In Pain You Shall Bring Forth
When was the moment you knew—that critical juncture at which you realized your gender and the implications it would have on your role in society, your family, and future relationships? I am grateful that this present generation is much more comfortable talking about the spectrum of gender identity and gender expression. Some of you reading this might identify as a man or a woman or as non-binary. More specifically, you might identify as a cis-gendered man, or a transgender woman, or as gender non-conforming. As I reflect on Women’s History Month, I wonder how one’s gender assigned at birth often comes with expectations for ways we will express that gender according to the cultural constructs surrounding it.
For me personally, I genuinely did not know that I was anything other than a person until it was gradually shown to me. I never liked playing with dolls, although I played with them because they were the only toys I had. Babies and baby dolls were terrifying to me. The external social constructs that tried to tell me the things I should like were unsuccessful. However, somewhere in my brain I still feel like a woman. What being a woman means to me and what being a woman means to the society around me have often been at odds.
Not unlike my first risings out of bed, I have often been slow to understand that being a woman means I will likely face certain difficulties related to a variety of factors including my age, gender, and size. The limitations that came with being a woman were ones I was early to discover. When I was around the age of six, I lived in a small shanty town on the outskirts of Chicago. I was in the first grade and my mom was in a new relationship with a man who had a young daughter near the same age as me. It was a Sunday morning, and a nearby elementary school offered breakfast for kids from low-income housing. My sister and I walked the half-mile to school, enjoyed a generous portion of pancakes, and then proceeded to go outside and play. The golden hour of morning was passing into afternoon and the weather was ideal for a few first-grader antics on the playground. Gnarled yet mysteriously inviting stood a tall, accessible climbing tree in the schoolyard. As two 6-year-old unsupervised girls might do, we began to climb up and down the tree, laughing and giggling in the most carefree manner. I noticed a group of five or six boys in the distance headed toward us. One of the boys, a third-grader, shouted:
“That’s my tree! Get off!” I looked up without a care in the world, fully knowing that this was playful banter and he was only there to join the fun.
“Come and get us,” I said. He began chasing us through the branches as I giddily screamed and eluded him. Suddenly, I felt a hard thud. Boom! I was looking up at the sky from the ground. The boy towered over me and repeated in a much more serious tone, “I said this is my tree.” Having pushed us to the ground, he and his friends began to wail on us with the full weight of their third-grade boy bodies. I was in disbelief. This was just a game. Why would anyone try to hurt us? There were no parents or teachers around to break up the fight. I managed to get up from the scuffle and watched the leader of the gang repeatedly stomp my step-sister in the stomach. Someone egged me on, “Go in there and fight him! Go!”
I froze. I was scared. More than that, I was ashamed that I was scared. He was stronger than me. He already proved that. What chance did I have to help her? I do not remember what happened after that exactly. Soon the ordeal was over and we walked home defeated. I felt more than just physical defeat, however. The shame of my cowardice taunted me. I should have gone into the fight, even if I knew I was going to lose. In my mind, the physical limitation of being a girl is what failed me. My inability to defend myself, my failure to be what my sister needed me to be in that moment seemed correlated to the genetic deficiency of the female chromosome. I had to fix it.
In the eighth grade, I joined the wrestling team. Then, a boxing gym, mostly just to spar. There was a subconscious part of me determined to overcome what I had interpreted as a genetic deficit. I needed to be viscerally strong in the way I perceived men to be strong. Sometimes I succeeded. Most moments, I did not. More than winning or losing, the wrestling match was with myself. Having the courage to fight in a losing battle was what I thought I needed to wash the cowardice from me. As I got older, I was braver, sure. I was no longer afraid to fight with a man. But when the bully was my intimate partner, I still could not beat him. While the exact statistics seem to vary, according to one study done by the CDC, 55% of all women who are murdered are murdered by their intimate partner. A study done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the figure as high as 68% of all women murdered are murdered by their intimate partner or family member. The fear women feel is not unfounded.
Is this what it means to be a woman? To feel fear? To lose in a man’s world? It is not the entirety of a woman and a transwoman’s experience, but it is a significant one. When I feel fear walking alone at night, or when I look over my shoulder when I run, or the way I speed up when I catch unflinching eyes staring, or when a strange car tries to follow me home and I divert my path along convoluted streets trying to “lose him,” I am reminded that danger is a real part of our legacy as women. In a world where might equals right, women suffer.
