God, Gender and the Bible by Deborah F. Sawyer

I just finished reading God, Gender and the Bible by Deborah F. Sawyer, which I gave Bethan a few birthdays ago. It's a short but weighty look at how God and gender roles interact in the Bible. It's academic in its approach and uses, among other things, Judith Butler's theories of gender performativity and Luce Irigaray's ideas of memesis to dissect gender roles in several contexts - most notably, Genesis, Judges, Jeremiah and the New Testament.

Now if by chance you're thinking "Feminist theologian! I can see where this is going," you'd be wrong, because Sawyer makes no attempt to either excuse or condemn the patriarchal nature of most scripture, and cheerfully takes an axe to some of the best "yes, but"s of Christianity's attempts to be more friendly to womankind. For example, women are frequently well-portrayed and commended for exemplary behaviour in the gospels, but Sawyer mostly categorises this as a literary device designed to show up the men, with whom it was assumed the readers would identify - not, sadly, as early examples of proto-feminism.

Neither is this an attempt to prop up current forms of patriarchy using biblical authority. Sawyer looks unflinchingly at the worst of it - exposure of infants, Jephthah's murder of his daughter in front of a mute God, and even more horrific things in Judges. Yet these things are the backdrop for several stories that are examined in more detail - those of Eve, Abraham's wife Sarah, Tamar, Ruth & Naomi, Judith, and the Samaritan woman at the well, among others.

Using these stories, the book illustrates is that once gender roles are recast as human constructs, rooted in a particular time & place, we can readily see how assigned roles are bent, twisted and broken as necessary to fulfil God's divine plan. To list a few examples, Tamar and Ruth both subvert the ancient Jewish laws of levirate marriage. Judith, a widow, not only refuses remarriage, she acts as both seductress and then assassin, accomplishing what the men of Israel could not.

Moving onto the New Testament, Sawyer uses early Roman Christianity to show how the paterfamilias was usurped by a manner of deusfamilias that was extremely threatening to the Roman empire in its form at the time, due in part God taking the place of the Emperor in religious life (Romans of the time referring to Christians as atheists, funnily enough [for us, that is - the arena wasn't really funny for them.]), and due also to converting women believing themselves free from the obligation to bear Roman children.

Throughout the book there are two themes running in parallel; firstly that patriarchy itself is emasculated in the presence of a divine God, and that ultimately all power relations are flattened into insignificance before God in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is succinctly summarised in (surprise!) Galatians 3 v. 28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The second theme is the running conflict or paradox between manifest human autonomy and God's demand on his believers for absolute dependence on him, referred to most often as being modelled on a parent-child relationship. As I understand it, Sawyer sees post-Enlightenment humanity as having "come of age". Growing children constantly renegotiate the terms of their relationship with their parents, and this is as it should be, stressful though it may be for all concerned. But how can a mortal, limited humanity renegotiate with an infinite, divine & eternal God? Near the end of the final chapter, Sawyer proposes (I think) Eve's original sin as being part of the divine plan as a way of resolving this, and I confess at this point I have no idea what to think about that, being already stuffed to the gunnels with the rest of the book.

Anyway! Modern gender theory is deployed here as a very capable tool to highlight God's divinity, which is not something I expected. If you are of a theological bent and have an opinion on gender roles and the Bible, I would highly recommend it as being very thought-provoking.

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