A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Lifetime’s Women of the Bible and conservative Christian theology

On the surface, the Lifetime channel’s special Women of the Bible tells a very different story than The Red Tent. The two-hour program which aired just prior to the miniseries premiere claims to read with the Bible rather than against it, suggesting that the text itself depicts strong and faithful women—no retelling necessary. Moreover, while the miniseries adaptation of Anita Diamont’s novel valorizes goddess worship and condemns the patriarchal bias of the Bible, Women of the Bible recounts the story of selected biblical women from a decidedly conservative Christian perspective.

Old Testament women. CC0 via Pixabay.

This perspective is clearly evident in the choice of the “experts” chosen to comment on the biblical narratives. Victoria Osteen, wife of evangelist Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meier, described on her website as a “charismatic Christian author,” appear alongside a woman designated as “Bible Teacher” and several female leaders of Christian ministries. Those outside this circle include a female rabbi and a female professor at Notre Dame, though their comments are integrated with rather than contrasted with the majority of conservative Christian voices.

Conservative Christian theology is also reflected in the choice of biblical women and the aspects of their stories eliciting commentary.

  • Eve. The program spends little time on Eve as a character. Instead, commentators use her story to discuss “the Fall,” a distinctively Christian understanding that Genesis 3 depicts a universal human fall from grace to which Jesus later provides a remedy.
  • Sarah. The two episodes selected from Sarah’s story are (1) her motherhood late in life and (2) her response to Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22). Although the Bible does not include Sarah in this latter story, commentators speculate on how she must have felt, and the visual reenactment depicts her running to find her son. This passage is far less relevant to understanding the Bible’s characterization of Sarah than it is to certain strands of Christianity theology. In Christianity, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son has traditionally been invoked as prefiguring God’s willingness to sacrifice his son Jesus on the cross. This linkage is clearly implied in the video footage. Although Genesis 22 indicates that God provided a ram as a substitute sacrifice, the program shows a lamb instead (in the gospels and later Christian tradition, Jesus is called the “lamb of God”).
  • Rahab. This brothel owner who saved the Israelite spies is praised for her willingness to protect her family. Commentators also expound upon the significance of the red cord she uses to mark her house for deliverance. Following traditional Christian interpretation, they connect Rahab’s red cord with Jesus’ blood shed on the cross to save humanity. They also explicitly trace Rahab’s genealogy to Jesus, following the gospel of Matthew.
  • Samson’s mother and his mistress Delilah. In the program, these two women are not explicitly linked with the Christian message. The commentators instead use their stories to advance important morals and teachings. Samson’s mother is explained as providing hope to “mothers who try to be good parents but the children stray,” and Delilah becomes a cautionary tale of being “tempted like Eve.”
  • The Marys. The majority of the program (close to one half) is devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is depicted as playing an important role in early Christianity, and yet most of the scenes depicting both women recounted the life and death of Jesus. Their stories offer windows into his story. In keeping with a particular understanding of the importance of Jesus shedding blood at his crucifixion, scenes graphically depict Jesus’ flogging and crucifixion (“he came to die”). The imagined feelings of the Marys become a means to reflect on the painfulness of Jesus’ sacrifice: “I would imagine they felt this way,” “They must have felt this way.” Although the program insists that the Magdalene was instrumental in the growth of Christianity, it provides no support for this claim.

As a biblical scholar devoted to gender critical work, I was amazed and disturbed that this program demonstrated no awareness of the important discussions conducted by feminist interpreters of the Bible over the past 40 years. Reassessments of Eve, Sarah, Mary Magdalene, and our traditions of reading are now old news, as is the recognition that standard ways of depicting Jesus as female-friendly have anti-Jewish dimensions. At least since the 1990s, Jewish feminists have insisted upon the inaccuracy and the danger of statements like those made in the program: “a Jewish rabbi wouldn’t talk to a woman,” “women were devalued in that culture.” The program leaves these statements to stand unchallenged and actually reinforce them in the costuming of the reenactments of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion: Jewish leaders wear the pointed hats used to designate Jews in Medieval anti-Jewish iconography.

I also was appalled that in the apparent attempt to include actors of color insufficient attention was paid to the ways in which casting might perpetuate racial stereotypes. Samson was depicted as a huge, violent man of African descent who could not control his passions. When his deadlocks were cut, he was bound in chains to a column. In the US context, this image too closely mirrors that of the slave on the auction block to pass for an attempt at “diversity.”

Neither the commentators nor the marketers of this program named the monolithic perspective that informed the presentation. Although the rhetoric of the program suggests that the commentators are simply reading the Bible, in reality the program recounted a particular Christian narrative about sin and Jesus’s role of overcoming it. Women were lauded as important to the degree that they were instrumental in advancing that narrative.

In turn, biblical texts that stray from this perspective are overlooked, such as:

  • Abraham’s willingness to give Sarah to another man—twice—to save himself.
  • The abuse suffered by Hagar.
  • The likelihood that the Israelite spies were visiting Rahab’s brothel rather than simply hiding.
  • Jesus’ statements that challenge the priority of family (Mark 10; Luke 14; Matthew 22). In this program, the distance between Jesus and his mother was described as a normal mother-son dynamic rather than part of Jesus’ message (Mark 3). The commentators stressed the ways in which Jesus provided for his mother from the cross, since “a son ought to love his mother and make sure she is looked after.”

Even though this program reflected a far more conservative religiosity than The Red Tent, similar ideologies of gender run through both productions. Women are valued primarily for being mothers, wives, and protectors of their families. Biblical women who do not fill these roles are passed in silence: Deborah, Huldah, Athalia, Miriam, and the women involved in ministry with Paul. (See an Index of Women in the Bible with relevant biblical passages.)

Responsible interpretation of the Bible requires a deep understanding of the ancient world reflected in its pages. Engagement with on-going biblical scholarship is crucial, since our knowledge of the past continues to grow through archaeological investigation, the discovery of new texts, and the development of research methodology. Responsible interpretation also requires a self-awareness of the lenses through which we read and the commitments that guide our choice of texts and our determination of their meaning.

Women of the Bible, sadly, reflects neither solid scholarship nor attentiveness to perspective. Based on the speculation of interpreters whose interests remain unnamed rather than on current research on gender in the ancient world, the Lifetime program perpetuates particular tropes for women rather than offering viewers fresh insight.

Image credit: Old Testament women. CC0 via Pixabay.

This essay is reprinted from the Oxford University Press website.  You can leave your comments on the original post.