The Ascent to Power
The book of Genesis is the book of beginnings. How you interpret the first few chapters will influence how you read the unfolding of the events to come. The Fall, also known as the moment in which moral corruption and death entered the world, is followed by God giving a sentence to the parties responsible for this decay. “To the woman, he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain, you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you. In this context, we have to ask ourselves, Is God being prescriptive or descriptive? In other words, is this an expression of God’s desire, his inner-most wants? Does he want to impose upon women subjugation and domination by their male counterparts as punishment for Eve’s transgression? According to this worldview, being ruled over by men is God’s way to correct the natural evil in women’s hearts. Another perspective, however, is asking, Does this passage merely describe the effects of sin? In other words, is sin the reason why some women experience subjugation? Is sin the culprit for the abusive dynamic we see today where women are dominated by the brute strength of their male partners? Is sin the reason why some women feel the need to hide under the security of strong male figures?
Knowing what I know about God and the Bible, I see this passage as God describing the effects of sin on the world. Sin means having a skewed lens and a false balance. In this new world, justice is turned upside down. Death, murder, and violence of all kinds have been introduced. Therefore, protecting oneself from the dangers of untethered humanity is our only means of survival. Sin increased the value of hypermasculine traits because they were now a means of self-defense. Other forms of strength were disregarded. But even Solomon, the wise king who succeeded the violence of his father, recognized that “He who is slow to anger is better and more honorable than the mighty, And he who rules and controls his own spirit, than he who captures a city.” (Proverbs 16:32). When sin reigns, strength is a tool to dominate the feeble. The mild voices of the physically weak are drowned out under the roaring of power.
Throughout biblical history, the result of sin is that there are wars and controversies over which nation is the strongest. God now has to reveal himself in terms that mankind can understand. With fire raging upon the mountains of Sinai, thunder and lightning commissioned the awe of power-persuaded people. Yet this grand display veiled the meek voice of a would-be-gentle God. These gestures of grandeur are probably not God’s chosen avenue of revelation. If he had his way, he would likely still be walking with us in the cool of the day. But because we had been trained to value hypermasculine attributes for the sake of physical security, he had to display his power with formidable ostentation, knowing those who live in fear only hear the strong, and the mighty will only bow to power.
The prophetic statement, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you,” is not God’s punishment to women for Eve’s transition. Rather it is a foretelling of the savage world women and the physically vulnerable will soon occupy because of sin.
Who Are These Women?
I transitioned to live with my father and two brothers in the third grade. Around this time, I began internalizing the image of myself as one of the boys. I saw men as hardy, people who had to stand up for themselves and face the challenges in the world without excuse. I saw my father and brothers “act like men,” and so I tried to as well. As someone who was on the chubbier side, I did not feel dainty. I thought I looked ridiculous in dresses and found it hard to see myself as feminine in the traditional sense. I started wearing t-shirts and skater shorts, partly to hide my size but also because I thought I needed to look tough, not cute. This gender non-conforming expressionism often angered my mother. She wanted to buy me flower-printed dresses, but I shunned the notion out of fear that my femininity would be perceived as weakness. There were times when I conceded and performed my gender and let other people’s expectations drive how I presented myself. As I got older, I searched and searched for the things that I liked. Sometimes it was a loud, colorful print, other times it was more subtle. Some days I liked dresses, other days I did not. On the inside, I still just felt like a person, a person who wanted to live without fear, someone who wanted the freedom to be who she wanted to be.
When we investigate women of the Bible like Junia, Priscilla, and Phoebe, they are women who live in the freedom of simply being themselves. They were the first women mentioned as apostles, pastors, and Bible teachers in the New Testament. Yet the mention of their pastoral contribution has been highly controversial. Junia is mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:7, saying, “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” Junia is the female version of the name Junius, which is a Greek masculine name. Junia is mentioned with Paul’s fellow countrymen, in Christ even before he was. Some speculate that Andronicus and Junia were a husband-and-wife team. Either way, she was either “of note among” or a notable apostle, depending on which side of the debate you fall. Priscilla, the wife of Aquilla, is known for teaching and training the successful evangelist Apollos. Paul refers to Phoebe by the same name as her fellow male pastors in ministry–diakonos. Diakonos or deacon is the male Greek form for “servant.” It is important to note that at this juncture in history, there were no distinctions between pastor, elder, and deacon. These hierarchical differentiations came later in history. So, Phoebe was a pastor, just like any other pastor of the New Testament.
