Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13-16; Mk. 5:21-43
My wife, Peggy, is a radical feminist. As emerita director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Berea College in Kentucky, she has always been so.
Whenever we discuss world issues, my tendency is to trace their roots to capitalism. Peggy’s is to find their origins in patriarchy. Capitalism itself, she says, is founded on patriarchy. Until we realize that and address the influence of patriarchy, nothing can really change.
She goes on. Ironically, patriarchy has men making decisions for women on issues that impact females much more directly than males – matters such as contraception, maternity leave, funding for childcare, abortion, wage disparity between men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and wages for housework. All of that, she adds, has to change.
I find Peggy’s logic and criticism compelling. This morning’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus would too.
In fact, the gospels in general show Jesus himself to be a radical feminist. In addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring the disobedient ones to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. To repeat: we find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.
First of all, consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.
In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So, to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12-year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.
The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community.
Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So, the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)
All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the patriarchal oppressor of the second woman. On top of that, the older woman in the story has been humiliated, exploited, and impoverished by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition.
In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.
Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So, she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.
Instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.
Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” (What we therefore end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.)
While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Mark records Jesus’ actual words. The Master says, “Talitha Kumi,” i.e. “Wake up!” Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.
What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save our world from death. It will awaken us from our death-like slumber.
“Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise our world will be for all practical purposes dead.”
Could this possibly mean that feminist faith like that of the hero in today’s Gospel will ultimately be our salvation from patriarchy? Is our reading calling us to a world led by women rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly hold elective office?
My Peggy would say yes.
Today’s Gospel, she would say, suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood.
Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our world which is currently sick unto death.
Biblical scholars Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince present a compelling answer in their 2019 gem, When God Had A Wife: the fall and rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.
We’re all upset, they tell us, because our patriarchal universe is completely unbalanced. Politically it is overwhelmingly run by members of a single gender. It’s a man’s world whose arrangement excludes almost completely more than half the human race.
That’s true even spiritually. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.3 billion members has a hierarchy composed entirely of men. Outrageously, it holds officially that women are divinely excluded from its ruling elite. Other Christian denominations as well as the Jewish and Islamic communities are not far behind in their patriarchal orientation.
How could we expect balance and harmony in a world like that? No one can.
Of course, none of that should come as a surprise to anyone – especially to women. What is surprising and extremely important in Picknett and Prince’s exposition is their argument that our culture’s spiritual imbalance stands in sharp contradiction to earliest biblical traditions. There in both its Jewish and Christian Testaments the sacred feminine was originally honored as much as the sacred masculine.
To demonstrate the truth of their position, Picknett and Prince reinterpret the concept of monotheism itself. They take readers on a tour of often-overlooked and downplayed middle eastern biblical sites, expose them to goddess-centered texts, and centralize the figures of Simon Magus, his lover and inspiration Helen, as well as Mary Magdalen who fulfills the same role for Jesus himself. It’s a mind-blowing trip with momentous implications for those committed to solving the world’s problems at their patriarchal and profoundly religious roots.
Monotheism and Patriarchy
Begin by considering the connection between patriarchy and monotheism itself. For the authors of When God Had A Wife, monotheism does not represent a sophisticated advance over a “primitive” polytheism. Quite the reverse. Monotheism instead embodies a drastically narrowed impoverishment of human spiritual experience. It entirely excised the divine feminine which humans across the planet have always thirsted for, recognized and honored. In fact, according to our authors, monotheism is synonymous with “the menfolk.” It is itself a patriarchal project.
To develop that point, Picknett and Prince show readers that even the Bible is not basically monotheistic in its alleged identification of a single Old White Man in the Sky watching and judging our every decision. It’s not that other gods are merely pretenders who do not exist. It’s not even that the biblical tradition is devoid of goddesses. The latter are evidently visible for scholarly detectives like our authors who have been seeking clues for her presence in primary source manuscripts and secondary scholarship for more than 30 years. (The result has earned them world-wide recognition that even includes a cameo appearance in Hollywood’s version of “The Da Vinci Code.”)
