If you haven’t seen the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, Notorious RBG, I highly recommend it. It is quite prescient at a time when women are starting to realize that if we want to live in a sane and loving world, we may have to actually wrest a good bit of the responsibility for governing it away from men. After all, economic and social metrics for societal health all go up as more and more women participate in governance of a society, and we now have more women in the U.S. Congress, Supreme Court and Oval Office than at any time in history. But let’s face it, ladies: we still have a long way to go.
Why else would the most “meme-ed” and tweeted part of the RGB documentary be her recitation of a quote from a woman in 1792…. 1792!!! The quote was by Sarah Moore Grimke, the daughter of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, from a family of lawyers, who, along with her sister, became a leader of the anti-slavery and feminist movement. Grimke said in a letter to her sister: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they kindly take their feet off our necks.” This quote is still easy for women to relate to: in 2020, women lost their jobs 4x more often than men did and were still paid substantially less, while being required to do more work in the home that ever before. We know these feet on our necks.
Interestingly, RBG did not use the entire quotation from Grimke in the documentary. Grimke further demanded that men “permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.” I’m sure that RBG left off that end quote in deference to separation of church and state, but I think many of us might also hesitate at that portion of the quotation. Did the God that Judeo-Christian values insist upon intend us to stand upright, on equal footing with men? Isn’t the Church’s treatment of women throughout history– blaming women for original sin, burning women as witches, insisting on women’s subservience to men in the home, prohibiting women from serving as priests, ministers or even deacons in the Church—isn’t this why some women left the Church and sought spiritual practice elsewhere? The Judeo-Christian God and his Church have been a tool of patriarchal oppression, wrongdoing, genocide. To many of us, it does not seem that God intended us to stand upright. And as such, Christianity, the faith many of us were raised in, has become alien to us.
This is my greatest sadness, ladies, that so many spiritual women have abandoned Christianity altogether. Because God, whom, I will concede, transcends religions, but God, as described in Jewish and Christian scripture, loves the ladies. God has always loved the ladies. And God has always intended for women to be restored to upright standing, eye-to-eye with men. This may be hard to believe when we look at the Church and at Church history, but it becomes easier when we look at early, pre-Nicene Christianity and even older scripture.
Jesus cared for women arguably more than any ancient religious figure before or after him. Some early Christian writings, known as apocrypha, suggest that Mary Magdalene, rather than Peter, was the preferred disciple, and we know that Jesus had many women among his followers, a radical thing considering the culture in which he lived. Paul’s letters also show that women were very active in the early church after Jesus’ death. And many of the early and revered figures, according to writings, were women martyrs. So, we know, on a historical basis, that early Christianity was a women’s, as much as a men’s, religion and a place where women were empowered.
Furthermore, we are starting to understand the ways in which Christianity was a women’s religion on a theological basis. The writers of the gospels, except for Luke, declare that the resurrected Jesus appears first to the women. To me, much of the gospels are mythological and theological rather than historical. So, what does it mean theologically that women see the resurrected Christ first and are then charged to tell the male disciples about it?
Women see and understand and experience Jesus’ resurrection before men. We have an enhanced connection to spirituality, to love, to redemption, to transformation, to everything that the resurrected Jesus represents, and we have a duty to help men to understand it, much as the women were told to go and explain the resurrection to the male disciples. Men have made a mess of Christianity by excluding us from theological discussions for the past 2000 years. But rather than fleeing from the table and the male Church’s Christianity, I would argue that it is time for us to take back the theology and live into Sarah Moore Grimke’s and the gospel writer’s words.
I can hear the arguments against a notion of the inherent feminism of Christianity: But women’s voices are largely absent from the Bible. But women are rarely chosen in the Bible by God to speak or lead. But God sent a son, he didn’t even bother to send a daughter. Yes, ancient Israel and the ancient Near East were largely patriarchal cultures, and the Bible is a reflection of this cultural reality. But in the middle of the Old Testament, where women seem to only be valued for their ability to create more men, God somehow snuck a love song to women. And one that promises our return to equality with men. It’s called the Song of Songs.
