The Other Half

Gloria Steinem recently created a docu-series called Woman that Viceland will release on May 10th. The series consists of videos of female correspondents interviewing women all over the world about their political statuses, and the ways that marginalization and violence impact them individually and socially (you can watch the trailer here). Regardless of your feelings about Gloria Steinem’s politics, this series taps into the deeply embedded patterns of violence against women that permeate our world. And I wish this weren’t true, but we find similar and horrific violence in the biblical text. 

Genesis 34 is a mess. It opens with Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, who we discussed previously. Over the course of the story, Shechem (the prince of the land where Jacob and his family currently reside) sees Dinah, and either sleeps with her before marriage, or rapes her (the word anah, translated “humiliate,” can imply both). Either way, he socially, and perhaps personally, defiles her, but the text says that he loves her, so he asks to marry her (Gen. 34:1-8).

Shechem offers for Jacob and his sons to live fully integrated in his land; they could buy property, marry, and travel freely. He also commits to paying a full bride price, even when that price is circumcising every male in the city (Gen. 34:9-24). At this point, Shechem and everyone in the city thinks that they have reconciled with Jacob and his sons. And that’s when Levi and Simeon, two of Dinah’s brothers, ransack the city, kill all of the men, loot their goods, and take Dinah with them (Gen. 34:25-31).

At the end of the chapter, Jacob complains to his sons about the amount of damage they’ve done, and their response is: “But didn’t he treat our sister like a prostitute?”

The notion that violence against women creates violence among society is not new. 

As with most situations of violence, Dinah remains silent throughout this text. We don’t hear her voice or know her thoughts, and before we fall into the trap of thinking that no women had agency in the biblical period, we must remember Rebekah and Sarah and Hagar, who had loud voices and big stories. Shechem’s tribe and, in retaliation, Dinah’s brothers, use Dinah’s body as a means of power brokering, and we lose her voice in the process.

If we read this chapter in context, we get a glimpse of how Jacob’s family sank to this level of violence. Yesterday we read the gorgeous story of Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation in Genesis 33, and watched as Esau rose above the revenge that Jacob anticipated. The end of the chapter provides some context for how we arrive in the chaos of Genesis 34.

Jacob and Esau have just embraced, wept, and kissed one another, which signifies their reunion and renewed relationship. After some conversation, Esau suggests that he will travel with Jacob. Jacob claims that his children and flocks are too tired to travel at Esau’s pace, so he sends Esau ahead of him to Seir, and promises to meet him there (Gen. 33:12-15). In the very next verse, we read: “That day Esau returned on the road to Seir, but Jacob traveled to Succoth” (v. 16-17).

Jacob lied! After the generous greeting that Esau offered him, Jacob lied to Esau’s face (despite having just equated Esau’s face with the face of God; Gen 33:10), and chose to travel to Succoth, and then on to Shechem’s city. And that’s where the violence of Genesis 34 begins. 

Before the events at Shechem, Jacob had begged God for a peaceful reception with Esau, and after God granted it, Jacob immediately lied and traveled further away from his family, and, arguably, from God. So when the violence settles in the first verse of Genesis 35, God speaks to Jacob and says, “Get up, go to Bethel, and live there. Build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you ran away from your brother Esau” (Gen. 35:1).

Jacob first arrived in Bethel in Genesis 28. This is the sacred location where God blessed Jacob and promised him descendants, land, and protection. In Genesis 35, God meets with Jacob again and calls him back home. He sees the destruction that has taken place, the violence both inside and outside of his family, and He draws Jacob back to Him.

Jacob’s deceitfulness and lies led to the violation of Dinah’s body and personhood. And God sees that and speaks against it. 

We have violence all around us. In both subtle and extreme ways, women all over the world feel the crushing pressure of political power on their bodies and their minds every day. The calling of Scripture and the calling of God is to liberation. Some women may never feel that liberation in this lifetime, but all of us are called to know and to act within the realms we influence.