Actually, within Judaism, monotheism (exclusive recognition of one God alone) was a late development. In a tradition that reputedly began about 1200 BCE, monotheism emerged exclusively only around 530 BCE – after the Babylonian exile. It was then that Judah’s elite represented by Ezra, Josiah, and Nehemiah reformulated the nation’s longstanding traditions. Their patriarchal work removed, downplayed, and/or reinterpreted all references acknowledging the existence and power of “foreign” gods other than Yahweh, Judah’s national deity. The reformulators took special pains to erase references to goddess worship.
Ezra’s reforms obscured, for instance, the fact that the people’s origin traditions identified an entire family of Gods as the ones responsible for the creation of the cosmos. Headed by the Great God, El, the family was called Elohim. It included 70 sons. Israel’s Yahweh was one of them – an inferior subordinate of El. His assignment was to protect the nation of Israel. (Note El’s name in the term Yisra-El itself.) Only at the beginning of the first millennium BCE was El replaced by Yahweh as Israel’s particular God.
More importantly for Picknett and Prince, El had a wife. The arrangement was only natural to the ancient mind – divine families mirrored human ones complete with father, mother, sons and daughters. It was just like the Greek and Egyptian myths familiar to all acquainted with classical literature. In fact, El’s wife sometimes had names drawn directly from cultures surrounding the Hebrew nation (Egypt’s in particular). Thus, she was variously identified as Anat, Qadesh, Isis, Sophia, and (the favorite) Asherah. As the quintessential shape shifter, the Hebrew goddess was variously a lustful, raunchy and sexually insatiable seductress, a fierce warrior, a loving wife, a beloved mother, and a wise crone.
Consider Ashera then. Despite patriarchal attempts to write her out of the Bible, and despite similar cultural obstacles obscuring the perception of most contemporary scholars, Asherah’s prominence for ancient Hebrews emerges unmistakably from:
The hundreds of female figurines unearthed from early iterations of pre-exilic Hebrew temples, i.e. before the end of the 6th century BCE. (That’s right: Asherah was officially worshipped in Jerusalem’s temple as well as in a Hebrew counterpart on the Nile Island called “Elephantine,” and in Samaria’s sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim.)
Their absence from similar sites following the 6th century reform
The presence of Asherah’s symbol [some version of a palm-like tree and/or mysterious (and always feminine) cherubim] inscribed on temple doors and other holy places closely associated with worship of El
Even more specific dedications sweetly referring to “El’s Asherah” or “Yahweh’s Asherah” on or near temple sites
Prohibitions by the anti-goddess prophets of outdoor worship associated with Asherah’s iconic trees
Indications in the oldest biblical texts that female biblical heroines like the Judge Deborah may have been priestesses of Asherah herself
Ashera’s reappearance as a domesticated “Sophia” in the Book of Wisdom (and elsewhere) redacted by patriarchs reluctantly responding to widespread popular demand for acknowledgement of the sacred feminine. Describing her as Sophia, even these conservative biblical texts identify the goddess as Yahweh’s first thought and co-creator with him. (More about this below. . .)
The bottom line here is that goddess worship was central to ancient Israel’s past. Only heroic (not to say malevolent) efforts by the nation’s 6th century (BCE) reformers coupled with the cultural blindness of mainstream biblical scholarship has kept that powerful truth from penetrating the consciousness of Jews and Christians everywhere.
Jesus (& Simon Magus) as Feminist
Despite such obstacles past and present, our authors go on to explain the survival of goddess worship within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the process, they take us on a geographical odyssey from Judah to Alexandria and then to Samaria illustrating how recognition of the sacred feminine was advanced not only by the “proto-feminist” Jesus of Nazareth, but by two unexpectedly key figures: the arch-heretic Simon Magus (i.e. Simon the Magician) and John the Baptist.
As just indicated, even the best efforts of its scribal menfolk, could not keep goddess worship out of Judah’s public consciousness. Without honoring her actual name, popular pressure evidently forced the patriarchs to somehow acknowledge Ashera’s identity and influence. That pressure was increased by the spread of Greek (Hellenistic) culture especially as it emanated from Alexandria where fully 1/3 of the population was Jewish. (Greek culture was far more woman-friendly than its Jewish counterpart.)
