Patriarchy in the Bible
Earlier today I was in a class about the Hebrew prophets and we were looking at a feminist critique of Hosea (for the basic picture of the book, read Chapters 1 and 2) that suggested that the metaphor of Israel as an unfaithful wife and God as a righteously angry husband is problematic because it identifies God with a male, evil with a women, and seems to condone abusive relationships and the view that women are property. My professor asked us whether we thought this metaphorical portrayal of God was problematic, or if we could look past the medium of the metaphor and simply find a good message about how we should stay true to God and how he is forgiving. I was disturbed to find that a large number of my peers found the story unproblematic, largely because “we don’t treat women like this anymore, so we just have to take it in its historical context”. Some other people also said that we can still see the prophets as morally good because they criticize other societal ills, or because at the end of the book both Hosea and God forgive their respective “wives”.
I know that I’ve mentioned before my frustration with the idea that feminism or women’s rights struggles are over, but I think this is a good example of both people being willfully blind about bad treatment of women, and also how religion serves as a cover for sexist behaviors and beliefs. A story like Hosea shows a drastic example of sexism, and modern believers can point towards it and say “we no longer beat our wives”, and feel that we have progressed to a point of equality. However this masks the fact that many people still look to the Bible for teachings on gender roles, and that because of the influence of Christianity in the West, women are still viewed as less human than men, less close to God, as property or as someone who should follow and accept the lead of the man. These are the attitudes that drive the abusive relationship in Hosea, and when modern Christians only look to the historical context of the book, they can miss that they themselves or the society they live in still harbors the basic attitudes that make that abusive relationship possible. When women still only make 70 cents to every dollar that men make, when rape is still not taken seriously, when sex trading is one of the largest criminal industries in the world right now, it seems difficult to agree that the attitudes that motivate Hosea are gone. Place like Focus on the Family and other gender complementarists (including the Catholic Church) still espouse gender theories that portray women as second to men, less rational (and thus less human), and as required to submit to the will of men.
I believe that this is evidence that religion helps to hide problematic attitudes and continues to make those attitudes viable. When Christians grow up in a society that tells them the prophets were moral giants, and that they should look to these sorts of metaphors and behaviors to give them insight into the glory and goodness of God, it seems impossible that they wouldn’t internalize some of the negative aspects as well, particularly those more subtle ways of thinking. I don’t mean to say that all Christians who read prophets will beat their wives. But they may internalize some of the ideas that God is associated with maleness, or that women’s sexuality must be controlled by men, that women who are sexual deserve punishment, or that women are men’s property.
The attitude that my classmates showed is evidence of why feminist critiques and gender theories are still necessary and why we need to critically evaluate the Bible instead of simply dismissing it as the product of a sexist time. It can still reflect the problematic attitudes that we have today, and it still influences people’s attitudes about gender relations and women’s roles. As skeptics, I believe it is important for us to engage the source of many misconceptions and problems around us. I know too many atheists and skeptics who ignore the Bible completely because they personally don’t believe in it. This is evidence that we should not allow ourselves to fall into that trap.