I know of churches in rural Indiana who send groups to Latvia to learn about and contribute to the fight against sex slavery. There are churches in Minneapolis that hold events to heighten awareness of and raise money for groups fighting modern slavery. I know of ministries like Timothy’s Gift that work in women’s prisons to embody God’s love to those women who so easily forget their belovedness. I know women who have devoted their careers to writing grants for domestic violence shelters, so that other women can find solace and protection when fleeing from those closest to them.

These women and organizations have listened to the call of God, have realized the gifts they have, and have engaged them in an effort to end violence and bring peace and reconciliation among all of God’s people and creation. And that’s our call today. 

If nothing else, the story of Dinah teaches us about how our actions impact those around us. And so may we pray today the prayer of Saint Francis, which calls us not only to God, but also to each other:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.”

May we find in ourselves today the attributes of love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy, and may we use those to come home to God, and to empower our world.

Another Women’s Day

woman photo

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I was busy reflecting on a post that had nothing to do with women’s rights. Frankly, I didn’t feel very compelled to write about how awesome women are on International Women’s Day — the world pretty much had that covered. I would prefer to write about the strength, dignity, and fortitude of half our population everyday; so I am deeming today, March 9th, “Another Women’s Day.”

Perspectives on the relationship between the male and female gender have become so polarized, particularly in the current American cultural climate, that I find it difficult to talk across the gender spectrum about objective realities impacting women today. Biological women make up 52% of our country, yet our representation continues to remain sorely lacking on international and national bases. And frankly, just look around you: every person that you see came from the womb of a woman. Not that men don’t play their part, but the life force that keeps this operation running starts and ends with a woman’s womb. So today, on “Another Women’s Day,” I think we should honor the unnamed women.

BibleGateway recently compiled this list of Unnamed Women in the Bible. Take a look at the length of the list — it really is telling of how many women made the biblical narrative move forward, yet never received credit for their work. I wish I had the space to tell the stories of every unnamed woman in the text (and perhaps I will in a future series), but today I at least want to lift up one of them. She shows up in Matthew 26 (if you really want to follow along, you should pull up the entire chapter).

At the start of Matthew 26 the chief priests and elders plot to kill Jesus — we start off with a group of men trying to destroy him (v. 1-5). And then enters the unnamed woman. Jesus is visiting with Simon in his home, when a woman enters with an alabaster jar of really pricey perfume, and she pours it on his head while he’s dining. The disciples gripe about her, saying that they could have gotten a lot of money for that perfume and given it to the poor (v. 6-9). Jesus then defends her, saying, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She’s done a good thing for me. 11 You always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me. 12 By pouring this perfume over my body she’s prepared me to be buried. 13 I tell you the truth that wherever in the whole world this good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her” (v. 10-13). Jesus essentially creates a legacy for her, honoring the good and sacrificial work that she’s done, and notes that, in the face of the disciples’ inability to understand his impending sacrifice, this one unnamed woman gets it.

After Jesus makes the proclamation about the unnamed woman, the rest of Matthew 26 goes on to contrast the weaknesses of the men who surrounded Jesus with the faithfulness of that unnamed woman. We have Judas betraying Jesus in v. 14-16, then Jesus calling Judas out on his betrayal in v. 17-25, predictions of Peter denying Jesus in v. 26-35, the disciples falling asleep while Jesus prays in Gethsemane in v. 36-46, Jesus’ arrest led by Judas in v. 46-56, doubt and false judgment by the chief priests and council in v. 57-67, and finally, Peter’s denial in v. 69-75.

The only person who acted honorably and faithfully (apart from Jesus himself), and who seemed to “get” what Jesus was doing in this chapter, was the unnamed woman. The rest of them either remained passive characters in the text or actively betrayed, denied, slandered, and/or harmed Jesus.

I’m not in the business of denigrating men to better the image of women; I am in the business of honest accountability. If that ends with women looking great and men looking less so, that’s on them.  More importantly, though, we ought to give credit where credit is due. And in this situation, the unnamed woman deserves so much admiration for her intellect, her tenacity, and her faithfulness. May we all strive to live with the boldness and clarity of this powerful and faithful woman.