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Sometimes I get up early in the morning to read the Bible because I know it makes for a peaceful start to my day, or I listen to it while I drive. Generally, it’s good stuff. There’s a reason why the Bible is a bestseller.

But sometimes, it just makes me mad.

I had one of those days this week, listening to Jeremiah. I got to chapter 4 and couldn’t go any further. As a person affected by sexual abuse, sometimes I am overwhelmed by the negative images of women’s sexuality in the Bible. (And if you are in a tender place with abuse that you’ve experienced, please take care of yourself and skip or skim this. I don’t intend to goad your pain.)

Certainly there are some courageous and compelling women that give us a glimpse of how we might interact with God and others in the aftermath of abuse. Hagar, for starters. Emotionally and sexually abused by Sarah and Abraham, impregnated against her will, and then abandoned when their crazy plan didn’t quite work out like they expected.

How many people ask themselves, after being abused, “Did God even notice what happened to me?” Well, Hagar gives us the answer to that one: God saw it. God sees it. God noticed. The fact of God seeing still doesn’t answer the question of why God doesn’t stop these abuses, but all of you survivors out there be assured that God saw it all. When we cry out to God in the midst of this pain, at least we don’t need to waste our breath telling God what happened: because God saw us.

And the Tamars, both of them. Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar knew that she was not in the wrong, that her problems were the responsibility of the men in her family. And King David’s daughter Tamar knew the same: she put ashes on her head and tore her clothes over the losses she experienced when Amnon raped her. She went public with her abuses, because she knew the injustices were not her fault. Brave woman! Samuel doesn’t mention her father doing anything about it, but at least he believed her.

And Mary Magdalene. I don’t know what demons followed her around until she met Jesus. But I can only imagine what might have happened to her before Jesus set her free from it all. I wonder if Mary was the one who went to Jesus and said “Help!” Or did someone else bring her to him out of exasperation? And why oh why won’t Jesus step into our plane of existence today and bring that kind of miraculous healing, instead of offering the hours of therapy needed to recover from PTSD? But regardless of what Jesus does or doesn’t do for us today, I want to be like Mary and know that I can go to Jesus for healing.

So those are some of the good examples. But sexuality is mentioned in many other passages, and sometimes it’s difficult to get past the abrasion of the words hitting my ears or eyes and hear the message of grace behind them. (Because I’ve got to believe that with God, there’s always a message of grace in there somewhere.)

First, Jeremiah. As I said, I was listening to that lovely prophet this week in the car. Jeremiah was calling us to a more faithful relationship with our ever faithful God who is determined to rescue us. Jeremiah 2:13 sums it up:
“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

After Jeremiah uses the image of people who chose a broken cistern over living water, he goes on to compare us to a bride who forgets her husband, or a prostitute with a brazen look in her eyes. Why in the world do these prophets, and the God that is speaking through them, need to use women’s sexuality as such a negative image to depict the faithlessness of humanity? The image of the broken well worked fine, if you ask me!

The same goes for Hosea, that prophet who was told to marry a prostitute. Couldn’t God make that point that we foolish people prefer raisin cakes to covenantal faithfulness without including this tale of a woman’s unfaithful sexual relationship going on and on, chapter after chapter?

But God doesn’t do that. God seems to have high expectations for us that we’ll be able to see past the pain of the initial story and see the grace. However, for those of us who have experienced an abusive story (and the world is full of us, let me tell you), we might need a bit more help seeing through the mess to the grace.

The psychologists among us could explain why survivors of abuse often blame themselves. It’s easier. It’s just easier to tell yourself “It was my fault,” than ask “Why did my brother dehumanize me for years?” Or “Why didn’t my parents listen to me?” Or “Why did he hate me so much?” Suffering is difficult to understand, it just is. The same idea comes up in philosophy or religion: it’s easier to blame ourselves than ask hard questions about God’s role in a cosmos that seems so random and uncontrollable. So when we read scripture passages that reference abusive situations, or have complex stories about sexuality and suffering, some of us would easily read those stories into our own lives with an application of self-blame.

For those of you who are pastors or teachers, when these lurid passages come up in the lectionary or Bible curriculum, try to de-trigger these stories a bit and put them into a context of grace and mercy instead of the blame or anger that we might default to.

I stopped listening to Jeremiah this week, I just hit pause and went to the Psalms. But I need Jeremiah’s story in my life. I really do need a well of living water in my life instead of the broken cisterns that I make for myself. So if you can, when the opportunity comes, remember that someone like me is in your church or Bible study (statistics will tell you that we are everywhere), and help us see the grace in these stories. Because if it is a story from God, then it is a story of grace.

If I get triggered listening to Jeremiah again, maybe you can finish the story for me and tell me how it ends. And I don’t need a spoiler alert: I already know that God promises a good ending. I just need help getting there.

*****

Editor’s Note: For obvious reasons, we are publishing this piece anonymously. The author says of herself, “I am a wife, mom, and Reformed Christian. My hobbies include listening to podcasts about hope and faith, and looking for signs of hope in the world around us. I work with youth, talking with them about the difficult things in their lives and helping them see grace and hope in the world around them. I love being outdoors. I count the seedlings in my garden every morning.”

