by Kristin Fontaine
I find it interesting that in the Old Testament reading for today we have a somewhat exasperated angel having to repeat himself when a husband doesn’t seem to fully listen to what his wife says.
In the story, the angel appears to Manoah’s wife (she has no name of her own) and tells her that though she is barren she will bear a son and she is to follow certain rules so that he:
shall be a nazirite to God from birth. This is the beginning of the Samson story in Judges.
The woman tells her husband what happened and he prays to God:
O, LORD, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.
God does so, but the angel in the form of a man appears only to the wife and not to the husband or to the husband and wife together. The wife runs to get her husband so he can hear the explanation of what is to come directly from the angel.
The angel doesn’t just repeat what he told the wife. The angel prefaces his words to the husband with:
Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her. Making it clear that the angel already covered this ground with the wife. (And in my own imagining, rolls his eyes a bit with having to come back and explain everything a second time.)
The husband then offers to prepare a kid for the angel. And on my fourth or fifth reading, I now wonder if that offer was in part a test to see what the being who looked like a man would do with the offer.
The story says that the husband did not know that this ‘man’ was an angel of God and it shows again that he does not fully trust what his wife says to him. She told him, after the first visit that:
A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name;
In this particular story the focus is on the successful birth of Samson, so the fact that the husband did not accept the truth of his wife’s testimony does not appear to have any negative impact on the husband. Of course, unlike the story of the birth of John the Baptist the husband in this story does not directly challenge the angel.
Instead he first asks for clarification of the information given to his wife and then embeds a test in an offer of hospitality. (Which makes me further wonder if this is supposed to be a form of foreshadowing for some of the later acts of his son.)
We see this pattern of men refusing to believe the testimony of women again in the resurrection of Jesus narrative. The two Marys and Salome go to the tomb and find Jesus risen. When they try to tell the disciples they are not believed.
What does it say, in a modern context, that women may be a the forefront of an event, but still not be believed until a man comes along to confirm the legitimacy of their experience?
We see it still today. When it takes 60 women to get rape allegations against a powerful man to be taken seriously. When a skilled female athlete is identified as the wife of a male football player rather than as a competitor in her own right. When women regularly earn less across the board then men. And finally when, in the United State Congress, fewer than 20% of our senators and representatives are women.
Was the bible speaking to the lived experience of women by giving example after example of men ignoring them (and this story is actually one of the better outcomes for women in Old Testament; later in Judges it gets much, much worse for women and children)?
Part of me would like to point to all of the stories in the Old Testament that do everything from murder to ignore women as a symptom of the brokenness of humans. The idea that these stories show us how evil we can be and what a terrible idea it is to treat more than half the population as property. Over and over again we see that when society, any society, treats some lives as valuable and some as disposable we all run the risk of having someone put us in the disposable category.
Whether the original compilers of the Old Testament stories mean to or not, they have left us a stark legacy of what can happen when people are treated like things.
In that way, Terry Pratchett said it best through one of his Discworld characters, Granny Weatherwax, as she speaks to an earnest young priest, says:
There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that–”
“No it ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes-”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”
~”Carpe Jugulum” by Terry Pratchett
Women are often nameless things in the bible: mothers, wives, concubines, rape victims, murder victims, women and children put the sword as part of a battle, women handed off to other men in the name of hospitality, women whose husbands are murdered, women stoned, women whose stories are only adjuncts to the men in their lives, women who are ignored, talked over, and rebuked. Women who stand in for ideas but who are not flesh and blood (or who are way too much blood, but not much life).
Only when we truly see that treating people as things always ends badly will we learn to listen to all people and honor their lived experience.
All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway
Unknown artist……The angel predicts the birth of Samson
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.