At the seminary I attended, all students were required to take four Scriptures classes. For Scriptures 1, there was a notoriously difficult class taught by Dr. Lai Ling Ngan, pronounced “non.” There was a joke that you either chose to graduate on the Ngan track or the non-Ngan track. For better or worse, I chose the Ngan track. The class lived up to its reputation . . . and then some.
Having grown up in church, I was (overly) confident that I knew most of the stories in the Bible. To paraphrase Proverbs 16:18, I was in for a rude awakening. Every day in class, Dr. Ngan challenged me to rethink familiar Bible stories. And when I say rethink, I mean to say that she challenged me to forget everything I ever thought I knew about the Bible and start over.
But the one thing I appreciated most about Dr. Ngan’s class was that she consistently focused on the women in the stories, both named and unnamed. It might not sound that revolutionary, but think about how many times you’ve heard a sermon in which a woman other than Mary was the central character.
Redeeming Eve and Bathsheba
We started at the beginning with Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. As was the teaching in my complementarian churches, I believed that Eve was responsible for “the Fall.” Dr. Ngan flipped that belief on its head with one, simple question: Where was Adam when Eve was speaking with the serpent? Not surprisingly, I and many in the class didn’t know the answer.
A careful reading of Genesis 3:6 tells us that he was standing there with her: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye . . . she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (emphasis added). Adam was there the entire time Eve was conversing with the serpent and had every opportunity to speak up and he didn’t. But in no sermon or Sunday school lesson was this verse ever highlighted. Not once. Instead, I was taught and believed that Eve ate of the tree first. Ergo, Eve was solely responsible for the fall of humanity. I was wrong.
This experience opened my eyes to the possibility that I maybe didn’t know these stories as well as I thought. I slowly and painfully came to realize that I was guilty of resting on the laurels of my life lived in church. My familiarity with Bible stories that came from years of vacation Bible school, Sunday school lessons, and youth conferences had made me a lazy Bible reader. Even with this realization, I don’t think I knew the wild ride through Scripture that awaited me that semester.
It was in Dr. Ngan’s class that I first heard the story of David and Bathsheba from Bathsheba’s #MeToo viewpoint. When we look from Bathsheba’s perspective, we see she was simply trying to take a bath and David used his position of power to force her to have sex with him. It was the first time that I’d heard anyone say, with great conviction, that David raped Bathsheba. I won’t lie; I was shocked. I remember the first time I offered this viewpoint in our church’s weekly discussion group. There were mixed reactions to me saying that the “man after God’s own heart” was also a rapist. We have been content to put the onus of his sins on Bathsheba, saying that she knowingly tempted him to have sex with her. Like in the story of Eve, I was taught that Bathsheba was the one who sinned, not David. I came to understand that I had been wrong about her for so many years.
Women Don’t Belong in the Back Seat
But it was perhaps the focus on the unnamed women and the women without voices that had the biggest impact on my theology. Because I grew up in a fundamentalist church where women often took a back seat to men, I grew up believing that a good wife is a submissive wife. To be submissive was to be secondary to men and to be silent, unnamed, and unnoticed.
It was these types of stories in which women took a back seat to men that made me start asking questions. Why do these women not get voices? Why do they not get names? Why is it that the overwhelming number of the central characters in the Bible are men? Why do they get to make all the decisions and be held up as heroes of the faith?
It’s a simple answer, really. The Bible was written primarily by men, during a time when women were seen as little more than property, as means to an end. And although the Bible does not teach that women are property, when you really get down to the bare bones, women are also often voiceless and sometimes unnamed in their own stories. Complementarianism believes the Bible teaches that women are to submit to men both in the home and in the church. This structure means men control the relationship in marriage and take charge over the decisions being made in the family. It makes it impossible for women to have a voice in the pulpit even though they make up a majority of church congregations in the United States.
Focus on the Women
So where do we go from here? We need to encourage people to read the Bible carefully, because it contains more information than we’ve previously read or been taught. Specifically, when we read with a focus on the women, named and unnamed, with and without voices, we see the story of God and his people from a different perspective. We learn that women have played crucial roles in our faith and the life of the church. We begin believing that we, too, have a role in the story of God and his people.
By making the women in Scripture central characters, Dr. Ngan gave me a precious gift. I no longer see these women or myself as secondary characters. Their actions, whether major or minor, have helped me understand that we have important parts to play. The story of God is incomplete without the courageous actions of women.
See these women. Give them a voice by telling their stories. Honor their roles in the story of God’s people. Realize that you are not a background character in the story of God and that, as the organization To Write Love On Her Arms, says, “No one can play your part.”
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.
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