Accordingly, as evidenced in the Book of Wisdom (produced at the end of the 3rd century BCE), the sacred feminine resurfaced under the title Sophia, a de-sexualized, sanitized, domesticated and abstract female principle called “Wisdom” and portrayed as God’s First Thought — his co-creator of the universe.
For its part, Samaria also proved central to the preservation of goddess traditions. Contrary to the impression given in the canonical gospels, the region was not a minor, out-of-the-way location. Instead, it covered a major swath of territory in northern Israel which was always more prosperous than its southern neighbor. The opposite impression comes from the anti-Israel and pro-Judah bias of the Jewish Testament in general and from a similar prejudice against Samaria itself in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
In any case, Samaria played a major role in Jesus’ public life as did its inhabitants. Scandalously, a Samaritan emerged as the hero of one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Additionally, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus made his first public declaration of his messianic identity to a Samaritan woman.
John the Baptist had Samaritan connections too. So did Simon Magus, who (as we’ll see presently) was both a disciple and rival of Jesus. And since Simon as well as Jesus were disciples of John, and since both of them ended up centralizing devotion to flesh-and-blood embodiments of Sophia, it makes sense to attribute similar focus to the Baptist.
In fact, all three – Jesus, John the Baptist and Simon the Magician had equal first century claims to the title of Christ or Messiah. (Well into the second century, John’s disciples invoked Jesus’ own praise of their master as “the greatest prophet” to argue John’s superiority to Jesus.) It’s therefore a fluke of history that today’s “Christians” are not Johannites or Simonists.
As for Simon Magus . . . Christian polemic portrays him as a contemptuous minor figure not only in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles but throughout early Christian tradition. However, historically speaking, he himself was widely revered as the Son of God. He was a wonder worker on a par with his Nazarene rival. Both men presented themselves as prophets of Sophia. Both were besotted with women who for them embodied God’s Wisdom complete with all the sexual overtones reminiscent of goddess worship everywhere.
The latter is most evident in the case of Simon, a free thinker who, like Jesus, rejected the group consensus of his own time in favor of the Wisdom of God. Simon’s Sophia went by the name Helen whom he portrayed as God’s First Thought. She was a former prostitute whose status as such, Simon argued, incarnated the patriarchy’s degrading treatment of women in general. Accessing Helen’s wisdom involved daily sexual relations with the beloved.
Jesus’ relations with his own Sophia, Mary Magdalen, mirrored that of Simon the Magician. Clearly his favorite, Mary was Jesus’ link with his many female disciples. She was probably his sexual consort if not his wife and mother of his children. (It was simply a given, the authors argue, that any Jewish man above 20 years of age had to be married. So, at the age portrayed in the gospels, Jesus was either a widower or a divorcee.)
At the same time, Mary Magdalene was a rival of Peter the apostle who according to Magdalene’s Gospel and other recently discovered texts was an extreme misogynist and enemy of the one Jesus saw as the embodiment of the divine feminine – God’s First Thought. Jesus’ identification of Mary as “the apostle of apostles” wounded Peter to the quick.
All of this has evident implications not only for questions about the sacred feminine in general, about goddess worship and church leadership, but also for “the contemporary rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian tradition” and for restoring balance in our increasingly troubled world.
Reading When God Had A Wife was like taking a short course in biblical studies. Thankfully, it recalled for me what I had learned more than half a century ago in the most important courses I took in preparation for priestly ordination in the Catholic seminary. And that recollection made me wonder why the knowledge communicated in When God Had A Wife has not yet filtered down to those who occupy the pews in churches and synagogues, and prayer mats in mosques.
It’s as if there were some conspiracy to keep everyone ignorant, naïve and childish in their approach to faith. For instance, our authors reminded me that in the seminary well more than 50 years ago, I had learned about text criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism. I wonder why all of that isn’t common knowledge.
The answer of Picknett and Prince is that there has indeed been a conspiracy by the ruling elite to keep everything secret. The goddess had to be removed from the Judeo-Christian pantheon to more firmly establish patriarchal monotheism, which, remember, has always been about “the menfolk.”
