Month: February 2015

Rare Utterances: Women’s Voices in the Bible

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1000-Bible-Women-447x640Three years ago Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, an Episcopal priest and fellow Minnesotan, worked with three women in her church in an effort to count all the words spoken by women in the Bible. They have recently published a book titled, Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. Their work has been making its way around the blogosphere the last couple of days.

Here is a brief summary of some of their findings:

  • 93 women speak in the Bible
  • 49 of those women are named (leaving 44 unnamed speakers)
  • Together they speak 14,056 words
  • This is 1.1% of the total words in the Bible

Scholars have long known that the biblical text was primarily written by men and for men. One only needs to look at the 10 commandments in Hebrew, and they would quickly recognize that the commandments are written in the second person masculine singular form. Technically speaking, the intended audience of the commandments was the head of the household, a man.

Although these findings are not new, they are still shocking. We now have an actual number, a percentage, a way to quantify how shockingly little women’s voices were expressed in the Bible. If that news is not disheartening enough, we also must keep in mind that the 1.1% of women’s voices are not necessarily authentic utterances of those women; they were chosen to be included by men, which means that the women’s voices were filtered by men. All of this reminded me of a poem written by Merle Feld, titled “We All Stood Together.”

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he sawspiritual_life-210
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me
It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one of my friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
And then
As time passes
the particulars
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
the feeling
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying

Feld’s poem highlights the missing voices and perspectives in the Bible. She aptly illustrates that lack of female involvement in the production of the narratives by describing the woman’s voice as the “vowel barking of a mute.” But instead of leaving us on a disparaging note, she concludes by envisioning what might happen if we had those voices—“we could recreate holy time sparks flying.”

We may not be able to retrieve more women’s voices than the 1.1% in the text. However, my hope is that with more and more women both in Church/Synagogue leadership positions (like Rev. Freeman) and in biblical scholarship, the impact of those voices might reverberate today “sparks flying.”

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For more information on Rev. Freeman’s project, here is an interview that the Religion News Service conducted with her last November.