The Bible. I’m the first to admit that I struggle to read it. I know its importance to my Christian faith, both objectively and from personal experience, but I’ve never liked reading it, and when I do, I am easily frustrated by what I read. As every Bible editor has experienced since the first moody teenager stopped coming to Sunday School, it’s hard to make this book relatable. It’s a book full of love, lessons, and good stories, but it is also one that has sometimes been allowed to remain dangerously static. And for a living, breathing, “Because it’s 2015” faith, that’s not okay.
The Bible gives us passages to work with today, but it doesn’t always give us indisputable answers. This is where feminism, like other inclusive theories, can help to bridge the gap between the nomadic Israelites, the early martyrs of the church, and me.
I’m a literature student, so while the Bible is my book of faith, I also see it as a crafted piece of writing. I do believe it is God-inspired, but I refuse to ignore that it was still written by human hands, with human intentions, and therefore with human shortcomings. And in this context, I will add that those hands, intentions, and shortcomings are patriarchal. No, not all male writers or Biblical men are oppressive, and many did things that seriously messed with the system in which they were living. But there is no denying that the Bible’s context is one of male privilege.
This is a book that is sometimes very hard for women or queer folks to read and relate to. This is not true for everyone, but we wouldn’t be having a Feminist Bible Study if it weren’t at least true for some.
So every Thursday night this term, a group of between 5 and 15 of us, different every week, has gathered in the Fireside Room at Erb St. Mennonite Church for a couple hours of prayer, study, and conversation. We’re students, workers, mothers, partners, friends, and mentors, and we all know what it’s like to be a woman. It’s a safe space where we pray to God as a Creator and Father, but equally as often to God as a Mother and Sister.
The feminist lens helps our group to tease apart situations that seem oppressive and remember to consider people who have been marginalized or misinterpreted. We’re not trying to rewrite the Bible, and we’re not trying to do away with it either; we’re just trying to see what its stories tell us about life in the time they were written, and how they might (or might not) inform life today. Feminist and Biblical scholarship do not have an antagonistic relationship, but rather work to reveal truth and beauty in tandem.
Jessica brought us together and led us through the Book of Ruth, using a resource by Sister Joan Chittister called The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life.
People have tried to take Ruth out of the Biblical canon for a long time, unable to see what it might offer to readers. Some scholars posit that the story is included in the Bible to explain the presence of this gentile woman in Jesus’ lineage. One hilarious BibleHub summary tells me it’s first and foremost “a love story.” Well. If that’s all it is, I will personally escort it to the curb.
Ruth and Boaz certainly get hitched at the end but I am here to tell you, chick-flick lovers everywhere, that we learned a lot more from this book than how to catch a man. In fact, Sister Joan Chittister can identify twelve whole things to discuss, including loss, transformation, aging, independence, respect, empowerment, invisibility, and fulfillment. She divides the book up into small chunks to study, and applies the theme to frame her discussion. We like Sister Joan, but we also rely heavily on the Inclusive Bible’s wording of Ruth or the Queer Commentary on the story.
We discovered very quickly that feminism in Ruth is not clear-cut, and it’s a shame that more people to do not see that complexity. Women do powerful things but are still controlled by a powerful system. Ruth works incredibly hard to glean food in Boaz’s field, but the goal of her proto-feminist work ethic is ultimately to attract the protection of this upstanding man. Boaz manipulates the inheritance system in order to marry Ruth and take over ownership of her land, but he still ascribes to that system. It always seems like we’re on the verge of equality, but we’re just not there yet.
Every baby’s birth is a celebration, but Obed signals the securing and Ruth and Naomi’s place in the world. The community’s women in Ruth 4:14-15 say to Naomi, “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”
A highly favoured woman gives birth to a famous guardian-redeemer who will renew and sustain the people he encounters? Maybe it’s just this Messianic time of year, but those words sound mighty familiar. Where Ruth and Boaz operated within the system, it’s Jesus who said the system itself wasn’t okay. Maybe Ruth is a love story, but it’s a love between all of us. Salvation isn’t for any if it isn’t for all. There’s still work to do.
Not to make too fine a point, but Jesus started the first Feminist Bible Study. He upset tables, broke rules, and rewrote Scripture to proclaim liberty and love for everyone. Even today, we women are asking the same questions about our churches, workplaces, and families. And in order to do this, we are praying, studying, laughing, and working with, not against, the Bible as our feminist guide.
Ally is in her final term of an English Literature degree at UWaterloo, and spends her time reading, swimming, and hanging out with kids. Originally from Ottawa, she attends Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church while in the KW region.