It’s that latter insight that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the wonderfully detailed and exquisitely documented work presented in When God Had A Wife. The interests of the menfolk explain more convincingly than anything else the reluctance of those who should know better to share with the rest of us the rich fruits of biblical scholarship.
After all, if “the faithful” knew about variant texts, literary forms and redacted interpretations, they might call into question the exclusive right claimed by priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, rabbis, and imams to explain their Old White Man up in the Sky. They might embrace instead female leadership and Yahweh’s Wife – Ashera, Anat, the Cosmic Mother, or Isis.
For that matter, they might demand ecclesial leadership modeled on the discipleship of Mary Magdalene or Simon Magus’ Helen.
It’s because Picknett and Prince have the courage to forcefully and convincingly suggest such revisions that I cannot recommend more highly their supremely accessibly and wonderfully popularized When God Had A Wife: the fall and rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Recent furor around the sexual harassment of women by famous men has reminded me of the old Mae West tag, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
It’s made me wish that all of us were as perceptive as Ms. West in implicitly connecting aggressive male sexuality and gun violence – especially in our militarized culture. Such sensitivity might help rid us of danger posed by real guns, which is far greater than “the boss” flashing or fondling his metaphorical counterpart in front of understandably shocked and repulsed female underlings.
In other words, I’m waiting for the day when the female-led sea-change we’re now witnessing around the gun in men’s pockets might attach itself to the weapons in their holsters and on missile launch pads. It would revolutionize our world. There mostly white misogynists currently shape not only Hollywood stories, news reporting, music, and comedy, but also our country’s domestic and foreign policy. There the male solution to everything seems to involve guns, bombing, and threats of violence.
Think about it: Both the gun referenced by Mae West and real guns are pretty strictly male things. Anatomically, women simply can’t exhibit the pocket gun. And strutting about with a Glock on their hips or an AK 47 on their shoulders seems fairly distant from most women’s reality. I find it hard to even imagine a mass shooting perpetrated by a woman. Has one ever occurred? (In fact, mass shooters tend to be white middle aged men with actual records of domestic abuse.)
Why this male fixation?
Feminist commentators as far back as the ‘70s had It figured out. They said that male exhibitionism and aggressiveness with that gun in their pockets isn’t really about sex. No: it’s about power.
After World War II, men resented the entry of women into the public sphere. Harassing them sexually was one way of putting them back in their place. “You don’t belong here; get out” was one message. Another was, “Unless you ‘put out’ for me, you won’t be hired or advanced.”
Both messages drove many women away or into jobs like teaching or nursing where female community was easier to find.
In other words, sexual harassment represented male response to female threat to their traditional territory and power.
Might something similar be said for men’s love affair with real guns – for their fascination with their size and power and capacity for multiple bursts? Is it a response to a world where women and other outsiders have entered white male bastions?
Consider the evidence provided by the most testosterone-soaked bastion of all, the U.S. military. There at least 25% of women report having been sexually assaulted; 80% say they have been sexually harassed. And, of course, rape of “enemy” women has long represented one of the spoils of war – including for U.S. servicemen. If they are so willing to sexually assault their colleagues, what do you think our soldiers do with enemy women?
The answer for all of this is a profound change of patriarchal systems designed to denigrate, harass, intimidate, silence, devalue and assault not only women, but anyone who threatens male privilege. The answer is for men to take the lead in betraying our fondest ideas of masculinity and our reliance on weapons to solve political problems. It is to deconstruct completely our misogynist culture.
That means imagining and crafting a world run by women – or at least where without harassment or assault, women are allowed to achieve proportional representation in national assemblies. In such a world, diplomacy, dialog, and compromise, would predictably represent the default diplomatic position rather than immediate resort to military hardware.
Simply put, our militarized patriarchy isn’t working on any level. Predatory masculinity has been exposed in the workplace. For those willing to see, the harmful failure of its martial equivalent also stands evident in the world at large.
Acknowledging that exposition and countering it with female energy would change everything.