Header photo by Vickie Intili on Pexels

10 Comments

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thank you for this forthright and exceedingly helpful post, friend. Years ago when a pastor I used the story of Amnon and Tamar as the passage for my Seven Deadly Sins series sermon on Lust. It is a pitch perfect vignette of Lust: Past reason hunted and once had, past reason hated, etc. Later my Elders and even co-pastor said that such a passage ought never be preached on, albeit not for the reasons you state here. I was unhappy with that idea but am now convicted they were right even if for reasons other than they had in mind. The Bible is a blunt and brutal book. All of us who preach need to remember how it will affect people in the pews. This was a needed reminder for me and I hope others take note.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Scott
      I don’t know what to do with this. I understand your decision. I think some sections of scripture are so profoundly troubling that it hurts to read them. If someone has experienced something like these texts, they’ve been thrust into the darkest places of humanity. But I’m not sure ignoring these dark places because they are painful is the answer. My wife and I struggled to have children. I never thought to ignore texts of where people struggled to have children. They seemed to acknowledge our struggle. There are other profoundly painful experiences in my life and I’ve been triggered by some texts but I’ve always come back to the idea that these stories are in the Word because God’s Word acknowledges the fullness of our humanity, the best parts and the worst. Of course, James would teach us that we preachers/teachers bear a heavy weight in examining these texts, finding grace and God in them, and grasping for redemption in more than ham-handed, clichéd ways.
      I don’t know. It’s a heavy weight, but I’m not sure we’re called to simply set it aside because it’s hard.
      Now, I’m a white Protestant man who’s suffered little in the grand scheme of things, so all of the above is easier for me to write. I’m more than open to the idea that I’m wrong. I may be.

  • Daniel Walcott says:

    I only wish I had read something like this many years ago. I taught these passages to high school students, but must confess, I always saw them through male eyes. It took too long in my teaching career to see the Hagar story from her point of view, I lament that. Thank you for shedding a light on this important truth.

  • Dale Cooperr says:

    I receive your words for what I believe they are to me: a Spirit-anointed gift.

  • Rachel Groeneveld says:

    I think here again, person first language matters. Just like we no longer call the Israelites in Egypt “slaves” but instead, enslaved people, we can call Gomer a prostituted woman. When I read Hosea this way, I can see that the unfaithfullness of Israel is represented by not just one “bad” woman, but a whole society of abusers and adulterers.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thank you! May it reach and encourage “those who have ears to hear”.

  • Marie says:

    I’m not a preacher, just a person in the pew, but I’m not sure that not preaching on passages like Amnon and Tamar, or the abuse of Hagar, is the solution. We don’t only come across these texts in church, we come across them anytime we engage with scripture – and hopefully that’s not just at church. So instead of ignoring them and pretending like they aren’t there in the Bible, let’s figure out where the message of grace is in the story and teach each other to find that and carry that grace with us. If a pastor is not able to do that, either because they can’t relate personally with the abuse or they can’t empathetically reach the experience of someone who has been oppressed in one way or another, then I agree that it’s probably best to skip it.

  • Anna says:

    Thank you for having the courage to voice your concerns about this issue. We need to have these questions asked and to have open eyes and ears, sensitive to the many painful stories in our congregations.

  • Jessica Groen says:

    Dr. Wilda C. Gafney is an excellent companion to digging in to the Bible stories that re-member us to God’s people but also re-member us to our own pain and harmful experiences. She uses sanctified imagination to honor Hagar’s name for God by clinging to the hope that God favors and sees those who suffer most in a narrative encounter, even if the narrator or the exegete of a narrative is not able to favor or even notice or name them.

    Womanist Midrash: A reintroduction to the woman of the Torah and the throne. 2017 Westminster John Knox Press

  • Hi there. Thank you for this candid reflection. I’m a Reformed pastor. I would only offer my perspective in relation to the author’s question, “Why in the world do these prophets, and the God that is speaking through them, need to use women’s sexuality as such a negative image to depict the faithlessness of humanity?” If preaching from such contexts, I might underscore that the bridal imagery is not based on any special sinfulness or sexual propensity on the part of women. Rather, it underscores the specific role which all members of God’s covenant—male and female—play in relation to Christ, the Bridegroom. We are all unfaithful to him. Jesus is presented as the Bridegroom, in part, because he proceeds the church in being, just as Adam proceeded Eve in the creation account. So, the bridal/prostitute imagery in Jeremiah is not meant to juxtapose male sexuality against female sexuality, but creaturely infidelity against the Creator’s faithfulness to his marriage vows. Every believing man is part of the “Bride” and every believing woman is “adopted as a son,” not as a negation of essential sex/gender, but as the gracious conference of equal access in Christ.

    Elsewhere in the Bible, it should be noted, the prophets employ masculine imagery to make the same derogatory point, such as when idolaters are compared to male donkeys braying for endless mates.

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