Theologians have debated for centuries why and how the Song, an erotic love poem, made it into the cannon. God is not mentioned in the Song, nor is it overtly religious, despite the fact that it references Solomon, gardens, and building materials used for Solomon’s temple. But even though God seems missing from the Song, a Jewish rabbi in the first century, Rabbi Akiba, was confident that this book deservedly sat in the center of the Old Testament, when he stated, “The whole world was not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for while all Scripture is holy, the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”
The romance of the Song has been interpreted in various ways. In antiquity, it was often viewed allegorically as the story of God’s love for Israel, God’s love for the church or God’s love for the human soul. In modern times, the Song is more often viewed literally, as a love poem, due to comparisons made between it and ancient Egyptian poetry. It may be all these things. But its preeminent love story, to my reading, is that of God’s love for women and his promise that this love will “stand us upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.”
This is hard to see at first. The Song consists of a male and a female lover taking turns talking to, and about, each other. Like other romantic poetry of the ancient Near East, it’s pretty racy. It evokes strong emotion and desire in the reader.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine . . . . While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance. My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts. . . . . I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates.”
Phew!! You can see why it raises some eyebrows among Biblical scholars. It’s sexy-time and reads like a purely romantic exchange between a man and a woman.
Each of the first four sections of the poem contain dialogue between the male and female lover, followed by a refrain. These four refrains are spoken by the female lover to a collective of women known as “the daughters of Jerusalem.” After speaking to and hearing from her lover, seeking him and being separated from him, she warns, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” So, the author’s message in the entire poem is to women, you and me: the daughters of Jerusalem.
The final section of the poem, which follows the final refrain, is entirely different, however. In the final section, instead of talking to her beloved, the woman speaks directly to the daughters of Jerusalem. And instead of warning the daughters of Jerusalem against awakening this love as she has in the refrains, the woman explains that this love has transformed her, and she implores the daughters to now seek this love by calling out for it and awakening it.
That this love journey has transformed the female lover implicates God’s involvement in the entire poem. The woman was not only called and romanced by her beloved but also by God himself. She has wrestled with her beloved—seeking him and finding him, only to be separated again in agony, never giving up on love—much as Jacob, the patriarch of Israel, wrestled with a man, refusing to give up, and later found himself blessed as Israel and realized the man he wrestled was God. Therefore, in the center of the Bible, women are called by God, not just for their ability to give birth to men, but to become transformed in their own right, like Jacob, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Paul who also experienced this transformative encounter with the divine. Women stand on equal footing with the men. Women are chosen by God. This is revolutionary.
Several Biblical scholars have suggested based on all the garden imagery in the Song that the Song seeks to restore and correct the breach that occurred in the garden of Eden of Genesis 2-3. This is a compelling interpretation indeed, considering the curse that women receive in the Garden: women are condemned, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The woman’s transformation in the Song serves, therefore, to lift this Eden curse, this curse of living with men’s feet on our necks. The Song shows women how to smash the patriarchy and return to themselves, equal and whole.
This transformative path to women’s equality has been in the Bible the entire time, under everyone’s noses, veiled in obscure language. Women are promised the ability to come to spiritual wholeness and self-sufficiency, to be removed from under the thumbs of their “angry older brothers.” And as we have all intuited, it is the path of love: heart-wrenching, desperate, agonizing love. Living for love, pursuing love, demanding love, and never giving up, despite the pain.
So, let us not be afraid to lead in the state houses and in our own houses. To show the way forward to a new and better world. To make a society that is just for all and kind. Our return has been heralded since the beginning, as prophets in our own rights. We are destined to remove the feet on our necks and stand upright on that ground which God has designed us to occupy. Through love.
Answer the call of the Song and come home, daughters of Jerusalem.
Make way for the Queen.