Recently I began reading The Ecumenical Cruise and Other Three-Legged Chicken Philosophy Tales by Walter Benesch. This book is a comparative study of religious philosophy in which Benesch approaches general issues by citing various passages from religious texts and creating a premise which he explores through clever and insightful short stories. Although I enjoy the approach, I was dismayed to find major hermeneutical flaws in the first chapter, “Queen Vashti Goes to Heaven.” Benesch’s premise for this chapter is that although God’s initial intention was gender equality, the writers of religious texts have intentionally perverted this original message with overt messages of misogyny. Although I cannot speak for the other religious texts cited by Benesch, I will show that the Christian Bible does not lessen the role of women; rather, it liberates them.
Beginning with the Genesis accounts of creation Benesch quotes: “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female created he them. And God blessed them: and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply…” (Genesis 1:27-28) Here Benesch lays the foundation for the first half of his premise; God’s initial design included gender equality. Furthering this argument, Benesch shows that God made woman from man, she is “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). Showing the deep togetherness of man and woman, this first chapter depicts an intimacy and equality among men and women. In this initial argument I agree with Benesch; God created male and female equal as one flesh.
Jumping into the story of Esther, Benesch relates the narrative found in the first two chapters. King Ahasuerus, King of the Medes and Persians, hosts a feast for all his noblemen and subjects. After 180 days of drunken revelry, King Ahasuerus orders his Queen, Vashti, to come and dance before him and his men. With the dignity of a royal woman, Vashti declines. Embarrassed and enraged, the King divorces her, and begins searching for a replacement queen. As Benesch explores the mistreatment of Queen Vashti, he uses this story to assert that the Christian scriptures validate misogyny.
I certainly agree that Ahasuerus’s actions were poisonous, but he is not portrayed as a good example in this scripture. The nature of the Christian Bible is that in many cases it includes stories that contrast its teachings for emphasis. In this case, the misfortune of Vashti, who was indeed a righteous woman in the sense that she wouldn’t booty-dance for the party, begins the story of another righteous woman, one whose bravery saves an entire nation. Ending his search for a new bride, Ahasuerus chooses a maiden who is used by God to save his people. The fact that this story is about a woman heroine, directly opposes Benesch’s assertion that Biblical narrative subjugates women.
Leaping into the New Testament scriptures, Benesch quotes from both two Pauline passages that restrict women from speaking or teaching in the church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-15). Both passages do seem to deny women the right to speak or ask questions in church, but one must understand the social and political structures surrounding the text. Certainly Paul would be contradicting himself when he endorses Priscilla (2 Timothy 4:19, Romans 16:1), and Phoebe (Romans 16:1). Within social a context, women of the first century were not permitted into educational institutions; likewise, they were not allowed to participate in temple practices. While their adolescent boy counterparts were encouraged to perform well in school, girls were made to get water and learn to manage the home. Paul’s recognition of women as part of the church was revolutionary for his day. Telling them not to ask questions and speak was due to their lack of education, not gender. Without knowing the basic tenants of scripture they would certainly be overwhelmed with questions in this new found liberty, and environment. Rather than forbidding their participation, Paul encourages them to ask their questions at home. A current example of this is would be a calculus teacher asking students to review factoring on their own time. Paul’s opposition to women questioning or speaking in public is more or less a request against uneducated disruptions in a public setting. Just as modern universities have prerequisites, Paul asks them be brought up to speed privately.
In a study of the Christian scriptures and women, one finds that they are liberated from their environment through its teachings. Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman. Throughout the scriptures, women are esteemed; a woman was the last to leave Jesus’ side at the cross, first at his tomb, first to see him resurrected, first to proclaim that resurrection, first to tell the Jewish nation, and first European to convert to Christianity. They were even included in the upper-room experience in Acts 2, where the church began. Contradicting the cultural norm of the first century, woman are accepted and liberated in the Christian Bible.
Walter Benesch’s piece is creative, cleverly written, and thought provoking, but if a reader had no previous knowledge of the Biblical view of women, and the scriptures he quotes, one would certainly see Christianity as chauvinist. Although I agree that religious leaders and religion as an institution have historically given women a back-row seat, the premise of his argument is wrong. It isn’t the scriptures that have been perverted to exclude women; it was the Church and its leaders.