I’ve had this… conundrum for awhile. If you know me at all, you’re probably aware that I am an atheist. I’ve never believed in a higher power or deity and (quite frankly) never will. But hey, if you believe in a god or divine being or even a flying spaghetti monster, I am fine with that. It’s none of my business until someone starts forcing their doctrine into the public sphere. But that is both religion and politics, and I get sassy when it comes to that combination.
Here’s the conundrum – I am also an English major. Or a graduated English major. Most books, especially ones that have literary aspirations, allude to biblical stories. James Joyce, Toni Morrison, Vonnegut, JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Cassie Clare, I mean it is just ENDLESS. Western culture is defined in many ways by the stories in the bible. The basic creation myth that we all seem to know – Adam and Eve and the apple. I have a tattoo based on Joyce’s interpretation of this story.
My rambling point is that I feel like I should read the bible so that I can more fully appreciate the allusions in the texts that I love. The problem is anytime I try to, I get super angry. And it’s not because I am an atheist – it’s because I have a vagina.
While reading the passages from The Bible, one thought kept permeating my mind: it would suck to be a woman in biblical times. Women are constantly being portrayed as the inferior sex through their actions and God’s treatment of them.
Let’s start with Eve, the first woman. She was created because “it is not good for the human to be alone.” But she wasn’t created out of the soil of the earth, as the other animals and Adam were. Nope, God didn’t want to waste any more soil so “He took one of [Adam’s] ribs…and the Lord God built the rib He had taken from the human into a woman.” Eve was fashioned out of Adam. She literally belongs to him. As The Bible says, it is “the human and his woman.”
But we know the story of Eve does not end there. She is the one to be tricked by the snake and who persuades Adam to eat the fruit. Adam sells her out right away too, telling God “the woman whom you gave by me, she gave me from the tree and I ate.” Though God does punish all three parties for disobeying Him, Eve’s lot seems to be the worst. All women are to suffer intense pain while giving birth and are going to be ruled over by men. That sounds like a fantastic time.
Next up is Sarah. Abraham and Sarah are old, both in their nineties, and have been unable to produce children. It’s not Abraham’s fault though; his fertility is proven through his son Ishmael, whose mother is the slave Hagar. So Sarah suffered, unable to have children while her husband got their slave pregnant. When God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a child, he “flung himself on his face and laughed.” Sarah has the same reaction, but is chided by God for questioning Him. He asks why she doesn’t believe in His powers. God doesn’t call Abraham out on the laughter, only Sarah.
Another wonderful example of the treatment of women is the story of Sodom. When Lot is trying to keep the mob of men out of his house, he says, “Look, I have two daughters who have known no man. Let me bring them out to you and do to them whatever you want.” The editors try to explain it in the footnotes (yes, I even read the bible in an literary anthology), claiming the laws of hospitality at the time “required Lot to protect his guests at all cost.” But it’s the first thing that Lot says to the mob. He doesn’t try and barter with them or threaten them first. Nope, it’s “Here’s my two virgin daughters; please rape them.” What an awesome guy.
Lot’s wife is another woman who disobeys God and is punished for it. They are told to not look back at the burning city as they flee. But she does look back. Think about it. She’s probably lived her whole life in the city, had lots of friends, a home. We know she had married daughters in the city who had not escaped. It was human nature to want to turn around and mourn for your life as you knew it, to mourn for your own children as they burned. But because she did not obey, Lot’s wife “became a pillar of salt.” Well I’d take being a pillar of salt over being an unfeeling douchebag any day.
It seems the only times women are mentioned, they are doing something sneaky or wrong. The only passage in which women are mentioned without negativity is The Flood. But the women exist only as Noah’s wife or the wives of his three sons. They aren’t even named. They are basically warm incubators, waiting to find dry land so they can bear the men children. What an honor!
And this is the point at which I gave up. I’m sorry, but fuck this. I cannot stand reading stories in which women are sneaky bitches who should be making sandwiches and listening to their betters – aka men. Whether it’s Eve, the original sinner, Lot’s wife, or some other nameless woman, the idea stays the same. They are the inferior sex in these societies, deceitful and disobedient, but good for making babies.
Sure, I didn’t get that far into the bible. Maybe it gets better for the ladies, but at this point little could tempt me to pick it back up. So I will continue to worship at my altar of choice – modern literature, as it’s replete with female character traits that don’t involve subservience or fertility. Literature that celebrates the disobedient and the process of looking back, instead of punishing one for daring to be human.
In short, my story will always be bound with those pillars of salt.