Stories of Women in the Bible
For the last several months my work at Jolt has taken to places I never imagined. I spend the majority of my day with those who are unstably housed, people who inject drugs, and individuals engaged in sex work, particularly women who work the streets of Peoria.
When people find out about the work I do, they have very strong opinions about the prostitutes I’ve come to know by name, who have become my friends and colleagues. There is an immediate comparison to the wicked temptress Eve or the whore Mary Magdalene.
The most well-known female biblical characters feel familiar to us because they’re so embedded within our culture. These women are represented in film, music videos, and are featured in everything from plays to strip clubs. And yet, despite our cultural constructions and received understandings of female biblical characters, the Bible often tells us something very, very different about them.
After years of being a femme fatale, we have come to know her as the temptress who led Adam and all of humanity to their downfall and introduced sin to the world. The biblical text, however, is far less concrete about those details (Gen. 3:20).
In those first chapters of the Bible, Eve undergoes a metamorphosis from her introduction in Genesis 2 to her transgression when she eats the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3.
When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, Eve is a voiceless, choiceless creature, while Adam makes plenty of noise about what he thinks of his new “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and demonstrates his power by naming and claiming her:
This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken. (Gen. 2:23).
In contrast, Eve’s thoughts on her new companion are not recorded. We don’t know if Adam is more Donald Trump than Ryan Reynolds; at this point in the story, we have no clue as to whether she’s happy with her imposed partner or not.
Just a few verses later, however, and our wordless first lady is suddenly chatting away with the serpent and eating the forbidden fruit. In a surprise turn of events, Eve has transformed into a biblical Alpha badass, making her own decisions, while her husband becomes the mute Beta.
It’s not clear in the story this far Eve does not need to tempt her quiet mate; she merely “gives some to her husband, who was with her” (Gen. 3:6). While some feminists represent Eve as an example of female sexual empowerment, the storyteller attempts to lay the blame for the act at her feet.
Like Eve, the New Testament character Mary Magdalene has been the subject of centuries of bad press. Magdalene is often believed to be a prostitute although there’s absolutely no suggestion of it in her story. Academics have argued that the early Church developed Mary Magdalene’s repentant prostitute persona as a bid to deny women a proper position in the church hierarchy.
The discussion around Mary Magdalene, however, says more about cultural attitudes of female sexuality than anything about the biblical character. The persistent idea that sex workers are “fallen” women who should be rehabilitated or repentant has only recently been challenged and the controversy surrounding Mary Magdalene speaks to centuries of the dominant patriarchal ideology that shapes values around female sexuality and stigmatizes sex workers on a moralistic premise. It also tends to breeds toxic masculinity.
On the other hand, Mary, Mother of Jesus, is considered by many Christians as the “ideal woman”. As a virgin mother, Mary has the ultimate appeal to female respectability, combining the most culturally valuable female roles. But discussions surrounding the “ideal femininity” of Mary, Mother of Jesus, are inextricably linked with the control of female sexuality evidenced in attitudes to Mary Magdalene. The construction of “female virtue” is a cultural dividing practice to reinforce the social boundaries between respectable and unrespectable groups and classes.
The stories about Eve, Mary Magdalene, and Mary (Mother of Jesus), then, are far more than biblical biographies, they help to reflect and construct ideas and attitudes about femininity and female sexuality. In this way, they also tell us an awful lot about ourselves.
As a white man, writing about this topic is tough, hell it might even be silly. Being born into a civilized world that is created by and for men, I have never know the dehumanization that “others” have experienced but the stories of these, and other women, throughout the scriptures constantly challenge me to keep letting the Spirit change me and mold me into whatever I need to become so that I don’t perpetuate these unfair and oppressive cultural narratives.
Chris and his family have been a part of Imago for few years now. He is a former youth pastor, counselor, and harm reductionist as well a pizza roll connoisseur