowed me to bear a child. Take my slave-girl; perhaps I shall found a family through her” (Gen 16; 2). He could have refused, yet in the end succumbed to the temptation by a young woman, justified as he felt by his own wife’s advice and also lured by the chance to enjoy the occasion without much worry about a possible failure. A child is born, yet it is not the promised one. It is a substitute for the child that will never come. So Abraham does not prevent his wife from sending Hagar and her child to the desert. He suffers from a bad conscience. What makes Sarah send the other woman and her child to the desert, towards death, is not only for feeling inferior to her – “she has the child and I this man” – much stronger than that nags Hagar’s implicit derision: there you are, Abraham and Sarah, both of you victims of an error, there are no children of promise nor will there ever be any, because there is no promise nor ever was one, there is just the natural and normal procedure, as you now can see. The whole migration of yours is but a waste of time and energy, just for nothing. Had you stayed where you come from you would fare much better by now, with a house and a home, prosperous and happy and with a lot of children on top! Where, to quote the author, is the “poetry of liberation”? Or shall we have to learn that here we have nothing but the usual story of a woman and a child betrayed by his father for the sake of a child still to be born? Are we supposed to discover “Joy about a new life with laughter and song?” as surmised by the author? Circumstances suggest otherwise. There can’t have been much of “laughter and song” at Isaac’s birth. Did he ever learn about the burden of circumstances connected to his beginnings?
Let’s take the case of Miriam the prophetess. She may have been shaking by witnessing the death of Israel’s persecutors, but “happy”? According to the author she was happily singing “about the end of slavery and suppression”.
As if Exodus 15:20 didn’t exist, which represents in all likelihood the most ancient song of the whole Bible. “Sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph; the horse and his rider he has hurled into the sea”.
An event like this has always meant enormous relief, liberation from fear, not only in prehistoric or biblical times, the hostile masculine potential eliminated. But is it reason to rejoice about heaps of slain warriors, about broken corpses of killed children, of foreign mothers? Unfortunately it will still take a long time before we learn to mourn and weep also about the death of our enemies.
Another example: Hannah, mother of Samuel. She is not very likely to have rejoiced when delivering her son “child as he was, into the house of the Lord at Shiloh” (1. Sam 1:24). A whole story in a few words. What will this child one day have to think of his mother?
There are not only the stories of “our mothers and their mothers” which the author sees overshadowed by “the shadow of the past”, they affect not less the biography of male human beings, not all of them men of influence and effect upon world history.
We don’t need this type of message, arrived at via a particular interpretation of biblical stories, according to which I would have knowledge of “my fathers and their fathers” and of my mothers only because the leaders and lords over the people’s fate were males who not only ruled but also wrote the ideologies, thanks to which I can know my ancestors while the rest, with a few exceptions, were left to oblivion, many in their lifetime.
There is finally this author’s regret for “the amount of consciousness thrown away at lifetime to the thorns” in relation to women. It could perhaps also apply to male human beings. Couldn’t it?