Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 25, 2004
Celebrate our biblical women
Given the patriarchal society, the women's stories went untold
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Women contributed to Jesus' mission alongside men, but they don't get the same recognition. Of the 1,426 names in the Hebrew Bible, only 111 are of women. The rest of the women are defined by their place in society, namely as someone's mother, someone's wife or someone's sister.
Sister Carol Perry, a New York biblical scholar, says the omissions are lamentable but understandable given the fact that the Bible was rooted in a patriarchal society where men were the chief storytellers.
"If we look at the world of the Bible, we are unjust if we attempt to take our world and superimpose it on a totally different society," she cautioned.
"The Bible is a male-centred world, a patriarchal world. The chief storytellers, when our biblical ancestors gathered, were the men of the tribes. The women did their storytelling in the family quietly at other times. And therefore it's amazing the number of women stories that have come to us despite this peculiar arrangement."
Biblical women mattered
Perry told some of those stories at Scripturefest 2004 Oct. 15- 16. Under the theme Biblical Women Who Shifted the Word's Weight, Perry told the stories of several remarkable women who made a difference. Some 140 people, mostly women, attended her presentations at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Centre.
Perry, a resident Bible scholar at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, said she is the only person she knows who came to be a Christian feminist through reading the Bible.
The Gospels may be filled with male figures, but women played an important role in the early Church as well, Perry noted. Women followed Jesus, financed his mission, cooked for him and his entourage, and cried for him when he was crucified. And it fell on a woman, Mary of Magdala, to proclaim that the Lord had risen.
In an interview, Perry said she wants Christian women to know the role their biblical ancestors played so they can model them to build the Church of the future. "This is an equal opportunity Church we belong to and therefore I want women and men together," Perry said. "I want them both to understand that you just can't ignore women, that we have great role models."
In her talks, Perry looked at several specific women beginning with Chapter 1 of the Book of Exodus where the Hebrew midwives served in the complex world of the Pharaoh.
The midwives were remarkable because they disobeyed the order of the Egyptian pharaoh to kill all Hebrew babies as soon as they were born. When the pharaoh confronted them, they said Hebrew women were more vigorous than Egyptian women and would give birth before they could get there. The pharaoh swallowed it, which led to the birth of many biblical figures including that of Moses.
"This is a group of nameless women, each of whom plays her role in bringing life, nurturing it, saving it, educating it until eventually we have a Moses ready to lead his people on the greatest journey in the history of the Old Testament," Perry said.
And then five young women who wanted to inherit their father's land following his death challenged Moses. "The earth shattered at that moment because these women were asking for a systemic change," Perry said. "Women had never inherited land before. And to Moses' ever-lasting credit, . . . he does not tell them to go back and sit down quietly and know their proper place as landless ladies."
Moses instead consulted the Lord and the Lord told him to give them inheritance among the men of Israel. He did and Hebrew law changed at that moment.
Perry also looked at women who said yes wholeheartedly but not always knowing what they were getting into. One was Rahab, a prostitute from Jericho, who hid two Israeli spies in her house as God's people were getting ready to invade Jericho.
"Rahab comes to us as the epitome of the foreigner, of the outside woman; she is even in her own society by her very occupation a marginal person and not just by her occupation," Perry noted.
"She lives within the very wall of the city of Jericho. Houses were built into the walls. So Rahab's back window opens on the outside world. So Rahab stands there before us as everything that Israel saw as suspicious: she was a foreign woman, she might in some ways seduce the men of Israel, she lives in the walls."
Rahab helped the men at a price. All her family was spared when the invasion of Jericho came. "See her as every woman who has learned to bargain a little bit to get what she wants in life," Perry told her audience.
Her story is now forever intertwined with the story of God's people, Perry noted. "She said yes to men she did not know. She trusted their word and they trusted her word. It's interesting that every time she is spoken of her occupation comes first. She is always Rahab the prostitute."
Then Perry turned to the New Testament to look at a group of women who travelled with Jesus and the disciples. They were mainly women that had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.
"These women provided for them out of their resources," Perry noted. "When I became fully aware of these verses I was rocked back on my feet. Jesus and the disciples were freeloaders," the sister said to laughter from the audience. "They were living off the bounty of these women. These women were part of the entourage around Jesus and they came with their resources to finance Jesus' mission."
One was Johanna, a married woman.
Another was Mary of Magdala, a relatively wealthy woman, who committed most of her resources to helping Jesus. Many other women joined her. "We must never, ever lose sight of these women because they are part of the entourage of Jesus," Perry observed. "And when Jesus speaks to the disciples, don't just see male faces around Jesus, see these women. These are the women who walked with Jesus the long road from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem.
"These are the women I sincerely believe who cooked the Last Supper. I know that these are the women who did the dishes. These are the unnoticed women who are always there, who followed Jesus to the very end and beyond. Think of them often on Pentecost. They are the pillars of the early Church."
According to Perry, Mary of Magdala was never a prostitute, saying there is nothing in the Gospels to support that view. "This is a woman of resources and money at her disposal," she said.
"There is no indication anywhere in the Gospels that Mary of Magdala is a prostitute," Parry said. "So we have to reclaim her. I'm sure you remember the Church calendars with Mary of Magdala-penitent. She is now Mary of Magdala-Apostle. And indeed she is; she is the apostle to the Apostles."
On Easter morning Jesus missioned the weeping Mary to tell the rest of the Apostles that he had risen from the dead. "Mary of Magdala was the first to proclaim that Jesus had risen. Did she see that? No, Jesus came and spoke to her (after his death). Jesus sent her. Jesus told her to go and tell the others.
"The Church now calls her an apostle. You are an apostle if you had the word to carry. And she had the word to carry."
Mary of Magdala's reality
Mary of Magdala is still referred to as a prostitute as a way to put her down, Perry asserted in an interview. "And the Church has been good at putting women down through the centuries."
The sister also told the story of the bent-over woman, a deformed woman who was the object of ridicule in her village and whom Jesus straightened up and invited back into the human family by calling her a daughter of Abraham.
And she spoke of the Canaanite woman who only wanted one word from Jesus so her ill daughter would be healed. Jesus said to her, "Honoured lady, great is your faith, let it be done for you as you wish. And her daughter was healed at that moment."
This is the only time that Jesus went outside the borders of his own land. He and his entourage walked 70 km over the mountains just to exchange a few sentences with the Canaanite woman.
"They walked all that way for that because that woman is the beginning of something incredible: that Jesus came for the insiders and the outsiders," explained Perry.
"He has come for those in need. This woman risks rejection in coming to this teacher from a foreign land. But she has heard of him and she calls her an honoured lady.
"This is a woman with a sharp sense of humour, a woman with a great faith and a woman with an enormous love for her Lord.
"And she gets what she wants. Why not?"
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