Other notable women of ministry include the woman at the well, who is the first evangelist sent to Samaria. Mary of Magdala is the last to leave the cross, first to announce the risen Savior. Women have played a notable role in the history of Scripture, and yet there is still controversy over whether to limit the participation of women in church leadership.
Paul is the author of one of the most liberating verses in Scripture for women. While ministering to the time and culture in which he served, Paul also planted seeds of future hope. This future hope is one where equality reigns and the societal prejudices that cause division are broken down. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28,29). This single text from the book of Galatians has historically been controversial, as it sought to dissolve society’s injustices such as slavery, racial inequality, and gender inequality. For over two thousand years, this small wave has rippled its meaning across time and turned into a giant wave heralding a powerful statement of equity in God’s eyes.
A Complex History of Women and Intersectionality
The book of Galatians dealt with the theme of contextualizing ancient traditions for modern culture. Paul encouraged the church, which was stuck in outdated traditions, to progress away from rigid social structures post-Christ. The Galatian church fiercely contended over the rite of circumcision, arguing that Gentile believers needed to undergo the procedure in order to gain church membership. Paul brought the radical notion that adherence to customs and tradition did not make a person a “son of Abraham,” but faith did. Faith is that grasping agent that lays hold of reality in Christ, far surpassing the hierarchical divisions placed between slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female.
So, what does contextualizing Galatians 3:28 look like for us today? What are the hierarchical divisions that are still in place? As a woman of color, the history of women’s suffrage in this country has been confoundedly complex. As a mixed queer woman, who is both Afro-Latina and White, I have inherited the complexities of the intersecting facets of oppression. My mother, who was adopted and ran away from home when she was 16, often retold the painful story of being referred to as “la negra,” the black girl, in her home and local community. Even among the racial and economic marginalization of Latinx communities in America, there still exist localized systems of oppression based on race that are embedded in Hispanic culture. The women’s suffrage movement in America is also fraught with a complex history of racism. Susan B. Anthony, a renowned women’s rights activist who was part of the anti-slavery movement and radically petitioned for its end, also felt that the white woman’s vote should be included before the Black man, saying in her speech at the conference of the American Equal Rights Association, “If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of women be brought up first and that of the Negro last.” The American Equal Rights Association eventually dissolved because of heated debates over who should be prioritized: white women or Black men. Black women, however, were completely left out of the equation. Ellen Watkins Harper addressed how this framing was not helpful for Black women, saying, “[Harriet Tubman] whose courage and bravery won a recognition from our army and from every Black man in the land, is excluded from every thoroughfare of travel. Talk of giving women the ballot box? Go on.”
The intersecting crossroads of gender and race have historically made and currently make for a doubly oppressed experience for women of color. It is impossible to cover the myriad of these complexities in this small moment, so I want to narrow the scope a bit, to focus on the experience of a woman reading Scripture. What is it like for a woman to read Scripture who does not internalize the misogyny of her culture or the cultures of antiquity? As a woman of color, I bring the lens of my experience along with my personal growth and cultural awareness to the pages of the text. The notion that there exists a “pure exegete” is mere fiction. Every person has a lens that colors their reading and interpretation. So, what do I see when I read the Bible?
The Madonna-Whore Complex
As a woman, I have noticed something very peculiar. There are few women in the Bible who take leading roles in the history of faith. Now, this discrepancy might seem trivial to some, but if we believe “as we behold we become changed,” what aspirational images are we providing for women? The women who do come to prominence in the sacred text are often spoken about or valorized in the context of their sexual integrity or motherhood. Sarah who was barren but then conceived. Leah the deceitful, unloved wife who conceived six. Rachel the barren but beloved sister who conceived two. The handmaids who conceived six. Tamar who secured a child by pretending to be a prostitute.
Women in power are often remembered for their sexual transgressions as well: Potiphar’s wife, the sexual villain. Delilah, the temptress. The Whore of Babylon in the book of Revelation, the image of an unfaithful church. Even women of valor like Esther and Ruth are placed in contrast to their relationships with powerful men and their sexual integrity. Esther, the most beautiful of women, was chosen by King Ahasuerus to be his primary wife among many. Ruth secures the favor of an older man of wealth, saving herself and her mother-in-law from starvation. Even in the New Testament, Mary is remembered through the lens of her history—Mary the prostitute. The other Mary? Mary the virgin mother. The prostitute and the virgin. It is the Madonna-whore complex with little in between.
