By Bishop Todd Townshend
As I mentioned two weeks ago, I hoped to stop and briefly take a look at these Genesis stories from the perspective of three women. I can really only borrow the viewpoint of other women as I read these stories and, when I do, there are so many surprises and revelatory moments.
In what follows, I’m reading with Wilda C. Gafney, a womanist scholar, professor, and Episcopal priest who wrote this book: “Womanist Midrash” (WJK, 2017)
I also recommend her website wilgafney.com
With Wil’s help, let’s go back and notice something things about Eve, Sarah, and Hagar.
Genesis 2:18, says, in Wil’s translation, “It is not good that the adam (the human) is alone; I will make a mighty-helper correlating to it.”
Most interpretations of this part of the story will imply that Adam was a man who needed a helper so God put him to sleep and made Eve out of his rib.
That’s partly right.
It’s probably more accurate to hear the words “the adam” at this point as meaning “the human” the one who came from the red-brown earth (humus). The word often means all of humanity. The word for “mighty-helper,” usually refers to God and the divine help God renders. In English a helper is often of lower status than the one being helped; not so here. The physical source material for the creation of this human mighty-helper is within earthling itself. God puts the creature to sleep and divides it in half. God split the earth-colored adam into two equal portions. Gafney says, “I think of the division as something like mitosis in cell division.”
That’s already beginning to re-shape my imagination—even as it reveals the deeper truth in the story.
Only at this point are the two referred to as “male” and female”.
And Eve becomes the first woman.
If we read with care, the actual words of the story will adjust some of our assumptions about what this narrative implies—especially regarding the relationship between the first woman and the first man.
The story goes on to the setting of the garden of Eden, and I won’t go over that ground again, but, outside of Eden we see that Eve is not only the first woman, she is the first mother.
Her name itself implies that she is mother of “all living”. She is the first one to know the joys and sorrows of being a mother. Part of the sorrow is that she is also the first mother of death—in the death of her son Abel.
In Eve we find a figure whose story has been only partly told. She is woman and mother but she is first a partner and mighty-helper in the manner of God. There is a mutuality of belonging and empowerment in her relationship with the other human. And it is remarkable how God provides for Eve, blesses Eve. God does not subordinate Eve. God sews for Eve and clothes her. God restores to her, to her, a child when her oldest is banished and her youngest is dead. And she provides a family for the Earth.
Perhaps not the most “famous” woman in the bible, Sarah (formerly Sarai) is certainly mentioned far more times than any other woman–fifty-five times in the First Testament and four in the New Testament. Sarah is an important woman.
In Genesis 12 we are first introduced to her and the word most associated with her is “barren”. Infertile. This agricultural term implies that her soil is inhospitable to life. Or, at least, it seems to be.
We also learn that she is 65 years old and very beautiful. In fact, when Abraham (formerly Abram) and Sarah begin to follow God’s call and travel across the lands, Abraham is at great risk because of her beauty. He fears that the powerful men that they encounter will desire her and kill him off because he’s her husband.
So here we have a 65 year old woman who is so extraordinarily, maddeningly beautiful, that she may draw the covetous attentions of foreign monarchs. And this is what happened. Abraham, fearing for his life pretends that she’s only his sister, so the Egyptian Pharaoh won’t kill him. Pharaoh takes Sarah as a wife and gives all kinds of benefits to Abraham as a thank offering, I guess. So, Abraham pimps her out and benefits from it.
Once the Pharaoh realizes the truth, he wants nothing to do with it, and the two of them carry on, rich. And Sarah carries on rich, beautiful, and a victim of sexual violence. She also continues childless, which also means “futureless” in that world.
In Chapter 16 we see that Sarah turns to surrogacy giving her servant girl, Hagar, to Abraham as a wife, so that she may become a mother. She takes things into her own hands by handing over another woman to be her body, providing a child. Ishmael.
Later, after laughing at God’s promise to make her the mother of a whole nation, she conceives and bears a child herself. Isaac.
Both of these women become mothers of nations. Both of them come through painful and abusive situations. Both of them are favoured by God—not just because they were given children but because they were loved—by the God who promised them something and provided it.
But what strange and realistic and painful circumstances are woven into the story. Very real.
Sarah, finally, is presented in the text as a fully rounded human being. Fascinating. Complex. She is given her own promise from God and she becomes the mother of faith.
Eve and Sarah.
I told you that we’d also take a look at Hagar, and we will, but I’ve run out time for this week so next week we’ll do that and I will also extend a bit further to see what Rebekah brings to the story.
Until then peace be with you.
I just wanted to take this opportunity to note that on July 20 we released the Diocese of Huron’s “Loving Our Neighbours” AMBER Stage guidelines.
We are currently still in the RED Stage—but these are provided to help congregations get ready for what we hope will take effect in September. The details are provided on the diohuron.org website. IF all continues to go well, the first Sunday for indoor services in our diocese will be September 13, 2020. Should the pandemic worsen, we may have to change the date.
In the meantime, stay safe, keep distance, be kind, and pray for the healing of the world.