Sunday, February 7, 2010

Old Testament women: Were they "Quakers?"

How do we get "religion"--ritual, rules, the doctrines and dogmas that subtly twist the faith into something it's not meant to be--out of the way without losing our moorings? This is, of course, near and dear to the Quaker heart, perhaps always running in the back of our minds, but now forefronted for me.

In the early books of the Old Testament, several women take matters into their own hands and do the right thing without--according to the text--being explicitly told to do so.

In one example, when the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, Pharaoh tells the midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill the sons born to Hebrew women. They decide not to--and don't. (Moses, in contrast, has to hear explicitly from God in the burning bush about freeing his people. Why do you think people like Moses had to receive explicit instructions from God?)

Earlier on, Rebekah too, makes independent decisions. She's caught in a system of primogeniture which will give headship and the wealth of the clan arbitrarily to the firstborn of her twin sons, whether or not he is the most fit for the task. Esau, the firstborn, hotheaded and impulsive, doesn't necessarily put the needs of the community ahead of his own. Jacob, however, is thoughtful and deliberate.

It has always bothered me that Rebekah used trickery to gain the blessing and birthright for Jacob. It betrayed her oldest child. It seemed cruel to interfere and favor one child over the other. I wondered what it must have done to Esau to know his mother thought so little of him.

On the other hand, the system of inheritance that gave all the spoils to the oldest son was also potentially--inherently-- cruel. It penalized Jacob for the accident of being born a few minutes after Esau. (It hit me for the first time that it's probably not incidental that Esau and Jacob were twins: it underscores the arbitrariness of primogeniture: In this instance, you can't make a case that the older son's age makes a difference). But even this is not the real issue.

I'm now seeing Rebekah as a wise woman, with little power in her social structure, using what power she had not to promote a favored son, but to help safeguard the clan as a whole. This was not just a domestic matter but a higher stakes situation in which the entire group would suffer if the wrong person ended up in charge. Rebekah acted to benefit the community as a whole. Jacob was more fit to lead, and Rebekah, rather than stand by helplessly, used her wits to subvert an arbitrary system. Primogeniture was a form, not a thing to be idolized for itself, but a means for preserving the community intact rather than dividing and subdividing its wealth into ever small parcels. Rebekah, in acting as she did, preserved the intention, if not the letter, of that law.

These stories are hopeful and address the need to challenge systems that are not working for the benefit of the community. They teach that one compelling way to speak truth to power is simply to do the right thing.

But what does this have to do with getting religion out of the way? These women had such a close relationship with God that they didn't let arbitrary structures of authority get in the way of doing the humane/human/image of Godlike thing. They obeyed the inner light. They didn't get confused by doctrine or custom. In the end, the Bible affirmed their choices.


AbiSomeone said...

Hey, Diane...I'm right with you!

I have begun blogging again, finally, and will be processing my thoughts as I help a dear friend get his amazing book ready to be published. The title is: Can No Man Father -- and in it he will be showing the ways in which Jesus, and Paul after him, were removing patriarchy from the foundation of the society of God's Kingdom and replacing it with images of children and siblings of the heavenly Father.

In this Kingdom, there is no longer a place for fathers (or men in general) to dominate others. Rather, they are to recognize that they are children, too. Children of God. All power and influence and status and privilege are to be used to serve the weak and needy, empowering all to serve each other according to the gifts received from God.

It is an amazing next piece of the puzzle I've been working on for the past 13 years....

...I love how God, even in the Old Testament, sowed seeds of the coming subversion of patriarchy in the New Testament!

Diane said...

Hi Peggy!

Great to hear from you and glad you are blogging again! I'm not surprised the same spirit is moving in us and your friend.

AbiSomeone said...

LOL,'s not "Can No Man Father" but, rather, "Call No Man Father"


I hope my blog typing is better than my comment typing ;^)

Diane said...


I kind of like "Can no man father."

AbiSomeone said...

hehehe...then we would have to have a question mark at the end, eh?

Entirely too many interpretations possible for that one.... ;^)