While a few women do exist outside of this context—Deborah, Miriam, Jael, Priscilla, Junia—these women occupy little biblical real estate. Through no fault of its own, the Bible was written in the context of a patriarchal society in which women were viewed through the lens of what was important to men and the Messianic expectation of the day: their sexual purity and reproductive capacities. While the lens of the male gaze has defined which characteristics are championed and remembered, the male gaze present in Scripture does not make up the entirety of the reasons why women should and can be valorized.
In my own experience, I have found it very difficult to share how this narrow view of women in ancient writings has a limiting effect on women today. I am often told how progressive the Bible was for its time (which is true), or I am pointed to the virtues of motherhood as a noble aspiration. While there is nothing wrong with women aspiring to motherhood or the Bible being progressive for its time, it has been hard for both men and women to envision strong, powerful women—commanding armies and occupying positions of top leadership—that move beyond this narrow lens of the male gaze. When Paul writes “a woman shall not have authority over man” or “a woman shall not speak in church,” there is a legacy of limitation and inequality that seems to affirm these words. We forget too easily, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Or the declaration that Paul gives encompassing all people, saying, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9). In other places he says, “So in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith” (Galatians 3:26). The term “sons” signifies that all—men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile—are equal inheritors of the wealth of God.
Jessica Christa, Savior of the World
I want to imagine for a moment a different world. A world that I think will help paint a more well-rounded picture of what it is like for a woman to read the Bible. The fiction I am about to paint may seem fantastical, but I implore you to try your best to follow the illustration.
Imagine a world in which Paul is Paula, Jesus is Jessica, and the fall began not with Eve eating the apple but with Adam. A world in which, not unlike certain parts of the animal kingdom, women on average are physically larger than men. Where, according to the US Department of Justice, 96% of federal domestic violence cases are caused by women instead of men; where 95% of sex offenders are women and not men; where men are afraid to walk to their cars at night; where men’s bodies are meticulously shaped by a culture that values them as petite and submissive; where men are a minority among female CEOs who make up 80% of the leadership; where male fertility begins to decline and even cease after the age of 35, at which time the value of men diminishes as they become less of a childbearing asset to any potential female partners.
I want you to imagine a world in which the inequality men experience is affirmed through Holy Scripture with texts that read: “Husbands submit to your wives as to the Lord. For the wife is head of the husband even as Christa is head of the church, her body, of which she is the Savior,” and “I do not permit a man to teach or to have authority over a woman; he must be silent.” A church where prayers begin with, “Our Mother, who art in heaven.”
While there are few men of prominence in these Scriptures, like Deboraham, the only male judge in a long line of female judges and warriors, most men are domestic servants and child rearers. Their station in life is affirmed by texts that say, “But men will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety” (1 Timothy 2:15). The mother of our faith, Abrahama, is a prominent matriarch who was promised by Our Mother to bear a child, a daughter, who would be the savior of the world. The story of Our Mother, who miraculously restores the fertility of Abrahama’s husband, Sergio, after he had passed childbearing age, is an inspiration to all men who have trouble bearing children and demonstrates that they too can be restored to value once again.
In these Scriptures, every great leader is a woman. There is Jacoline, also known as Israela, and the great exodus leader Mosha and her sister Aries. Davina, a slayer of Giants, and the Sholomite, the wisest woman who ever lived. In the New Testament, the promised Savior is a woman–Jessica, followed by her twelve disciples: Petrice, Andrea, Jamie, Joanna, Philippa, Bertha, Mariah, Tammy, Simone, Theadora, Jamie II, and Judy, who was Jessica’s betrayer. The illustrations in Revelation consist of two end-time churches: the faithful, pure husband, obedient to his wife, and the unfaithful husband, the man-whore of Babylon.
Years pass and through an arduous battle to gain equality, men finally earn the right to vote, at least in the United States. However, in many other countries, men still suffer inequality. Men are victims of rape and murder. In some countries, men are killed simply for being men. On other occasions, men are raped or murdered in order to instill fear in other men and to dissuade them from acting in a promiscuous way bringing shame upon the family name. Church leadership has traditionally been made up of female leadership per the teachings of Paula. Out of fear of displeasing the Goddess, and giving authority over to man, many women have opposed male leadership in the church. Even though men make up 60% of the demographic of church attendance, male pastors are a rarity. While the bend of society has been moving more steadily toward inclusivity in the workplace and equal rights for men, many women are still skeptical of masculinist teachings. Women fear that this advocacy for gender equality is a slippery slope toward allowing the culture to corrupt and influence the pure teaching of the Mother church. Thus, while men have been fighting for equality, women in the church are continuously advocating that men should make sure they dress modestly. Not only is this for their own protection so that they can avoid gender-based violence, which happens as a result of their oversexualized appearance, but also to prevent bringing shame upon the church. While masculinists continue to raise awareness about rape, violence, and the inequality men face, more women are calling for a return to Scripture and mission—and to leave the social gospel out of the pulpits.
The picture I have painted might feel excessive. But I have painted it because I have often struggled to find myself in the pages of Scripture. No one here today is responsible for this patriarchal bend in the storytelling of our faith. These stories were written ages ago by people who went as far as their culture and understanding would allow. In many ways, they were very progressive. However, we who hear the Scriptures today are responsible for recognizing these inherent biases in the text. We are responsible for admitting to ourselves and to each other that they exist, and to ask the question, If God is both male and female, does the current inequality of gender present in our Church and in our society represent God’s ultimate ideal? What would a better, fairer world be if it were to reflect the justice of God?
For people like myself, there is no single text to shine a ray of hope as an unassailable answer to the impossible complexities of this question. But there is a myriad of small trickling streams in Scripture that come together to form a great river: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This single text in the book of Galatians calls for us to dream of a better world, a world that answers the prayer “on earth as it is in heaven.” As a church, as individuals, we are called to be an equalizing force in the world, pursuing justice for all.
Justice is not always about extraordinary acts of resistance but consistent incremental changes over time. Today, my appeal is a gentle one, one of both inward and outward action. First, I have struggled to trust my God-given inner voice. In a culture that defers to the theological experts to have the capital-T Truth, it is difficult to trust our experiences, our moral intuitions, and our relationship with the Holy Spirit. My nieces, who are not scholars, often bring out the most creative interpretations of the text. At times, even when they aren’t historically true, they are morally true. So today, I want to encourage you to trust your voice and know that God can be known and is speaking to us in more ways than just Scripture.
Second, I want to challenge you to become self-aware of how the Bible reads to other communities. What are the real challenges in colonial European Christianity and how it has impacted people all over the world? The very legitimate suspicion, and often appropriate mistrust, that people have should be a voice we validate. Understanding how we sound to people who are not already initiated into the Christian club is a helpful exercise in finding meaningful ways to talk about Scripture in an inclusive manner. We do not have to dismiss the appropriate concerns that marginalized people have when they are introduced to an anglicized version of the Bible. We can learn to value the underlying ethics of a just biblical interpretation while being simultaneously critical of our own narratives. Understanding how we might be perpetuating a limiting belief that marginalizes someone else is ironically the first step toward building powerful allies. We have the ability to craft a new world, a new narrative in which we allow the Bible to speak positively to those on the fringes.
Third, we can even begin to reverse the curse of Genesis 3:16. We can honor the history of women and her years of subjugation. We can stop making subjugation her divine destiny and rather rightly see it for what it is—her plight. We can do what we can with the power we have to put an end to gendered violence and remove the limiting beliefs that keep women financially, socially, and culturally restrained. In doing so, we can finally put to rest the victim-blaming and instead find ways to use our influence to uplift the voices of the powerless. At a minimum, we can all do one simple thing, a command given by Jesus: “Leave her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time?” (Mark 14:6).
1. Domonoske, Camila. “CDC: Half of All Female Homicide Victims Are Killed by Intimate Partners.” NPR. NPR, July 21, 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/21/538518569/cdc-half-of....
2. Catalano, Shannan, Erica Smith, Michael Rand, and Howard Snyder. “Family Violence Statistics - Bureau of Justice Statistics.” Accessed March 15, 2022. https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvs.pdf.
Kendra Arsenault, MDiv, is the host of the Imago Gei podcast and a graduate of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.
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